My name is J.J. Sylvia IV, and I’m currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at North Carolina State University. I also have an M.A. in Philosophy and a double B.A. in Communication and Philosophy. I've taught Introduction to Philosophy for nine years, and various philosophy and communication courses at the Mississippi and North Carolina Governor’s Schools for eight years. At North Carolina State University I teach Public Speaking, Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society and special topics media and rhetoric courses. Working at the intersection of these subjects, I strive to understand how technology impacts the way we think about and interact with the world around us.

In the classroom, I create a student-centered learning environment through the use of the dialectic process, integration of technology, kinesthetic learning, and analysis through relevant and timely popular culture examples. I derive a great deal of fulfillment from helping others discover and understand the power of ideas in the world around them and continually develop both my own understanding and the ways in which I can share that with my students. I aspire to create innovative, hands-on courses that blend practice and theory in a way that challenges and engages students.

The following portfolio is designed to give a glimpse of my teaching philosophy as well as a fuller view of my classroom and an understanding of how I teach.

Section 1: Philosophy and Reflections

The School of Athens

The way to enable a student to apprehend the instrumental value of arithmetic is not to lecture him upon the benefit it will be to him in some remote and uncertain future, but to let him discover that success in something he is interested in doing depends upon ability to use number.  – John Dewey

Following John Dewey, I believe that real learning occurs when a person is able to connect ideas to his or her real, everyday life and interests through a holistic, student centered educational experience. Modern technology makes it easier than ever to access a wealth of information with a few simple clicks and keystrokes; yet, as I think about teaching, Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens is the image that comes to mind. Originally labeled Causarum Cognitio, it emphasizes the philosophical tradition of seeking to know why rather than simply knowing that, and I strive to help my students move beyond merely accessing and memorizing information and instead focus on truly understanding the why of such information. One of the most effective ways I have found to do this is through the dialectic process of discussion, whether it is face-to-face in the classroom, via email, or in an online forum.

As a scholar, I have worked in the intersection between philosophy and communication, and my passion for these two fields shows in my teaching strategies. One of my main goals is to spread my enthusiasm for philosophy and communication by demonstrating their importance and tangible impacts on life. While teaching, I strive to show philosophic thinking as the exciting activity that it is. For example, in a public speaking course I draw attention to the ethical values that are inherently part of policy persuasion, helping students sort through their own values and beliefs to better understand and address counterarguments. Evaluations of this activity have revealed that many students believe this type of activity can make otherwise abstract ethical principles come alive.

I believe that both philosophy and communication are extremely useful because the skills one learns can be applied in any career and in all areas of life. Developing critical thinking skills prepares one to become a global citizen and to face the many challenges of this world. Global problems are often far more complex than local ones; so modern problems require understanding, critical thinking, and the ability to communicate clearly more than ever. This endeavor is necessarily challenging, but I believe that being challenged appropriately inspires students to strive to do their best. Although I have high expectations, I am there to guide my students by asking probing questions about issues that help them come to their own conclusions.

Despite my emphasis on the ancient art of the dialectic, I do see  important ways for modern technology to participate in that process. While working for the nonprofit Digital Opportunity Trust, I received first-hand experiences in using technology to enhance education and engage students through the innovative use of technological tools such as podcasting, video creation, wikis, blogs, and even social networking. For example, in one history class, I helped students record radio podcasts that simulate what a broadcast from World War I sounded like. Students took on the roles of various historical figures who were interviewed, and, in the process, learned about these figures and the roles they played in the war. I also connected Spanish students in the United States to English students in Mexico via Skype, allowing them to converse with one another. These types of activities build off the genuine interests of students – such as interest to communicate with people their age in other countries – and bring in course material in a way that integrates well with these interests.

In all of my research I attempt to show how the topic at hand can relate back to one’s every day life. I find that this emphasis on the effects of theory translates well in the classroom and has helped me discover new ways to convey sometimes complex and esoteric ideas in ways that are easier to palate for students who have never before encountered these concepts. Inspired by Aristotle in The School of Athens painting, I challenge my students to look outward at the world around them, as they both pursue and grow their interests through the educational process.

