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Dr. Katja Vogt, PhD

Professor of Philosophy

Dr. Katja Vogt teaches courses in the Philosophy department, including Introduction to Philosophy, a large lecture-based course. Like many, in the Fall of 2020, Dr. Vogt found herself teaching fully online with an opportunity to rethink the class entirely. Dr. Vogt met the moment by flipping her course, partnering with TAs and alumni to support student learning, and inviting guest lecturers to encourage student connection with course materials. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Vogt did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. 

Flip the Course 

In the months leading up to the class I could only imagine how anxious everyone was about how it would all work out. I talked with friends in the field and worked through some of the material on our Center for Teaching and Learning website, and realized that long recordings of lectures don’t work. This sounds simple and it’s utterly recognizable when one thinks about one’s own habits when watching videos online. For me, this consideration made all the difference. It seemed to me that all of a sudden there was the opportunity to truly flip the classroom, by providing significant input prior to class. I posted short videos, together with handouts and readings. The videos explain some of the material, but mainly focus on questions. Of course, those were special circumstances, everyone in lockdown with much time on their hands. But the result was stunning. Students performed at a level they usually only achieve half way into the semester—in the first week!

All in all, I created 50 videos, each under 10 minutes. That’s roughly two videos for each of the two lectures per week. Each video ends with a question. Students are required to come to class having thought about both questions for that day; they are asked to do so by close study of the assigned primary readings together with my handout, also posted in the “module” on Courseworks. Each video’s question also serves as a prompt for a writing assignment. Over the course of the semester, students were required to submit 10 papers (some of them very short, others a bit longer) on the questions that are explained and posed in the videos. 

I’ll never go back to the way I taught pre-pandemic! The level of the students’ work was spectacularly good in 2020. The same goes for the Fall of 2021, when I taught the same class again in a physical classroom, but with a similar format, including the videos and required study groups. I’ve meanwhile produced asynchronous material also for three other classes. Ancient philosophy is quite Socratic: one needs to talk through the ideas as an active interlocutor in order to genuinely take them in. The videos help me take the time that is needed in class for informed discussion.

This semester, I’m for the first time producing videos for a graduate seminar, a class on Plato’s Republic with currently an enrollment of 33 students. I use the videos in order to level the playing field. Those who haven’t studied Plato in the past can work carefully through the videos, which are 10-minute lectures on key themes, and come to class with the preparation they need in order to be part of a high-level conversation.

Partner with TAs and Alumni to Support Student Learning 

In addition to the videos and new assignment structure, I introduced two other elements that to my mind contributed a lot to the students’ experience: the students were required to join a study group (with help from TAs, to make sure everyone was in a group that worked well in terms of time-zones), and the TAs and I spread out our office hours much more generously across the week than is otherwise customary.  

I will also continue to bring back to the classroom alumni who completed their PhD here, to give them a platform to present on the research they are doing now. This is exciting for the students who are currently at CU, and so effortless with the online options.

Invite Guest Lecturers to Encourage Student Connection with Course Material 

The asynchronous material supports and requires a more independent style of learning. I thought I would encourage the students to get into this mindset by introducing a research element: a guest lecture about work-in-progress by a leading scholar in the field. Zoom made this quite easy. My hope was that this helped the students see that they aren’t just taking the class in order to learn some pre-existing content. A lot of arguments and ideas in the texts we are reading are contested. It involves a kind of gestalt-switch to approach the texts as a critical thinker rather than a student who takes notes in a lecture. This worked extraordinarily well and I’ve since integrated one online guest speaker visit with all my undergrad classes.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Don’t think about teaching modalities in narrow ways. 

If I have any advice, it is not to think about “teaching modalities” as if this was about technology. To me, it is about the conversations—the learning, outreach, accessibility, connections with alumni, and so on—while the technology recedes into the background.

Encourage students to learn in community. 

During the pandemic, a number of students told me that they took care of a grandparent or other family member and asked whether it’s OK to watch the videos together. Of course it is! To me, it is inspiring that students discuss the material not just with their teachers and fellow students in study group, but also with, say, their grandparents, who maybe never had a chance to take a class in philosophy.