Teaching philosophy challenges us to explain why philosophical problems matter. I organize my classes around questions with clear stakes, like: Are we free?, Can we know if a machine is conscious?, and Does God exist? I begin discussions by asking why giving different answers might matter: if there is no God, does that change how you would live? My goal is to help students see that philosophy is not about what some people have said, but about the answers we give to living questions.
But if my classes begin with questions, their goal is to equip students with the intellectual tools they need to respond to those questions constructively. Through classwork and written work I emphasize that understanding philosophical problems depends on self-understanding – understanding one’s own basic commitments, and that resolving these problems can only be achieved through rational exchange.
If I want my students to truly engage with a philosophical question, then they need to engage with me and with each other in class. To make that happen I can’t just lecture for an hour; I need to engage them in a guided discussion, and that means encouraging their participation with questions. This is most important with students at the introductory level. So, I’ve developed a few techniques for fostering discussion.
One technique I use is to frame questions as options. I try to keep in mind what it’s like to encounter the material for the first time. Good questions can lead to engagement by framing difficult concepts in an accessible way. I try to avoid questions that can seem confrontational. Questions like “what does Plato mean by X?” can generate blank stares and downturned faces. Instead, I try to give students options to reason through, “Do you think Plato meant Y or Z?” Especially for someone new to philosophy, I’ve found that framing questions as options goes a long way toward fostering classroom discussions because it encourages students to explain their answer by offering their reasons for it.
Another technique I’ve found to be particularly successful at the introductory level is to break students up into small “discussion groups” once a class to talk through a key question for a few minutes. These groups are useful because they provide a venue for quieter students to participate, and because they can help students stay focused by introducing a new activity.
Both of these techniques aim at fostering student’s skill of rational exchange by practicing it with each their peers. When they’ve engaged with class, and they’re giving reasons for their beliefs, then they’ve truly begun to see that a philosophical education means not just recognizing problems and assumptions, but responding to those problems and doubts through critical thinking.
In upper-division classes, I begin each segment of a course with an in-class writing exercise where I ask students to offer a short provisional answer to the organizing question of that segment (Are we free?). At the end of the segment I ask students to reassess their original response, and to offer a new answer to the same question. This exercise helps students see how their thinking has evolved through our reading and class discussion. I’ve found that students are particularly impressed by comparing their first response of the course with their last: as an exercise it really highlights how their thinking can evolve and becomes more sophisticated over the semester.
Written Work & Assessment
My writing assignments emphasize the need to explain the philosophical problem they focus on. This means explaining why the question deserves attention and why different people find different answers compelling. Written assignments are first and foremost the medium where students can practice the skill of giving reasons for their beliefs. Because writing well and developing arguments are both difficult, and because getting better means getting practice, I make essays short enough that it’s feasible for students to write at least few each a term. This is useful because I believe giving students multiple opportunities for feedback is really productive in promoting improvement.
This isn’t just a truism: there is an important difference between more feedback and multiple opportunities for feedback. In my time teaching writing-intensive courses, I’ve found that giving too many comments on one paper can mean nothing gets improved. Too many comments on a draft can be overwhelming, and when students don’t know where to start, they don’t change anything, or prioritize poorly. To make sure this doesn’t happened, I conclude my comments with an endnote giving each student explicit directions on the one or two areas they should concentrate on improving. For instance, I might suggest to a student that “Next time I want you to try pre and post outlining; write an outline after you’ve finished the draft, and ask how well it lines up with the thesis you present in the introduction. Try to revise the introduction to match the essay you wrote.” I’ve found that directing students toward one or two specific goals at a time is a useful tool for encouraging sustained improvement.
I try to use technology to foster engagement with my courses and the topics they address. This has been an evolving effort. Most recently, I’ve used online survey software to ask students to answer one or two questions about the assigned readings prior to class. Sometimes the questions are simple, like: “Do you believe God exists?” Sometimes the questions are much more focused on a text, for instance: “Alston argue we cannot choose to believe something, just because we want to. Is it possible to believe something, just because you want it to be true? always, sometimes, or never?” I reveal the results in class. I’ve found that this can generate quite a lot of excitement, and students are often curious to see what the class thinks, as opposed to its most vocal members. This technique fosters engagement in two ways. First, and most simply, having to respond to the survey before class nudges students to do the reading. Second, I also tell students that they should be prepared to explain their answers, and so everyone comes to class knowing that they may be asked to contribute.