The following video was created as a way to reflect creatively and technologically about my teaching beliefs, using the MaKeyMaKey, a critical making tool that can turn everyday objects into a keyboard and mouse. In this video, I use the MaKeyMaKey, in combination with Play-Doh, as a way to initiate and play clips from courses that I teach.

This video won North Carolina State University’s “Think and Do” Instagram contest for November, 2014, which awarded a GoPro camera!


In preparing my public speaking students for their persuasive policy speeches, I prepared a series of activities to help them understand the importance of values both in their policy and as part of addressing counter-arguments.

We began with a kinesthetic activity, where all of the students gathered in the center of the room. I would then read two different values, i.e., safety and adventure, and align them with a particular side of the room. Students were asked to “cross the line” in the middle of the room and choose which value was more important them. After moving, the group from each side was asked to discuss why they made their particular decision. Through this discussion, we observed how each of us must balance competing values when we make decisions in our day-to-day lives, and how each of us can interpret the same value in different ways.

From there we discussed the idea of universal values. To begin, each student was asked to jot down a value that they believed was universal. They then broke into groups of four and worked together to determine one value that they agreed was the most universal. Finally groups traded papers and attempted to challenge the universal value they received. During this discussion, the students realized it is very difficult for everyone to always agree on a value, and that in particular situations, one value can be more heavily weighted for a person than another.

Next, we discussed how the skill of challenging ideas like universal values is the same skill needed to think about potential counter-arguments for their speeches, as well as how to address them. If one can understand what the related values and beliefs are for the other side, there’s more room for persuasion.

Finally, students broke into groups of two and worked on generating counter-arguments for each other’s persuasive policy speech thesis, with the goal of finding the best counter-argument they could address during their speeches.


My major communication concern before this activity was that it would necessitate a high level of immediacy and that my students feel comfortable enough with me to be able to open up and honestly discuss something that can be as personal as values. Additionally, the Crossing the Line activity required that I be able to let the discussion happen naturally but also help students understand the main points that were arising through the discussion. By having students literally move to show their support for a particular value, I would be aiming to start discussion with a controversy based on these divisions.

During the activity, I managed these concerns by allowing the discussion to be student-led while I focused on actively listening and positively acknowledging student comments, pausing every now and then to elaborate on a point and help the students reflect on how that point related back to our discussion about values. These occasional summaries helped to clarify and keep the conversation moving in a productive direction. I worked hard to allow the conflict to be an aid to our discussion – to help students understand that persuasive policy speeches happen inside this area of conflict. Overall, I think this strategy worked well.

For the future, I would consider spreading these activities out over a longer amount of time. Although the discussion overall went very well, there were times I had to keep the conversation moving even though it was focused on interesting and beneficial material. This also potentially prevented all students from participating as much as they wanted.

Additionally, I would focus more on making sure all students participated in the discussion by asking those who participated less more general questions that don’t have wrong answers. For example, instead of asking for volunteers to explain why they selected each value, I could call on a particular student by name to explain his or her decision.


Teaching Evaluation
Teaching Evaluation

Section 2: In the Classroom

Background and Reflection

In the fall of 2014, I taught an Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society course (see syllabus) that incorporated gamification as a way to teach critical making as a kinesthetic practice to help elucidate the scientific and technologic theory in our textbook.

The experimental and iterative nature of critical making blended well with the emphasis on learning from failure and leveling up that is enabled by gamification.

The unique structure of this course provided students with a great deal of liberty regarding which types of assignments they chose to pursue. Replacing the grading system was an XP accumulation process with the ability to level up. Points were strictly cumulative, meaning if students did not perform well on a particular task, they could either re-do it or choose another task without a negative impact on their final grade.

