How Teachers can Swing in the Classroom

Douglas Groothuis By

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Philosophy in the classroom should allow for and encourage the kind of serendipity celebrated by jazz. The professor (rooted in the tradition) along with the students (who are more recently initiated into the tradition) work to comprehend the great ideas in a structured but also free collaboration. With enough woodshed time, the toughest concepts and arguments can be performed winningly through lecture, discussion, and testing. The class readings become the musical score, the professor is the band leader, and the students learn to play the score and improvise on it. The professor needs big ears to read the students' responses and to inspire them to jam hard on the chord changes (that is, concepts). The whole (students and professor) is greater than the sum of the parts, just as in jazz. And if "don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

When the chemistry is right, I generate new ideas and experiment before the students. Thinking aloud in public is an intellectual performance. Students do it as well. They sometimes surprise me with their chops. I then try—in the spirit of jazz—to let them take ideas in new directions. A few years ago, a student in my introduction to philosophy class raised an earnest question about the relationship between faith and reason that triggered an unplanned and very fruitful discussion. This kind of improvisation can be exhilarating; it can also fall flat. Yet even then, rescue is possible, as in jazz. Pianist Herbie Hancock said he once played the wrong note while in a highly improving band lead by trumpet master, Miles Davis. However, Hancock reported that Davis responded by playing a note that made Hancock's mistake "right." Many times while leading a free-flowing but focused discussion on a philosophical theme, a student will offer something out of tune. But when at my best, I can find something worthwhile in the comment or take it into a more fruitful direction. In the realm of studied risk lies the promise of new flights into "the open sky" of rational argument. The idea of jazz pedagogy came to me while jamming in a lecture, and I have been in the woodshed with it ever since.

Swinging in the Classroom

There are many more chops to develop and traditions to fathom and appropriate in order to draw out the connections between the artistry of jazz and the artistry of the philosopher's professorial pedagogy. But if we attend to the jazz sensibilities of mastering and extending a tradition through a strong work ethic; if we labor to find our own philosophical and pedagogical voices; and if we savor "the sound of surprise," we will be well on our way to swinging in the classroom—and beyond.


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