Professor of the year. Philosophy teacher aims to teach students to think
Williamstown, Mass. — ``I LIKE to remember the thought from Sartre that `in choosing for myself I choose for others.' When I design a course, I'm choosing for others, in limiting or expanding their freedom in fundamental ways.'' So says Rosemarie Tong, associate professor of philosophy and chairman of the Women's Studies Department at Williams College here. Dr. Tong was recently selected from among 324 nominees from 36 states and Canada as the 1986 professor of the year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), both located in Washington, D.C. The competition has been run annually since 1980. Last Oct. 27, Tong officially accepted the award, along with a $5,000 check, at a ceremony in the Smithsonian Institution.
``The applicants were judged by their ability to be outstandingly successful with students, a record of outstanding scholarship on their own, and the extent to which they have been good campus citizens,'' said Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation. ``Professor Tong was unanimously chosen from the finalists because she had abundant evidence on all these points.'' Dr. Boyer pointed out that Tong teaches seminars on classical ethics to business executives during the summer, was chosen as teacher of the year by Williams students at the 1982 commencement, and is currently serving her second term as chairman of the Faculty Steering Committee, ``all at a relatively young age.'' In addition, she has written two books, ``Women, Sex, and the Law'' (1984), and ``Ethics in Policy Analysis'' (1985).
Out-of-class accomplishments aside, Tong has been generously praised by students and peers alike for her ability to relate to her students. For example, one student remarked, ``I like the way she brings her own personal background into the discussions - that's something that doesn't happen with very many professors.''
``Rosie has a warmth and openness, a sensitivity to the students, that they sense and relate to. She interacts with the students very well, and they return her devotion and dedication,'' says Williams biology professor Lawrence Kaplan. ``[She] has that rare gift of reaching students, regardless of their ability and initial interest, in part ... because of her ability to connect problems in philosophy to her students' present and anticipated lives,'' notes assistant English professor Suzanne Graver.
``Lectures are everything I don't like about teaching,'' declares the lively Tong from her office in Williamstown. ``I try not to use knowledge as power, but rather to bring in a pro and con argument and admit I don't know the answer.'' Yet, as she relates, this more open format is often much riskier. ``You have to fight the tendency to have a totally amorphous atmosphere and to try to make some sort of meaningful connection amidst complex issues.''
Tong's course topics have included ethics and public policy, foundations of feminist thought, and philosophy and reproductive technology. ``All these are subjects that strike chords in people about themselves, and that's when the challenges start.'' She explains that often there are two simultaneous processes occurring in the classroom: an ``objective'' consideration of the issues, while at the same time ``everyone sorts through his own beliefs.'' At this point, she stresses, the teacher must search for a way to avoid polarizing the class. ``You want to challenge people and make them think, but you don't want the students to devalue things. You want to send them out thinking `how can I think these things through?'''
After graduating from Marygrove College in Michigan in 1970, Tong got her master's degree in teaching at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. There she met her husband, Paul. Several years later, she earned her PhD in the philosophy of law at Temple University, and then directly went on to become the first woman philosophy professor at Williams in 1978. Her husband is a professor at Glassborough College in New Jersey. It is a tribute to the Tongs' dedication to teaching that for the past eight years Paul has been making the six-hour commute every Friday and Monday to be with Rosemarie and their two boys, Paul and John, who live in Williamstown. Her children, however, are very understanding, despite the fact that she has to balance husband, kids, and colleagues. ``My youngest once told me he admired me for raising two boys and a father all by myself,'' she says, and laughs.
Will she stay in teaching? ``I used to be ambivalent about teaching,'' she responds. ``I'm not any more. Anything else and I don't feel like myself.''
She stresses that teaching is not a one-way process. ``Students give incredibly to the teacher. Through teaching, I learn to humanize myself. By getting into value inquiry, I get to rethink everything I believe. This opportunity to always question myself is a luxury when you think about it.'' She has, however, had to evolve as a teacher. ``I used to be self-conscious in the classroom. Finally, I stopped worrying, and now I can focus on the students and their individual needs.''
Through her summer courses teaching businessmen, and the design of her courses, such as an interdisciplinary philosophy and biology course on genetic and reproductive technology, Tong has been praised for fulfilling her goal of making ``philosophy constructively available to those whose lives are chiefly focused on some form of practical activity.''
``As humans, we have all these ideas, thoughts, and beliefs,'' she explains, ``and the thing that de-unifies us is the lack of a framework or map to help us sift through our own confusion. As a philosophy professor, I'm selling frameworks, tools, paradigms, concepts. Otherwise, all we have is jumbled experience.''
What would she give to students? ``Ideally, I want the students to bottle up the spirit of inquiry, to take the desire to be honest wherever they go, to not settle for superficiality. What more could you give someone?''