Senior Instructor, Philosophy
1944 - 2007
Peter Nicholls taught in the Philosophy Department since 1980, where he developed a wide variety of courses in many areas of the Department's curriculum. In addition, he played an active service role in departmental self-governance, while contributing service to both Portland State University and his local community. Last October, in recognition of his accomplishments, teaching and service, the Department recommended him for promotion from Instructor to Senior Instructor. He died Thursday, February 15, battling leukemia.
A graduate of Portland State University himself, Peter returned after graduate studies at the University of Washington to teach at his alma mater. Students showered him with praise such as "one of the best at PSU," "favorite," and "amazing teacher." They thanked him for his ability to clarify abstract concepts and arguments through analogies and topical concrete examples. His ethics students talked about the "extreme clarity" in which he "sets up arguments." Many students thought that his ability to incorporate difficult course material into class discussions was "amazing." They also praised his responsiveness to students' questions. Many students expressed the view that he ensured that the whole class understood the material before moving forward; they saw him as an "understanding teacher who tries to help everyone." His interactive, Socratic style of teaching emphasized the practice of philosophical skills of analysis and argumentation in communication, and received high praise from the vast majority of students. They complimented him for "teaching thinking by posing questions that make you find the answer instead of telling it." In his ethics courses students praised him for helping them "see the opposite side of where they stand" and for his ability to "describe rival views without being judgmental." Many students explained their positive reactions to his teaching on grounds of his being a "great listener" and asking the "right questions." A significant number of students thought of him as the best professor on campus, and expressed an interest in taking more courses with him, with many reportedly recommending his courses to other students and friends.
During Peter's career, he was a full "citizen" and stakeholder in all department matters. He was always quick to volunteer to help out with miscellaneous tasks that needed doing to keep the department running smoothly, of which serving annually as a Commencement Marshal, or being the person who keeps the Socratic Society alive and functioning were but two examples. His service commitment and volunteer spirit also extended beyond the university to include important local public service, both recent and intensive, for the AAUP, and Camas, Washington's planning commission, community chest, and local library foundation.
Since his arrival at Portland State University, he co-authored and published an important article on a difficult issue in analytic philosophy of language, Saul Kripke's distinctions between the apriori and aposteriori, on the one hand, and the necessary and contingent, on the other. This was all the more remarkable in that the journal in question, Philosophy Research Archives (now Journal of Philosophical Research) had at the time a very high rejection rate compared to many humanities journals. In addition, he made scholarly presentations at the Socratic Society to the department and the university.
Peter was an important member of the Philosophy Department for two decades and fulfilled his role in an admirable manner. His gentle, unprepossessing manner and commitment to his students, colleagues and community will be sorely missed.