KCC Faculty on Teaching
KCC Faculty on Teaching
Q&A with Rick Repetti | PHILOSOPHY
How did you get into teaching?
As a teen in the 70s, my friends and I would enjoy philosophical conversations about the meaning of life, the nature of reality, whether there is life after death, whether God exists, if we are real, etc. I remember saying, “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to do this for a living?” When I took my first philosophy class in college, I realized it was possible. Here I am.
What career did you imagine for yourself when you were in college?
At first, I thought I’d go into computer programming because I thought we might be able to develop a computer/brain interface that could read, interpret, and display the contents of our minds. That vision motivated me to go to college after an eight-year hiatus from schooling, having quit high school in the second half of my senior year (impetuous youth). Back then, computer science required a lot of math, and I hadn’t done math in 10 years. Once I realized how hard it was for me to remember the math, despite passing the CUNY entrance exam, I decided I not only had to love a career path, I had to be good at it. For a while I had planned to go to law school, as philosophy is a good pre-law major, but after working in law firms throughout college, I realized I loved philosophy a lot more.
What do you love about teaching?
My most rewarding teaching moments are when struggling students become so engrossed in philosophical discussions for their own sake, they forget they’re in a class for credit and grades — often for the first time. In those moments, we are dialoguing with Socrates, metaphorically speaking. (Often enough, they’re Socrates and I’m learning.)
They never cease to amaze me. I love engaging in Socratic dialogue with students because they are generally philosophically curious, not ideologically biased, and philosophical in ways they begin to realize in such dialogues. Those dialogues are what hooked me on philosophy, and I’m still hooked. I try to hook all my students, likewise.
What’s your favorite teaching experience?
Two really stand out: First, I had some Socratic dialogues with students that were so amazing they should have been recorded. The one I remember the most was literally a Socratic Dialogue, where the capital “D” indicates a specifically structured method. We pick a topic and everyone shares a short story of when they personally experienced it while the moderator (me) takes notes. In this case it was “injustice.” Participants vote on which student’s story best represents the concept being explored. The selected student engages in a Q&A with the group, exploring what elements of the story reflect the injustice. Once the initial criteria of injustice are defined, that definition is brought to bear on every other participant’s story, to see if the definition captures the injustice in that story, and, if not, to modify the definition. After modifying the definition based on all the participants’ experiences of injustice, the final definition is then exposed to open-ended Socratic cross-examination: Are there any counter-examples? Cases of injustice not captured by the definition? Cases that satisfy the definition but which do not seem to involve injustice? Cases of justice that the definition wrongly includes? The dialogue either reaches a consensus completely informed by the lived experiences of the entire group or, like many Socratic dialogues, fails to do so. In this case, we reached a satisfactory conclusion, which was a moving experience for all of us.
Second: For several years, I performed a study to investigate the extent to which practicing meditation in philosophy classes might have a philosophical impact on my students. Different sections of the same course were exposed to more or fewer experiences practicing meditation for just a few minutes at the start of a class. Some classes did no meditation; they were the control group. Others did it twice a semester; others five times; others 12 times (once a week in our 12-week semester); and others every day. On the first and last day of class, students responded to 25 philosophical statements I had devised. The differences were palpable: The more times a class practiced meditation, the greater the differences in their philosophical attitudes and beliefs. The class that meditated for even just a few minutes at the start of every class was the most consistently thoughtful, mindful, philosophically engaged, high-discussion-level-involving class I’ve ever taught. Meditation put the class into a very ripe philosophical mood, every day. Every single period we met was deep, authentic, meaningful, thoughtful, reflective, and moving. The cumulative effect was awesome!
In what ways do you bring your professional experience into the classroom?
I bring my meditative mind and yogic skills into my philosophical works, writings, dialogues, and debates, and I draw heavily upon those skills in the classroom. One of my areas of philosophical expertise is meditation, including yoga as a form of moving, embodied meditation. Yoga teachers have to develop the art of adjusting the exercises to each student’s physical limitations and abilities, bringing them just to the border line separating their physical comfort and discomfort zones, and balancing the desire to improve with the ability to accept one’s present limitations. Yoga teachers also need to be mindful of whether or not they are teaching authentically from within the zone themselves. Those decades-developed skills transfer to teaching philosophy to a very diverse student body with multiple challenges and abilities. Philosophers need to make the same external adjustments to their students and the same internal adjustments to themselves while teaching. In Buddhism, to be a Buddha is to be philosophically awake. Everyone is viewed as a sleeping Buddha, a potentially enlightened being. I see myself as a philosophical missionary, with the purpose of awakening the sleeping Buddha in every student who enters my classes. My teaching philosophy is “no Buddha left behind.”
What advice do you have for current students?
I mentioned that I realized I had to both love and be good at whatever I was going to spend my career doing. I still think that’s important, but it’s not complete. There are two other important considerations: what the world needs and what the world will pay for. Some things you love but are not so good at, like me with math. Some things you love and are good at, but the world has too many of, or does not pay much for. Some things the world pays for, needs, and you are good at, but you do not love, and so on. If you can identify the intersection of all four things in your own case, then you will have found your meaningful purpose in this life, your ikigai, as the Japanese call it, and you should go for it whole-heartedly. College is the time to identify your ikigai. You can only do that by exploring courses in areas that might captivate you. Find what interests you – and your ikigai should interest you the most – because interest guarantees attention, and attention is the key to learning: When you love something, like video games, a certain sport, or a Netflix series, you pay attention and learn all about it effortlessly and joyfully.
Like any other skill, you can cultivate attention through practice and then direct it at anything, to discover what about it is interesting. Successful athletes and musicians train all the time. Meditation is “attention training.” It is the best skill almost anyone can develop. If you learn how to turn on the “attention switch,” you will learn effortlessly. As a bonus, meditation can also be an inner sanctuary, a way to ground and center yourself, to digest experience, and to transmute stress into positive energy — it can be a source of great inner strength in trying times.