Saturday, March 20, 2010

Teaching Philosophy

I've been thinking about this a bit recently, and I wanted to write it down and maybe get some responses.

Here are my method and goals in teaching. The goals are to get people to think philosophically for themselves about issues of fundamental importance to our understanding of ourselves, reality and our relation to it. This means that I want to get students to think for themselves about philosophy and connect these thoughts to what philosophers have already said about it. The reason the other philosophers' views matter is that they were smart and thought about these things themselves, so reflecting on what they say can help students think better about their own ideas. An ancillary goal of this has to be to teach students a bit about how to read philosophers so they can understand their ideas in order to apply them to their own thoughts.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this method.
The advantages are so obvious that it's almost silly to describe them.
(1) It focuses on what really matters about philosophy. Almost everyone really cares about this fundamental stuff, and these ideas really do matter, so a class that focuses on them is evidently worthwhile.
(2) It should teach students to develop their own ideas, and that's a second fundamental part of education.

The disadvantages are pedagogical, not fundamental to the ideas.
(1) Students are not familiar with this method and so may not see the benefits of it. Often they think it is a distraction from the goal of learning what a philosopher says and reciting that on a test.

(2) Students do have their own idiosyncrasies and so can derail a class discussion with weird or irrelevant ideas. Keeping the students on track is very difficult.

(3) When students commit to an idea in class discussion, especially when it is something they strongly believe, then criticisms of it can be very upsetting. It's generally a good thing to have students interested and happy with the discussion. I do three things to mitigate this. First, I make clear the difference between criticism of an idea and criticism of the person. Second, I remain as neutral as possible on the question and emphasize ways to overcome objections rather than showing one side to be right and the others wrong. This is not always possible. When students present bad arguments or incoherent ideas, it's irresponsible to suggest they are defensible. I can still suggest better arguments or modifications or similar ideas, but when they say God exists because the Bible says it, and the Bible is true because it's the word of God, there's not much to say in defense of this. Third, I make sure they at least have the chance to express their ideas as completely as possible. Some students are just going to get pissed off with this approach, and there's nothing I can do about that except warn them of the approach. In a way, I want them to get upset and come out with some defenses of their views. In reality, many will retreat in the face of criticism rather than try to address it.

(4) This method makes covering material secondary to the main goal, and so I cover a lot less this way than in the more straightforward lecture format. I just have to learn to live with this, and not worry much when they don't learn, say, how Hume responded to the design argument as long as they understand how the argument works and can develop their own criticisms and defenses of it. Imperfect, and some ideas are so fundamental to the arguments that I cannot leave them out, but that's a trade-off I'll accept.

The practical result of this is that I'm considering working with a more sharply limited set of readings for my classes, some pdfs and some things I've written, and a lot more time critically evaluating these ideas and the students' own ideas. I may post more on those readings in future.

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