CETL Podcast - Episode 14 - Kris Phillips

Tony: We'll get started, good morning good morning friends Tony Pellegrini here with teaching and learning at Southern Utah University I have Kris Phillips with us today and we are just excited to be able to share with him one of- it's kind of a good news/bad news I'm very appreciative of the president wanting more students but what that means is more faculty more people to learn but wonderful people to learn we have great faculty here and I love learning about them and the wonderful things that they are doing. Kris would you mind taking a moment or two introducing yourself telling us a little about you, some information that we'd like to know about you?

Kris: Sure absolutely! Well as you said my name is Kris Phillips, this is my sixth year at SUU. I came after spending a year working full-time at Northern Michigan University in the upper Peninsula just a beautiful are right on Lake Superior. I did my PhD in philosophy at the University of Iowa completing that in 2014. Before that I grew up in Michigan in the Lower Peninsula and I spend most of my life there and so thanks so much for having me here I'm excited to be here.

Tony: We're excited to learn more about you absolutely, to learn a little bit more about you.
Philosophy, tell us a little more about the courses you teach. Would you take a moment and tell us some of those.

Kris: Yeah! Well the philosophy program here is a pretty exciting program, we're growing right along with the university and it's really cool to see. Up until this year I was one of two faculty members in the philosophy program so I kind of teach a little bit of everything both Dr Kirk Fitzpatrick and I pretty much covered the whole curriculum so...

Tony: I kind of get the sense you really like that.

Kris: Yeah it's great it keeps things fresh and keeps me going. So I've taught, boy a whole bunch of things in terms of philosophy- intro to logic, the advanced logic course that we offer I've taught a class called mind language and reality, theory of knowledge, modern philosophy, which focuses on European philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries, I've taught senior seminar a couple of times. I've been fortunate enough to work with the folks in the honors program teaching a bunch of different classes for them and in areas- space and motion, time, jeez I can't even remember all of them but there were a couple others I think sense and death recently so, kind of all over the place. It's a blast!

Tony: That is wonderful! That is exciting and that enthusiasm that you have I think really translates to your learners as well.

Kris: I think so, I think so- you know I can see our students in the philosophy program they're outstanding. They're really hard-working bright students, they're energetic they're excited they're doing all kinds of stuff not just for the philosophy program but university-wide. They're kind of everywhere.

Tony: They make our University move forward don't they.

Kris: They sure do!

Tony: With philosophy do you have a particular teaching style, any particular methods that you found over your last six years here and in northern Michigan as well maybe that really tend to engage your learners and help them to participate not only in class  but as you've outlined outside of class as well

Kris: Yeah, I mean when it comes to actually teaching in the classroom I tend to be a little bit old-school. I lean quite a bit on lecture but one of the things that I think is really critical for philosophy and I'm sure it's true of other disciplines but I'm not a specialist in anything else, one of the things that's really critical is not just talking at students, but getting them to engage and so one of the things that I do that I think is often very frustrating for my students is I refuse to take a stand on any issue so we read philosophers we read texts from philosophers, books, articles, whatever, and I'll typically present two or three or four different positions about one topic and while we're reading a particular author I'm just going to defend that topic to the death and just take a stand on that, then we'll read the next person who says that the first one's wrong and I'm going to defend that and I challenge the students to make up their own minds So, in that way I try to get a dialogue going you know, it's difficult, the material is challenging, it's pretty abstract, it's kind of out there but you know if you can kind of push them a little bit, say something really absurd and say some crazy things and make them think that I believe it at least for the time being, and usually it gets them riled up enough, and I think I think that kind of engagement, that back and forth, the "what these people are saying is important but what's also equally important is whether you believe it and why."

Tony: Are you pretty up front with your students as far as you know, "I'm not going to tell you what I believe or where I come from" because I could see a student saying, "Wait a minute, you spoke last week like you really believe this, and now this week, oh my goodness you really believe, what does Kris really believe?" How do you deal with that kind of disconnect in their minds?

Kris: Oh, sure no I'm pretty upfront about that it's much more at the lower levels, at the intro levels. I just say on day one I'm not going to tell you what I think about this, or sometimes they'll say you know, I don't have any opinions. That's of course false, I have lots of strong opinions, but you know it's a tool because again, the biggest thing I think about philosophy is that it's not teaching you what you should think, it's teaching you how to think about things. So I , at the end of the say, really don't care what positions students end up taking on any topic at all, you know I might disagree with them, but that's irrelevant, I want them to think carefully about it and come to their own conclusions, what are good reasons.

Tony: I love what you just said you know, "I can disagree with students, but I can still love them and teach them and learn alongside them. I can absolutely disagree with you and in our world today I can see us getting more compartmentalized or departmentalized or further along the ends of that continuum I'm not really sure how to really articulate, but being able to say this is what I think or this is what I believe and why I do it and not worrying about being put down or pressed down is so important to our young people today.

