Statement of Teaching Philosophy
It took me a while to figure out how to teach an NYU student. Having gone to college at Columbia, I thought I knew what it was like to be an undergraduate in New York City: the ambient rhythms of other cultures and neighborhoods, the somehow compulsory caffeination, the perks of anonymity and episodes of loneliness. Compared to my students, this account now strikes me as glaringly mild. New structures of feeling seem to define their college experience: 1% aspirations and precarity; social-media pressures and digital (non)communication; deep wranglings with psychopharmacology; the endless search for signs of intelligent life in global capitalism. Their childhoods peaked during the housing market collapse and, to adapt a line from Middlemarch, they know “what everything costs.” In order to teach effectively, I have had to understand who my students are—not exactly by the myriad ways they identify as individuals but by recognizing and reckoning with the shaping forces in their lives.
A “campus without walls” means not having even the illusion of a bubble in their educational environment. And because of our institutional ethos to launch oneself not just into academic work but also into one’s chosen professional/artistic/socio-cultural pathway, the NYU student is pulled in a thousand, often competing directions. In this way, my major task is fairly straightforward: to convince students—even if they are juggling 3 internships or coping with crippling anxiety or managing a brutal rehearsal schedule or commuting from Long Island to care for a sick parent—that what we are doing is meaningful, clarifying, and completely worth their undivided time and attention.
It is indubitable to me that, for better and for worse, Enlightenment literature and philosophy illuminate who we think we are and what we’re supposed to be doing. In all of my courses—whether it’s the lecture survey or Eighteenth-Century Fiction and Philosophy or my Queer Austen seminar—we are encountering what I’ve come to convey as the “mother sauces” of modern life. From the rights-bearing individual and the idealization of companionate marriage to the murky landscape of sexual consent and the great fiction of a social contract, our topics of conversation allow us to reencounter the radical roots of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As a former colleague of mine used to say, “It’s the eighteenth century, and we’re still living in it.”
A fundamental story this literature tells and that I’ve adopted as a kind of leitmotif in my teaching is the entwinement of the sovereign with the slave. As with so much about the Enlightenment, the hard lesson here is an unresolved historical conundrum: the yoking of an ideological quest for freedom to systematic subjugation and violence. When I tell this story, it is not to launch a critique of neoliberalism but to meditate on old liberalism’s inherent fissures and constitutive ambivalences. The concepts are challenging, but one useful and terrifying thing about NYU students is that they will tell you (in your evaluations but also to your face!) what’s working and not working for them. When in the required survey for English majors, I introduce C.B. Macpherson’s concept of “possessive individualism” as a model of the person as the owner of optimizable skills instead of as a contributor to a social or moral whole, their instinctive nods tell me this is a helpful theory to know and to write about.
NYU students—the most versatile, creative, gutsiest young people I’ve ever known— have pushed the methods and subjects of my teaching so that I am always thinking about why it matters on this day to be reading this text and asking these questions. This was the case on the Wednesday after Election Day when we all stumbled in to discuss Part Four of Spinoza’s Ethics. There, we marveled over such propositions as “Cheerfulness cannot be excessive; it is always good” and “Hatred can never be good” and “Only free men are truly grateful to one another.” We came to feel that communing with this 17th-century, heretical, Dutch-Jewish thinker was absolutely necessary. To teach at NYU right now, during these unusually tense times, is not just a privilege or an honor. My students have kept me honest, and they have also kept me sane.