Professor Spotlight: Professor Zuckerman, the Philosophy Department’s newest addition



A visiting professor in the Philosophy department for 2012-2013, Professor Nate Zuckerman spoke with me about how he came to Puget Sound, what it is like to be a visiting faculty member and how he spends his free time his first year in the Pacific Northwest.

Where are you from originally?

Northern Virginia. I got to grow up on the East Coast, go to school in the middle of the country on the third coast and now work out here. I had never been out to the West Coast before so it is very cool to get to work here now.

How did you come to be at Puget Sound?

I was finishing up my dissertation as part of my graduate program, and I looked at the job market, even though I was not totally ready, just to see. This position came on the market late in the year; I think because they had two visiting professors before me who both got very last-minute job offers. Usually, professors apply for jobs around this time of year, and hear if they got it around February or March. This position became open around May.

It was a position in areas I was interested in: Existentialism, Early-modern Philosophy and Kant, so I applied, came to visit and got the job.

You cannot really choose the schools you apply to; it depends on where there is a position open in your area, so you could end up having to move anywhere.

This is an awesome area, and this is exactly the type of school I want to work at when I get a tenure track job: a small, liberal arts school focused on undergraduate education, where everybody is crazy about teaching. I really like that; it makes me feel right at home here.

Has it always been your plan to teach?

I have always wanted to teach, but I only realized I did as I got into the later part of my undergraduate career.

It was really because I had great experiences with my teachers. Being aware of the effect they had on my thinking, about the subject they were teaching but also my work habits, and how I expressed my ideas. I really take that contribution very seriously. I think it changes who you are, how you speak and how you write. Your character comes out in how you express yourself, and so I really appreciated that role they played.

You take your students where they are in their education when they come to you, and help them to understand something better or develop an idea or passion that they have. I thought, “Yeah, I want to do that!”

I do wish that I had thought a little bit more about what the job market is like. I just thought, I like doing philosophy; I am just going to keep doing it. I had no idea, I was a little naïve.

What are the pros and cons of being a visiting professor instead of having a more permanent position?

It can be really fun, because people start out really interested in learning more about you, which is great as long as you can win them over, so that is a pro.

The hard part is not knowing the culture of the school. For instance, I had students who wanted to register for classes during my class, and I was against having them have laptops in class, but they convinced me that it is the norm around here for professors to let their students do that. I had no idea!

It is mostly small things like that, but also just getting the students’ interests and what they want to gain out of your class. When I came here, I just had to make my best guess about how to design my courses. Whenever anyone asks me how it is going, I always say that it is awesome, but everything that I am learning about teaching, I am learning the hard way.

It is just good to teach students who are excited about what they are learning. I am also teaching two sections of the same class, which allows me to compare how they go, and practice teaching, which is a great advantage of being here. I only taught one or two classes at a time as a graduate student. I have never taught 50 students at a time so it is a great step up.

Do you have a particular class or subject you especially enjoy teaching?

This is going to sound stupid, but I have enjoyed every class I have taught.

It’s funny, the way that I teach Existentialism I hope doesn’t disappoint students, because it’s less about dying and meaninglessness— though it is about that stuff—but instead we’re tying it into what it means to be a “self:” to express who you are through the things you do, what does it mean to live a life that lets things matter to you? The existential aspect is about when sometimes those things break down for reasons beyond your control.

I taught a cool class once that I would love to teach again but supplement with more science, on dreams and the philosophy of mind. It is cool to take a crazy phenomenon like dreaming and use it as a foil for the more normal phenomena that you would talk about in a philosophy of mind class: ordinary waking perceptions, regular thoughts about who you are and where you are.

So, the class compares the two and looks at what makes them different; what is a dream? It is really fun to hear what students think about it, and I make them keep a dream journal to keep track of these experiences. I would like to look into the science behind dreams a little more in that class.

What do you imagine your students gain from taking Philosophy during the Undergraduate Career?

I definitely have pride in the discipline. I believe in schools that require everyone to take one Philosophy course: what you get out of a philosophy course is the most hardcore version of the thinking and writing skills you need to be a clear, concise and correct but also charitable writer. A very versatile skill can be applied to anything you care about. It also helps students discover philosophical beliefs they already had but had not defined as philosophical.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Mostly class preparation. It has been a lot of work. Your first job is always a lot of work. I was finishing up my dissertation before fall break, and am looking for jobs for next year. I like to go to bars, drink beer and do the crossword.

Chicago has an awesome beer scene, and I was a little worried coming out here but it has been great. Last year my wife and I went to Portland and they of course have an amazing beer scene down there. Beer and beards and philosophy all go together: I have a gallery of philosophy beards on the door of my office. I thought it would be funny.

I love food and reading and music. I used to play music but time has made that difficult.

What is one thing your students do not know about?

I love pop music. I love Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Rhianna. I love electronic music and stuff that has a great beat.