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05/16/2022

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Daniel Weltman

Maybe the universities I have been at are unusual but in my experience, it's not true that intro courses aim, among other things, "to put students in the position to follow their next classes" such that if an intro course failed to give students the "basic names and theories" of philosophy of language, Medieval philosophy, and every other branch of European philosophy, it would lead to resentment on the part of students and professors. Every university I've been at treats intro to philosophy as an opportunity to get acquainted with some of the topics and methods of philosophy but not as a survey of the entire contemporary and historical European philosophical canon. I've taught what I take to be a very conventional intro course a few times and we covered zero Medieval philosophy, for instance, and I never took myself to be doing something that would engender any resentment. And Medieval philosophy is hardly the only European philosophy topic we didn't cover! This is especially true because many universities do not require someone take intro before taking other courses, so you can't assume that someone in your course will have taken intro.

As for "who should teach," the teaching philosophy I've always found most compelling is the Rancière-esque Ignorant Schoolmaster sort of thing, where the goal of the professor is not to be a fountain of expert knowledge doling out wisdom to students who are passive recipients and whose job is to memorize, but rather to be someone who helps guide the students through the material by giving them strategies and frameworks to approach the texts and make up their own minds about what the texts say. So there is no need to be an expert in what you teach, and sometimes being a non-expert can give you a better understanding of what students are likely to misunderstand or be curious about. Non-experts sometimes benefit from the distance they have from the text. So I would not invite guest lecturers or whatever for the sake of having someone around to answer questions with their superior knowledge of the reading.

In fact the idea of having a very knowledgeable person around to answer questions strikes me as encouraging students to have too much of a "there is one right answer and I must find it and repeat it back to the professor in my paper" attitude and not enough of a "my goal is to explore the text using the tools I have learned and to make an argument for my own interpretation, whether or not it's ultimately right." In an intro course you can't go into enough detail to reach the "right" answers anyways unless your teaching method is "tell students facts to memorize" rather than "teach students to engage with the text", so I think it is a mistake to hold up the right answers as being very important in these kinds of classes.

elisa freschi

Thanks for your thoughts and experience, Daniel! It seems that much of what I conceived as a problem would not be perceived as such at your university (no need to cover a certain number of authors or ideas and no nasty students thinking they know the answer already), which is great.
Does this translate into Intro classes being open to global philosophy? Can you share more about your experience?

anon

I also think that possibility no. 1 is realistic, and have employed it in my own teaching. It's gone well, and I encourage others to take it up.

At my institution, most second year courses have no prerequisites. In light of this fact, an instructor in a first year course shouldn't feel pressure to assign any particular text, and an instructor in a second year course should not expect any student to have ready any particular text. And many third year courses just require a certain number of courses in philosophy rather than something distinctive, so the same sort of reasoning holds for the design of second year courses.

In your reply to Daniel you mention another barrier to the approach, "nasty students" who think they know what should be on the syllabus. I sometimes get a bit of pushback from students, but nothing concerning. Sometimes a few drop after complaining about the lack of Western content, and in the last several years of my teaching only one student (of hundreds) has written something negative in the qualitative box on student valuations, specifically about my selection of readings. The numerical part of my evaluations don't seem to have problems either, my numbers are well above departmental and institutional averages.

Chris Stephens

At UBC there would also be no problem with option 1 for our first year intro classes. They have no prerequisites and they are not prerequisites for any other philosophy courses. Some instructors teach topically, some historically, etc.

I co-taught a second year epistemology course with Cat Prueitt where we did it about half Indian Philosophy (Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, Dignāga and Dharmakīrti) and about half traditional European stuff such as Plato, Sextus Empiricus, Descartes and Hume.

Most philosophy courses at UBC are not prerequisites for any other courses. There are a few exceptions - mostly in the logic sequence (and a couple in the history sequence: Plato is a prerequisite for Aristotle). But for most courses (those that don't have a time period or philosopher's name in the title) - intro to moral philosophy, intro to epistemology, intro to philosophy etc. you can pretty much teach them how you want: global cross-culturally, historically, focused exclusively on "topics"; as a hybrid, etc.

elisa freschi

Thank you, anon and Chris. It appears that I was too pessimistic and missed the many Intro courses that are already non-Eurocentric. If you are willing to share more details about the global-philosophy-inclined Intro classes you have been teaching or co-teaching, I would be very interested.

G

I think this largely depends on your expected learning outcomes for the intro class. Do you just want to introduce some representative views in different philosophical traditions? Do you want students to develop certain philosophical skills? Do you want to recruit majors? etc. Different answers could lead to different approaches.

