Friday, September 7, 2007

Building a Successful Philosophy Club

Recently I've been working with a few of the philosophy (and religion) students here to try to come up with some good solid ideas for (a) running an effective philosophy and religion club and (b) getting students to run it autonomously, with help from faculty in the form of advice (and the all important funding).

I'm pretty new to this sort of thing. What, in your opinion, makes a departmental club successful? Clearly you (a) want the club to make inroads into the larger student community, so that you can build enrollment for your classes, (b) you want it it to forge better (and more collegial) professional relationships betwen students as co-members of the same disciplinary community, and (c) you want it to be fun.

Any suggestsions out there? Are there any "best practices" you'd like to suggest? Or any "avoid that!" suggestions? Perhaps a club should aim for more than what I've outlined?

I'm all ears on this one!


  1. Chris:

    A couple of small observations from our philosophy club:

    1. A great thing to do is to get the students to go to professional meetings. We've had students from our club go to the APA on a few occasions, and it was an excellent experience for them in terms of exposing them to what philosophers do. (Students interested in grad school gain a lot by this obviously.)

    2. The biggest challenge I've seen is continuity in student leadership. You can have a great group of student leaders one year and have lots of activities, and then those students graduate, drop out, whatever, and your club goes into decline. So I think it's crucial to encourage students to take leadership roles and get the older students to mentor the younger ones with respect to club procedures, funding, etc., on your campus.

  2. Michael,

    I'd certain agree on both points. It's good to get students to attend conferences, at least so that they feel connected to the "professional" world that lies beyond undergraduate work. When I was an undergrad I did this, but I was in school in NY, so it was easy to head down to the APA when it was in town. Unfortunately, I'm no where near an APA in Missouri (Chicago the closest -- at least 10 hours away).

    I also agree about student continuity -- I'm the faculty advisor for "Alles" (gay lesbian alliance) and the group has gone (in the 5 years I've been their sponsor) from virtually dead (1 member) to hopping (20 members) and every-present and in everyone's face. Depends on who is around year to year.

    I'm more interested, though, in what kind of events people think should form the _core_ of a good philosophy club. Conferences are great as "dressing" so to speak; but what works as a regular club event? Any success stories out there?

  3. All right then, I've a bit of experience with this having run a couple of graduate seminar series but also been involved in the equivalent of philosophy clubs at different universities.

    I agree with Michael, continuity is one of the biggest challenges, it is probably best organised by graduate students if possible.

    I would say a mix of activities probably works best. A regular seminar series (with members presenting) is tricky to put together unless you have a significantly sized graduate community (It is hard to get anyone else to present, and it is usually hard to get them to as well).

    I'm quite keen on philosophy for children (P4C), and I adapted one activity from that for our philosophy group when I was at Auckland. The basic methodology for P4C is: give source material, get participants to generate questions, sort the questions then pick initial question, discuss until it is done or it is apparent that another question needs to be discussed first.

    As a weekly event what we did was watch an episode of Red Dwarf (British cult Scifi/Comedy show) and then follow the above schema. It basically was a light, relaxed activity with plenty of humour but also some interesting philosophical discussion, without it really being a burden on anyone to do.

    Red Dwarf worked both because of the comedy but also as sci-fi there was plenty of metaphysics questions raised along with the standard ethical ones. But I imagine other shows would work as well.

  4. Could I piggy back on this discusison to ask if anyone's had experience with Phi Sigma Tau (the philosophy honorary) either enhancing or otherwise affecting philosophy clubs?

  5. Just a quick piece of information: we don't have any graduate students at all at my school (not in philosophy, anyway). So using graduate students to help with continuity, or even to run things, isn't possible.

    I do like the movie discussion idea, though.

    Any other thoughts, anyone? Surely there are lots of people out there with advice, both on the "do this" and "don't do this" sides!

  6. Rats that makes continuity difficult then especially because I have a sense that these sorts of things are best organised and run by students rather than by staff.

    In terms of showing movies, I would stick to shorter things if you want much discussion. Red Dwarf is 30 minute episodes and even that was a bit long in that there were often issues we didn't get to discuss. I charted the discussion on a big piece of paper each week, and if we felt there were still open questions from last week we did sometimes just go straight back into the discussion rather than watch another episode. This also meant that we didn't cover the same ground twice since we had access to the conclusions we had already reached.

  7. Chris, one activity I've pondered is to have a reading group with students and faculty, but not on something directly philosophical. Instead, do a group on a novel whose content and themes connect up with philosophical questions. I think this might be a lot of fun, and since students probably won't read a lot of philosophy after they graduate, it could be a valuable experience to read something akin to what they might read after graduating but through a philosophical lens.

    Also, on conferences: You might encourage students to organize their own conference. You could do a one-day conference, have a few student papers with a faculty member as the keynote speaker.

    One last idea: I've wanted our clubs to work with other campus clubs more. For instance, you could get your club together with a club for psychology or neurosciences and organize a panel on whether, say, free will is a scientific or a philosophical question.

  8. Hi,

    I'm an undergraduate at Western Washington U, and we have a great philosophy club going, so I'll share a few thoughts on what we do. Every week we go out to a great pizza joint. We have dinner, some have beer, and there is always great conversation, philosophical and otherwise. The group is probably around 20 on average, with 2-4 faculty. People show up and leave at all different times (we can be there anywhere between 1 and 5 hours, depending on how the conversation goes).

    The other main thing we do is a philosophy conference. Students from all over the country end up coming, and WWU students do comments. A student panel chooses the papers to be presented (including the keynote!--Jonathan Schaffer came last year!) and organizes all the activities. This has been a blast for us. (and I'm organizing it this year!)

    I think the biggest key to our success is the fun we have. There is little (if any) emphasis on 'building a successful philosophy club.' We just get together and talk about interesting things. Sometimes it's philosophy, or politics, or tv, or whatever. And then people invite their friends because it's a blast. People hear the faculty (they're great), and pretty soon lots of people want to do some good philosophy. It's very informal, but it works for us.

    Maybe some of this would only work at WWU, or with a certain group of people (I've only been here one year). But these are my suggestions on what works well for us.

  9. I am trying to set up a philosophy club here at USAO in Chickasha OK and am finding it rather difficult to think of things to do as well. What sort of discussions do you have during your meetings? Do you talk about current events or favored philosophers?


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