Dr. Susan Mills, associate professor in philosophy, spends her time in the classroom asking fundamental questions that get her students thinking hard about what it means to be human. Her passion for teaching inspired her colleagues and students to nominate her for a 2019 Distinguished Teaching Award.
We talked to Susan about how her discipline has no time for BS, making sense of the seemingly nonsensical, and her hope to include more voices when teaching the canon of early modern philosophy.
I took a variety of humanities classes in my first year of university, but everything I liked about those courses – the reading and writing – was packaged into my year-long philosophy course. I had an amazing prof who was so enthusiastic, in command of what she was teaching and invested in the course. I think of her sometimes when I’m teaching, but I’m probably most likely to think about the logic prof I had as an undergrad. She was such a champion for her students. She never talked at us, always with us. She was very firm, but also very fair. And she suffered no fools.
She also had lines she would use that I find myself dipping into from time to time. If a student corrected her, she would thank them for “keeping her honest.” I think that admitting her own humanity without dwelling on mistakes was the perfect teacherly response.
Q. What do you love about teaching in this discipline?
I love the challenge of making complicated, awesomely grandiose or seemingly bizarre things make sense. If a philosopher has written about a topic, they’ve approached it philosophically through reason, analysis, argument and logic. I love unpacking those ideas and arguments and texts and making them make sense.
My reward is seeing it click for students – when they come to class having read the text but unable to make sense of it, and then leave at the end of class getting it.
Q. Can you provide a quick, plain language description of what it means to "do" philosophy for someone who isn't familiar with the discipline?
Philosophy is not something done in a passive way. It’s an activity – a way of thinking, of living, of being. Philosophy isn’t easy. There are no quick answers, but even then it has no patience for BS. Words matter. Ideas matter. Truth matters. The best way to experience philosophy is to do it. That means putting in the effort to make those things matter in your thoughts and actions.
Q. What is your favourite course to teach?
PHIL 200 Metaphysics is about the nature and structure of reality, and it was the very first course I taught at MacEwan. I still love teaching it because it's a trip for the students. On the first day, I ask “Why this, why anything?” and we go from there. It's daunting, it's humbling and it’s mind-blowing. But students are very quick to get on board and surrender – to let go of any ego and bravado. Their reaction is indicative of something about human nature and our drive to think of and appreciate big questions, to surrender to big ideas and to try to explore the limits of how far we can go in understanding the world.
Because my area of specialization is early modern philosophy, I’m always especially keen to teach the courses on that. Actually, my students would probably guess that any course with the early modern philosopher Descartes in it would be my favourite. No surprise to them, I usually teach him in PHIL 200 too.
Q. Where do you hope to take your teaching in the future?
There’s currently quite a surge of interest in expanding the canon of early modern philosophy. For centuries, we’ve been telling and teaching the same story about the fathers of modern philosophy. But it’s a story that cuts out the lesser-known figures of this period, and that includes women philosophers who wrote fascinating works. There’s more being translated and it’s becoming easier to get our hands on these texts, which makes it easier to teach them.
Students want diversity, they want variety and they want to feel included and invited into this discipline. Including more voices is something I’m aware of – and want to do more of – moving forward.
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