A Whole New Subject
Dr. Wolfe’s class is very different from other classes in the case that the majority of students have never had a philosophy class before taking his at the university. There are a lot of terms and foundational work that needs to be laid before they can move on to higher subjects. So in terms of technique, many of the things that Dr. Wolfe does in his classroom are the things that have been done in classrooms for years. He teaches lectures, assigns papers, all the “boring” things. But “active” doesn’t necessarily equal “activity”. If students can are reading a complicated text, and if they are contemplating and applying it, Dr. Wolfe would argue that that is active learning. Thinking about complicated subjects is valuable, especially during a time when students are learning and finding their identity. If students don’t have time to think about it, they’ll be burning the candle at both ends. Just like Kongzi, Dr. Wolfe doesn’t invent anything, he simply points back to the foundations of experts of the past.
Making Ancient Texts Relevant
While much of his classroom technique follows a more traditional lecture style, the innovation of Dr. Wolfe’s classes comes in asking the question “How do we connect these texts to people’s daily lives?”. Dr. Wolfe finds that students are very interested in questions relating to justice and fairness, which directly relate to the teachings of philosophers. In his social ethics class, they discuss justice, which is a great subject to connect to students’ lives. While justice can seem like a simple term, once students begin to think about how their own personal biases and experiences begin to influence that definition, it becomes a much more complex subject. For example, how we view police officers is tied very much to our cultural assumptions. For Dr. Wolfe, his family tree a couple of generations back is filled with rum-runners and moonshiners, and so his family has always been extremely distrustful of officers. The magic of philosophy is that you can take these subjects, such as justice, and directly apply them to your own experiences and beliefs.
In many of Dr. Wolfe’s classes, he has an argument paper that students write over the semester. He gives students the freedom to explore any subject they want, as long as they can relate it to the subject matter being discussed. For example, Dr. Wolfe had a nursing major student, and they wanted to explore for their paper the significant dropoff of nursing students post-covid and how it relates to Aristotle’s notion of justice as fairness. The project was a great success, as the student tied the text to both their own experience and field, as well to current events. For another example, Dr. Wolfe has a student who wrote on the anime Death Note and asked whether the behavior of the “protagonist” Light is just when using Plato’s definition of justice. Both of these are perfect examples of how these ancient philosophical texts can still apply to current events and life.
Similarly, in the World Religions course, students approach the course through the lens of their own experiences and backgrounds. Dr. Wolfe had a student that talked to him at the beginning of the semester because they weren’t sure that they could participate in the class because of trauma tied to religious experiences. After some discussion together, Dr. Wolfe was able to work with them to find a way to participate. Instead of writing about religious practices, they wrote about architecture and its development in the religion through the texts that were studied in the class.
Bridge-Building In Teaching
All in all, Dr. Wolfe summarizes his teaching method as a competent bridge builder. In his words, “Here are these books, here are these questions, and I know they seem old and I know that you think that you can’t do it, but, let’s walk through these together”. He brings texts from the past to students’ attention. These texts might not be directly a part of their discipline but they are connected to it, and they can help contribute to students’ understanding of their field. While getting job training is important, alone it lacks the cultural experience, history, and morality that can help students to operate to the best of their ability in their field. Dr. Wolfe explains that if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s important to discuss things with people you disagree with, and in doing so, we will be able to see other people as inherently human instead of “others” or “monsters”. Plato describes and uses the term “Battle Brother” (or Battle Partner, to be gender-neutral), which means in order for you to fully protect yourself, your shield will protect half of your body, and you have to trust your partner to cover the other half when you’re in battle formation. He wants students to be good local, global, national citizens, and he wants them to think about complex issues in careful ways to accomplish this. His field teaches students the ways to think about complicated problems in multiple ways and dimensions.