Reflection on a First-Year Professorship: An Experiment in Allowing Students to Choose Texts

This is the first of a number of reflections I hope to do on my first year as a professor of philosophy.  As of right now, I am through the first semester.  It’s been an interesting experience, to say the absolute least.  I don’t mean that simply in terms of outcomes of pedagogical experiments or common experiences of student discontent with grades, but also political and administrative stuff in addition.

One pedagogical experiment tried was allowing students to have some say in what we read.  The obvious idea behind this is that it would spur on student reading, hopefully with alacrity.  I did a couple of things.  One was to allow students in my two introduction to philosophy courses to read a twenty page stretch of any piece of philosophical literature they wanted, with a couple of stipulations: if the text were a softer piece of philosophy (i.e., not classic, but popularized philosophy), they’d have to read significantly more, maybe 30-40 pages or two whole chapters; if the student chose to do a biographical or historical work in philosophy, the text would have to be 40-80 pages; if the work were a piece of philosophical fiction, the student would then have to read anything from 80 pages to the entire work, decided upon a case-by-case basis.  With this piece of literature, the students were to work develop philosophical questions, analyze the meaning of key sentences and concepts, draw logical conclusions form the text —in short, give a first attempt at doing philosophy.  This was the midterm assignment, designed to be graded very leniently, since this was a “big questions” approach to intro phil, and a course structured like a developmental skills course, not unlike general writing.  I don’t recommend this sort of assignment to just anyone; I pride myself on the half-truth/part-joke that I have read everything.  It turned out well for me, in that I only had about 200 pages of material to read for the first time prior to grading the informal essays. Not a bad cost to me, if the students actually took ownership of their texts and did well.

So what kind of payoff was there?  Um…15 out of about 60 students really took ownership of their text and its analysis.  Worst of all, all of the reading I did of texts I had not previously read —those students didn’t even turn in a midterm essay!  If that’s not the worst part, then the worst part might be that those 15 students, I would be handsomely, would have done the same caliber or work and taken the same interest if it were any old text.  Just thinking about the quality of the products generated by all of my classes on essays irks me, but that’s another post.  The outcome is this: affording students the opportunity to individualize and hand pick any philosophical literature to suit their interest made absolutely no impact on performance.  If any demographic, I figured this would work well for a group of non-majors, because that’s the group that most needs appealing to.  Not so, in this case.

Another attempt I made in this pedagogical experiment was to allow entire classes to vote on a few selected texts, which would then be read as a class.  I handed out voting sheets were students could weight which texts they would want to read.  The list of short works I supplied can be found by clicking here.  The list was intentionally constructed with idea of providing short texts that could be read during the last two weeks of class.  The introduction classes were not historical, focusing on the big questions, so I threw on the list a history of philosophy.  I also dislike that intro philosophy tends to mean Western philosophy, so I put in quite a bit of eastern philosophical literature for the neophyte.  Boethius was added for the medieval taste, and Candide to represent philosophical fiction.  Each inclusion was geared toward something that was not paradigmatically covered in the course, otherwise.  First, I have to say that both classes were hard-pressed to either research what the books were about or turn in a voting sheet.  Ultimately, one class chose The Tao of Philosophy by Alan Watts, and the other chose The Twilight of the Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche.  I got the sense that the weekly readership in the class was pretty sparse, but I didn’t know for sure, because the text we used, Ultimate Questions edited by Rauhut is a rough first text for non-majors and complete newbs to philosophy.  My suspicions that students were not reading was confirmed by an in-class pop quiz on the student choice texts by Watts and Nietzsche.  The quiz asked questions like: What was the title of this week’s reading and who wrote it?  What is the (or a) main theme in the book?  What idea did you like and why, or, if you didn’t like any, why?  And so on.  These were exceedingly general questions, which one could answer vaguely enough for full credit if they had only read the introduction.  My average grade between the two classes was an ‘F’.  Conclusion: Allowing students to choose texts made zero impact on how much and closely students read texts.

Finally, I allowed the students in my ethics class choose which ethical issues we would work on, in the couple of weeks that we did applied ethics.  That voting process was a complete disaster.  I had an over-full class, and ten people handed me voting sheets for which ethical issues mattered to them.  What’s more, I found that the students fell into one of two categories: they either didn’t care about any ethical issue at all, and couldn’t be bothered to care, even if you tried to induce them and convince them to care; or they were so confident in the position they took up that there was no convincing them that the contrary MIGHT be true.  At any rate, having the students select the ethical issues to be discussed had little or no bearing on how much students read, and this was evinced by the really poor discussion and debate we had in class.

I’ll leave it to another blog post, because I have so much to say on the topic, but the complete lack of desire and willingness to read —and lack of actual reading done!!!— was appalling, disgusting, and not something I will be able to deal with in the extended future.  My goal in this little pedagogical experiment was to see if I could increase reading, especially induce close reading, but I was confronted with the reality that may be pervasive throughout all undergraduate level education: the first great challenge is to get students to read, at all!

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