Nicholas J. Smith
Excellence in Teaching
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
College of Liberal Arts
Photographed on September 9, 2004, in the faculty lounge, Hamilton Smith Hall, University of New Hampshire
That’s the consensus on the student evaluations. This, for a philosophy professor who requires weekly 1,000-word analytic responses, up to three meaty essays a semester, and regular continual revision.
When some students hear about these requirements, they back off. But then students on the waiting list who are eager to work hard replace them. The word is out and Smith’s only been teaching at UNH since 2002.
Name the course—Advanced Topics in Philosophy of Law; Society and Morals; Philosophy of Art, or Law, Medicine, and Morals. None of them are easy. Even Smith notes that he “sometimes assigns reading that is intolerably boring on the first read.”
So, what are some key elements to Smith’s pedagogy? First, he wants to get students arguing with each other about the big questions in philosophy. To make this challenge less daunting, he learns the names of all his students within the first weeks of class. As students become more skilled in argumentation, they engage in debates where they physically occupy different sides of the room. When someone changes his mind, he or she walks to the other side. There is no middle. This exercise is not about finding a relative shade of gray; it’s about making solid arguments. To encourage students to defend unpopular opinions, Smith explains that, “I always argue with the minority, so they will have at least one ally.”
To make a point, he’ll bring in a Tiffany candlestick along with a pay stub from his New York law firm, sparking a discussion on exchange value versus use value. Or, he’ll offer to sell grades to illustrate the concept of commodification.
Smith himself can get carried away, voice cracking, jumping up and down, expounding on a wild theoretical position. But he doesn’t often show his personal positions on issues. Often discussions from his classes spill out into the hallway and beyond.
On Smith’s Web site, he spells out his expectations in several wonderful online essays. In one, “My Insider’s Guide to Academic Success,” he describes his own failure as a first-year student, and then, how he changed his behavior. Concentration, work space, prime time, and a big one for most students, the “long-term costs of your job.” This is good sit-up-straight reading for anyone.
Although Smith’s dream job was to be a philosophy professor, when he graduated from college, he didn’t bank on it. He attributes that to the skepticism inherent in being a first-generation college student. Instead, he earned a full scholarship to law school, graduated magna cum laude, and embarked on a career.
As a lawyer he worked as a public defender; an in-house counselor for a medical technology corporation; a clerk for a New York state human rights judge; a staff attorney for the U.S. Court of Appeals; and, finally, as a litigator for one of Manhattan’s largest corporate law firms. It’s no wonder that the meaning of money in law became the focus of his 2002 doctoral thesis in philosophy.
With all that, why philosophy? “I think it started when I was a preteen and several relatives died in a short time,” says Smith. “This really got me thinking about the meaning of life and the utter mystery of absolutely everything.”
Then why argue? “Argumentation brings us closer to the truth,” he explains, “and understanding a simple insight can change the trajectory of our lives. In this sense, philosophy can feel like a religious experience, but hopefully without the dogma.”