To: Theodore S. Arrington, Chair, Political Science
From: Laura Duhan Kaplan, Assistant of Professor, Department
Date: October 3, 1994
Re: Peer Review of Teaching for Dr. Marc Stier
On Wednesday September 28, from 2:00 to 2:50 p.m., I observed a full class meeting of Dr. Marc Stier's class POLS 3178, "Body and Soul" in Winningham 206.
Dr. Stier selected me to review this course for two reason, the first related to course content and the second to teaching strategy. (1) "Body and Soul" deals primarily with philosophical texts about the tensions between the individual and the political community, and I have published several articles on this topic. (2) Dr. Stier teaches "Body and Soul" by leading class discussion of primary source readings from the great books of Western civilization, and I use this method of teaching in my upper division philosophy courses.
The class meeting I observed focused on discussion of a chapter in Plato's Symposium, a philosophical work on the relationships between love, sex intellect, society and politics. Dr. Stier's choice of the Symposium for a course in political thought is a wise one. Because erotic and familial love affect our most basic political commitments, from our stand on military service to our position on health care, it is important to understand them if we are to understand human political behavior.
Dr. Stier began the class with a five-minute summary of the discussion that took place during the last class meeting, ending the summary by sharing some more thought he had on the topic since the last class. As he spoke, the students, obviously interested, murmured and gestured responses.
The new chapter under discussion this day was a mythical account of the origins of human sex and love, attributed by Plato to the great Greek writer of comedies, Aristophanes. Dr. Stier began discussion by directing the students towards the text, asking students to explain Aristophanes' mythical view of why human sexual union exists. Several students volunteered answer fragments and Dr. Stier masterfully coaxed students to complete their answers by asking pointed follow-up questions, such as "Why do you think that is Aristophanes' view?" or "Why was that important to Zeus?"
After about ten minutes, discussion strayed from Aristophanes view to student's evaluation of it. Under Dr. Stier's guidance, students were using a classical text to interpret their own, previously unreflective, experience. The discussion became even more lively and animated than it had been, and nearly all of the twenty-four students present spoke at some point. Dr. Stier managed the discussion expertly by placing student comments, including incompletely developed ideas and irrelevant questions, in a context. He participated only as a facilitator, avoiding answering even direct questions about his views. His discussion leadership techniques included rephrasing, reframing, playing devil's advocate, redirecting students to the text, and connecting comments with ideas discussed in previous classes. While the discussion was lively, and many students spoke without being called on, it was not disorderly, and it moved in a definite direction, which appeared to be set by the interests of the students, but was also consistent with the objectives Dr. Stier had articulated to me before the class meeting. Dr. Stier's nonchalant combination of seriousness and teasing about the delicate subject matter seemed to set students at complete ease.
By 2:35 a student consensus had emerged on two topics: (1) The message of Aristophanes's story is that because it is too difficult to find true love, people must be content with troubled personal, social and political relationships. (2) The human drive to seek sex is more fundamental than the human drive to seek love. At this point, Dr. Stier switched to a mini-lecture format in order to summarize and evaluate the ideas that had been presented in discussion. Students made the transition comfortably and listened attentively. Without alienating the students, Dr. Stier managed to announce that he disagree with both of their conclusions. He described himself as disagreeing with "the way we usually think" and made it clear that the burden of proof was on him. He gave four reason for his views, one drawn from the class discussion, one drawn from Plato's text, and two drawn from his experience, As Dr. Stier presented each new reasons, he related it clearly to the point he was trying to prove, thereby modeling critical reasoning for his students. Dr. Stier ended the class by making a general statement about the human attitude toward inflated ideals and relating it to the subject under discussion, love.
I was impressed by Dr. Stier's ability to weave the day's discussion together with his planned summary into a coherent and informative unity. Dr. Stier's class seemed to illustrate two of the goals he described in our conversation before the review took place. Dr. Stier said, "I'm trying to discover things in my classes and I want students to understand what intellectual inquiry is all about and why it's fun." Clearly, the students inquired and enjoyed it. In the process, both they and the instructor learned about classical and contemporary views of the relationships between human social and biological needs.
Laura Duhan Kaplan
Department of Philosophy
Charlotte, NC 28223