Robin Zheng

Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy)

What is special about teaching at the Yale-NUS?

Zheng:  Everyone’s answer to this always seems to be: the students! That answer is absolutely correct.

But I would add to that: my colleagues, and the community as a whole. What I find most incredible about Yale-NUS is that I am surrounded by people who truly believe in a vision of what a genuine liberal arts education, at its best, is meant to be (however we may disagree about its details). This motivates me always to try hard and live up to the dedication and talent I see around me, whether that’s other faculty updating me about their latest pedagogical experiments or students who have carefully read the text and prepared hard questions for me. I’m also struck by the way that teaching and learning on all sides is integrated into every aspect of my job here: not just in my classroom, but also over lunch and in the hallways, and especially during our Common Curriculum team-teaching meetings (which often feel like seminars themselves!).

How would you describe your teaching style?

Zheng:  I would say that I try as far as possible to set up my classroom so that students are doing philosophy “for real,” on their own. That means that after I provide some background information or model some skill, I ask my students to do it themselves and pull myself back into a supporting role. I also strive to pay attention to whether the right group dynamics and personal relationships are in place to support the kind of learning I aim to facilitate. I want my classroom to be welcoming of everyone’s contributions, mistakes, and differences; only then, I think, can people (myself included) feel safe enough to be curious, to be challenged, to explore and to be changed.

Can you recall a moment when you knew the class is going well?

Zheng:  I know my class is going well when my students are one step ahead of me. I’ve lost track of the number of times, for example, when the students have anticipated some point that I wanted them to take home or some question/interpretation that came up during our faculty team-teaching meeting. When I move through all my slides just by answering question after question from students, that’s when I know it’s going well!

What have been some of your best moments teaching at Yale-NUS?

Zheng:  In the second half of my Philosophy and Political Thought course, which met twice weekly, I had my students design a lesson plan and lead one day of class every week. In consultation with me, they chose the concepts and skills they wanted to focus on, along with the exercises that they thought would be most educational – and fun! Some of my best moments have been witnessing them work out important ideas by themselves instead of just hearing me tell it to them: arguments against moral relativism, for instance (that it’s neither possible nor desirable), or philosophical justifications of punishment (retributive, deterrent, rehabilitative, restorative).

Co-teaching a Week 7 course in Singapore on identity, memory, and alternative narratives (“Stories of Ourselves”) also definitely makes the list. Seeing the students’ final projects – how they achieved everything we hoped for, through media more thoughtful, creative, and compelling than anything I previously imagined – was an amazingly rewarding teaching experience.

What is your biggest challenge in regards to teaching?

Zheng:  One challenge of teaching is that students don’t just need to learn things, they need to know what things they’ve learned – and that takes some teaching and learning in itself. I do my best to be as transparent as I can about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, but because learning is a gradual process, it can be hard to convey to students that they really are improving their skills and understanding in ways that matter. I try to emphasize that faculty too are always practicing and practicing in order to get better and better – sometimes even I can’t work things out on the spot and need to think through it at home – and I hope that helps.

Philosophy, in particular, is a subject where people might feel like it’s pointless or that there’s no answer; my hope is that after taking a philosophy class, students recognize that it’s an accomplishment in itself to be able to pinpoint what’s at stake, agree to disagree, or understand both sides of a difficult and important problem.