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02/21/2014

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Rob Gressis

"well over 50% of our undergraduate majors are female"

That's one of the most astonishing things I have read in the last few years.

Do you have any idea how this happened? Have you talked to any of your colleagues about it? Do you know if there was any concerted effort to achieve this goal? Have you surveyed majors?

As to how to attract more people, I think we need to think about ways of making philosophy seem more applicable. I don't think this has to be done as much in terms of content as it does in terms of classroom discussion, use of philosophy to illuminate contemporary issues, and projects that require hands-on philosophy somehow.

I would love for there to be a database of clever assignments that we could use to make philosophy more relevant.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Rob: Thanks for your comment! Like I said in the post, no, I have no clear evidence for why it has happened -- just personal impressions. We also haven't discussed it or studied it as a department. We are a *very* small department (with only 3 full-time members - though we do have a lot of majors!), and we are very decentralized (we don't have many department meetings, etc.). Basically, my impression is that we attract majors by being open to and encouraging of ideas relevant to *them*.

Allow me to say a bit more about this. I have a concern about your suggestion -- and it is a pretty common one -- that we should aim to make philosophy "more applicable" or "more relevant" to people. Although I like this idea in principle, the problem I have is this: relevant to WHOM? For here's the thing: what seems relevant or applicable to one person from one background might not seem relevant or applicable to a person from a another background! Consider, for instance, a person from a privileged background, compared to a person who has suffered injustice. All things being equal, are these two people likely to find the same things relevant or "applicable" in, say, political philosophy? Not obviously. Offhand, it seems likely that the person who has suffered injustice may be attracted to problems -- e.g. problems of how to respond to injustice -- that the person from a privileged background will not find that relevant to *their* life (for obvious reasons -- they haven't suffered injustice!). In fact, I've heard just these kinds of concerns from people about the kinds of theories that have dominated political philosophy (and dominate political philosophy courses today). *Some* people find all of the theories of "a just society" -- e.g. Plato's Republic, Rawls' A Theory of Justice, etc. -- relevant and applicable. Other people, however, find them to be hopelessly idealized monstrosities (do Rawls or Plato ever deal with racial, ethnic, or gender injustices? No!).

Here, then, is the problem: I think it is a mistake for us -- philosophers -- to "try to make philosophy more relevant", at least if that involves *us* deciding "what is more relevant." Rather, I think we should just realize that different people -- and different students -- often find very different things relevant or irrelevant to their lives, and thus, that the best way to "make philosophy relevant" to more people is to simply do what I suggested in the post: encourage a greater *diversity* of methods, questions, and content in philosophy -- a diversity sensitive to our students' (and communities') views about what, in philosophy, *they* find relevant!

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

Thanks for your answer. May I ask, how many majors do you have?

As for your comment, you're right -- different people find different things relevant. That said, I don't think the "standard intro practice" (in quotes because I'm not sure that anyone actually uses it) of assigning excerpts from classic philosophical texts, lecturing on them, and then assigning a paper or two and a test or two -- isn't really relevant to very many people, I should think. So, if you come up with assignments that make your class relevant to at least *someone* that's progress, no?

But honestly, "relevance" was a poor choice of words on my part. I should have written "applicable" the second time, because what I think would really get lots more people into philosophy isn't so much the realization that it's relevant to their concerns, but that it has applicability. Why does this matter? Because I think people *learn more* when they come to see ways in which to use the content of a course. And if you feel like you're learned something from a course, then it will fill you with positive feelings toward the course, perhaps even to the professor, and perhaps even to the major.

I think M. David Merrill's first principles of instruction are a good guideline here (see http://mdavidmerrill.com/Papers/firstprinciplesbymerrill.pdf). They are:

* Principle 1—Problem-centered: Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.
* Principle 2—Activation: Learning is promoted when relevant previous experience is activated.
* Principle 3—Demonstration (Show me): Learning is promoted when the instruction demonstrates what is to be learned rather than merely telling
information about what is to be learned.
* Principle 4—Application (Let me): Learning is promoted when learners are required to use their new knowledge or skill to solve problems.
* Principle 5—Integration: Learning is promoted when learners are encouraged to integrate (transfer) the new knowledge or skill into their
everyday life.

I think if more philosophy courses were designed around those five principles (assuming it's possible to do so), then we would make the discipline more attractive to people.

I was asking for assignments in that vein -- assignments that required application or integrated, etc.

Dan Haybron

Great points, Marcus. Wonder if I'd have continued in philosophy if I'd not been able to take a lot of religious studies courses (esp East Asian thought), as I wasn't a big fan of the more "conventional" philosophy courses (even though not religious).

A few thoughts:
1. Perhaps depts can track the early coursework of majors to see what they took before declaring the major, as that may be evidence of which courses do (or don't) draw students to the major.

2. Which courses/professors do women majors tend to take, esp more than once? Any differences from the men?

3. When students declare the major, solicit requests from them: what would they like to study? (This could also be done at the end of intro courses including non-majors.)

