Spotlight on TC Student Cristina Cammarano: Teaching Philosophy Plus the Core Canon ☆

Cristina Cammarano is a Philosophy and Education Ph.D. candidate and recently completed a two-year preceptorship in Columbia College’s Core Preceptor program.  She is currently a full-time instructor in TC’s Philosophy and Education program.

Can you please share your educational background?

I studied in Milan, Italy.  I received my BA in Philosophy with a concentration in Metaphysics.  Then I got my Ed.M. in Teaching of Philosophy and I got certified in Philosophy and History plus Philosophy and Social Sciences for high school.  I taught in Italy for a few years.  The first time I came to the U.S.A. was for a summer workshop at Montclair State University in Philosophy for Children in 2004. After that experience, I decided to apply for my Ph.D., and I was accepted at TC.

How did you find your way to TC?

I had met a student during that summer workshop.  She told me about the TC program and that is how I decided to apply.  It was fortuitous.  Philosophy and Education isn’t a field yet, really, in Italy.  I was really looking to go back to school but I wanted a program in Philosophy that would value my teaching experience.

It seems that Philosophy is considered an essential part of a child’s education in countries in Europe and South America, while this type of recognition remains a struggle in the U.S.  Has this been your experience?

It depends from nation to nation.  In Italy, there is a three-year requirement for History of Philosophy in non-vocational high schools (the so-called Licei).  This makes it a part of the national culture.  It is very likely that if you throw a name at a teenager, “Nietzsche,” they will know, more or less, who that is and his ideas.  There is more Philosophy in the daily life.  You find it in the common-sense phrases.  I don’t want to say it is a better way; it is just something that is a part of the common knowledge on a basic level.  Then that brings to more students who want to study Philosophy at a university level.  And of course there are more jobs.  In the U.S., you study Philosophy, and what are you going to do with that?  In Italy, it’s not that you will have a lot of career chances, but you can go into teaching or publishing.

In your opinion, why is learning Philosophy important for pre-college students?

It’s important for a lot of reasons.  Teenagers need to be able to think about their life and questions of meaning,.  Philosophy provides a very good range of possible answers, methodologies or words to think about, for the types of questions they are already thinking about.  That would be an existential reason.  Then I think there is a kind of cognitive reason.  Philosophy exercises abstract thought in a way that very few other disciplines do.  So that puts the student in a better position to learn everything.  And finally, in my view, there are cultural reasons.  Philosophy, even if this is not always acknowledged,  shaped so much of our culture.  If one wants to be an aware part of her culture, she needs to know Philosophy.

What are you planning to do with your degree?  Would you like to continue to teach?

Yes.  I would like to teach Philosophy. I think I am ready to teach at the university level.

During your time at TC, you’ve received experience teaching at the university level, correct?

Yes.  I have taught in the Core Preceptor program at Columbia College, and I have taught at TC.  I’m teaching two sections right now for TC.  I’m teaching a course named Education and the Aesthetic Experience.  I taught last summer, and the previous summer as well.  I love teaching at any level.  While I was doing my Master’s I taught in an after-school program with second graders, and that was the most difficult thing ever.   Compared to that, any other teaching is easy!

In the Core Preceptor program, you are tasked with teaching a core canon to Columbia College students.  Can you please explain the program?

The core requirements are varied, include everyone, and the program covers the first two years of college. Students have to take the course I taught, Literature Humanities:  Masterpieces of European Literature and Philosophy.  It’s a full year course.  Then in the second year they have to take a Contemporary Civilization class, that is more or less political theory and philosophy.  Then they have requirements to take an Art Humanities class, a Music Humanities class, and a World Culture requirement, a class in either Asian Humanities or African Literature that fulfils the requirement.  Plus they have to take Frontiers of Science.

You are teaching the canons of European literature, and I imagine you have students in your classroom who are scientists and mathematicians, and who might otherwise never touch this material.  What does that mean to you as a teacher?

They are freshmen, so they do arrive with an idea of what they want to major in, but really, they still don’t know.  If you ask them the first week of class, they are all Pre-Med or Economics.  Of course if you work your way up to a school like Columbia and you are paying a lot of money, you want to tell the world you are going to be rich!  Then I’ll see, during the semester, students who start coming to office hours and they’ll tell you, “I’m thinking that maybe I want to study French Literature,” or, “I want to study Human Rights or Anthropology.”  When they come to college they are clueless. The first two years of college serve to make them aware of themselves, of their interests and their academic and professional choices.

Then is the Core Preceptor program is valuable because it has the potential to open students’ eyes to lots of things?

Oh yes.   We receive amazing feedback from the students:  “This course has helped me think through my life.”  “It has opened possibilities for my studies.”

So how did you land this great instructor job?

I started three years ago.  An email was sent out, requesting for applications.  They mainly open it up to students on their way to getting a Ph.D. in Columbia GSAS and affiliate schools.

Is it a large pool of applicants?  And what happens if you are chosen?

Yes, it normally is.  The request goes out to all Doctoral candidates in the final stage of their dissertation.  Departments encourage students to apply, but it is very difficult to get the job.  The selection process as usual implies a first round based on the cover letter and the recommendations, and a second round with an interview by the committee.  If you are chosen, you receive some training in the Spring before your assignment begins.  Then for your first full year, you are required to attend instructor seminars where the pedagogical dimensions of teaching and discussed and this is a big help because teaching the Core is an incredible amount of work.

Please tell us about your students in the Core Preceptor program.

The student population is delicate, because they are freshmen.  That means, for many of them, the Lit Hum class is an introduction to college.  When I started to teach, someone told me, “This is their first college class, ever.”   So there is a lot of responsibility. The college wants to show its best face.  We have to be accountable to the students, but also to the families.  This is something I hear when prospective students come to visit the college.  One of the things they ask is, “Is my professor going to be a ‘real’ professor or are they going to be graduate students?”  No one wants to be taught by a grad student—you are going to Columbia; you want to be taught by a professor. The college makes sure that only its most qualified, and most supported doctoral candidates are given the responsibility to teach the core classes.

How familiar are your students with the canon: Dante, Homer, Boccaccio, Herodotus?

One finds everything. Some have never heard of most authors, some have. I prefer when the student is new to the work.  I find that at times, a certain high school preparation might be detrimental.  The best place to start learning is when you don’t think you know it already.  I’ll get students who have seen the movie “Troy” and they think they know The Iliad.  But of course they don’t know The Iliad before reading the whole of it  So it is better if a student says, “I’ve never heard of this guy Homer.”

Does your Core Preceptor instructing somehow dovetail with your research?

It does on many levels.  It does because I work on authors that I’ve taught in the course, so it helps.  But I think it more so does on a meta-level, if you want, because my field, Philosophy and Education, implies thinking philosophically about the dimensions of education.  So here I am, teaching something that’s being theorized as a major requirement for a college education.  That asks me to consider what I think an educated individual should know and should read.  So yes, it is a very organic experience in which I see research and teaching as the two sides of my profession.