REVIEW COORDINATOR: Andrea Walsh
Teaching Philosophy to Non-Majors
This is a reflection on my experience teaching philosophy as a general education requirement to students who otherwise never would have signed up for a philosophy course. I discuss the unique benefits that can come from teaching students who aren’t self-motivated in the field, and the mindset I’ve adopted in order to maximize and appreciate these benefits. I discuss the teaching practices and principles I have adopted that have worked for me, and give my thoughts on why we should view these courses as exciting opportunities, and not as burdens.
Although most of us in the humanities think that general education is important, we also often bemoan teaching intro-level general education courses. Most of the students in introductory philosophy courses are required to take the course, and they’re not too excited about philosophy. Teaching these courses can become discouraging, because the students just don’t seem to care. They’re not self-motivated in philosophy, and it’s obviously their lowest priority. I’ve seen this lead to resentment towards students, and a pessimistic belief that college students are undisciplined and don’t understand the value of the humanities. I’ve certainly felt this way before, and I’ve heard this kind of talk all over academic circles.
I no longer see this as a problem for teaching. Instead, I see this as an opportunity to engage in philosophical discussion with a general audience. In order to succeed with these students, who have no particular interest in philosophy, I have to think about how my course can help them do whatever it is they care about most. Rather than sparking an interest in philosophy for its own sake, or teaching the foundations of philosophy, my job is to give them a course that helps them progress on their own educational path. A standard introductory philosophy course is not helpful for most students who are not pursuing the humanities. Although it certainly could be helpful to anyone, most students will not have the desire or the ability to just dive in to new and challenging philosophical material. In my experience, students need a reason to get engaged, and I see it as my job to give them a reason. Thus, in all of my general education courses, I am not just teaching philosophy, I am presenting philosophy as a tool that my students can use to achieve their own educational goals and enrich their lives.
This approach makes the course more rewarding for both myself and my students. As an instructor, I get two major benefits. First, it helps me develop skills in “reaching across the isle.” These students think philosophy is boring, and I have to learn to speak their language in order to convince them otherwise. When it comes to writing articles for public engagement, having practice in the classroom is invaluable. If you can convince a room of college students that ethics of care (for example) is worth their time, chances are you’ve succeeded in presenting your research interests as valuable to the general public. Second, it gives me a lot of information on what non-philosophers think about standard philosophical arguments. I didn’t realize how valuable this was until I saw that I was consistently surprised by my students’ intuitions. After being wrong a few times, I started to bring in readings as a bit of an experiment, and I looked forward to hearing how it went over with them. Both of these benefits rely on genuine engagement on the students’ part, and this is a real challenge when you’re working with students who don’t have an interest in philosophy. I’ve experimented with several methods, and later on I’ll share what I’ve found to work best for me.
There are some major mindset changes I have had to make in order to get better results. In the past, I’ve designed courses according to my own values and ideas about what a course should include. Then, when it doesn’t click with the students, I face the choice of changing things to meet what they want, or sticking with what I believe is important for an introductory course. After making these choices several times, I’ve found that what I really think is important for an intro-level course is that the students improve their critical thinking skills and get exposure to new ideas. It doesn’t matter as much which new ideas, or what material they’re critically thinking about.
I always keep student engagement in mind when I design a course, because this is what makes or breaks the class. I include engaging readings throughout each section of the course, mixed in with the more difficult, dry, or theoretical stuff. I’ve learned that no matter how excited I might be about a topic, telling the students why virtue theory (for example) is unique and interesting doesn’t go terribly far. Instead, a small group activity in which the students apply the theory goes much further. I once taught Buddhist ethics in an ethics course, and I expected this to go over really well, mainly because I love Buddhist ethics, and I thought my excitement would be contagious. They hated it. They didn’t have much to say, but what they did say was that society couldn’t possibly work based on Buddhist ethics, because our economy would collapse, the contemplative life isn’t ideal for many people, and social progress would grind to a halt. So, I had them split up into groups, and choose one criticism of Buddhist ethics, and give reasoning to support the criticism. Then, I asked them to put themselves in the place of a well-informed, reasonable Buddhist, and respond to their criticism. At the end of the exercise, I asked each group to determine which was the better argument and why, and most of the groups felt that their pro-Buddhist argument was better. This was much more effective than my prepared lesson, and I wouldn’t have thought to do this if I wasn’t primarily concerned about engagement. Below, I’ve listed a few things that I do consistently in my courses that have succeeded.