4. Perhaps the APA should track #s of men/women majors across departments and study those departments that have the best gender balance: what are they doing right? Maybe even simple things like having nonwestern philosophy courses make a big difference. Then the rest of us can target our efforts more effectively.

The idea isn't to start following a customer service model--we still focus on what's in fact worth studying. But within that broad realm our students will learn a lot more if we also engage better with their interests. Care should perhaps be taken so such evidence isn't used to penalize professors who teach logic, say.

Ruth Groff

What a lovely post. I agree that the "standard model" of intro philosophy is lame. I bet there are many different kinds of approaches that are better. In my own case, I wind up recruiting majors mainly, I suspect, by teaching the entire Republic (ok, sometimes minus Bk 10), regularly, to freshmen and sophomores. I think that this is effective (to the extent that it is) because Plato (let alone Plato in the hands of a motivated teacher) invites readers to ask themselves serious philosophical questions - exciting, dangerous, compelling ones. And, as per Marcus's suggestions (and as per the character of Socrates as Plato writes him), makes it easy for anyone to take the bait. This seems to me to be key. Philosophy as the technical skill of logic-chopping excites only one kind of personality. But philosophy as a fearless yet non-skeptical interrogation of received views of the world (not just in the form of "What if I am wrong?" but also in the form of "If this idea is true, what other ideas must be true?" and "What does this idea, if it's true, imply for how things are or ought to be in the world?") -- who can resist that? Some students do, but almost every kid has something that they really think is true or false, and that they care about. (Even if it's just the very idea that "false" means "the world isn't that way" or that "tyranny" doesn't just mean "I don't like it" -- in fact, if you have a kid who thinks either of those things, you've got yrself a budding young philosopher!) But whether it's Plato or someone else, I think that what I have learned as I have struggled to become a better teacher is that beginning students respond more to the actual philosophical issues than they do to the structure of arguments. I was a kid who loved conceptual architecture, so it took me some years of teaching before I figured this out. There is time to teach students about the mechanics of argumentation as such. A more enticing hook for most students is to set them to reflecting philosophically upon what they think is true (or false).

Ruth Groff

Sorry abt the typo(s). E.g., I meant Marcus', not Marcus's.

JG

Really nice post, Marcus. I wanted to highlight something that struck me in your story. It looked to me like you aren't really "casting the net wider" in terms of either content or method. Your three anecdotes deal with Chinese philosophy, political, and applied ethics, all of which are recognized, if perhaps under-supported, disciplines in the field. And it looks like you're using standard philosophical methodology: find a position or puzzle, deal with arguments about it, etc. So in that sense, things look pretty standard.

That said, you clearly are are doing *something* different. From what I can tell, it looks pretty simple: respect your students. That is, assume that their interests are worth your time, that their time is worth your time, etc.

If that's right, then making philosophy more accessible should be uncomplicated, at least in principle: Taking your teaching seriously, and take your students seriously!

Of course, this might just be a reductio. If it were that easy, after all...

Moti Mizrahi

Great post, Marcus!

I have adopted a student-centered approach in my own teaching (see here: http://thinkjustdoit.blogspot.com/p/teaching-philosophy.html ).

In my experience, I have encountered some who think that, by designing a philosophy course around what students are interested in, we are "sacrificing philosophical content" or even "lowering standards." Those who express such worries tend to think that there are canonical texts and/or major figures (usually old white men, of course) that students *have to cover* in a philosophy course. I think these worries are unfounded, partly because canonical texts can be discussed in the context of issues that are of interest to students. In any case, I was wondering if you encountered such reactions as well, and if so, how you dealt with them.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks for your comments everyone!

Rob: We tend to have anywhere between 25-40 majors on any given year. Although this isn't a high number in absolute terms, it is high in a number of comparative terms (viz. we are a school of 6,600 undergraduates and only 3 full-time philosophy faculty. I was recently at a public state school with 22,000 students and 10 philosophy faculty that had roughly the same # of majors).

Anyway, I entirely agree with you with respect to applicability. My experience has been that students learn more, and are more engaged, to the extent that they see philosophy to be applicable in their lives. My point, though, was that "applicability" differs immensely between students. Consider my nursing student (later a double major) who was interested in the ethics of medical practice and cosmetic surgery in particular. My experience with her was that, from her perspective, philosophy's applicability to her life was very narrow. She was interested in ethical medical practice because she hoped to be a medical practitioner. I don't think I could do much to make metaphysics or epistemology applicable to her -- but I also think that is okay. The key, I think, is to understand that as "applicable" as we might like to make philosophy to students' lives -- for instance, through creative assignments -- there is only so much we can do in this regard. Since students have such different interests, the real key to making philosophy applicable to their lives is to offer content that they find applicable (e.g. Chinese philosophy, the ethics of cosmetic surgery), etc.

Dan: I think those are all great proposals!

Ruth: Thank you for the kind words. Although I love teaching the Republic (and Plato more generally), in my experience some students (often female students) are turned off by it, and by Socrates in particular -- at least if certain aspects of his philosophy (and him as a character) are not highlighted.

