Graduate College

Bertha Alvarez Manninen

Associate Professor, Philosophy, School of Humanities, Arts and cultural Studies, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences


The "Captain" that Almost Wasn't: How My Teaching Idealism was Challenged and Renewed by ASU

I still watch Dead Poets Society whenever it comes on TV, and it remains one of my favorite films (“Oh captain, my captain”!). While it inspired me to teach, it also set me up for “failure”; one from which ASU saved me, when I realized that my purpose as a teacher has a different kind of transformational value.

I thought that I would be teaching students like the ones in the film – students who savored every word of poetry (or in my case philosophy) because they loved it as much as I do; students who would swoon over Plato and be unable to put Descartes down. We would sit in a circle all the time and marvel at the ideas and theories written by the greatest minds. But soon I realized that if I wanted to get students to love philosophy as much as I do, I would have to battle against a plethora of difficult background situations that didn’t exist for the boys in the film.

Many of my students come from backgrounds of financial strife. Like me, many are first generation college students and are trying to balance the demands of college with the demands of their personal life. They are often caregivers of young children or ailing parents. They work multiple jobs. College is but one of the many things they are balancing. Yet for many, that degree is their golden ticket. That degree is going to make the difference between continuing a life of financial strife, or having doors open for them that they never knew were possible. I had to teach them to love philosophy by showing them how it can open those doors for them. I wanted them to see how Plato can help them get jobs, how reading Descartes can positively contribute to being a responsible member of a political democracy. How questioning their religious beliefs can draw them closer to their God. How studying ethical theories can help them be better partners, parents, friends, caregivers, and help them make morally good decisions in their lives and in their workplace. I had to show them how honing their critical thinking and writing skills was both intrinsically and prudentially valuable – that the person who can critically and creatively think had the upper hand when employers are combing through dozens of applications. In other words, I had to make philosophy relevant in their lives. And in doing all this, I realized that I had a different role to play than did John Keating (Robin William’s character in the film). He may have taught those boys to love poetry, but I potentially had the power to change students’ generational tree. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously, and it is one I never would have realized were it not for ASU’s commitment to educating anyone who truly wants it. It’s also my way of paying it forward, for had it not been for the commitments of my undergraduate teachers, there is no way I would have survived college, let alone graduate school.

This is my overall teaching philosophy, and it affects not just my undergraduate teaching, but my graduate teaching too. For many of my students, the idea of graduating with a bachelor’s degree is difficult enough, but graduate school? Graduate school is for the extra-smart people, they say – it’s not for them. I soon realized that one of the greatest obstacles facing my students when it came to attending graduate school was their belief that they were simply not capable enough to do it. So, I combatted this the only way I knew how – by displaying to them my own vulnerability and academic flaws. For every student who has told me that they were not “smart enough” for graduate school, I have sat them down in my office and showed them my undergraduate transcripts – one that is peppered with As and Bs, but also Cs and Ds. One that showed a kid who was good at philosophy, but really not much else; one that showed a graduating GPA of 3.4 – barely above a B+. I was ordinary. No one who would have looked at me would have thought I was cut out for academia. The first step to getting students into graduate school is infusing them with the confidence that they belong there, and doing so sometimes entails showing them that their professors struggled as well.

Students who are in graduate school are my peers – I treat them like intellectual equals whom I am guiding and mentoring, not just teaching. If graduating with an undergraduate degree changed their generational tree, graduate school takes that future to a whole other level. At this point, my job is to teach them to be successful members of my profession; I am doing it for them primarily, but also because the future of academia depends on the young minds who have embraced it and want to infuse it with their own imprint.

I am hesitant to give concrete examples because I don’t feel comfortable taking credit for students’ work; these are their successes, not mine. Nevertheless, there are two stories I will share.

One is the impressive Sasha Billbe, who currently works as the Program Manager for Student Engagement at Barrett the Honors College at West. Sasha has a Master’s in Education from Northern Arizona University, and is currently working hard on her Doctorate of Education from ASU. I have known Sasha since she was a sophomore at ASU. I met her as a RA for the Barrett Summer Scholars program, and she became a philosophy major shortly thereafter. After taking many classes from me, I was honored to mentor her through the NCUIRE program, where her research on Aristotle’s views on art as a moral educator greatly influenced my own research, and lead to a publication for me. I then chaired her thesis for Barrett the Honors College on Aristotle and media ethics, and how philosophy can influence our moral assessment of adolescent literature. Sasha and I remain close. She has taken two independent studies courses with me as a graduate student because we are both committed to finding ways to learn from each other even now. She is nothing short of an amazing asset to the ASU community, and her ability to successfully work full time in an extremely demanding job and complete these difficult graduate programs continues to astound me. I can’t imagine being any prouder of my own daughters when they graduate and take the world by storm, as Sasha does every single day.

Second is the wonderful Joshua Dawson, who is currently finishing his Masters of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount and has his eyes on prestigious Ph.D. programs in philosophy. Josh is a born philosopher, and I saw that in the very first class he took from me (and the four classes he took with me thereafter). He would read difficult philosophical texts for class that were outside what was required, and we would spend hours in my office combing through them, debating them, or just trying to understand them. We would groan in unison when the language was almost un-readable, and then cheer together and high-five each other when we finally got it. Three summers ago, Joshua was accepted into a very prestigious summer program at the University of Notre Dame, where he was able to conduct research with some of the most influential contemporary philosophers, and where he was the only humanities student. I am proud to say that the paper he used to get into the program was written for one of my classes, and in addition I helped him write and revise his personal statement many times. As someone who wanted to go to Notre Dame myself for graduate school, and never did, Josh’s victory enabled me to live vicariously through his success. After he returned, it was clear to me he was now a peer, and I spoke and interacted with him how I would any colleague. When Josh started taking symbolic logic, he would bring his book to class and, after everyone had left, we’d spend the evening going over proofs together on the board. He was so overwhelmed – taking five classes, working full time, and trying to study for the GRE and apply to graduate school. We sat in my office on multiple occasions looking through many universities’ philosophy programs, trying to find the best fit. And when he finally decided on Loyola, we spent a couple of hours online looking for apartments for him in the expensive Los Angeles area. Joshua still writes me constantly, and I send him conference calls for papers all the time. My hope is to one day attend a conference with him. If there was ever a student who made me feel just like I imagine John Keating did with his poetry students, it is Josh. Josh made my love for philosophy come alive again in a way that was reminiscent of when I was an undergraduate discovering it for the first time.

When I have difficult days in life, the classroom makes those problems vanish. When I wonder whether I have done anything positive in my career, I think of these students. But I think of all students, really. Whether they become professional philosophers or not, I hope that they each find the accomplishments they needed to find. And I hope that, somehow, I was a small part of their overall network of success.