What does being named a Distinguished Teacher mean to you?
I have so many distinguished colleagues. It's still a mystery to me how I got the award. So many other Liberal Studies teachers deserve this recognition.
What was your most memorable teaching moment?
It happens more than once. It's when you see a student pointing out some new consequence that makes perfect sense, and yet you didn't see it coming.
What do you hope students take away from your classes?
Above all, a love of learning for its own sake. College is apt to be your only chance to explore ideas, in a sustained way, for their intrinsic worth. It's a rare opportunity. It's precious. I hope to show students how great works and great minds of earlier ages can still throw light on the present.
What is your favorite thing about teaching in Liberal Studies?
What I like most about Liberal Studies students is their curiosity and their enthusiasm for the great works of the world. Many of the philosophical and political works we study are centuries old, and yet a lot of our students know how to look to the past as a way of understanding the present.
Describe Liberal Studies students in 3 words.
Smart, curious, committed.
How does your own college experience inform your teaching today?
My best teachers were always the ones who would have a conversation with us—as their way of teaching. And they invited new sorts of questions, questions that turned out to be unexpected but important. My hope is to elicit for them that moment of discovery. I remember such moments as a student myself.
You are also a Faculty Fellow-in-Residence at NYU. What have you learned by interacting with students in a residential setting?
It gives me a chance to connect with college students as neighbors. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to live and learn with our students, while exploring with them the intellectual and cultural life of New York City. Their enthusiasm and idealism are infectious, and their questions get me thinking. And their insights continue to astound me.
Describe your research areas, and how you became interested in this.
My most recent work has been on the social history of logic. I see logic's history as part of the history of ideas. I’ve always been interested in how the ideas of any period are much influenced by a larger social world—by things like politics, economics, even geography. This is true of logic, too. For example, the politics of ancient Athens gave us the study of deductive logic as a discipline, and Athenian politics was itself a result of economic and geographical forces playing out in the classical Greek world. My colleague Michael Shenefelt and I published a book about these matters: If A, Then B: How the World Discovered Logic, from Columbia University Press. We talk about the development of Greek logic, but also about other parts of logic, like the emphasis on induction and scientific method among the 17th-century philosophers, and the development of symbolic logic from the 19th century to the present.
What makes you most proud of your former students?
I'm most proud when I see students who have committed themselves to doing something for the greater good, something aimed at bettering the world, if even in a small way. Of course, a great deal is hidden from us. Many people do noble things that we never see.