A little bit unusual for my blog, I am posting a personal update, which may interest various people for various reasons. This next year should be a rather interesting year in my intellectual development: I have taken a post as adjunct professor of philosophy at one of the United States’ largest community college, the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, PA —a seven-campus college. I will be at the main campus, the Allegheny Campus. Since Indiana University’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science doesn’t grant undergraduate degrees, teaching assignments for graduate students are scarce with so few in-department undergraduate courses, especially for grads in their first two years, I felt it important that I find and take on, at the very least, a one-year appointment as a lecturer, hence the desire to take on an adjunct professorship. Teaching is an important part of the academician’s craft as a whole. Teaching is not just a skill to be developed: if done properly, intensely engaging in re-exploring past trodden material, there is a wonderful intellectual freshness that springs forth from the detritus of forgotten thoughts. I figured I would open up the comments section to either questions from grad (or undergrad) students, or to anyone with pedagogical suggestions.
I will be teaching two introductions to philosophy and an ethics course. The stuff I have been working on at Harvard has not been just on math and philosophy. A large part has been professional development in the arena of pedagogy —and they have some cutting-edge ideas. I hope to employ some of this new and heterodox thought to my teaching. One of the challenges teaching introduction to philosophy at a community college rather than a four-year college carries with it is that the student body largely has no interest in pursue further study of the subject matter. What do you teach a group of students taking such a course? It’s not an easy question. One of my colleagues and close friends, Dr. Dennis Sweet, takes the old school approach. Being an historian of philosophy as much as a philosopher, he thinks the liberal arts approach of surveying the history of philosophy is the way to go. It’s a fine standard to support, and I certainly would have enjoyed that approach in my intro course, when I was fresh to the subject. (Of course, I only prefer extremely in-depth courses or surveys, hence I had more than some attention difficulties as an undergraduate…everything in between seems like some kind of waste of time.) Having had my textbook locked for the fall semester, I was pushed in the direction of my experimental inclination of teaching what the students want to learn, whenever possible. I have well thought out reason for taking this approach, so let me go in order, here. I’ll explain the textbook that was put in place, explain my thinking of what a non-philosopher needs out of philosophy, and then explain how I intend to implement my plan of allowing an unusual amount of free reign on the part of the students.
The book we are using is Rauhut’s Readings on Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (3rd Edition), so I am dealing with an achronological assortment of texts collated under issue headings, such as “Do We Have Free Will.” I know that some students strongly prefer some sort of context prior to reading philosophy, but this shouldn’t be absolutely necessary. Just think about it: one of the most valuable aspect of philosophical texts is that, quite literally, they never get old. In my more specialized field of philosophy and history of physics, nobody in the field of physics reads Dirac’s stuff on hole theory. That’s right: a 20th century Nobel-winning physicist has written material that is antiquated, possibly never again to be discussed by serious physicists, yet we (intellectuals, loosely construed) never lose our interest in Plato, Hume, Aquinas, Kant, and so on. What’s more, I know of no philosophical text that is simply obsolete. Since I won’t be doing a history of philosophy for this introductory course, I am going to go through a large amount of Rauhut, then give the students the opportunity to choose from a selection of short texts. I’ll say more about this in a bit, but please feel free to suggest romps through the history of philosophy that might serve in an introductory course. I have some leads that I have already gone through and think are good, e.g., Solomon, Stumpf, Tarnas, and so on.