Kris: I think so too!  

Tony: I think it's an important component of their learning. We've talked a little about your teaching styles, your methods your philosophies your approaches. How do you try to, and maybe you've addressed this already, but could you go a little deeper into how you try to pull out from students their various learning styles, how they really- in philosophy I'm sure you've got kids along a wide continuum of how they learn. How do you try to address  those learners needs in your classroom?

Kris: Sure, so I could say a variety of different ways. I mean again a lot of students probably aren't all that excited about the lecture format, but this is sort of where I think it's important to try to come up with new and interesting ways to talk to one another, to get them to engage with me, to kind of break it up so it isn't just 50 minutes or 75 heaven forbid of just talking at students about complex things. So, I've done a couple of different things in my intro classes. I have the students break up into groups and kind of really dive deep into a particular passage that I highlight for them and I say, "Okay figure out what's going on with this, talk to each other about it work through it." And that gets them both engage, it gets me talking a little bit less they don't have to hear me all the time but also I think it kind of builds an intellectual community in a sense, you know, they get to know one another and can kind of learn from one another as much as for me so that's useful. Assignments, I try to come up with new sort of more interesting ways of doing the kinds of things that we do in philosophy which to be honest is reading a writing papers. So one thing I'm really excited about, I'm trying out this year, I have a colleague at York College in pennsylvania who's teaching a theory of knowledge class and I'm also teaching a theory of knowledge class, so instead of doing a traditional research term paper, we're doing really short, focused papers and we're doing kind of a virtual conference so our students from both schools are going to swap papers through Google Drive, and they're tasked with writing commentary on one another's papers, so they're getting comments from students across the country, they're commenting on papers from students across the country, and then when they get them back they have to go through and I'm putting them in groups and kind of have a Q and A, all digitally.

Tony: It sounds like you're putting your own conference together almost.

Kris: Basically, and not to mention we do an annual undergraduate conference here on campus, but maybe we can come back to that.

Tony: We will! I do have to ask because you really just fascinated me a moment ago, I was going to ask you a question you know, with these young people it seems like they're constantly living off of their cell phones, their tablets, their computers,and I'm so grateful for the technologies, you know using sharing documents across the country, with learners from across the country through Google docs and those kinds of things. Other technologies that you've tried to investigate at all or that students have said you know, "I can't put my phone down is there some way I could use that to be able to engage or work in your class?" Anything at all like that? I love what you're doing with Google Drive I think that's great!

Kris: Yeah, I'm pretty excited about that I gotta say it wasn't my idea originally, I'd love to take credit for it. I heard it from my colleague at York College, Dr. Stoneberg, but you know, I don't know, seems like the technology thing is kind of a losing battle, you know I'd love to be able to ban laptops in the classroom or something like that, but at this point I've just leaned into it, if I ask people a question that's a relatively straightforward kind of definition question or even just a kind of history question, I'll just kind of point out, "Hey, look, you have a computer in your hand, go look it up! Use it! You have this tool, it's an amazing resource."

Tony: Isn't that a great problem-solving tool, I mean, don't you use problem solving skills in philosophy?

Kris: Absolutely!

Tony: That's your bread and butter of what you do. "How can we solve this problem in talking, reading, and writing about the issues that we run into!" Thank you so very much.

Kris: Sure!

Tony: That is wonderful. You know, I love your enthusiasm, love your connection with your learners. Has that always been there? How have you overcome, or become such a great enthusiastic teacher to work with your learners?

Kris: Well thank you! Um, I don't know, that's a really great question. So, growing up, my dad was an English professor for 42 years teaching in Michigan, and I think just watching him interact with students, watching him just being around him all the time I just ki dof picked up, probably not consciously, but just sort of picked up some of the things that he did. As far as the enthusiasm comes from, I just really like doing philosophy and I think it's really cool that my job is to read, and think about and talk about really interesting things, with people who more often than not are also interested in those things, and so big picture wise, I think that's where the enthusiasm comes from. It's  just kind of, I can't believe I get to do this, this is a career? This is amazing it's absolutely awesome.

Tony: We still want to get paid though. We still would- we love it, it's a great passion, but we still, we like being compensated for it as well. Kind of along those same lines, you know,  you have talked about this interest and enthusiasm, and your wonderful model, that your father gave you to help you be such a great teacher, but certainly there are times in your life as a professor, and an individual, as a learner, a leader, that you have passions and knowledge about concepts that are important to you but others really maybe not believe exactly how you believe or agree with you on particular topics. Can you talk to us for a moment or two about how you deal with that? Or what's something that's really true to you, that you're passionate about, but really, maybe, nobody really agrees with you on. 

