Yes, it’s that time of year again. Like you, I start my fall teaching the week after next. Two courses, as usual: Christian Theology, one of my regular offerings in the Religious Studies department, and a seminar in the University’s Honors College on the Perennial Philosophy.
No, not all of my teaching is Socratic, or not at least “purely” so. It’s interesting that you ask about that just now. At the invitation of our Center for Teaching Excellence, I gave a talk this past spring for fellow USC faculty on the subject of Socratic pedagogy, and I just recently added some audio to the PowerPoint presentation I used and have posted it here. It’s the first time I’ve tried to articulate (even to myself) what I attempt to do in the classroom.
As I explain in this talk, the “intensity” of my Socratic engagement varies from “moderate” to “high”, where a “very high” degree of dialectical intensity is to be found in a dialogue like Plato’s Meno. The pedagogy in my honors seminars is deliberately, and avowedly, Socratic in character, each class beginning with a question and being regularly punctuated by further cross-examinational inquiries.
In larger classes like Christian Theology, however, I dilute the method somewhat. I start each session in a more or less professorial way by summarizing, and then elaborating on, my on-line lecture for the day. But then, as soon as I sense that most of the students have grasped the essential points, I move toward discussion, taking questions, but as often as not turning them back on the students with additional questions of my own.
My fundamental aim in each case, regardless of the grammatical mood of my sentences, is one best expressed by Coleridge, when he pointed out that Socrates’s own aim was
“not to assist in storing the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request, as if the human soul were a mere repository or banqueting-room, but to place it such relations of circumstance as should gradually excite the germinal power that craves no knowledge but what it can take up into itself, what it can appropriate, and re-produce in fruits of its own” (The Friend, “Essays on the Principles of Method”, Essay VII).