I am curious if anyone has experimented with alternative and effective methods for teaching Ancient (Greek) Philosophy. I have found it a difficult subject to teach, but over the past few semesters, I have been experimenting with something that has worked surprisingly effectively.
On the first day of my Ancient Greek philosophy class, while most of my students are beginning to realize that the rumors surrounding the course work-load are true, and after I have begun developing some useful terminology, such as “logos” and “nous”, I am typically, but unsurprisingly, met with at least one student in class who simply does not believe that anything I am saying will ever make sense to her. Then, as I begin to develop something of a systematic explanation of Greek Philosophy in the next few days of class, I find that I quickly lose even my best students’ interest. Why does Ancient Greek philosophy feel so…well, ancient? “Because it is!” my students tell me.
My students often remind me that while I see the relevance of these ancient ideas, they barely see the relevance of philosophy itself. So, when I come to class overly eager to tackle Plato’s solution to the Parmenidean/Heraclitean problem of the one and the many, my students quite rightfully want to tackle each other on the way out of the door.
In order to combat this diluvial dysphoria, I have experimented with a method that not only keeps the students engaged, but also prepares them to think and work in philosophy (and its fun for me too). It is something rather intuitively dissonant: I simply take the "ancient" arguments and put them into modern symbolic notation. Since very few of my students have ever studied anything resembling philosophy before, they move from paralysis to curiosity while I translate Parmenides’ argument for the One, or one of Zeno's paradoxes, into modern symbolic notation.
What I have come to realize, at least for my students, is that they are fascinated by philosophy, particularly how philosophy can take something very seemingly simple (like free will or immortality or the existence of God) and make it entirely baffling, only to put it back together again. Ancient arguments are fun…for me, but my students simply do not immediately see the philosophy behind these antique articulations. When I draw up the arguments in symbolic notation, and walk my students through each argument to show how the arguments work, my students not only begin to reinvigorate their fascination with philosophy, but they also, strangely, begin to take ancient philosophy seriously. It is as if they had found something entirely new that few else have noticed.
I find teaching ancient philosophy to be difficult, and my students may think I am nuts for studying it; so I try to win them over by proving them right. After all, they already think I am crazy for being a philosopher. Prove them right and win them over! This idea was confirmed for me after reading Mark Edmudson’s insights in his NYT article on "good teachers", which Michael Cholbi formerly posted on. Here is an excerpt.
“Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest. Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar. The philosophy professor steps in the window the first day of class and asks her students to write down the definition of the word ‘door.’”
I would be very grateful to read your thoughts on such teaching methods and/or alternative ways of teaching Ancient Philosophy.