TEACHING HEROES: Philosophy professor comes at ideas from many angles

Erica Shumener near the Cathedral of Learning


“I know this will sound bad,” says philosophy faculty member Erica Shumener. “I think there’s really a value in being repetitive.” 

When it comes to teaching her subject, Shumener says, explaining the same concept in a variety of ways can sometimes be the key to undergraduate understanding of philosophical concepts. The aim is “to try to approach the same idea in different ways, different levels … with a different context, so you can triangulate.”

Shumener, who joined Pitt in the fall of 2015 and is an assistant professor, teaches both undergraduate and graduate classes with deceptively simple titles that belie their complexity: Freedom and Determination. Concepts of Human Nature. Introduction to Fundamentality.

For the latter course, Shumener explains that, since the mid-20th century, metaphysics has been looking at what exists: God? Numbers? More recently, the central question has shifted to “Which type of entities are fundamental?” For instance, we humans do not feel as if we are only physical beings. Do we have some sort of irreducible mental aspect, such as a soul?

Shumener’s favorite class to teach undergrads is Freedom and Determinism. “This class is great to teach because it has a lot of real-world application,” she says. “This is an issue that really resonates with the students.”

As we move through life, she says, “it feels like we are making great choices. But if we are really just physical particles — governed by the laws of nature — can we be said to be free?

“When we usually blame or legally punish or reward people, we take it as an assumption that some of their actions have to be free,” she explains. “If, for example, we aren’t free, and we aren’t morally praiseworthy or blameworthy,” what kinds of laws and punishments should we have?

Do your actions count as free if you are under the influence of some sort of mental disorder or a severe addiction? “There are cool kinds of experiments you can do with the class that helps them see the force of philosophical puzzles and challenges,” she says.

For graduate classes, such as Laws of Nature, Shumener intends that the class and its readings should prepare her students to make an original contribution to this field. “I have found a way to position these students to further the field themselves without having to go out and acquire too much knowledge from outside the class.”

She hopes that philosophy, as a discipline, can help build students’ respect for people who disagree with them, and teach them to argue instead of attack: “I really like teaching philosophy because it is a discipline that’s poised to help people become more rigorous in their thought. It helps people calmly reflect on arguments, and their agency.”

Given that philosophical ideas can be controversial, she adds, undergraduates in particular need to learn how to engage in arguments whose conclusions they may not like, and to assess arguments on their merits, unemotionally, with logic.

They need to question the very premises of their arguments, she adds. “Frankly, philosophy really helps develop these skills, and I think these are very important rules to have in everyday life.”

Building trust between the teacher and the class, as well as among classmates, she adds, is crucial, so that they don’t get discouraged if a line of reasoning hits a wall and collapses. She even has students connect to past ways of doing philosophy, such as Aristotle’s method of walking and talking in groups, organizing “philosophical strolls” several times a semester.

She also introduces her students to the world of professional philosophers, involving them in workshops and colloquia, and to encourage new ways of presenting their ideas, such as poster presentations and art projects.

“If you can find a way for students to connect to these philosophical ideas that connect to their other passions,” she says. “I think it is good for philosophy and good for them.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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