Sunday, April 18, 2010

Socrates whispering in my ear

Here's a speech I delivered to the current Philosphy and Religion majors at Montclair State University, my Alma Mater. This was a career day hosted jointly by the Philosphy/Religion Department and the General Humanities Department. I gave my talk and was proud to take home an armful of lovely flowers and a mug with Descartes image on it! It says, "I think, therefore I am" and when you drink coffee, it changes to "I think not! How cool! Well, here's the talk....

Socrates whispering in my ear: philosophy and work
MSU Philosphy/Religion Career Day Event
By Maryann Woods-Murphy, April 15th, 2010

It’s my honor and privilege to talk to you today. I have long kept up my relationship with the Philosophy and Religion department at Montclair State University, Montclair State College when I attended in 1978.

This place means the world to me. Right now, I am happy to be the New Jersey State teacher of the year as well as the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Teacher of the year.

So how does this relate to my studies of philosophy and how does it relate to my life story? What impact did studying philosophy have on my life and how did it inform my profession?

When I came to Montclair State in 1977, I was 17 years old. I had a friend from high school whose father was the chair of the Philosophy & Religion Department, the late Dr. George Brantl. Mary, his daughter, told me to go find him so he could help me register for classes.

I came from a family where I was the first one on this side of the ocean to get a college degree so the very process of registering for college classes was daunting to me. In those days, we got on long lines to register in the gym after getting approval in department offices.

When I first got to the college, I thought that I might major in communications since I like to communicate, but when I went to the communications department and saw lights and cameras everywhere, I understood that this was a media program, not some kind of program to help us “communicate” better.

Lost and alone on campus, I remembered Mary Brantl’s advice. “Go see my father!”

This is how I entered the philosophy department office to meet Dr. Brantl in his trademark green shirt and effusive gestures.

“Oh, Maryann,” he said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Really?” I thought, “Mary really told you about me?”

Dr. Brantl sat down at his desk and proceeded to outline my academic program. He told me as well about a new program in General Humanities, “you’ll love it,” he said. “I want you to do a double major: Philosophy and General Humanities.”

“I’m doing a double major?”

“Yes,” said Dr. Brantl, rubbing his cheek, “You’ll have to start early so you can fit in all of your general education classes with your major classes. Maybe you can double up.”


“Then you’ll pick your concentration for your thesis.”

“My thesis?”

“Yeah, your undergraduate thesis.”

My heart was pumping with nervousness, but also with excitement. Here was this fine sounding man taking care of my first semester schedule and all I had to do was learn the names of the classes he signed me up for.

“Contemporary Aesthetics?”

“A wonderful course, Dr. Lipman teaches it, a good start.”

“You wouldn’t recommend an introductory class, Dr. Brantl?”

“Introduction? No, You had philosophy in high school – Mary told me – so we’ll just move you along to the right level for you.”

Gulp. Dr. Brantl passed me the form with narrow lines where he had written my classes down with their corresponding numbers and his approval signatures.

“I’ll be your advisor,” said Dr. Brantl, “this way I can help you register every time.”

That first semester of college, I studied a junior level Contemporary Aesthetics class. I confess that I really didn’t know what such a class would be about and that I went home to quickly look up the word to see if it related to anything more than “good taste.”

In the college bookstore, I bought thick, five-section notebooks, which I filled with notes about readings that I was only beginning to understand. It was rigorous learning and at night, my brain seemed to hurt.

From my Montclair State professors, I literally learned the words that would accompany me throughout my entire intellectual and professional life. I learned to think critically and could see things from a wide variety of perspectives. I understood logical fallacies and was able to sniff them out in reading, media and in conversations. I understood that the mind of the world is developed though a series of conversations that take place in our own heads as we engage in our reading and in conversations with each other.

I learned to write clearly and to make every word count. I understood that different sorts of writing applied to each field, that if I was studying social science, I needed to bathe in the words used in that field to have meaningful conversations with professionals in a language they could hear. My General Humanities major trained me as an interdisciplinary thinking. I have the unique ability to connect themes and topics across fields. My brain can connect the dots.

A study of philosophy gave me the ability to see that how we think is the most important part of the work day and that when we analyze problems and seek solutions with others in collaborative projects, we need to use the skills of intense listening, careful understanding of language, the ability to logically construct our argument and the courage of our hard-won convictions.

This is what I have always done in my classes and, as a teacher; I have been able to affirm my own student’s nascent intellectual moment. I can say, “No, you are not crazy. Great thinkers have been working on this problem that is keeping you up at night for centuries. Here, let me show you a book.”

A study of philosophy has taught me to be intellectually brave. Many a time in my professional life, I have been in a sea of colleagues – all quite intelligent and able in their fields. A presenter is speaking and has said something notably awry. It just doesn’t add up. I have looked around, hoping that someone might differ with the point of view expressed or at least ask a clarifying question. Time and time again, though, I have been the only one to raise my hand, with the utmost respect, to share a concern or thought.

Why me? Because I studied philosophy. Because when you study philosophy, Socrates is always whispering in your ear, telling you that finding answers is hard and that it is our job as humans to do it. We can never become complacent and never let the tendency for “group think” to take over our minds and actions.

This can mean that we are sometimes annoying, but I must say that I have learned to respectfully articulate an opposing view in such a way that the speaker welcomes the point. The words I have learned here at Montclair State University have served me well. Some say that the pen is a sword, but I would add that clear words forged in an open mind are also weapons that we take into our social arenas.

My work in the world is that of a Spanish teacher. How can Philosophy and General Humanities help me there? As a student at Montclair State University, I was engaged in learning by listening and writing, but also by discussing matters of importance with my teachers in and after class.

My students do the same. I am happy when they get that slightly worried look, that edgy discomfort which tells me that we are getting ready for some good discussion. Some call this a teachable moment. I call it the reason we are together. My classroom is shaped like a horseshoe of chairs and desks to encourage such engagement and if things get too quiet, I get the students out of their seats to speak in pairs and small groups so that they can hammer out their thoughts and beliefs.

Because I studied philosophy, I’m not afraid to venture into the realm of diversity work, empowerment and dialogue facilitation. In our increasingly global society, this is a skill that is sorely needed in many fields. Nowadays, in our complex and multidisciplinary world, we need to have these cross-disciplinary abilities to be highly effective.

Studying philosophy was the most practical thing I could ever have done. By learning how to reflect, use language, think clearly, analyze and discuss the most important matters of the our time, I have developed a fearless approach to work and intellectual life which has served me, my students and colleagues well.

Never doubt that it will do the same for you. Your hard-won skills will set you apart. Never apologize for them or feel that you were luxuriating in intellectually frivolous pursuits. The world needs what you have, more and more each day.

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