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?