My view with respect to non-philosophers is really twofold, the straight version and then the beggars-can’t-be-choosers edition. I think everyone needs philosophy and logic, and they should be taught in high schools. A little bit more extreme, ethics, I would argue, needs to surface and resurface throughout K-12. I hear all of this noise about how things like algebra aren’t needed in everyday life, and so I know I would be met with the complaint, “why in the world would any kind of logic be needed?” Teachers say that, and yet the manager of the local Starbucks that I frequent can’t construct an employee schedule that satisfies the requests of the employees. When I first got into logic, just as I was entering into formal logic, I did those logic puzzles where you had to hold certain bits of information in mind while manipulating other bits of information, not unlike schedule construction. The ability to follow a bit of formal logic, or to employ it, per se, might not be necessary. However, what allows one to do these things is, in fact, a valuable capacity. From a pragmatic standpoint, that may be one of the more appealing arguments I would have to make. Philosophy, in general, does more. It teaches us how to ask good questions, determine which ones are relevant, analyze informal arguments, establish when distinctions in concepts is required and when to create different words corresponding to different concepts, how to assess informal arguments, determine and evaluate assumptions in beliefs, and much more. It is a reflective process, which, by my lights, heightens consciousness and awareness of the world around us. It leads to the assessment of why we value things in life, whether we should value them, how one should live, what good living is, and, of sustained interest, consideration surrounding our deaths as intentional beings. While many have claimed that we live in “the computer age,” I think these people are delusion. There is no doubt in my mind that we live in “the psychological age,” and it is a psychologically unhealthy age, largely brought into being by the lack of philosophical activities by the masses. Philosophy is as therapeutic as it is intellectually gratifying and mind/perspective orienting. Philosophy tends to breed good citizens, and it is partly because of these things I have stated. Since, these skills are what I would like students to take away with them, the specific content of the course doesn’t matter quite as much. Getting the students to engage as much as possible will be the first task. Perhaps the one major downfall of the approach to a community college audience is that students typically don’t remember much from it. For example, I met one such fellow who had taken an intro in philosophy, taught in just the way I described; and, from that historical approach, when asked “what did you learn,” he responded, “It’s been a couple of years, but something about Hume and his laws of reason.” I honestly can’t tell you what he was talking about. ‘Engagement’ is the critical word.
Method by which I hope to achieve a great deal of success, and which I mentioned, is bringing volition and individual interest into play. I am stealing a pedagogical tool from Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd, called “the think piece.” It’s a weekly reflection that allows the student to write about any aspect of the readings, to draw associations between said new material and items in the student’s knowledge context, and it gives students a reason to spend more time thinking about material. One of the problems with all undergraduate students is that they will read, but not think about, texts and course materials. This is a remedy. As you can imagine, the technique is, itself, very much in line with approach I am taking, but I am making it even more interest-dependent and volitional. Most intros don’t require weekly readings, so I’d be asking a lot for students in my classes to write the described 300-word reflections as part of their grade. I am going to do something a little different. I have set up the syllabus so that there is a base number of points that can be earned in the class between the midterm essay, final essay, quiz, and participation. Instead of assigning the think piece as a formal assignment, upon which grades are dependent, I will allow students to turn in think pieces on material any week in which the material covered interests them. The base number of points for the class is 1,000, so a think piece will add to both the numerator and the denominator (i.e., the total number of points in the class for that student). Students will never be penalized in any way for the think piece. i.e., the student can get more or less points, like 25/25 or 15/15, but never less than 100%. This is to their benefit, as it reduces the weight of the final paper, which I will grade by strict means and with high standards. My basic view on individualizing courses is that we are all on our own journeys. Having one professor, with his or her biases determining what material is taught and how the material is taught, should not significantly impact the student’s outcome in class.
I am also allowing students to make a couple of selections of text. For each individual’s very short midterm paper, I am asking students to select a philosopher or philosophical issue that interests them. They can pick out pretty much anything, such as a primary source from a great philosopher of history, a secondary piece written about a philosopher or philosophical ideas, a philosophical piece of fiction (Camus, Murdoch, Quinn, etc.), selection of philosophy magazine articles (Philosophy Now, The Objective Standard, etc.), or something remotely along those lines. (I am approving each piece, so no worries.) I am also letting the students in my intro courses pick a short book that we will read together. For this, I am trying to do something that’s either non-Western philosophy or has something to do with practical philosophy (e.g., meaning of life). I could have students go through some extremely short romp through the history of philosophy, like the one by Solomon or Durant, but, unfortunately, I don’t have many such titles; few have been done, I suspect. Philosophical fiction is a possibility. The Consolation of Philosophy and Candide come to mind. Some of the short non-Western books I have considered putting on the list are Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton and The Tao of Philosophy by Alan Watts. Something that is a little more provocative, yet short, that I could offer is Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. I am open to suggestions for additional books that could be covered or nearly covered in two weeks at a rate of 45 pages per week (so a total of about 90 pages).
I don’t like doing extra credit, but I plan to allow creative projects, preferably team projects. Developing transcripts of debates between two students over some philosophical issue would be interesting. Also, some sort of creative philosophical fiction or play would be interesting. I’ll give a lot of freedom with the project type, but it will be about creativity, as guided by the students’ individual interests.
I will do similar things with my ethics course, but I am having my students read the first half of the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. More of the freedom afforded students will have to do with which areas of applied ethics we will cover, since we have to cover ethical theories and metaethics; that’s pretty much set in stone.
So those are some of the ideas I am kicking around. Even a single year in this post will provide me with more teaching experience than the vast majority of graduates students acquire throughout their graduate training, so I am really looking forward to the academic year.