Wednesday, April 6, 2016

On teaching philosophy vs. teaching how to be a philosopher

I had two really satisfying teaching experiences yesterday, two meetings with students who wanted to talk about essay plans, who came not really knowing what they wanted to write about and by the time they left, not only did they have a plan, they were no longer fearful and stressed but happy and excited.

One of them is in my 2nd year philosophy of language and metaphysics class, a new course first introduced this year which I’m coteaching with someone else. Over the course of a year, students write three essays, one formative and two summative. For the first summative, we did what is standard for Durham undergrad philosophy courses: We gave the students a list of 7-8 questions to choose from. But for the formative and the second summative, we did things a bit different. For the formative, we gave them one question, that everyone had to write on. It was extremely interesting see how the students took the material they’d been given and applied it in very different ways to the same question (some of them even took exactly the same material and came to opposite conclusions). For the second summative, I proposed something quite different: We didn’t give them any questions at all.

I was a philosophy undergrad in the US, and in my program at least, I was never given a list of topics/questions: It was always part of the assignment was to come up with a suitable topic for the paper. At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but since coming to a university where this isn’t the norm, I realize that by assigning essay topics, we’re cutting off a very valuable exercise for students, valuable if we hope to teach them not only philosophy but to be philosophers. For to be a philosopher it is not enough to be able to answer questions: One must know how to ask them to. What are the interesting questions? How can they be articulated? Which ones can be answered in 3000 words? We expect our undergrads to write an honors thesis in their final year – 8000 or 12000 words depending on whether they’re doing the short or the long option – and one thing I realized when I took on the role of director of undergraduate dissertations is that one reasons why students find this daunting is not only have they never written anything this long, they have never been expected to come up with their own questions before. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt that this is really doing them a disservice. So this second essay they have to write is a chance for them to practice coming up with topics before next year when they’re expected to come up with their own question and write four times as much on it as they’ve ever written on a topic before.

The student I met with had been struggling to come up with a topic that “grabbed” her, and when she rattled off all the things she’d been considering and various topics she’d been reading up on, I was struck by how sadly generic they were: “Compare X and Y on Z”. “What consequence does X’s theory of Y have on Z’s account of W?” No wonder none of them grabbed her, because none of them were particularly interesting! In fact, not only were they not especially interesting, they weren’t really philosophy, either. Sometimes I think of it the other way around: Not only is this not really philosophy, it’s not interesting! The papers that tend to get the highest grades are the ones that are interesting, and that is usually because the author has picked a topic, or a twist on a topic, which he or she finds interesting. So when you’re given free reign for a topic (all we required is that it intersect with at least one aspect that we covered in the lectures), pick something that interests you! So we chatted about what interests her outside of metaphysics and philosophy of language, to see if we could find a context in which metaphysical or semantic issues may have certain consequences, or where adopting a particular non-metaphysical/semantic view on something might have consequences for what metaphysics or theories of meaning you could adopt, and eventually she went away planning to do something with theories of meaning and political discourse. By taking what she’s learned in this class and applying it to an area of philosophy that she enjoys and is interested in, not only will the essay be easier to write, it’ll probably be much more enjoyable to read and grade, and it is doing real philosophy: Treating the field as a single interconnected whole, and not broken down into rigid subdisciplinary boundaries that partition things off into disparate pieces.

This experience is just the most recent in a number of things that have made me think about what it is we do when we teach in an undergraduate philosophy program. Are we teaching students philosophy or how to be philosophers? (Ideally, it’d be some of each!) When I was an undergraduate, there were a number of required courses – one had to take the intro logic course, plus some course fulfilling the ethics/moral theory requirement, as well as history of ancient philosophy and history of modern philosophy. If I had had free choice, I wouldn’t have done either the ethics of the history of modern, but now that I am in a place where I am a so-called “professional philosopher”, I’m glad I did: There are certain aspects of philosophy as a discipline which I think one should be familiar with if one is to call themself a philospoher or to say one has studied philosophy. This has strongly influenced my choice of readings when developing course syllabi: There are certain theories or people which I feel someone who has, say, taken a philosophy of language course should be familiar with by the time they are done with it, and if I don’t provide them the opportunity to do so, then I am derelict in my duty. Suppose one did analytic philosophy of language without reading any of Frege, Russell, Strawson, Davidson, Donnellan. This would mean either questions of reference and definite descriptions were completely overlooked or that they were taught without giving the full historical context in which the main ideas were developed – and as someone who does much of her research in medieval logic, historical context matters a great deal to me.

