William Talbott didn’t begin his UW career 22 years ago knowing how to be a good teacher. In his first lecture class, he found himself standing in front of his students and talking, similar to his own student experience. He got little reaction.
“At the end of the class, I was very dissatisfied,” he recalled. He solicited help from an outside evaluator and worked to transform one-sided lectures into conversations that could engage students even in classes of more than 100.
Talbott’s Department of Philosophy colleagues attest to his success, in teaching and as an evaluator to help other faculty succeed, for which he has earned a UW Distinguished Teaching Award.
Growing up, Talbott moved often because of his father’s career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. By late high school, the family lived in Portland and he was smitten by the beauty of the Northwest.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a doctorate from Harvard University in 1976, then came to Seattle – but it was 13 years before he began his teaching career. First he focused on raising a family, as he and his wife took turns with primary breadwinner duties. During those years he was a paralegal and a computer operator for a Seattle law firm.
He landed on the UW philosophy faculty in 1989 and became a full professor in 2005.
Talbott was drawn to philosophy because, “No matter what discipline you’re in you can begin to ask questions that become philosophical.” He is on sabbatical this year and laments not being able to have a class delve into questions raised by the revolutionary atmosphere in the Middle East.
“Philosophy is not a place where everyone agrees. It’s where people find that they disagree and can explain their disagreements to each other rationally and civilly,” he said.
Student engagement, particularly in larger lecture classes, is a sign of success. Talbott said that when he started, people at the front of class were the ones routinely involved in discussions, but through the years he has adopted a variety of methods that engender much broader involvement.
Students are expected to answer a variety of questions, both written and oral, and must be able to explain abstract issues to someone who has never taken philosophy. The point isn’t to win or lose, Talbott said, but to be able to make a strong enough case that a reasonable person, perhaps one who disagrees with you, can at least understand the rationale.
“It is fear that causes people to close down and not listen. We provide an atmosphere that’s not risky, where you’re not going to get chopped down,” he said.
He notes that a philosophical examination of vexing questions usually provides a far more nuanced, less black-and-white view than do moral authorities such as religion, or even a personal ethics code. For example, he notes that slavery, now nearly universally condemned, once was at least tolerated by most of the world’s major religions.
Getting students to think in those terms is his biggest teaching challenge, Talbott said, but watching it happen is the biggest reward.
Philosophy chairman Kenneth Clatterbaugh cited Talbott as a department leader who founded the undergraduate writing center and helps usher in new technology. In a nominating letter, Clatterbaugh said Talbott writes “the best peer reviews in the department” and is very helpful in assessing colleagues’ course materials and classroom techniques.
In a supporting letter, Ann Baker, a senior lecturer and 2004 teaching award recipient, noted that “in a time when many faculty are assigning less writing, Bill has been assigning more.” She said students “get so caught up in the excitement of the topic … that they ask questions, offer objections, and provide alternative suggestions.”
Chris Jordan, a public affairs graduate student, was impressed by Talbott’s description of the history of philosophy “as a great conversation.”
“I never experienced a professor at the University of Washington who was able to successfully tie all the class material together in such a clear and engaging way and get students to see the complete picture,” Jordan wrote.
Talbott wants students to experience what he calls “productive engagement,” considering other opinions and recognizing that philosophers who wrote thousands of years ago have things to say that can help find answers to today’s dilemmas.
“There are always going to be more puzzles, and that’s why philosophy never ends,” he said. “It doesn’t end at the end of the course, it doesn’t end at the end of the year, it doesn’t end at the end of grad school and it doesn’t end at retirement.”