Andre Willis: Teacher as Artist
By Mindy Roll '07 M.Div.
Andre C. Willis has known for most of his life that he was called to be a teacher and a writer. He was in the sixth grade when this calling became clear to him, when he was asked to tutor a fellow classmate. Thinking back, Willis recalled, “It resonated with me. It was really powerful to open someone up to new ideas, and I knew from then that the transmission of ideas was something I was deeply interested in.”
Appointed over the summer as assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale Divinity School, Willis continues to find energy and purpose in teaching, which he approaches as an artist approaches a canvas. “I have a great deal of joy going into the classroom. I see teaching as a form of art, and I try to think of the classroom as a canvas for art—a space where style, energy, passion, intellectual curiosity, care and the various dynamics of the process of learning and performance are critical to attend to.”
For Willis, the art of teaching is about making the classroom a place of transformation and growth. Teaching for him is “a loving venture, a conspiracy of hope.” He explains, “It is about connecting with others and with the materials, and also about doing something that will lead to the transformation of persons and of society.”
Willis's views on teaching are rooted in his own transformative experiences in the classroom, particularly during his time as an undergraduate student at Yale. It was during his time in New Haven that Willis encountered Cornel West, then a professor at Yale Divinity School and now at Princeton University, who opened him up to “a type of engaged and loving skepticism.”
Willis was intrigued by what he encountered, which he describes as an “existential doubting that leaves one shuddering and grasping to find a way to thrive without having a prescribed lens or necessary framework that allows simple answers to the deepest questions of our existence.”
Then Willis encountered the thought of David Hume and noticed something interesting and intriguing about Hume's brand of skepticism. “Hume wanted to leave you with doubt, but still be warm and friendly and caring and a nice guy,” said Willis. “He wanted to acknowledge that questions are unanswerable but not necessarily send people over the edge.” Willis counts Hume among the thinkers who have proven most influential in his life. In fact, his current project is a Hume project: "Hume and Hope: A Study in David Hume's Philosophy of Religion.”
Willis's teaching interests cover a wide range of topics and ideas. As a visiting professor in spring 2006, he taught courses on Hume and the philosophy of religion. In 2006-07, Willis has turned his sights to a variety of other teaching interests, from American pragmatism to a seminar on Hegel to a course in process theology, in which students will critically examine “the idea that all reality is relational and in the process of becoming.”
Outside the classroom, Willis can be found reading or exercising or chatting with friends or spending time with his wife, Tricia Rose, who is a professor of Africana studies at Brown University. Both are excited about their return to New Haven, a city Willis describes as having enormous potential and “marvelous extremes.”
Willis taught high school in Newton, Massachusetts for five years before earning a Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Religion (Modern West) at Harvard. He has taught at Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, Boston College, College of the Holy Cross, Fairfield University, San Jose State University, San Jose City College, and Quinnipiac University. Willis earned his B.A. from Yale and an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School.