Kris: Oh boy. I would say there are so many things I would say that think are probably right where virtually no one agrees with me. If I had to narrow it down, if I had to pick one thing; a couple years ago I made this pitch, I was invited back to my alma mater and did a master's degree before my PhD at Western Michigan, and they invited me to come back for kind of an alumni weekend so I went and gave a talk where I argued that everyone in society has an obligation both to themselves and to others to continue to study the liberal arts. The sort of classic sense of the liberal arts, so you facilitate with mathematics, with science, with literature, with the fine arts, with philosophy, with all of these different things, we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to everybody else, and you know it seemed relatively well received, but, as if often the case when philosophers make an argument, you know-

Tony: Somebody's out to get you

Kris: Yeah and it seemed like there are a whole bunch of folks who are out to get me. Maybe they didn't like the idea that it's an obligation that there's the sort of moral component to it, but I'm pretty sure that's right and  you know I think part of the beauty of being a philosopher, or a student of philosophy or even just somebody who studies that on their own is sort of being open to being wrong about stuff. I always tell my intro students and this is maybe another things that nobody agrees with me about- it's kind of awesome to be wrong about things.

Tony: Yeah, I haven't heard many say that.

Kris: Yeah, but I think it's awesome to be wrong because then you get to learn new stuff, you know being right all the time would be really boring. It just seems like you wouldn't be able to move forward, and I think those two are related. You know, even when people are out to get me even if they don't buy it, even if they think what I'm trying to convince them of is weird or problematic or or something like that, cool, show me why I'm wrong and if I am I'll happily admit it and accept what now seems right-

Tony: And can talk about it you know coming from my education background you know we look at learners as lifelong learners, we're continually learning. We're never there, I don't know if I'm ever going to be there. We want to continually learn, and so I think that those are wonderful skills to be able to take away from the university experience that they enjoy with you. Just one last question, you had mentioned another topic that we want to save for another time but we have a moment or two now, and I am embarrassed, we've been talking about so many things, do you remember what we were talking about what the theme was?

Kris: Was it the undergraduate conference?

Tony:I think so.

Kris: I think it was.

Tony: Yes! Would you take a moment to tell us- a little bit of an advertisement here that's totally fine.

Kris: Boy, it's one of the coolest things I think about teaching at SUU is our undergraduate philosophy conference. So for the past five years, the entire time that I've been here, the Philosophy club and the students affiliated with it have put in just unbelievable abouts of work in preparing what is now an internationally recognized undergraduate conference. So, starting right about this time- early October, we get funding requests together, we put together a budget, and reach out to a hopefully nationally renowned scholar, bring them to campus as our keynote, put out a call for papers, and we solicit papers from around the country. Last year, our fifth year, it was a fantastic conference. We had, I think, over 42 submissions from three or four different countries, obviously all over the united states and then also Canada and I think Greece and Belgium. So, unbelievable,and then the students, with our help, work through all the submissions, look at them, and pick the top four, and we bring those four students to campus and put together a day-long undergraduate research symposium basically, and it's just awesome.

Tony: What wonderful, practical, problem-solving skills, real-world skills they can transfer to whatever jobs they're going gto, whether it's in teaching or whatever jobs they're going to have in the future. I think those are wonderful opportunities,and you may not buy this but I'm gonna just at least try to say invite your dad to come sometime. I think he'd have a great time there.

Kris: I would love to get my dad out here.

Tony: I think that would be a wonderful opportunity. Kris any last-minute things that you'd like to share anything that I haven't covered that you'd really like to share

Kris: You know I should have something in my back pocket ready to go here...

Tony:You've shared a lot, you've shared a lot I promise.

Kris: Maybe I'll just throw this one out here, just a last minute pitch for the philosophy program itself. You know, something people I think hear, "philosophy", and they have little to no understanding of what it is, or what they think is that it's weird and impractical, but again one of the things that I kind of try to convince my students of is in many ways this is the most practical kind of discipline. Whatever job you're going to go into you need to communicate effectively, you need to think carefully, you need to be able to problem-solve a you've been saying, and ultimately, at least as the Greeks conceived of the purpose of philosophy, it was learning for the sake of living well, and we all want to do that, and so if you dedicate your life to the study of knowledge and wisdom and the practical applications of these things, and the pursuit of living well, I don't see how that could possibly be impractical

Tony: Maybe I'm Pollyanna, but I have a hope for the future, and with those particular skills we can only make a better future, I really think we can only make a better future. Friends, if you have an opportunity, get into chris's class, watch some of the things that he does, take him to lunch here on campus, and let him know your appreciation for him. I appreciate you, I'm grateful for the opportunity to visit with you today, and with Kris, Kris thank you so very much.

Kris: Thank you

Tony: And we look forward to hearing from all of you soon. Make it a good day and we'll see you soon, thanks to one and all!

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