I personally find possibility 1 very challenging. I believe it is better to organize different views under a common theme (or some themes) rather than giving a hodgepodge of different ideas from different traditions. But even so, I find philosophical traditions are so different that they require different ways to read, think, and analyze texts. Just consider The Republic, Nicomachean Ethics, Bhagavad Gita, The Analects, Dao De Jing, Virginia Woolf, W.E.B Du Bois, etc. The more we include, the less time we have for each text. This *might* lead to the consequence that students have to switch between different ways of doing philosophy before they grasp some basic skills of doing any kind of philosophy (reading, analyzing, writing, etc.).

Matthew D. Walker

Along with Jay Garfield, Malcolm Keating, and other colleagues, I also developed and taught Philosophy and Political Thought (PPT) 1 and 2, the two-semester Yale-NUS College course that you mention. Unfortunately, given Yale-NUS’ planned closure in 2025, PPT had its final moment in the equatorial sun this past academic year. For those who are interested, Keating has recently been interviewing the PPT teaching team about their experiences teaching the course for his podcast Sutras & Stuff (https://sutrasandstuff.wordpress.com/). I’ll pipe in with a few further thoughts and observations here, however;

First, I'll echo the point that, at many places, intro to philosophy doesn't aim to provide a maximally comprehensive introduction to key theories and figures. Such a course usually aims, instead, to convey some sense of what philosophical thinking is like, while providing some exposure to some key figures. Although PPT 1 and 2 were officially "pre-disciplinary" general education courses, they prepared our philosophy students well for their later electives. Some of our majors ended up exploring some of the traditions from PPT more intensively in their advanced classes and senior-year capstone projects. Other philosophy majors focused on contemporary analytic and European philosophy (though they typically retained some interest in other traditions). But all gained, I think, from the skills that PPT sought to develop. A multi-traditional course can work well as an intro course.

Second, as a follow-up to the above: in addition to covering content (ideas, concepts, figures), an intro course aims to develop particular philosophical skills. Hence, even if an intro course covers more traditions than most typical intro courses do, an instructor can prepare intro students for later philosophy courses by focusing on skills that student are apt to require in later philosophy electives. Thus, PPT instructors worked on close reading, interpretation, argument reconstruction and analysis, and the range of usual skills students would need in their other electives.

Third, PPT benefited from being a two-semester sequence. PPT 1 focused on ancient Chinese, Greek, and Indian traditions, with a focus on one tradition at a time. That structure enabled the course to focus on how key ideas and debates developed within each tradition. PPT 2 had a more open-ended structure. It didn't focus on particular traditions per se as much as it focused on particular thematic units. The units, roughly, included (a) M&E, (b) ethics/politics, and (c) "looking back" (e.g., with modern figures who were appropriating/responding to some of the older views from PPT 1, e.g., Nietzsche, Gandhi, the May 4th movement, Arendt).

Off-hand, designing a one-semester course would seem trickier. One could follow a model like PPT 1, but then one would miss out on later developments. Conversely, one could adopt a model like PPT 2, but miss out on the focus on particular traditions and how they develop. Perhaps a thematic structure (with units focused on main topics or concerns) would work best for a one-semester course: that structure would enable one to cover works that one would like from various traditions, while still providing enough structure and coherence for students to feel anchored.

Fourth, for reading assignments, PPT 1 and 2 typically assigned manageable selections from longer works. By doing so, the course avoided overloading students; further, instructors could spend time in class developing skills related to the assigned selections. That said, one perennial concern was that we assigned too many texts (usually a new text each week). In later iterations of the course, we tried to cut down on the number of texts. That seemed to work well.

Fifth, the PPT teaching team came from many different backgrounds and areas of specialization. But we all had to teach the same syllabus with the same texts. While this teaching demanded that we each learn and teach material outside of our respective AOSs, PPT was ultimately an intro course. It was not an advanced elective, where more area expertise would be required. Instructors benefited a lot from talking with, and learning from, colleagues with subject expertise in unfamiliar areas. But over time, instructors became increasingly familiar with the texts. Instructors, then, could focus on what they found philosophically interesting in each work and explore those aspects with students. Accordingly, the demands of teaching PPT were manageable.

Daniel Weltman

For the intro courses I teach, I let the students vote on the topics. Among the topics I include are Classical Islamic philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, and Ethiopian philosophy. My former colleague Aditi Chaturvedi taught some Indian, Chinese, and Islamic philosophy when she taught intro. My colleague Kranti Saran has taught some Indian philosophy in intro in the past, although not recently.

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