Here's an example. I was recently teaching a course on Plato and Aristotle comprised mostly of male students (there were only 2-3 female students in it). The male students were absolutely captivated by Socrates, and were almost all very impressed by how Socrates met his death in the Phaedo. One of my female students, however, bravely piped in, "I think Socrates is a monster! Here is his wife, Xanthippe, weeping for him and his children, and he has her escorted away so that he can die in peace while talking about metaphysics with a bunch of young men." She then went on to argue that the scene is a refutation of Socrates' entire philosophy. Any philosophy, she suggested, which puts abstract Forms above flesh and blood human beings in importance -- and which convinces the philosopher that *death* is better than life -- is morally and philosophically horrific. The male students in the room were flabberghasted! Which just goes to show how differently different people can experience "The Greats". My male students *loved* Socrates. The female students in the room thought he was a monster (they also didn't much like his just city, either!).

JG: Thanks for your kind comment. By and large, I do use standard philosophical methodology in my courses (puzzles, arguments, etc.). That being said, I think I have a more flexible approach to philosophical methodology than many people in our discipline. As I've explained in several earlier posts, I think our discipline puts *way* too much emphasis on rigor, in such a way that the importance of philosophical *insight* is underemphasized (I, for one, have read a number of articles in top journals lately that I think lack any sort of important philosophical insight, and are little more than rigorous puzzle-crunching). I'll probably write another post on this soon, as it is something that *really* bothers me about the profession. So, while I do focus on arguments in the classroom, I think the emphasis I put on insight in the classroom attracts students. I place a good deal of emphasis on "seeing things in new ways" (see, for instance, the story of my female student and Plato's Phaedo above. My male students failed to have the *insight* that perhaps Socrates' philosophy is monstrous. I thought it was a wonderful insight on the part of the other student). In general, I think our discipline could be a whole lot more tolerant and encouraging of exploratory philosophy -- articles, for instance, that propose new ways of looking at things even *if* the piece in question does not provide a lights-out argument. Kant's Groundwork is, in my view, an absolute paradigm of this. Kant saw morality in a new way. But the *arguments* in the Groundwork? By my lights, almost none of the arguments in it are very good, and they are almost *all* obscure and far too quick -- often gliding through a crucial argument in just a sentence or two (consider for instance Kant's "argument" for the unconditional value of humanity. It's like three sentences long. And of course Kant does not exactly consider and respond to objections. But so what? Even though he had trouble providing good arguments, his *approach* to morality contained fascinating insights. He was seeing things in a new way!

Ruth Groff

I love what you say about arguments and insight. And "puzzle crunching" is going to be my new favorite phrase. I like your Socrates example, too: What is required of ... well, a revolutionary, really ... vis-a-vis their own family & loved ones? I think of it as the Che problem. It's serious. I totally agree with you about the significance of your bright young women students' reaction to it. And the ways that gender intersects with that problem.

In my defense, I don't find Plato to be good for the purpose of inviting students to philosophy because I think that everything that he writes the character of Socrates as saying or doing is laudable, particularly. Or even bcs Plato is right about everything, which I'm not sure is so. (Though a lot of things, yes. :-) )

It's interesting: maybe in part because I'm a woman (but also, I'm sure, it's because of how I read him) I don't find with my students that negative reactions to Plato break down along gender lines. Usually - and predictably, as I read Plato - the student who hates Plato most is the kind of student who loves Hobbes (or Ayn Rand).

The main reason why I like The Republic so much, in particular, for pedagogical purposes is that so many fundamental questions are posed, and in ways to which anyone can be asked to respond thoughtfully. When we get to the divided line, I always bring up that "One of these things is not like the other" song/game from Sesame Street. Everybody knows it. You can go straight from that into a meaningful conversation about universals. And then back to Bk 1: "Well, *is* there something that all instances of justice would have to have in common? What do you think? Will the answer hold up? What would it mean not have an answer?"

I bet, though, that it doesn't really matter too much *what* students read at first, to get them excited about philosophy; probably what matters most is just that they be taken more seriously, in a sense, intellectually, than they take themselves. They need to look up and find themselves grappling, in a no-nonsense way, with non-superficial, non-technical questions. After that they can learn technique. Too often, it seems, technique comes first. This I think just attracts technique-lovers.

What a nice blog this is!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Moti: Thanks for your comment, and great point! It took my a while to unlearn the lesson that there are figures that you absolutely *must* teach -- as you put it, usually dead white men -- that, if you taught them all, you would have no room left in your courses for other perspectives. Some of these figures, by my lights -- no matter how historically influential they may be -- just had bad arguments (Mill's "On Liberty" is, in my view, is just chock full of poorly substantiated claims). Anyway, these days, I pick and choose which "greats" I teach, so that I have enough time to offer other perspectives (many of which I find far more illuminating than certain "classics").

Ruth: thanks again for your kind comment. I completely agree. One has to get students *excited* about philosophy above all else. Otherwise, they won't see the point of it, and won't put in the time and energy to learn how to make good arguments or develop good insights!

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