Many students enjoyed and appreciated this freedom, but others were hesitant and uncertain about how to precede, largely because they had not previously had this degree of freedom and self-direction in the classroom. I worked closely with students and developed a worksheet that helped them create a plan to earn enough XP to translate to the final grade they planned to achieve in the course. Despite this coaching, a few students were never able to warm up to the idea of a cumulative grading system where they could choose which projects to complete. Overall, I believe the course was a success. The results of the quests, detailed below, were outstanding. Students created:

  • a surface-free mouse
  • a robotic hand prototype
  • an augmented reality musical experience
  • 3D printed phone cases that hold headphones
  • and an early prototype for a mind-controlled car

... all while gaining a deeper critical understanding of the development of science and technology as a deeply social process.

Gamification: Story

The course kicked off with a puzzle to get the story going. This story featured a fictional discovery during the construction of our campus' new Hunt Library. While moving books from D.H. Hill Library to the new book bot at Hunt Library, librarians discovered an mysterious additional passage in an ancient copy of Aristotle's De Anima. However, the passage seemed to be encoded.

The class then worked together using an online forum to solve the puzzle (linked here) that unlocked the course, its quests, and their first badge.

Gamification: Badges 

By completing certain activities in the course, students were automatically awarded badges through the Moodle platform that hosted the online portion of our course. For example, when students solved the first puzzle, they were awarded a badge:



As you can read above, the above badge was only unlocked for a student once they solved the initial puzzle.

Other badges could be earned for things like tweeting the work they were doing (social tie-in) or completing a major quest. Though there was no further reward than the badge itself, many students found this a motivational aspect of the course. For example, although only one group member needed to submit project files, the badge was only unlocked for the account that submitted the file. For this reason, many groups elected to have every member submit the files separately, so they could all earn badges.

Gamification: Quests and Critical Making

As part of this introductory course, students competed as groups on at least one gamified quest to invent new technologies using tools such as micro-controllers, 3D printing, data visualization, and augmented reality. The quest was divided into four stages, reflecting North Carolina State University’s emphasis that students “Think and Do”:

  1. Research: In this stage they researched their selected critical making tool and reported back to the group with examples of how it has been used so far.
  1. Make: After learning about the tools individually, they worked together in small groups to become more familiar with the technology as they followed tutorials to re-create a project that has already been done.
  1. "Think" phase: The students brainstormed a new or innovative way to use the technology. They submitted a plan that is similar to a patent application, that showed how their invention is different from other similar technologies, and created drawings, designs, and descriptions of their planned project, which went through an iterative peer and instructor review process.
  1. "Do" phase: Students worked together to bring their invention to life using the critical making tools. They created the invention itself, and a multi-modal project that explained the new invention and how it connected to the theories that they learned in class.

 Gamification: Social tie-in

An important aspect of gamification is being able to share achievements with friends, and for that reason, I asked students to share the work on their quest socially through Twitter or Instagram. This worked really for several reasons. First, it connected with North Carolina State University's Instagram contest, which asked students and faculty to submit pictures and video that reflected the motto "Think and Do." As part of this contest, one of my students won a GoPro camera for the documentation of their work on the quest!

Finally, sharing this work afforded the opportunity to create a Storify project that archived the amazing work that students were doing. You can get an overview of the course through the Storify. It begins with my sharing the final results of the course, and then moves on in the following pages to the students' sharing of their work in progress:

Although the Public Speaking courses at North Carolina State University are standardized by requiring the same book and major assignments, instructors are also given a certain amount of room to customize the course to their own teaching style and interests. During my two years of teaching the course, I have worked to integrate digital pedagogy into the classroom through a reflective engagement process with students. 

At the beginning of the semester, I ask students to begin thinking about what the future of public speaking will look like, as our own public forum continues to evolve from the original model of the Greek Agora. During the semester, students incorporate digital practices into their traditional speeches: belief/value speeches are performed using Google Glasses as a new presentation style and advocacy speeches are supplemented by displaying backchannel communication via Twitter.

For the final speech, students reflect on the efficacy of our digital experiments and brainstorm their own vision for 21st century public speaking. In the first iteration of this project, students elected to create a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style series of deliberative videos to be hosted on YouTube, which reflected more closely the way that they actually participate in today’s public forum. 

More details below.