1. On day one, I tell my students that philosophy is nothing new. They’ve been doing it for most of their lives.
I find that the more I can relate philosophy to familiar scenarios, like ethical decisions at work or with family, the more comfortable my students feel making similar connections in class. It’s a lot easier to manage disorganized input than it is to pull input from students who are intimidated and think they have nothing valuable to contribute.
2. I let them take the reins in discussion. Even if it’s a little cumbersome.
I’ve found that if I lead the discussion too much, the students don’t feel any responsibility for making it productive. They tend to give mediocre comments just to earn participation points. However, if I step back and let them manage the discussion (where they’re talking to each other rather than raising their hands and giving me comments and questions), I notice that they take more responsibility over the discussion, and they take it in a direction that is important to them, not what they think I want them to talk about. This gives me valuable information on what they think is important, which I can use when I explain challenging or un-engaging material. Sometimes this means allowing long silences or confusing exchanges, but I find that letting them go through this gives them the opportunity and the motive to improve their discussion skills.
3. When I explain theories, I use informal, simple language.
I give them the difficult terms and put these on the board, and I define and explain these terms in language that I know is comfortable for them. My goal here is to bridge the gap between technical terms and familiar ones, so that they really understand the technical terms and get comfortable using them. For example, when I explain positive and negative duties, I define them as “stuff you have to do” and “stuff you better not do.”
4. I encourage them to connect the material to their own majors.
I tell them that it’s valuable to have people of different backgrounds and areas of expertise discussing philosophy together, and so we should use our unique backgrounds to enrich our conversations. When I started actively encouraging my students to use their own backgrounds, I found that they applied the ideas in interesting ways that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
5. I include high-quality popular articles, interviews, and documentaries on the syllabus.
I’ve included articles from the New Yorker, Scientific American, and other sources for applied issues in ethics. In my ethics unit on privacy, I include video interviews with Edward Snowden. I’ve found that students both enjoy these more and are more likely to read the full article/watch the full video, and have things to say in class. An added benefit of this is that sometimes the arguments given in popular media rely on appeals to emotion or other fallacies, and students often catch these fallacies and that becomes an interesting part of the discussion.
6. I cut material that doesn’t work, no matter how much I like it.
More than teaching certain material, or presenting a certain picture of philosophy, I want my students to be engaged. No matter how good the readings are, if the students don’t get engaged, they’re not getting much out of them. That means I would rather include readings that get them talking than readings that I think are the most important.
7. I’m quick to turn questions posed to me to the rest of the class.
After doing this for a while, students start to naturally raise their hands to answer each others’ questions. This gives me a good idea of how well they understand the material, and it also increases their sense of responsibility for understanding it.
The biggest challenge I face with this style is that the students have so much freedom that discussion can sometimes become unproductive. Sometimes students move a bit too far in the personal opinion direction, or they misunderstand an idea and the discussion gets confusing. This is actually pretty easy to remedy. When the discussion gets too opinionated, I ask everyone to pause, and I put the bullet points of the discussion on the board. I’ll list the major positions that have been said, and then the reasons given for each one. This helps everyone get on the same page and it keeps students from just reiterating each other’s points. Then I’ll look at one position and evaluate a few reasons, to set an example of a more philosophical approach to the discussion. I’ll then ask some guided questions as we go through the positions, like, “what concerns might we have about this position?” or “does this reason get defeated by any of the reasons on the other side?” I have found this method to be much more effective than trying to lay out arguments myself, or reclaim control over the discussion. This way, the students still feel ownership over the conversation, and so they are invested in getting answers. What’s more, they learn how to take a mess of points and opinions and transform it into clear reasons that can be evaluated meaningfully. The messiness of the original conversation ends up being a benefit because they can see the process of going from ill-formed opinions to well-reasoned positions. Some students in the class will learn to ask the class these kinds of questions, and then the peer-led discussion improves greatly over the semester.
These are particular methods that I’ve developed to suit my own teaching style and may not work for everyone. At the heart of all of these techniques is bridging the gap between my students and academic philosophy, and giving them a way in. Doing this has been well worth the effort. Every semester, I’m given the opportunity to discuss philosophy with a very diverse group of young people, and fostering engagement makes this into an invaluable resource. The special challenges that come with teaching non-majors have made me a better philosopher and I think we ought to see these courses as the valuable resource that they are.