Friday, December 17, 2010

Finding the Mean in Intro to Philosophy

(cross posted at A Ku Indeed)

Without a doubt, of all the courses I have taught, the most frustrating is Introduction to Philosophy (called “Classic Problems in Philosophy” at my college). Every time I teach it I am left thinking that the course was a total bust for one reason or another. I typically then try to fix the problems from the last run and alter the course next time, only to find that the changes fix those problems but create whole set of other new ones. Trying to figure out the course structure for this class that seems to maximally “work” can drive you a bit nuts.

One of the problems with this particular course is that it’s hard to nail down what it is meant to accomplish – or, perhaps, another way to think about it is that it actually needs to accomplish too many things at once because there are so many different types of students in it. On the one hand, there are the prospective majors or minors you would like to attract, so you need to give them enough coverage and depth in particular issues to allow them to more seamlessly integrate into the next higher level of philosophy classes.

On the other hand, it is clear that the course is mostly filled with non-majors. Some students take the course because they think it is interesting, some take it because it fills a distribution requirement, and some take it because it fit their schedule (and some for one or more of those reasons combined). That’s a lot of people with a lot of different agendas. Moreover, it’s also a simple fact that an introduction-level course in philosophy tends to have students with a wide range of abilities, a range that is considerably narrower in upper divisional philosophy courses. Let’s face it, for some students, theoretical abstract thinking of the type done in philosophy comes easy, or is fun. For others, it’s an extremely difficult task that they never seem to really get the hang of, much less enjoy. So you need to challenge the ones with more ability while not leaving the others behind – lost, dispirited, and probably hating philosophy as a subject.

There are so many ways to talk about the difficulties of teaching this class well. In this post, though, I just want to think about a a narrower question, with the above concerns in mind — should you use more content or less? In my previous times teaching this class, I went with a “three problem” format, where I taught a problem a month (lot of detail, obviously). Students who want to major love that approach. The rest: not so much. Moreover, all students are left with the incorrect belief that philosophers really just think about mind, free will, and personal identity, and that’s it.

This time, I swung the pendulum the other way completely. I used a book with 50 problems in it, and we covered a problem a day (36 in total, I think). My original thinking was that this approach would be better for the larger percentage of the class, as we wouldn’t get too deep into any particular issue so philosophy would be more accessible. At the same time, I figured, majors and minors would get a better grasp of the whole field, and I thought that might serve them well later on.

Bzzzzt. Wrong. I think this method is a failure – or at least it was for me teaching it. The future majors and minors were fine. No problem with them – but they are naturally interested in the subject, are willing to overcome frustration, and probably have higher ability levels overall (not that we make them that way — philosophy majors tend to come in with pretty high ACTs). The rest of the class…well, it didn’t work as well for the most part.

Why? I think I honestly underestimated, for one thing, just how difficult these problems really are. The book was simple – each problem discussion was four pages long — so very “coffee table” oriented, content-wise. But once you start talking about these issues, it is clear that each problem is a world unto itself and difficult to get one’s head around in one hour. Each of them requires more than a day to discuss, even if you keep things very, very simple.

Hence the problem: because the problems are so theoretically complicated – even when they are treated simply — many students (I think) felt frustrated and likely developed a feeling of helplessness. With no time to digest each problem, talk about it, reflect on it, and so on, it was like being hit by a mallet every class. “Didn’t understand Wittenstein’s beetle problem? Well, no worries, we’ll be moving on to the Liar’s Paradox next time, where you’ll be similarly thrown for a loop! And then on to the Veil of Perception! Ha ha!” I can only imagine how that approach dispirited many, leading them into total frustration.

This is leading me to think that perhaps the best approach is like virtue – in the mean. Not three problems, but not 36 either. Perhaps one problem a week, using the same book I just used. One way to go about it might be to ask students to choose, at the start of the semester, the 15 problems that seem most interesting out of the 50. From there, you can work on week-long discussions (with extra handouts and reading, perhaps) on those topics. I think this might actually work – not too much content, not too little, a lower level of depth but more time to reflect, digest and think about the problems we are looking at.

Or at least that’s what I’m thinking at the moment. Any ideas? Similar frustrations? Perfect solutions?


