Teaching Memo 1: The Purposes and Methods of an Introduction to Philosophy Course

When I was an undergraduate, I remember my first day in my introduction to philosophy class at Washington & Jefferson College, which was team-taught by David Schrader and Lloyd Mitchell (guest starring Andrew Rembert, on occasion). The course was subtitled “Beginning the Conversation,” and the two professors introduced the material on the first day by characterizing philosophy as an ongoing conversation about what is important to know, to do, and to believe in a human life and for humanity in general. (This, of course, is what I recall from ten years ago – and my memory of their lecture that day surely has been affected by the passage of time and my experiences in the classroom since.) The emphasis of that day’s discussion was that many brilliant thinkers have contributed to an ongoing conversation on these topics, and that, as students, we could participate in the conversation.

A big part of why I pursued philosophy seriously in the time since that first day in Philosophy 101 was that I have always liked the idea that I could participate in the grand tradition that traces its roots over two millennia back. I try to communicate this opportunity to my own students as well. Some students jump at the chance to participate in a conversation about difficult questions, while others don’t immediately think they have much to say. Part of the job of a philosophy instructor is to help this latter group of students discover for themselves what they think about the world in which they live. Many 18-year-old college freshmen are accustomed to life in a world that does not ask them what they think and which never requires them to consider common views critically. The philosophy instructor’s goal, in my mind, should be to demand that they think critically so that they can apply that skill to other areas of their lives. If the group of students that comes into my classroom believing that they don’t have anything important to say leaves at the end of the term at least with the knowledge that they can generate new ideas by thinking critically – and thereby come to have something to say – then I consider a large part of my task to be successfully completed.

Anyone who teaches intro classes knows what a challenge it is to describe the world’s oldest and broadest discipline in fifty minutes or less/fewer. In my intro classroom back in 2003, Mitchell and Schrader described what philosophy is supposed to do and what it is all about. There’s no way to do justice for the discipline, though, even for the most gifted thinkers and orators. This is due in part to the fact that the audience varies in its composition and most introductory students just aren’t mentally prepared to consider that so much about our existence remains unsettled. (Mitchell and Schrader did as good a job as I’ve seen, to be sure.)

Whether the “real purpose of philosophy” is to solve the toughest problems or simply to acknowledge them for what they are – perhaps re-characterizing old questions in new dress – a key component to any introductory course must be to encourage students to participate in the conversation that is the discipline of philosophy.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
This entry was posted in Teaching Memos and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Teaching Memo 1: The Purposes and Methods of an Introduction to Philosophy Course

  1. jamesroom964x says:

    I like your take on trying to get kids excited about philosophy. I’ve had many philosophy instructors, but the best ones frame philosophical thought as a conversation. It can be hard to attach importance to what a long dead philosopher has said, but it always helped me to conceptualize it as listening to the conversation that has gone before, so that I can contribute more effectively.

    • Steve Capone says:

      Thanks for reading and responding!

      In terms of connecting what long-dead white guys had to say about tough questions, what I try to do is characterize each thing we discuss/read in terms of how the concept applies today. For better or worse, my examples always seem to come from the Simpsons, Family guy, sports, or politics… not everyone connects with that stuff – and, *gasp*, many of my younger students don’t seem to be big Simpsons fans.

      It helps also to let the students know that if they don’t like or understand my contemporary example, they can always prod me for other examples.

      My best instructors welcomed me into the conversation and challenged my points of view in a constructive manner, so I try to bring that same approach to the classroom.

      One thing I have trouble responding to is when a student doesn’t feel compelled by one of the philosophical problems that seem so obviously compelling to me – and the contemporary examples don’t seem to improve their impression. Sometimes, in those cases, I’m not sure what to do about it. If they aren’t interested in challenging different points of view about, for instance, “How should I live?” – if they’re die-hard relativists, for example… this is a tough nut to crack for the instructor.

      Thanks again for commenting!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s