Google Glass

Google Glasses for Public Speaking

To launch the first use of Google Glasses, I piloted an IRB approved study with a group of two students who volunteered to use the glasses as part of their speeches. The goal was evaluate the glasses for use as a speaking aid, similar to notecards or a teleprompter. Each of the students gave three versions of a speech: 1) one without glasses, 2) one with glasses that are worn but not used, and 3) with glasses that are worn and used. The rest of the students in the class evaluated each of these speeches using our standard rubric in order to determine whether the glasses improve their performance. The study paid particular attention in determining whether the glasses helped improve physical and vocal delivery components such as eye contact and verbal pauses. 

This pilot is being expanded to an entire course in order to generate more data. 

Choose Your Own Adventure

Choose Your Own Adventure

As part of the Choose Your Own Adventure deliberative speech project, students decided to present these in the innovative Visualization Studio at NCSU's Hunt Library. The main video was displayed on the front wall of the studio, while supplementary material was displayed on the other two walls in the studio, as pictured above. These featured content spanning the range of graphics, Prezis, Twitter as a form of back channel communication, and the interactive use of to help drive audience participation. 

An example of one of these Choose Your Own Adventure deliberative speeches can be viewed below:


In order to keep the activity a surprise, we simply named our session: "Options with J.J. and Lea". When it was time to sign up, dozens of students, many who were not in either of our classes, ran toward our sign-up sheet, eager to trust us and follow us down an entirely unknown path. It was then that I knew this summer had changed both me and my views on teaching forever.

A visit to the local television news station.

A visit to the local television news station, where students experience a green screen.

In the summer of 2012, my partner Lea and I were both instructors at the 3 week residential program for high school gifted students: Mississippi Governor's School. I was teaching a major course on the philosophy of aesthetics for which my students would receive college credit, a minor course on using technology as a tool for change, and facilitating a leadership group.

During these three weeks my students worked hard and learned a great deal as we applied aesthetics to a wide variety of topics. Many tasted sushi for the first time as they made their own, while discussing the possibility of food as art. We visited the local cemetery to reflect on the beauty of the tombstone. At the local news station, students stood in front of the green screen and got to practice being a weather person. We visited antebellum homes to observe the architecture. We also worked together to volunteer for community service projects during the weekend.


Trying sushi for the first time.

Additionally, there were opportunities known as "Options" that allowed faculty and staff to create a one-off two-hour session on any topic, intended to be more fun and less academically rigorous than the main courses. Some of the sessions played board games or taught knitting, others watched an episode or Doctor Who or taught dance. This course presented the perfect opportunity for Lea and I to collaborate on an activity with the students and have some fun. Instead of explaining what we'd be doing like all of the other sessions, we simply named it "Options with Lea and J.J." and our session still quickly filled up. The students' willingness to join us on this unknown path signaled to me how much they already trusted us, but the actual session helped bring that trust to new levels.

Words can't adequately describe what transpired during our session, but it featured Nerf guns, an inflatable elephant, forts, Bubble Tape, air cannons, silly string, cell phone poetry, glow sticks, and more. It was, simply, an opportunity for play - for all of us, Lea, myself, and the students to truly be ourselves, to be silly, and to have fun together.

Imitating movement to understand an aesthetics of dance.

Imitating movement to understand an aesthetics of dance.

The trust that was generated during that hour as we all risked being ourselves and letting our guard down reverberated throughout the academic classroom for the rest of that summer. I was asking these high school students to truly challenge themselves by thinking seriously about tough topics like death, to eat "weird" foods, to dance with each other, and ultimately, to learn more about not only themselves, but the world around them. The level of trust that grew out of that Options session fostered the most open, collaborative, and participatory classroom environment in which I've ever been.

That summer was the best teaching experience I've ever had. It was then that I realized how important it is to risk being myself in the classroom and to risk lowering my guard and letting my students see a fuller picture of who I am as a person. When we can be comfortable being ourselves in the classroom, we can be comfortable pushing ourselves intellectually and academically and asking our students to trust us as we move down that path together. A little trust goes a long way.