  1. Chris, I think this problem of depth vs. breadth in intro classes is a common one. In my situation, teaching on 10-week quarters, it becomes even trickier.

    I can see that you may have erred too much in either direction in the past: lots of problems or topics with little depth, few problems or topics with little breadth. Here's a compromise I've tried to strike (the example is from intro to ethics instead of straight intro, but the general idea seems applicable to both): So you have a certain amount of content you aim to address. In my case, that's about one ethical theory or controversial ethical issue per week. Aim to cover that content in the first 70-80% of the course, then present students a menu of options for the content they'd like to address in the remaining weeks of the course. They can choose to expand on material they already studied or study entirely new content. Then spend the remainder of the term addressing their chosen content in depth.

    The advantages:
    - You get some balance in terms of breadth versus depth. Some topics get discussed in a more superficial way (position, objections), but with others the dialectic can get pushed a little further (position, objections, responses, more objections,, etc.).
    - Prospective majors or minors get a taste (at the end of the term)of what majors courses are likely to be like.
    - Students get to exercise some autonomy with course content. I've found that this leads to more buy-in and effort. For those who are "the rest," as you called them, the depth and detail are less scary if they've had some say as to what the depth and detail are about. They're more willing to stay with a topic they had some say in choosing.

    Obviously, the downside for you is that you have to be more nimble, since part of your syllabus is a blank and you may have more material prepared since the students will be choosing among several topic options. But I've found that to be fairly manageable.

  2. I do something similar to Michael in my Applied Ethics course, and it has worked out well. I determine the topics for most of the sections and give the students a range of options for the last section. It really helps with the end of semester lull--since they chose the topic, they have more of an interest in it.

    For Intro, I do something like you're talking about, but range the sections more broadly (not just metaphysics). Here is the typical breakdown (15 week semester, 3 weeks on the first section, 4 each on the remaining):

    I. Introduction
    a. Overview of the field
    What is philosophy, typical questions, a chart of different branches, pointing out which ones we'll be focusing on).

    b. Logic
    Speed version--inference, argument, and a few argument forms and fallacies. Just enough to give them a vocabulary for analyzing arguments (and giving them a sense of what a logic course might look like).

    c. Why do philosophy?
    I rotate a few pieces (usually have them read 2): Plato, Apology; Russell, Value of Philosophy, I can't think of the title of the Locke piece (Love of Truth vs. Enthusiasm?); Clifford, Ethics of Belief; Mill "On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion"; Gilovich ch 2, 3 or 4 from How we Know what Isn't So. We talk about why it might be important to think about thinking and why it matters what we believe.

    II. Epistemology
    a. Rationalism
    b. Empiricism
    c. Kant (it seems to work--it's a little cartoonish, though)
    d. sometimes I add the Rorty/Dennett debate about truth.

    III. Philosophy of Mind
    a. Mind-body problem
    1. Dualism (Substance, property)
    2. Materialism (type, token)
    3. Epiphenomenalism (return to dualism)

    b. Consciousness

    IV. Ethics
    a. Virtue Theory
    b. Consequentialism
    c. Deontology (Kant--again fast and light)
    d. On rare occasion, I throw in Rawls as a hint of Political Philosophy (I think it's good for them to think about the Original Position).

    This isn't perfect, but I feel that they're in a position to fairly accurately describe the range of philosophical problems, and (for those who might continue), have a sense of which kinds of problems they might find interesting in the future.

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  4. I'm a sociologist but faced a similar set of issues when teaching intro to sociology. The thing that strikes me here, is that in addition to content you want to actually teach some of those skills of abstract theoretical thinking.

    The majors and minors will benefit from a more explicit treatment of skills they will need to do well. And non-majors will have a better idea of what philosophy is. Because topics don't really tell us much about a discipline. Discipline is more about how you approach those problems than the problems themselves.

    That's a trickier thing to do. But it suggests that spending a week (or even more for a couple of topics) on a topic makes a lot of sense. Gives you an opportunity to show the students how to approach the problem as a (novice) philosopher. And this might help them approach later topics with less frustration.

    Heck, it might even entice some of those non-majors to do more philosophy :-)


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