Newsletter Spring 2015 Interview with Ann Baker

Submitted by Kate Goldyn on

Ann Baker retired this year after teaching philosophy at UW for 21 years. She completed her PhD at UW in 1990 and returned as the department's full-time lecturer in 1994, after teaching for four years at Illinois Wesleyan University. While her duties included administrative tasks related to managing the curriculum, Ann's primary focus was on teaching philosophy. Her work in the classroom was recognized in 2004 with the Distinguished Teaching Award. She taught a large Introduction to Philosophy course every year, in addition to various courses in metaphysics, epistemology, the history of modern philosophy, and personal values.

When did you discover your love of studying philosophy?

It was in an Introduction to Philosophy class I took to fulfill a general education requirement my first year of college. During a lecture on Berkeley, I was nodding along with the professor at each premise and just as he was getting ready to write the conclusion, I gasped. He turned and said — OK Baker — what is the conclusion? I said "Ordinary objects like tables and chairs exist only in our minds". Surely the conclusion was false, yet it followed from the premises and I couldn't see which premise to reject: I was both blown away and hooked. After that I took at least one philosophy course every quarter. I enjoyed exploring questions like how do you lead a good life; what is important and meaningful; you know — those ordinary questions like — what is truth, justice, and beauty. However, I thought philosophy was just for fun, not to major in, let alone continue as a career. I remained a math major until my junior year. And even after becoming a philosophy major I did not expect to go to graduate school, since I did not even know what graduate school was. Despite this, I moved my whole family (including 2 kids) from Spokane to Seattle to continue studying philosophy in the only way one could after graduation, that is to pursue a PhD.

What was your favorite course to teach at UW?

I have the hardest time answering this question. One thing I love about teaching Philosophy 100 is you get to watch the students' lightbulbs go off, just like mine did with Berkeley. You get to watch them be puzzled and then excited because they see a way to solve the puzzle. And then discouraged because maybe that is not going to work, but then they see another direction, and I can see the lightbulbs going off. I see them learn to take the baby steps of this dialectic we call philosophy. It is so exciting and encouraging, because you know they can apply that thought process to many different things. Although, most of them do not go on to become philosophy majors, they can still get so much out of the class.

On the other hand, I love teaching Philosophy 322 Descartes through Kant. There is this beautiful dialectic that starts with how do we get outside our heads, how do we know that the way we think the world is, is the way the world is. We start with Descartes (raising some of the same questions raised by the Matrix movies) then we go through history, considering different answers to the question. Most of the students are majors, so they are willing to read, discuss, and struggle through seemingly crazy things like Spinoza's Ethics and Leibniz's theory of monads. Those are the students who are going to go down the path of doing philosophy in a more serious way, and I love teaching those students too.

So it is hard to pick a favorite class. The large Introduction to Philosophy class wins when I consider how satisfying it is to watch students learn how to think – more carefully, more subtly, and with more sensitivity to another person's point of view, since students thereby learn how wonderful it is to disagree with someone and learn from that person. However, when I think of going deeper into philosophy, then 322 wins. And I haven't brought in some of the other classes! It is like picking a favorite child – just impossible.

What are some of your favorite classroom moments?

One of my favorite moments happened outside of the classroom on campus. A student stopped me and said, "Professor Baker, I just have to thank you, you taught me how to think. You won't remember me, I sat in the back of a large 100 class. And I hated you and I hated the class. I thought you made me work way too hard for a 100 level class but towards the end of the class I could see that you were teaching me how to think. And I have applied that skill to all my other classes. I am a business major and you never saw me again, but I want to thank you for teaching me how to think." It was a lovely and satisfying moment to have as a teacher because every once in a while you reach those students, even if it takes the entire quarter or more.

What will you miss most about teaching?

The interaction with the students. I used to think philosophy was so inherently fascinating, cool, and valuable that all I had to do was show the students. One of the biggest lessons I had to learn as a young teacher was that I should not expect every student to love philosophy like I did. I had to be happy with the goal of teaching them how to think carefully and subtly, encouraging them to consider the possibility that they might not know everything right now. I worked to give them some skills, to push them to work hard, and to be skeptical of the easy answers to important questions. I will miss being in the classroom, doing philosophy in real time, and having those little bits of satisfaction in the interaction. I will also miss the learning. I was delighted to discover that the very best way to understand a philosophical view is to have to teach it. Both in the preparation to explain it, but even more in the interaction with the students struggling to understand the view. I came to appreciate different philosophical views better than I ever could have just studying on my own. I will really miss that aspect of teaching. However, I will not miss grading at all.

How do you feel about adding technology to the classroom since over the time you have taught there have been many changes including teaching online?

One piece of technology that has really improved my experience in the classroom is clickers. I can ask a question and the students can click in their answer. The results are instant and can be colorfully displayed immediately on the screen. We can easily see if the class is divided, all in agreement, or all over the place. It also allows a way for students who are not talkers in class to participate. The ease of use and speed allows it to not intrude on the moment to moment interaction of the class.

I'm much more ambivalent about online classes — they meet certain needs especially for place bound students that cannot be met in the traditional classroom but it comes at a cost. All the valuable face to face time is lost, whether it is one-on-one or one on two-hundred; there is something really alive and valuable about thinking through these concepts together in real time. I suspect that the more advanced techniques involving internet interactions will solve some of those problems.

What are you plans in retirement?

I plan to spend more time with family and friends, read whatever strikes my fancy, travel, and weave on my loom. Our first trip will be to visit my family in the Mississippi Gulf Area and then we are traveling on a river boat cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, followed by a week in southern Spain. After that we might pack up the trailer and travel around the US; we will see what life brings.