Associate Professor of Philosophy
I grew up in the Ottawa valley, enrolling in the Bachelor of Humanities in fall 1998, and graduating with a concentration in philosophy. I began a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston University in fall 2002, graduating in spring 2007 on the basis of a dissertation on G. W. F. Hegel’s practical philosophy. While in graduate school, I spent time in Boston, Berlin, and Ottawa. Since fall 2007 I have taught philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I am currently Associate Professor.
My experience in the College has proved valuable in a number of ways for my current work. As an academic, an important part of my job is to conduct and publish original research in my area of specialization. Both my doctoral work and my current research concern the philosophical movement known as German idealism, which began in the late eighteenth century, and includes figures like Hegel, who were active in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
The college’s focus on the close reading of primary sources provided me with the ability to understand and interpret important historical texts on their own terms and to approach secondary research on the basis of my own reading. This focus on primary sources leads both to an appreciation of historical difference—of the fact that the assumptions underlying the writings of figures from distinct historical eras and the conclusions to which they came are not always the same as our own—and to a sense of historical continuity—an awareness of the heritage of the ideas that continue to shape human life today.
This firm footing in the history of culture and civilization has also enabled me to pursue new research interests. While up until recently my academic research has primarily focused on practical philosophy, I have developed a growing interest in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. The College’s broad curriculum, including the history of art and literature, has provided me with the confidence to delve into this new area of research.
The third year seminar and courses, in particular, were the source of a foundational understanding of important movements and developments in art and culture. Substantively, my undergraduate training encouraged me to work to understand works of art and literature as they present themselves, rather than as mere instances of a trend or exemplifications of a theory.
The most important element of my current work is teaching. In this work, I depend on my experience with the College every day. My great books background was no doubt an asset in being hired for my current position. More importantly, though, the unique model for education embodied in the College’s curriculum and approach continues to serve as a kind of ideal to which I aspire in my own teaching. That is, the College recognizes that a curriculum is more than simply a list of courses and their individual contents. Instead, success in education requires that students be able to identify connections between the issues and questions with which specific courses engage. And the College’s curriculum—in particular through the core seminars—is largely centred around encouraging reflection on just those questions.
Beyond having arrived at a useful way of structuring the specific elements of its curriculum, the one achievement that I believe is unique to the College is in establishing a special community of learning. A colleague of mine in the education department likes to say that genuine learning requires significant relationships to others. (This lesson is borne out in many of Plato’s dialogues, where Plato models the way in which serious conversation about issues of shared importance, often among friends, promotes individual development and improvement.) I believe that, more than anything else, the College succeeds in establishing those significant relationships.
My teachers in the College were and are my friends. My professors showed an incredible dedication to my own development as a student and a person and continue to be model scholars. But I am continually impressed by the degree to which my friends, my fellow students, were also my teachers. The truly unique educational relationships in the College are those between students. Taking many of the same classes with the same intellectually curious and distinctly interested students has proven to be so powerful in large part because I found myself growing and learning with, challenging and being challenged by the same individuals over the course of four years.
While I’m sure that everyone makes new friends in university, the friendships that I formed as an undergraduate were so unique and valuable because they were founded in many ways on the sorts of shared intellectual development and discovery that should be the core of a university education. It is often difficult for me to recall certain ideas or works that I studied as an undergraduate without at the same time thinking of those concrete others with whom I learned about them. Perhaps even more today when I learn something new, I find myself thinking about how my friends might respond.
All of this is to say that I believe that these meaningful relationships to others are essential for success in the intellectual and formative endeavor that should be central to higher education, and I know of no more successful place for fostering and nurturing them than the College.
These lessons about successful pedagogy are important for my own work today as a teacher of undergraduates. In many ways, similar ideas remain highly important in Jesuit institutions of higher education like my own, where small class sizes with dedicated faculty are supposed to promote the cultivation of the student through what Ignatius Loyola called cura personalis, the care for the person (or as we often say, the whole person). When the faculty at my university reflect on the task of strengthening our core curriculum or developing connections between disciplines, I think immediately of the College’s success in achieving those aims and of the benefits that our students would enjoy from more sustained common pursuit of questions of human significance.
Whether it is in the care that I work to show for my own students every day, in my work to cultivate those same significant intellectual relationships among them, or in deliberation about how to improve our efforts as a department or institution, the College’s example is the one to which I find myself returning constantly.
But this suggests that the value of my education in the College is far from exhausted simply by what it has contributed to my very modest achievements as a scholar and teacher. Instead, I think more often of the singular experience of sustained questioning and learning that stretched over my four years as an undergraduate. The value of this experience, for me at least, far exceeds whatever utility, professional or otherwise, it has proven to have.
Tim Brownlee is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Xavier University where he also directs the Philosophy, Politics, and the Public Program, an interdisciplinary, cohort-based honors program. His research focuses on German idealism. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his wife and two daughters.