14 May 2009

another school year...

Another school year has passed.

My university responsibilities were a large part of why I haven't blogged since September, though family and church have also occupied my time. On the whole, it was a good year, but tremendously busy.

In terms of university, I always enjoy teaching my classes, getting to know students, and trying to draw them into the kinds of issues that philosophers think and write about. I think I was mostly successful on that front, judging from the kinds of essays students wrote for me, from the very positive evaluations I received from students, and from the several new philosophy major or minor students emerging from my classes.

All told, I taught 32 credit hours worth of courses in the past year, most of which were fairly writing-intensive, which made grading a rather time-consuming process, especially since we don't have teaching assistants for "busy work" (such as quiz grading). Courses I taught included "Human Person" (philosophical anthropology, which serves as a foundational course), "Moral Choice" (introductory ethics, also a foundations course), "Problems of Knowledge" (an upper level epistemology course), and "Business Ethics" (an upper level ethics course). I also taught a couple sections of "First Year Odyssey," an orientation course that all freshmen are required to take.

Like many places, my university has been hit hard by the financial crisis, though we seem to be weathering it better than several comparable and sister institutions. While we've experienced pay and hiring freezes, suspension of retirement contributions, and various sorts of in-house austerity measures, we haven't faced the layoffs, pay cuts, and service cutbacks that some universities have. And the projected number of incoming students enrolled for autumn seems to be exceeding expectations.

Nonetheless, the university introduced a number of classroom changes for next year that will profoundly affect how I teach and assess students.

For one thing, I've taught the past six years in what is called the "Doubles" program, where my introductory philosophy classes in the Core Curriculum have been paired with courses in another department, sharing the same students, and trying to foster learning communities and interdisciplinary thinking. Because of the extra work involved in such courses and the amount and intensiveness of writing expected in them, the cap on section enrollment was kept relatively low.

The Doubles have been indefinitely suspended now, so not only will the courses have to be redesigned - given that they are no longer linked to another discipline - but the number of students enrolled will also grow by about 50 percent. This will, of course, reduce the overall number of course sections offered and allow the university to eliminate sections of introductory courses that have been taught by adjunct faculty in the past. On the plus side, this is not only a considerable cost savings, but it also puts more freshmen in contact with full-time faculty. On the down side, it also increases the workload for faculty.

Accordingly, my task over the summer will be to reconceive and reorient how I teach these introductory courses. I'll post something more detailed on that later, since I will probably want whatever input people may have to offer. In addition, since my job description was originally tied to teaching the now-suspended Doubles in the Core, my duties will now broaden, enabling me to teach a wider range of upper level courses. This is quite a boon in terms of giving me more teaching variety, but also will require more new class preparation on my part.

Beyond teaching, I've kept busy with a variety of activities related to my field or with the life of the university.

Last summer I attended Princeton Seminary's Barth conference, which is always fun and a good chance to reconnect with various friends and acquaintances. In July I spoke in Colorado Springs on postmodern thought at a leadership event for The Navigators. In the autumn I commented on a paper by Phil Carey as part of an Augustine Blog Conference.

I also attended, gave a presentation at, and chaired a session during Villanova's Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference. The presentation concerned the ways in which Aquinas and Bonaventure took up Augustine's discussion of the phenomenon of prophecy. In the late autumn there was also a political conversation at our church, attempting to demonstrate how Christians can dialogue about politics charitably and constructively, have many common values and ideals, and yet come to differing conclusions on matters of policy and candidates.

In terms of writing projects, I have a publication forthcoming (next year some time, I think) in a new collection of essays on Harry Potter and philosophy in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series.

And last week I went to part of the Rutgers Epistemology Conference, which is really the top of the field in terms of epistemology discussions in the analytic tradition. I brought a student along with me who is a philosophy major and thinking about graduate school. He seemed to enjoy the proceedings.

Among other university activities, I helped last August with a week-long college preparation program for select incoming students. There was also a faculty-run segment of Opening Weekend where I, along with several colleagues, had the opportunity to address the incoming class of freshmen about classroom and academic expectations. And then there's all the various committee work: the Core Advisory Board, a subgroup on liberal arts students who don't come in with a declared major, and a search committee for a program director. Time and budget constraints at times made for rather hectic and lively committee work.

Finally, in a wonderful news item, our department recently completed a year-long search for a full-time replacement for a faculty member who had passed away a couple years ago. Since the search was already underway and involved an already existing budget line, the open position didn't fall under the university-wide hiring freeze. The new hire, John Hymers, specializes in modern European philosophy and had previously worked at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

The school year this year also coincided with my daughter beginning full-time Kindergarten at the Miquon School and Laurel, my wife, returning to work (three-quarters time) as the managing editor for the Journal of Modern Literature. The new patterns took quite a bit of adjustment for all of us, but have worked out well.

Church, likewise, continues as an important part of our lives, with our three year old parish continuing to grow and mature as a congregation situated between West Philadelphia and several universities and trying to engage with all the sorts of issues, problems, opportunities, and challenges that such a setting presents. I've especially enjoyed helping with the liturgical life of the community, as well as university-facing aspects.

So, all in all, it's been a good, busy year. I'm glad it's over and look forward to a different pace of life over the summer.