My Pedagogical Perspective
I seek to balance meeting my students where they are now and developing them into the thinkers that they ought to be. As the student body changes and higher education evolves, professors must adjust their courses in order to meet students where they are, even if ideals remain somewhat fixed. My broad background in the history of philosophy and its contemporary relevance enables me to teach a wide range of traditional topics, figures, and eras. Yet, the changes that we are all witnessing demand innovative, engaging, and flexible course design. As such, I am constantly seeking to develop courses that meet students where they are while achieving departmental, curricular, and pedagogical goals. In teaching non-majors, I endeavor to help them see that they have always been philosophers, whether they realized it or not, and that it pays serious dividends to philosophize well. In teaching majors, my goal is to confront them with the unsettling reality that philosophy becomes harder the better one gets at it, and that philosophizing well is ultimately a matter of how one thinks and not what one knows.
Courses Under Development
Persuasion and the Truth
In connection with my primary research project, I have recently developed a new course that challenges students to grapple both with the content of traditional philosophy courses and with the art and science of persuasion. Each week, students take on a new philosophical topic, engaging with the relevant academic literature and popular expressions of arguments related to it (e.g. op-eds, political debates, and speeches). Students study diverse and influential philosophers, orators, and writers ranging from Sojourner Truth to Cicero, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Warren, and Sam Harris in order to analyze the structure, defensibility, and presentation of their arguments. A series of immersive activities and assignments challenge students to actively develop their persuasive abilities by practicing with their peers. Poll Everywhere is integrated into class sessions to enable students to quickly voice responses and gain feedback on their own persuasiveness. My goal is to create a comprehensive educational experience that encourages undergraduates to see the profound value of philosophy and how it is inextricable from their lives, both public and private.
History of Modern Philosophy
I designed this majors-level course as a survey of the traditional (early) modern canon. While the canonical modern philosophers had much to contribute in other domains, this course focuses on their influential innovations in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of science. And while there are many noteworthy modern philosophers not included in the traditional canon (and thus this course), understanding the positions of the canonical modern philosophers like Hume and Leibniz in these domains is crucial because many contemporary philosophical debates take them as starting points. Students will leave this class well-versed in the history of the period and prepared for subsequent major-level courses that assume a solid understanding of it.
History of Modern Philosophy
I designed this majors-level course as my contribution to the expansion of the traditional (early) modern canon. While the canonical modern philosophers are important, recently we have begun to do a better job of recognizing the important contributions of philosophers who have been excluded from the canon. This course focuses on their influential innovations in epistemology, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and ethics. Nonetheless, the course is designed to bring their innovations into contact with those of some of the traditional figures. As a consequence, students will leave this class well-versed in much of the canonical history of the period and prepared for subsequent major-level courses that assume a solid understanding of it, but they will also have a better understanding and appreciation of the true breadth of the era.
Introduction to Philosophy
(the big questions)
This is a “big questions” introductory course conducted through a historical lens. Students will learn about some of the major themes of Western philosophy with the help of some of its major figures. Topics covered will include knowledge of the external world, the existence of god(s), personal identity, the mind-body problem, the nature of free will, and the nature and demandingness of morality. Figures who will guide them in their exploration of these topics will include René Descartes, G.E. Moore, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Emilie du Châtelet, David Hume, Blaise Pascal, Princess Elisabeth, Linda Zagzebski, Peter Singer, and J.L. Mackie.
Systematic Thinking: God, Identity,
and the Moderns
Taught in Spring 2018, Spring 2020, Fall 2020
I designed this modular class in order to help non-majors begin to develop systematic philosophical worldviews. In the form of the class I am teaching now, it is split into two units, with one on personal identity and the other on God. My goal is to challenge my students to develop consistent systematic views on the issues covered in each unit. The content and assignments reflect this goal. For instance, students are required to commit to a view on personal identity in their first paper and then, in their second paper, they are required to take up consistent (and complementary) views on either the permissibility of abortion, the permissibility of eating animals, moral responsibility, or the possibility of the afterlife. Since I designed the units so that they were self-contained, they could be swapped—in future semesters—for others that better fit the needs of the department at that time. What will be retained is an emphasis on teaching students to see the links between philosophical commitments on issues that matter to them.
Citizenship: Voting, Representation,
Taught in Fall 2019
I designed this class to help students develop their views on some of the ethical issues related to citizenship in sovereign/territorial states. The focus is on representative democracies like the United States, but many of the issues have broad application. I host five debates between the students (with their classmates as judges), each focused on one of the following questions:
1. Should citizens vote?
2. Should it be relatively easy to become a citizen?
3. Are political parties good?
4. Which voting procedure should representative democracies deploy in their legislatures?
5. Should only public funds be used for political campaigns?
Much of the class is dedicated to exploring different answers to these questions, and students are expected to synthesize and apply what they have learned in the debates in real time. Since many great philosophers of the past give persuasive answers to these questions, and our current thinking is indebted to them in many ways, I incorporate the study of their views in the class readings and lectures. For instance, we consider the views of James Madison on the influence of political parties. Nonetheless, our interest is not with history for its own sake.
I pride myself on meeting students where they are when I am teaching–while challenging them to become something greater–so nothing makes me more pleased than to receive positive feedback on my efforts. Below is a sample of comments I have received over the past three years:
On Systematic Thinking (Fall 2020 04 – entirely online):
“The readings were helpful; even though the quizzes were sometimes hard or tedious, I felt that encouraged me to do the readings and understand them. I liked that the essay format was clearly laid out with premises, examples, counterexamples, and rebuttals. It helped me navigate tougher topics towrite about.”
