Taking a Philosophy course may be intimidating at times, even when it is a subject you enjoy. And so, I asked someone I trust to recommend a professor for an interview and ended up in Professor Bernat Tort’s classroom. I later realized that many students admire him, not just for his teaching methods but also for his work as an artist.
Professor Tort does his best to make his students feel comfortable enough to ask questions, even when they seem lost, by linking topics in the discussions to pop culture, making the material relatable and fun. Essentially, he makes them think for themselves inside and outside the classroom. Pushing someone to learn how to think for themselves, is not an easy task to accomplish, and this is one of the many reasons I believe Professor Tort is an exemplary educator.
So without further ado, let’s learn a little more about him!
HC: Why did you decide to become a professor?
P.B.Tort: To tell you the truth, I don’t think I ever decided it. I just assumed that, after doing a Ph.D. in Philosophy, it was the obvious course of action but it wasn’t a conscious choice. I didn’t think: “Oh when I grow up I’m going to be a professor”. I think I first decided: “I’m going to be a philosopher, I am going to be an academic” and it went from there.
HC: Why Philosophy?
P.B.Tort: I have this story I tell, by now I don’t know if it’s actually true, but this is the story I tell of when I made the decision to study philosophy. When I was in High School, I had a Spanish teacher who was quoting José Ortega & Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, and I remember someone asking “Philosophy? What is that for? Is that worth anything?” The teacher answered: “Well, look around you. Everything you see around you, including our political system, before it was something…someone thought of it.” And that was it for me, I thought: “Ok, that is what I want to do”. So that’s it, that’s my little creation myth. That’s the way I remember it, but I’m fully aware that it’s probably a reconstruction, a fiction of memory.
HC: What would you say your teaching technique is?
P.B.Tort: Well, more than a technique, my teaching philosophy is the communism of intelligence. I start by premising that everyone participates equally in intelligence. (The idea isn’t mine, it is Jacques Ranciere’s, a French philosopher. I mean, I thought this way before having read him, but once I did, I realized that it was what I was doing.) I acknowledged that everyone has their knowledge, their perspective, and point of view and that a conversation among equals actually enriches the classroom a lot more, and is more productive than a very authoritarian or more vertical type of approach.
HC: Other than being a professor, you are an artist; how does philosophy influence your art?
P.B.Tort: I did my bachelors degree here, in the UPR, with a double major in Philosophy and art. I’d always drawn and practiced art; and I am good at it. But during my second year, I came in contact with the work and theories of Marcel Duchamp and it made me realize that what I was doing was just painting pretty pictures for the bourgeois to hang in their homes. Once I digested Duchamp’s work, I stopped drawing altogether. I stopped working on visual arts. Later on, I discovered performance art through Professor Nelson Rivera, and I just started engaging in performance art. In the beginning, my work was more intuitive, and then, after I came back from doing my Ph.D. And having had a 9 year hiatus in my performance work, I started to integrate philosophy in my performance. The way I see my work, from 2007 onwards, is as a philosophical dialogue with a dead artists; specifically, a dialogue with the work of the vanguard artists of the first half of the 20th century. My performance work is actually a philosophical, ethicopolitical cultural dialogue who’s grammar consists in the esthetic vocabulary of the dead artists of the past century.
HC: What is your favorite thing about teaching?
P.B.Tort: My favorite thing is getting paid to do something I love. I always have the feeling that I’m fooling the system in a way, by doing what I do. I constantly think someone will notice one day and take it away from me. You never stop learning in this job. Every time you teach a new course, it doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are or what you did your thesis on, you still have to study and prepare to give your courses; it’s a never-ending learning experience. I also feel my job is a sort of time machine, it keeps you young. I love the fact that interacting with every new generation has a “fountain of youth” effect, and I love that. It makes my quality of life better. Most of my friends who are not in the academia (and some who are) hate their jobs, and I can understand why that is, but that’s just not my case.
HC: Why should students take your class?
