Spotlight on Student Givanni Ildefonso: Teaching Philosophy Plus the Core Canon ☆

Givanni is a Philosophy and Education Ph.D. candidate and recently began a two-year preceptorship in Columbia College’s Core Preceptor Program.  A native of Puerto Rico, she has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Puerto Rico and a Master’s in Philosophy from Columbia University.  Givanni was a seventh, eight and ninth grade classroom teacher, an adjunct at Hofstra University and a TC INSTEP teacher.

How did you find yourself at TC?

I began college thinking I wanted to be an English teacher.  For some reason, though, the classes didn’t interest me.  As an elective, I was taking a Philosophy course, and I eventually transferred to that department.

I noticed that the main things in Philosophy that I was interested in related to educational issues—educational theories of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel.  The department was very ‘closed’, though, and they didn’t focus on those things. I applied to the graduate program at UPR anyway, but at the same time I was looking at other graduate programs.  I had no idea that there was a Philosophy and Education program at TC.  For me it was either Philosophy or Education.  And of the two, I wanted to find a program in Philosophy that would allow me to look into the problems of education.

Out of the blue, I found the Philosophy and Education program at TC, and I contacted Professor David Hansen and asked if I could visit.  I met with him and with Megan Laverty, and I couldn’t believe it:  They were so wonderful and the program was so amazing that it was too good to be true.

How was your adjuncting experience at Hofstra?

I came to TC in 2006, and an opportunity for adjuncting at Hofstra University came along three years later.  I taught Introduction to Philosophy of Education for two and a half years and I absolutely loved it. I was able to make my own course and I tried to make it as TC-ish as possible by bringing in the tradition of the TC Philosophy and Education program.  I had a wonderful experience, but Fall 2010 was my last semester because I needed to concentrate on writing my dissertation.

…and your TC teaching experience?

This past spring I was core staff with David Hansen for a beautiful class he teaches, “Identity and Ideals:  Visions of Human Flourishing”.  It was a great experience.

Also, in July 2011 I was invited to teach a course on education and the aesthetic experience for the INSTEP program.  I got good feedback from students and it was wonderful.

You are in your first semester as a Columbia College Core Preceptor. There is a huge pool of applicants and the competition is tough.  How was the process?

I first learned about the Preceptorship last fall as a general email sent to the community.  I applied, I wrote a statement, got my letters of recommendation.  Teaching experience is required, and when I was invited to an interview in January 2011 I felt confident.  But actually, it was rough!  I tried to talk as best I could about my work and teaching, and that I really felt that the role was for me.  I walked in thinking the interview was a formality and that I had the job.  But when I walked out of there, I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m getting this’.  I put a lot of pressure on myself:  I really wanted the experience and opportunity.  It is a challenging position, but I was ready for it.  I left there thinking that I wanted it so much I’d do it for free!  In March, when I received the email congratulating me for getting the job, I started crying.  I called my mom, and she started crying.  It was amazing.

Can you please explain a little bit about how the Core Curriculum is structured, and how you were trained for your preceptor role?

In August I was invited to the Core Curriculum Boot Camp.  It is a really valuable experience because there you meet both the people who will be teaching the Contemporary Civilization course (that I am teaching), as well as the Literary Humanities preceptors.  We all sit together and you get to know the curriculum that each is teaching.   This is important because Freshmen take Literary Humanities and Sophomores take Contemporary Civilization.  At boot camp, I learned what my students have read and learned already.  I can take my student’s previous knowledge and reference it.

Teaching the Core Curriculum is a huge time commitment.  Hopefully you have curriculum support?

Yes, there’s a lot of support.  Every Tuesday we meet from 11am-2pm.  During the first part of the session we talk about actual practical discussions on how to approach the text, what passages to look at and why, and possible contrasts.  Later, a speaker from a department comes and talks to us about the text and how they would approach it and how they teach it.  It is incredibly helpful.  This learning comes the week before you actually have to teach the lesson.  So you get to discuss first with your fellow preceptors and with Matthew Jones (chair of Core Curriculum, Contemporary Civilization).  The beauty is that you have people from all sorts of backgrounds.  It is good for us in the discussions, and ultimately for our students.

In Core Curriculum classes you have students from a variety of backgrounds and knowledge bases.  What does it mean for you as a teacher?

Most of the students have never seen the texts before.  Which is good, because they are open.  My lessons cannot be exhaustive because there’s not a lot of time, so I try to bring a sensibility to the readings.  If the students take something from it, that’s what I’m after.

The Core Curriculum has been in existence for 90+ years.  Is it still relevant?

The Core is amazing.  This is the first course I’ve ever seen that has a history.  For my interview I read pages and pages of documents that bring you from the founding of the course to today.  I can see how much effort and thought people have put into the creation of this course, and the tradition is incredible.

I think it is a great opportunity that Columbia College students have and it is absolutely relevant.  Plus, unless you are a Philosophy or Political Science major, you may never encounter these texts.

The idea of the course is to give a humanistic orientation.  What binds together all of these texts is the idea of how to live, and how to live well.  That’s what I’m trying to emphasize in my readings.  The main questions are, “How should I live my life?”, “How should I live my life given that I am living with others?”.  That’s my approach.

How do you feel about the texts that are handed to you as “the canons”?  Who created this list?  Do you have the power to adjust it?

The list is revised every so often.  Some of the books never change, new things come in and out.  I am free to bring whatever I want in the form of supplementary or assigned readings, but I actually really like the list that they have.  I think it is a great list of readings and it follows the tradition.  I tell my students that we are reading within a tradition.  They started with Plato, and are now reading Aristotle. I want them to feel they are part of a conversation that began more than 2,000 years ago and is still relevant today.  That’s my approach to the course.

Does the Core somehow dovetail with your research?

I love to teach.  I can’t imagine myself in any other place.  After my experience at Hofstra and at TC I can’t imagine being in another setting.  I’ve read the Core texts before, but when you enter a classroom and leading a discussion, all of a sudden you are looking at a different text.  It is a process of discovery every single time.  It’s wonderful when I’ve read Republic five or six times, and all of a sudden I will see something and now it changes everything and gives me a new reading of the text.  The chance I get to talk about a text with a group of people, different every year, is something I absolutely want.