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Focus on Faculty: Dr. John Howard

November 10, 2017 3:45 PM
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Dr. John Louis Howard, Associate Director of Tulane’s Murphy Institute, teaches three Honors Colloquium courses.

 

Dr. John Louis Howard, Associate Director of Tulane’s Murphy Institute, has been teaching Honors Colloquium courses for a number of years, and he now teaches two first-year courses in rotation, and an upper-level seminar most years.  He loves teaching these colloquia because it means he gets to discuss fascinating topics with the most engaged students at Tulane.

As he sees it, students in the Honors Program are particularly well-equipped for these discussions.  They are interested in intellectual growth over pure grades; they have chosen to be a part of the program, even though it may be academically challenging.  Dr. Howard says he merely provides students the possibility of intellectual growth, but it is they who so often decide to maximize that possibility, creating a powerful scholarly environment in the classroom.

This semester, Dr. Howard is teaching two sections of COLQ 1010, entitled “How Should One Live?”, which is one of the options first-year Honors students can choose to satisfy their Fall semester course requirement.  The class is “modelled after a great books class, but with a twist,” as Dr. Howard puts it.  Students read traditional “great” authors, such as Plato, alongside modern classics, including The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty.  Focus on a wide range of styles and contexts makes the class even more interesting and relevant to students.

Next semester, Dr. Howard will lead two sections of the first-year Spring semester requirement, which surveys research methods across many disciplines.  One of his sections of COLQ 1030, "Quest for Answers," will emphasise STEM fields, and the other the social sciences and humanities.  The former will use Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds as its primary text, in order to take a philosophical perspective on research in the sciences.  The latter will focus on Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, addressing questions of human limitation and bias in social science research.  It is easy to see how excited the professor is about discussing these books with an engaged group of students.

Yet Dr. Howard becomes even more passionate when conversation turns to his upper-level Honors seminar, which he designed and first submitted to the Honors Program about three years ago.  The course this Spring will be the third iteration of COLQ 4010, entitled “The Future of Capitalism”, and he is hoping that the course's vision will continue to grow and develop.

Dr. Howard explains the basic premise of the class through an extended metaphor.  A shovel is a tool which can be used for a number of tasks: digging a hole, creating the foundations for a building, or even committing violence and hiding the evidence.  As a raw tool, does a shovel have an inherent moral value, or is it something that we view only in terms of its functionality?  The answer is probably the latter.  Can we, Dr. Howard asks, look at markets in the same vain?  Discarding normative pre-conceptions of capitalism, he argues, allows students to present and address questions about it in an entirely new way.

Despite the complex topic, he adds, the class has a humble outlook.  It does not aim to settle any questions on the future of capitalism, only to pose them and discuss possibilities.  It is incredibly open-ended, its trajectory guided as much by students as by himself and the reading he assigns.

It is clearly this aspect that Dr. Howard enjoys the most in all his courses.  With an outlook as humble as his seminar, he describes his teaching experience mainly as an opportunity to sit and hear “really intelligent students having extraordinarily important conversations.”  Whether he is working with first-year or with upper-class students, this draw is for him the same.

As the Associate Director of the Murphy Institute, Dr. Howard spends much of his time advising and working with undergraduates studying political economy.  He values the opportunity to teach the motivated and intelligent students whom he encounters in his Honors courses.  His classrooms are a place of two-way learning, open discussion, and passionate engagement with the material, from students and professor alike.

All faculty interviewed recommend a book that they find compelling and important.

Dr. Howard’s Reading Recommendation:

Aside from the two books which will form the backbone of his first-year courses next semester, Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: the Evolution of Minds, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Dr. Howard recommends that all students read a book that is central to his Future of Capitalism course.  The book is Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty.  Though it may seem intimidating, it addresses key issues in our society today.  Dr. Howard says that its “depth of vision far exceeds other work in economic theory.”  More generally, Piketty’s work “stands as a testament to intellectual activity: it shows you what is possible” in academics.