Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Help them get into some good philosophy

I've given 74 talks since I left Singapore in April. Now I have a sort of fright at how many person-hours have been spent listening to me talk about things in philosophy that I think are fun. I really hope it was worth so much of people's time!

Giving a talk or writing a paper are both, in a broad sense, types of teaching. In a big lecture class for students, you're probably teaching stuff other people thought of first. In a department's weekly colloquium, you're supposed to teach stuff you thought of first. A paper is like a colloquium except you get to use footnotes and you don't get to use interpretive dance.

When you're teaching, you're trying to help your audience get into some good philosophy. The details of the various modes differ in various ways -- how much is supposed to be your own philosophy? who's the audience? how do they interact and contribute? do you make ephemeral living sounds or flat permanent letters? -- but the most basic goal is the same. Help them get into some good philosophy!

I like the idea of taking the best possible undergraduate lecture as our model for talks and papers and books. I'm thinking of the lecture that grabbed your attention and gave you a clear picture of an awesome problem or an amazing discovery. It was on your mind later that day. Maybe you told a friend about it. This happened because your teacher showed it to you clearly, and made you feel why it mattered. Maybe there were jokes! Jokes can help you get into some good philosophy.

Perhaps I should think of all my research activity (talks, papers, books) as aiming to be like that lecture. Of course, there are all kinds of modifications for format and audience and other such details. Sometimes you're giving a talk at a department full of experts, and it's Q&A, and you're supposed to answer their objections on the spot. What are you supposed to do?

Help them get into some good philosophy.