Philosophical Delight in the Classroom

Philosophical Delight in the Classroom


One thing that makes us different from most of our undergraduate students is that we really enjoy philosophy and they do not. It may drive us to frustration and despair sometimes, but, generally, we find it interesting and take pleasure in it in a way that is foreign to our students. Yet, every once in a while its possible to get students to catch a glimpse, firsthand, of the fun in philosophy, to have a moment of philosophical delight in the classroom. Wouldn’t it be great to create a lower-level course chock full of such moments?

Let’s do it. Think back to those moments in the classroom where the joy in philosophy was palpable. Tell us as much of the relevant details as you feel like (the topic, the reading, the argument, the insight, the method, the reaction, etc.). With enough contributions, we might be able to craft some kind of superphilosophycourse, or at least add some good stuff to our existing classes.

(art by Keith Haring)

guest
9 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Adriel Trott
6 years ago

I wonder if some of the joy is in seeing the hard work and frustration of slogging through difficult thinking finally bring one to an insight. If so, might it be impossible to have a course of highs? Coming to the light is painful a la Plato? (Incidentally that is also my workout mantra.)Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

I had moments like this just yesterday, when I had students in an intro-level practical ethics course for engineers offer group presentations on Aristotle’s virtues. The assignment was to present, in some creative format, an everyday situation in which some particular emotion or domain of human activity would be in play, to show three possible responses to the situation and then to discuss the situation and the responses with the class in terms of Aristotle’s account of one of the moral virtues.

The students really threw themselves into the performances. One group made a short film over the weekend, somewhere off campus, and showed it to the class to prompt a discussion of anger and even temper. Another group made three short clips reenacting an armed robbery reported last month under the Clery Act to prompt a discussion of courage.

To my delight, two of the groups chose wit as the virtue they would explore, and took very different approaches to it. One of those groups started with a good one about an engineer, a physicist and a mathematician . . .

The discussion in the class was lively and fruitful, bringing out the degree to which the virtues intertwine, how friendship is pervasive in our moral experience, and even the centrality of perception and imagination in ethical conduct. Without my having prompted them or even directed them to Book VI of the Nicomeachean Ethics, they seem to have stumbled across the idea of practical wisdom.

I had students in my intro-level environmental ethics class, also mainly for engineers, do something similar with everyday objects and the ways in which they are implicated in natural, technological and social systems. One of the groups chose bubble wrap, which came into the world as a failed attempt to make a new kind of wallpaper . . . an object lesson (quite literally!) in how the meaning of a technological artifact can shift.Report

Chris Nage
Chris Nage
6 years ago

Yesterday, in my class, it was bananas.
I use an essay by Alfred Schütz called “The Well-Informed Citizen” as a way into discussions of the taken-for-granted character of the social world, and in particular, our general relationship to the bombardment of information we live under (the course is about the experience of knowledge and social reality in the information age). While prepping I came up with the example of how we rely on a taken for granted recipe for solving problems.
I began the class by playing Harry Belafonte singing “The Banana Boat Song,” and then opened discussion by saying, “Okay, bananas.” I explained that I eat a banana daily, but have run into a problem: I’m out of bananas. “What should I do?” When they solved my banana crisis for me (“go to the grocery store and buy bananas”), I asked how they knew, and why this didn’t raise any questions for them, and why there wasn’t just a banana cart roaming my neighborhood with Harry Belafonte in it singing “Day-O!”
It was a good way to begin to see how philosophical questioning was relevant to the every day, and using the silly but mundane example helped promote a good spirit.Report

Ruth Groff
Ruth Groff
6 years ago

This is such a wonderful idea! I can’t wait to read more new comments.

I’ve recently started asking students if they think that Cephalus would still be free of his frenzied demons if he had access to Viagra. I like it as a way to get them into thinking about whether or not his self-understanding is accurate, and all of the issues that follow from that. Still re: Plato, I teach the concept of “form” via that Sesame St. “One of these things is not like the other” bit. It invariably sparks interest in the question of the ontological status of universals, even in a required political philosophy class.

I’m pretty sure that I think that one way to inspire a love of philosophy, regardless of content, is to try to be really good at helping students see what it is that they are actually asking or saying – or groping for – no matter how mangled their comments might be. That movement from mangle to clarity is so pleasurable. How could a person not want more once they’ve had a taste?Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

Ruth, you reminded me of the time, long ago, when I had the crazy idea it would be a good thing to have students in an intro philosophy course read Timaeus.

I made a big batch of play dough from scratch, gave each student a lump of the stuff, and informed them that they were each now the Demiurge.

I asked if someone could give a clear definition of a sphere. When one was supplied and everyone agreed it was good (or Good), I told them to make a sphere of play dough.

Needless to say, the play dough itself resisted . . .Report

Shane Glackin
Shane Glackin
6 years ago

Teaching Philosophy of Science, I like to demonstrate the theory- or expectation-ladenness of sensory experience by doing the following:

Play the “if there’s a bustle…” section from “Stairway to Heaven” backwards.

Ask them what they hear.

Put up on the overhead an easily googleable set of “lyrics” to the back-tracked excerpt; “Ooooooh, here’s to my sweet Satan…” etc.

Now, play the clip again. Audible gasps of astonishment when they “recognise” it.

Nobody has complained about satanic indoctrination yet, because they can also figure out that it doesn’t *really* say these things, merely sounds like it. But that might be different in your part of the world.Report

Amanda Gorman
6 years ago

I had a wonderful aesthetics class as an undergraduate where we read very widely in historical and contemporary aesthetics, but we knew all along that the big project of the class was at the end when we would have to write a big paper on our own theory of what good ontological and evaluative criteria for works of art are. Part of the philosophical joy there, for me at least, was the feeling like it would be possible to come up with something totally new. I wonder how much stressing these creative and inventive aspects of doing philosophy could do to encourage students for whom other aspects of philosophy come less naturally.Report