Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Not all roads lead to oneself"

The most recent edition of the APA Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy (available here) reprints a newspaper piece by Brown's Felicia Ackerman. In it, Ackerman states a rule she applies to her courses:
"We never discuss our personal lives."

As Ackerman observes, this rule may surprise some, since philosophy is thought to be "personal," especially the philosophical questions she addresses in bioethics. But here's Ackerman's rationale:

  • "Intellectual discussion requires the unconstrained exchange of views," and the sharing of personal information, especially about "sources of distress" in people's lives, impedes such discussion. Ackerman uses this example: "How freely will students criticize a fictional rape victim for not reporting the rape if they know that one of their classmates is agonizing over having made the same choice?"
  • Whatever benefit sharing personal experiences might bring to class discussion, it's outweighed by its risk of "derailing intellectual interchange." Students from diverse backgrounds can bring their personal knowledge to bear on such discussions without discussing personal facts about themselves.
  • Discussion of students' personal lives may "reinforce the validity of personal experiences," but Ackerman's goal as a teacher is not reinforce said validity, but to "make students more rigorous thinkers about philosophical issues."
  • Teachers who share personal experiences might be more effective role models, but Ackerman disavows students modelling themselves on her.
  • It may sometimes be true that students better appreciate abstract issues by relating them to personal experience, but this is more constraining than enabling. "People are already interested in themselves. Education should stimulate their interest in other things. Not all roads lead to oneself."
I have my own reactions to Ackerman that I may share later in comments, but I'm curious to know if others endorse her 'never discuss your personal life' rule for teaching. What are the pedagogical merits or drawbacks of such a rule?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I honor Ackerman's stated intentions, but I cannot do it. While I do not invite students to share personal information, I teach with anecdote and many of those stories are from personal experience.

  3. I teach with anecdotes as well, but I avoid any with very heavy emotional content. For example, if I were teaching applied ethics, I would avoid discussing any life or death decisions I've had to make. Likewise, if a student says something with heavy emotional content, I tend to steer it back to the philosophical point at hand. It is distracting and can make the students feel under an emotional obligation. And there are always those few students who are looking for an opportunity to share a little too much of themselves!

    But I think anecdotes, from me and from the students, are humanizing, enlivening, and show how philosophical questions arise in the small actions of everyday life.

  4. I use thought experiments, contemporary examples, and things i know they have experienced but I never talk about my personal life. Personal anecdotes may be entertaining and humanize our interactions, but they never justify positions. In that sense, I understand where she is coming from. Be that as it may, her rape example is not a good one since students never (or hardly ever in my experience) know something so personal about one of their classmates in the first place.

  5. By the way, I thought her policy (in the other piece in that issue) regarding no strict deadlines for written work may work at Brown, but i could never imagine leaving it to the students to decide when they want to turn their work in. As a matter of fact, I did this once or twice without thinking and it led to students doing what she thinks they would do if they had strict deadlines, namely writing crappy papers at the end of term. It seems better to err on the side of deadlines. Your thoughts?

  6. I have used some personal anecdotes or experiences as examples in class, but nothing too 'serious'. I think it helps students not only engage with the material, but, being a first-generation college minority female who teaches at a school that serves lots of students fitting that description, it allows students to picture the possibly that they also could do what I do. Not that I want to encourage my students to go on to become professors, but I think it is important for them to know that it is possible for people who come from a similar background and share similar experiences.

    1. It's important to give students a view of what is possible. I applaud your willingness to share your journey—you are blazing a trail.

  7. By and large, I think I'm on Ackerman's side. I think one purpose that personal stories might serve — making some philosophical question more vivid and immediate — can be equally well served by tales from others' lives (neither mine nor my students). An example that comes to mind is Quill's famous 'Diane' article - in my experience, this produces in students the sense of emotional gravity that *could* be produced by way of personal stories from me or my students.

    What I find attractive about Ackerman's position is that (I think) she's right to think that, especially now, the purpose of education is to counteract solipsism and to correct the tendency mistake one's local perspective for knowledge. Philosophy has a central role here. For as Whitehead put it, philosophy is “the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity".

  8. I occasionally share personal stories, but generally not for the purpose of justifying a position. I've actually moved closer to the position of Ackerman here, for the reasons stated above, especially the point about counteracting solipsism. I don't have an exceptionless rule about this, however.

    I've found that sharing news stories related to the ethical issues or theories we are discussing has many of the advantages of personal anecdotes from myself or the students, without the disadvantages. I often use a text of case studies from real life by Jessica Pierce, Morality Play (Waveland Press) which has many good cases for discussion, and is relatively inexpensive.


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