I still feel that these sorts of considerations are important, but lately they have come more and more in tension with other pedagogical goals. If one thinks that “there are certain ideas/people one can plausibly expect someone to have studied philosophical subfield X to know”, then this cordons off a part of the syllabi as fixed, leaving less space to go beyond the so-called ‘canon’. Given the substantial evidence amassed in recent years that the lack of diversity in undergraduate philosophical curricula is detrimental to the pedagogy of the discipline, one then has to ask what is more important: Diversifying the syllabus or teaching the canonical topics that one would expect an undergrad to have learned. (Note that I am not saying these are incompatible desires: But trying to do both together is a lot more difficult than doing one or the other!)

I have also spent a lot of time talking about teaching methodology with a colleague, who has strong (and he feels relatively old-school) thoughts about how undergraduate philosophy courses should go: The entire point of a course should be organized around a single coherent thesis, with all lectures feeding into that. One consequence of such an approach is that it diminishes the piece-meal effect that courses can sometimes have – a few weeks of this, a few weeks of that – an effect that I think can be compounded by the fact that many of the year-long modules taught here at Durham are taught by more than one person. Sometimes this can work well: For example, the 1st year Reading Philosophy course focuses on four authors, and having four lecturers, one for each, makes sense. But sometimes, the result is less cohesive and more of “oh, here’s someone to lecture on this for 2–4 weeks”. If courses were designed around a coherent thesis, then some of the detrimental consequences of this piecemeal approach could be mitigated.

This comes back to the main question I’ve been thinking about: Do I want to teach my students philosophy or how to be a philosopher? Which one will serve them better in their future paths? Which one is more interesting? Which is more likely to encourage a diverse and vibrant group of students to pursue the discipline? Where in all of this does the catch-phrase “research-lead teaching” live? And which option will suit me best as a teacher? If I look at all the teachers I’ve had as an undergrad or a graduate student, and consider what marks out the ones that were great from the ones that were mediocre or horrible, there are two things: The teacher loved what he taught, and the teacher loved who he taught. He cared both for his subject matter and for his students, and this permeated every lecture. And the lecturers who hated what they were teaching, or even were merely unenthused about it, or didn’t care at all about their students, they were the ones whose classes I disliked. Taking this as an experience that can universalize, then, I need to teach in such a way that my enjoyment of and interest in my subject comes through.

So I’ve been toying with the thought of radically revising my part of this 2nd year course next year, and not worry about constraining myself to teaching particular philosopher or positions, but instead to look at questions. How can I motivate students to care about problems in philosophy of language? By showing them that these issues have real consequences. Both this year and last year (when I taught about 75% of the same material, but to 3rd year students instead), I have found myself circling back to one single phenomenon. Last year, doing so resulted in writing a joint paper with one of my 3rd years, which has recently been published. This year, when talking with another student about possible essay topics, I found myself writing up ideas that made me go “Hey! I want to write that paper!”

What’s the topic? The problem of fiction (i.e., fictional discourse, non-referential terms, non-existent objects, truth in fiction, etc.). There is a lot of classical material on there that one could go through, such as Meinong, Russell on the present king of France, the endless discussion of whether it’s true that Sherlock Holmes lived on Baker Street, etc. And, yes, this is interesting, but I think there are other questions out there that could be more interesting, such as: What is the semantic status of a conlang? How does a conlang gain meaning? What are the roles that conlangs and natlangs play in the development of fictional worlds? How about notions of canon (something which you find in the context of fanfic, especially of sci fi and fantasy)? Does the way in which the canon/nont-canon distinction functions in contemporary fandom put any constraints on the types of theories of meaning or metaphysics than one can adopt? Does the adoption of certain theories of meaning or metaphysics constrain how we can understand the notion of canon? What counts as fanfic? Some of these questions move (dangerously?) close to being things you’d find in a literature course, and philosophy of language is not (entirely) philosophy of literature, or even literary theory or literary criticism. And yet, there should be more dialogue between literary studies and philosophy of language than there currently is: Each should talk to the other in the same way that philosophy of science should talk to science and vice versa. And if there is one thing I strongly dislike, it’s the question of whether some particular topic is “philosophical enough”. (I hate that phrase). If we take the view that philosophy is about methodology, rather than topics, then any topic can be “philosophical enough” if handled in the right way. What is the right way? Well, maybe that’s what I should be teaching my students, rather than a series of topics.