P.B.Tort: I wouldn’t say that you should take my courses, but if you do, what makes them interesting is my politics. By this, I mean that the fact that I believe in social justice, communism, gender equality, etc, makes the way I impart my knowledge different because I try to apply such political positions to my relation with my students. I think it’s a good experience to have for a student, not necessarily the only experience they should have, one should always take courses with very different professors. For example, some very strict and “authoritarian” professors in our institution who, nonetheless, are key figures—locally and internationally—in their fields of study, so even if they don’t have the best or most contemporary teaching techniques, this should not deter you from attending their courses. Having said that, I think my courses are a good opportunity for students to see what the university could be, other than just a very rigorous atmosphere where you just listen, take notes, take an exam and leave. I think the university is an experience, a democratic experiment. Not just a place where you get a degree. It is a way of opening up to knowledge, to each other, to our society and to life itself. And philosophy, because of its generality, affords me the opportunity to help students have that experience.
HC: You mentioned that you studied in the UPR; where else did you prepare yourself as a professional?
P.B.Tort: After I finished my bachelor’s degree in philosophy in the UPR, I went to Spain and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in philosophy of science in La Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Back then, they had a different system which allowed me to go straight from my bachelor’s, to my Ph.D. program because of the amount of philosophy credits that I had. Now, European universities have changed the structure of their higher education programs in order to be more like the American system that has a Bachelor’s, Master’s and then a Ph.D. But when I did my studies, they had what they called cycles and, instead of a master’s, one did a short research thesis called “D.E.A.” (Diploma de Estudios Avanzados) after your Ph.D. courses which granted you permission or declared you capable of advancing to your PhD thesis. And I’m very happy to say that, finally, after eleven years in the making, I defended my Ph.D. thesis in January of this year.
HC: What is the best and worst experience you’ve had as a professor?
P.B.Tort: Some of the best experiences I’ve had have been in the Woman and Gender Studies Program. This is because there, it’s not only about knowledge. Most of the students that enroll in the program have stakes in that knowledge — they have skin in the game, as the saying goes —, whether they are gay, lesbian, trans, gender equality activist or feminist, or are simply fedup with our gender system, the stakes are higher, and I think it is very fulfilling to know that you’ve helped in the process of political formation and self transformation of a person. The best experience I’ve had as a professor is hearing students say that, after they took my course, their life changed for the better in some ways. As for the worst, I can say without hesitation that correcting the exams is the absolute worst part of my job: I hate doing it. I know it is a necessary part of being a professor but it’s not one I particularly enjoy.
HC: What courses are you teaching right now?
P.B.Tort: In the Philosophy Department, I am teaching Ethics and Introduction to Phenomenology. In the General Studies Faculty, I am teaching Problems in the Construction of KnowledgeII, which is an epistemological approach to the history of scientific and philosophical development of modernity (from the Scientific Revolution up to the late 19th Century). In the Women and Gender Studies Program, I am teaching Introduction to Masculinity. On this occasion, my take on this topic dwells on the exploration of why socialist countries did not pursue the revolution through to all aspects of life, particularly in respect to our sexual relations. I’m interested in how or why homophobia was so common in socialist countries, and in the apparent irony that it was in capitalist societies—which argueably or supposedly more exploitative, unjust and alienated—that an atmosphere conducive to sexual liberation and the origin of an LGBTQ movement developed.
HC: What is the best advice you’ve been given?
P.B.Tort: The only thing I can think of, I read, nobody really told me. I was reading a book about learning how to play chess and in the first page, the very first rule, said something I’ve never forgotten, and that I try to apply to life: “every move is a new board”. Which in chess means that you cannot keep playing the same strategy you began with, because every time your opponent reacts to your moves the whole board changes completely. In life, I take this to mean that you cannot preplan your life, you have to take it one step at a time because every time you move, life moves back, and it’s a whole other ball game; you have to rethink your strategy because then you become frustrated and quit.
There you have it! Wise minds and good conversations just a classroom away. I strongly encourage you guys to take a Philosophy class and dare to question your surroundings. However, if this isn’t your thing, Professor Tort has a variety of courses where you can learn many values; all you have to do is choose – or don’t choose – and take them all!