Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shaking things up in history of philosophy courses

A reader asks:
Just yesterday I started teaching a summer course on early modern. We read Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant (with a few others mixed in here and there). The problem is, there are only six students. And we meet for two hours and fifteen minutes each day, five days a week. My experience with modern has been that the default class is the lecture, with an active back and forth mixed in throughout. I don't think this is ideal generally, but more importantly, I think it could lead to a very dull next four weeks. Do you have any advice on how to make a small history course (designed for first-timers) more interesting? Any help would be appreciated.

Anyone have any ideas here? My experience echoes the writer's. In history of philosophy courses, the central goals (textual exposition, grasping the main doctrines and arguments, etc.) are challenging on their own, so students have to lean heavily on instructor expertise. As a result, the 'punctuated lecture' tends to emerge as the default format. What might be some techniques to shake things up and keep the classroom experience fresh and lively?


  1. With such a small class, I'd be inclined to put away the lecture notes, get out the text, and just read through and discuss specific passages. Maybe for the first half-hour of class I would lay out the general scheme of the text, but for most of the class I would put the onus on the class to say what they think a philosopher is getting at here, whether they can think of any problems for it, etc. I'd almost run it more like a book-club than a college class, obviously with higher standards and more facts but hoping to get that genuine feel of people contributing. At that class size, I'd be afraid that anything else would seem artificial.

  2. I'd do it like Marta -- maybe even have them pair up and work on particular passages, then share their results with the group. I'd also open things up with them and ask for pop culture references that seem to take on the same themes... Movies, in particular, often take on many of the questions as the early modern folks.

  3. If possible, move your class to a room that's appropriate for the number of students in it. If you're in a classroom designed for thirty or more students, try moving to a seminar room where you can sit around a table. I've found it makes a difference, especially if you're going to do a lot more reading through the texts in class.

    Other ideas: Ask students to identify before class passages that they think are important and come prepared to discuss them. If they can't identify which passages are central, then use a class session to outline a work (or a section of a work) to help them see how to identify important passages. Also, with six students, you can ask them to each give a presentation. Have them work with you in advance on it, if you think they'd be really at sea without help.

  4. I don't know if this is the sort of thing you have in mind, but I sometimes have my students pick (or I assign them) a secondary thinker whom they will "represent" in the class room. They must read up on the thinker a bit and then critique the day's reading from the point of view of their thinker. It gets students into the stance of taking a perspective for the sake of argument, even if they have not themselves necessarily decided where they stand on the issue. I wrote about it here: http://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/on-the-problem-of-the-canon-in-modern-philosophy/

    Beyond that, I'd second Marta and Gary here. You might also consider more structured activities, such as debates, presentations, and so on, if only to break up and vary the class time!

  5. Are you using the translations of the texts at Early Modern Texts (http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/ These should make the material more accessible.

  6. I often require students to being in questions and/or comments, on index cards, that they have over the readings. I'll start off class by seeing if there are any verbal questions for any previous material. Once we are done with that, I collect the cards and as a class we go through them. For each question or comment I first let the class try to answer, then start filling in the gaps, if any. With some good questions this can help pass an entire class period. I usually have an emergency lecture prepped in case we run out of questions. I also typically reserve the last 10-15 minutes for review/lecture where I hit the high points I want them to remember or focus upon for the readings.

    Like a few other people have mentioned, with such as small class size I'd also be tempted to work in some student presentations, maybe a debate or two, watch and review video clips, comment on current events, etc. .

    I'd also be tempted to have a classroom discussion to see what kinds of things the students would be interested in doing to help make the class more fun or engaging for them.


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