Mitchell Green: Coming to grips with life’s big questions
Mitchell Green, professor of philosophy, wants his students to take a stand.
“I don’t care which position you defend, just make it a defensible one,” he said. Engaging students actively with philosophical questions – grabbing them by the scruff of the neck, figuratively – is his goal in teaching.
“I try to avoid treating philosophy as a tour through a museum,” he said, where existentialism, phenomenology, or the views of Aristotle are under displayed in a glass case.
The longstanding problems of philosophy – freedom of will, right and wrong, self-knowledge, understanding others – still have immediacy and urgency in a student’s life, he said. He wants students to grapple with them, ask questions, and sharpen their own thinking.
Often students ask him whether an assignment is supposed to be a research paper or an opinion paper. “I answer, ‘neither and both,’” he said.
“Take a stand – is Descartes right about this? State your reasons.” In philosophy, he notes, you’re encouraged to disagree with even the famous philosophers and challenge assumptions. Students often are not used to that.
Why should students care?
The perennial question from his students, “Why should we care about this?” is one that he also asked as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. As he describes it, he wandered into a course on Aristotle to “see for myself that people would actually spend their time studying the ideas of somebody who had been dead for over two millennia.” He was hooked by how the scholars he encountered posed questions that widened into new areas of knowledge. That deep dive into a discipline is critical in arousing students’ interest, he says.
Getting students engaged is just part of the process, though. Teaching them to communicate clearly is the next step. He spends a lot of time working with students on revising their papers. As he explained in his 2017 talk for the President’s Series on Teaching Excellence, his students know that an “M” written in the margin of their paper indicates they have not met his “Aunt Marge rule.” This imaginary aunt never went to college but made her living selling cars. If her nieces and nephews could explain what they were learning in college in a clear, jargon-free and conversational way, they might receive a check from her.
He also pays close attention to students who struggle with shyness or have trouble speaking up in class. He asks them to participate in other ways – by sending him weekly questions about the class readings, for instance. Often, they’ll develop the confidence they need to then participate in class discussions.
Part of Green’s own research centers on how people – as well as birds, insects, and plants – communicate, through language and expressive behavior. “As a researcher and educator, I’m thrilled now to have a professional excuse to spend countless hours learning about bioluminescence in millipedes and alarm calls among prairie dogs,” he wrote. And that enthusiasm for research conveys to students a love of knowledge that, in turn, sparks their own eagerness to learn.
Widening access to philosophy
He was fortunate, growing up, to have a series of teachers who “indulged and answered my questions,” starting with his parents. His father, a physician and history buff, led after-dinner conversations. His mother, a clinical psychologist, was an articulate and precise thinker, and she taught him “that texture of thought is what counts.” At Oxford University, where he earned his master’s degree, and the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his Ph.D., his teachers “were generous with their tough love.”
Green came to UConn in 2013 after 20 years at the University of Virginia, where he was designated a distinguished teaching professor.
He would like to expand the study of philosophy to students before they even reach college. He has been active with the High-Phi Project to encourage teaching philosophy in high schools. And he is in charge of next year’s regional High School Ethics Bowl at UConn, part of a national competition in which high school teams argue philosophical questions.
He has also taught in what he calls the “electronic agora” of massive online courses, where one teacher may face 70,000 students from around the world. Online learning widens the access to studying philosophy: Among the students he has taught online are a dishwasher in Guatemala, a great-grandmother from Scotland, and an office worker in China.
Green likens good teaching to good parenting. They both require three things, he says: Paying close attention to the student’s needs and concerns, giving students space to explore, and modeling the love of a subject that will inspire them.
He tells students that studying philosophy may have no direct connection with getting a job. But the indirect benefits will last a lifetime – suppleness of mind and “getting outside your comfort zone when you think about something.”
Twenty years on, he won’t worry if a student can’t recall much about Plato. But he will be upset if that student cannot formulate a good question and a clear, cogently reasoned response.