Monday, December 3, 2007

The Bowl is more than half full

(Cross-posted at PEA Soup)

I wanted to put in a plug for what is certainly one of the best pedagogical developments in philosophy over the past decade: Ethics Bowl. I'm sure many of our readers are familiar with this competition and its value as a teaching tool. I'll only add my own observations here about the value of Ethics Bowl as a teaching tool and invite others to discuss their experiences with it. (I also have some tips for those interested in getting Ethics Bowl started on their campus, so please contact me if you're interested.)

As I see it, Ethics Bowl provides three things that are very hard to come by in traditional philosophy classroom settings:

: One of the challenges of both teaching and studying philosophy is that its value is sometimes not immediately evident. From the student's point of view, it may not be obvious how studying philosophical questions changes you in terms of your skills and attitudes. From an instructor's point of view, it's often frustrating to think that whatever benefit studying philosophy has for students, that benefit may not be tangible until many years down the road, well after students have graduated (and you've lost all contact with them). Because it's a competitive public event, Ethics Bowl makes the benefit of studying philosophy evident fairly quickly, in a way that is gratifying to students and instructor alike.

Publicity: Ethics Bowl puts the value of philosophy (and other disciplines insofar as they concern themselves with ethical questions) in the public eye. For students, the chance to prove their mettle before experts who aren't their instructors can be a powerful motivator, and when successful, a powerful way of vindicating their efforts. And because Ethics Bowl is a team event, it counteracts the common picture of philosophy as a discipline that progresses thanks to the contributions of solitary geniuses.

Practicality: Ethics Bowl shows that the study of philosophy (and ethics, in particular) is relevant to life outside the classroom. The cases often involve problems in their communities, workplaces, etc. that students may have to confront directly later in life. In this regard, I think it instills a kind of ethical sensibility -- a kind of radar for ethical phenomena -- that is difficult to instill through traditional classroom teaching.

(And on a side note: My Cal Poly Pomona squad won the California Regional Ethics Bowl on Saturday. A hearty congratulations to them!)


  1. I was introduced to Ethics Bowl several years ago by a colleague out in Utah. I began fielding a team every year, working with them all semester, and then going out to Utah with them for the Wasatch Region's competition. However, the hazards of the trip convinced me that I should look to start a regional bowl out here in Colorado; thus, the Rocky Mountain Regional Ethics Bowl was born. We hosted our first competition in early November and the students had a great time. I'm happy to report that the home team won the final round and that, in the interests of sportsmanship, will be inviting two members from the second place team to join them for the Nationals in Feb. (Not all of the winning team members were able to go to the Nationals.)

    In addition to the pedagogical advantages you point to, I think one or two others might be mentioned. In the past 5 years or so of coaching teams, I've noticed that even though the students invariably begin as relative strangers to one another, they form surprisingly tight bonds that carry through the competition itself. As a result, I've noticed some fairly significant philosophical 'cross-pollination: They tend to study together, consult one another on papers they're writing, and this year's team even has organized dinners together on occasion. There is no question that the EB competition has added something of value to their college experience.

    I have also found that it provides a golden opportunity to hold them to high expectations for their conduct. When they lose, they're expected to be gracious about it; when the judging is 'spotty', they're expected to take it in stride. I am pleased to say that no team of mine has ever disappointed me in this regard. And while there might have been a bit of grousing back at the hotel, their public conduct has always been impeccable - even when it was hard.

    I'm really hoping that EB takes off in the Rocky Mountain Region, and that next year's event is at least treble the size of this year's.

  2. Michael--

    Thanks for mentioning the Ethics Bowl. We don't have a team at my university yet, but I'm interested in thoughts about how to advise a team once it has started.

    I have been on the case writing committee for the regional bowls for a little while now (in addition to judging one year, which was a lot of fun) and would be interested to hear what people have to say about how the cases are working out, what makes a case better from the teams' perspective, and so on.

    For those who aren't familiar with the Bowl, I think Michael is exactly right about conjuring the value of philosophy in front of everyone. Plus, the philosophy that gets done is usually pretty high level. I've been very impressed by the teams that competed when I was judging and their ability to make a solid ethical argument.

  3. Adam,

    I may add some thoughts later on about case construction, but here are my thoughts about creating and sustaining an EB team:

    1. Once students hear about Ethics Bowl, there's usually plenty of interest. The challenge is often faculty resources. A lot of schools have started teams one year only to have them disappear the next. So whether it's you or someone else, you need to have a long-term commitment from someone on the faculty to coach each year.

    2. EB is an enormous amount of work for students; many will avoid it for that reason. Try to get them course credit (and credit for yourself) by making it a fall course. I first did it as an independent study and now have a regular course on the curriculum. The alternative is to have them do it as an extracurricular; this is OK, but I've found that without that grade and credit looming over them, many students will flake out on you, sometimes at the last and most inopportune moment.

    3. Depending on your institutional situation, you may need to persuade an administrator to let you do Ethics Bowl as a course. You cannot really prepare more than about 10 students, in my experience. That may not be a problem, but where I am (where general education courses have 35-40 students) teaching a 10-student course requires special dispensation.

    4. EB means travel to a regional competition. Again, depending on how your institution operates, you'll need to figure out how to fund that travel, and I recommend starting on that issue as soon as you can. In my case, the students created a student government organization and applied for student activities funds. But it'd be a shame not to be able to compete at a regional because you don't have the money.


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