“I thought that the readings were super helpful. I really appreciated that Dr. Clay edited material out that he did not think we needed to focus in on as much. The lectures, while sometimes difficult (but solely because philosophy is difficult), were all well prepared and delivered. The papers challenged me, but they ultimately allowed me to think for myself more than I have in any other class. I also thought that the debates were super interesting and fun classes.”
“If there’s one professor I have this year that deserves to have a great CIF and be recognized for it, Graham’s the one.”
“I thought he did a great job giving us both sides of most of the philosophical arguments we were studying. I liked that the debates were related around interesting topics such as vegetarianism, abortion, and the existence of God. I also thought it was cool that he randomly assigned people to different sides of the debate so that we had to actually look into the reasoning of both sides of an argument (even if we don’t believe it).”
“- Cares about long term understanding of material, not just so we could pass a test at the end of the year – quick at grading papers, with helpful feedback – Funny and engaging personality – Responds well to questions – connects with students & remembers their names – One of the favorite professors I’ve ever had.”
On Systematic Thinking (Spring 2020):
“Dr. Clay did a fantastic job, and I really enjoyed his class in its entirety.”
“There is so much about Dr. Clay that I can speak about. He is an extremely kind and compassionate teacher who stopped at nothing to make sure that we succeeded in his class. Whether this be through office hours or through explanations in class, Dr. Clay is by far one of the best teachers that I’ve had at this University.”
“It is obvious he cares about his craft because of how much effort he puts forth in our class sessions/office hours. He is intimidating at first (I think it is a philosophy-profession thing) but is eager and supportive of his student’s work. I enjoyed the early morning lectures as they were delivered in a concise/understandable way. If I had a question, I always felt that I could ask without feeling distressed.”
“The instructor makes philosophy entertaining to learn, which is no small feat for non-majors. He is very respectful of students and their viewpoints, which is incredibly important in a course that touches on many difficult moral questions. The blend of papers, readings, and debates was kept me engaged with the material without feeling overwhelmed.”
“Dr. Clay knows a lot about systemic thinking and the moderns; he was able to succinctly summarize all the somewhat difficult readings we had meant and teach us about them in a great way. He was extremely helpful in office hours, too, for discussing papers and helping me figure out how to identify my beliefs on personal identity and other issues we discussed in class.”
On Systematic Thinking (Fall 2020 01 – entirely online):
“The readings were sometimes very confusing, but they always became clear after the lecture. Most of the time it was merely how Professor clay broke down the arguments, but if it wasn’t clear, he was always willing to answer questions. While the quizzes were sometimes stressful, they forced me to truly understand the readings before I got to class.”
“The course started clicking for me when I realized the goal was not to come up with a grocery list of beliefs by the end of the semester, but to learn how to systematically “test” a certain belief of ours, and to recognize why modern day issues are never cut-and-dry.”
“He never gives you the answer without pushing you to think about it for yourself first. While this may be challenging in certain moments, it is how you learn the best.”
“Professor Clay promotes the most collaborative and open environment that I have ever been in a classroom.”
“He gives really good feedback on assignments and what he is looking for to help you improve your grade.”
“Dr. Clay has an intimate knowledge of the topics covered in this class. It felt like whenever a student came up with a novel idea, Dr. Clay was able to translate the student’s idea into a clear theory, explain why this new theory was valuable (and would often give an example of a philosopher who came to the same theory), and challenge the theory, so as to motivate the student to think more about it.”
On Systematic Thinking (Spring 2018):
“I thought Professor Clay did a really good job of presenting the material for the course. He taught us how to consider both sides of very complex issues. He was very fair when it came to grading his students, and also very detailed in his feedback when it came to class debates, or the essays.”
“Professor Clay was open to all viewpoints, encouraged debate, and made philosophy accessible. Philosophy is not an easy subject for me, and he made it possible.”
“His organization of the course, ensuring that there were assignments which lead to help each student come to realize how intertwined all thought and ideas are, and how one set of beliefs will rationally lead you to believe certain things about other beliefs. The debates not only were fun, but they really helped us students to solidify our understanding of the course material.”
“Readings were generally the perfect length. Instructor understands that we may not have the strongest background in Philosophy and this class is tailored to that.”
“For this being Graham’s first time teaching a class…wow. He’s already a seasoned veteran. He knows his stuff well and is able to teach students in an effective manner through lectures. He’s very amiable and relates well to students, understanding when we may struggle with something.”
“He was good at engaging the students during class, and making sure to value everyone’s opinion. When challenging students, it was always based on an argument rather than perhaps because their arguments were poor etc.”
On Citizenship (Fall 2019):
“Prof. Clay was very good at emphasizing the key points and asking the right questions to help you develop your ideas. I really enjoyed Prof. Clay as a professor and I would definitely take another class with him.”
“Professor’s Clay is excellent in helping students develop the necessary logic and critical thinking skills needed to do well in the course. This is especially true through the utilization of his abundant office hours.”
“-powerpoints were very clear and helped me understand harder readings/lectures -reading quizzes were a good source of motivation for actually completing the readings and reading carefully -very kind, considerate, understanding of student’s issues/needs, tried to accommodate students any way he could if needed”
“Professor Clay is an excellent professor! He class was very engaging because it was a mix of lectures and discussions. He asked students thought-provoking questions and taught us how to successfully object to other student’s points. The five in-class debates were a great chance for students to understand the different views we had been discussing in class and they were also really fun! He was very helpful during office hours and was always willing to work with students, including emailing feedback on drafts.”
“Professor Clay does a masterful job of the Socratic method of teaching. He forces students, including myself, to dig down and defend our beliefs deeply. This is uncomfortable at times, but it is what I like in a philosophy professor.”
“Professor Clay has no problems stepping back and allowing students to express their ideas. He allows so much discussion and has so many activities to promote creativity and thinking and I absolutely love it.”