What To Teach In A First-Year PhD Proseminar?


Alex Guerrero (Penn), is wondering what philosophers think should be done in a first-year PhD proseminar. He writes:

Given all the recent discussion about the canon, the problematic effects of policing the borders of philosophy, the white maleness of philosophy, and so on, what do people think should be done in a first-year PhD proseminar? Assume it’s a semester long. And I guess assume that there will be one, although perhaps that is something to question.

I was brought up with a mostly ‘traditional’ history of analytic proseminar: Frege, Russell, Carnap, Wittgenstein, Kripke, Quine, Lewis, and some contemporary ethics (Williams on internal/external reasons, I think), but it seems to me that this is not ideal for a lot of reasons. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on any of (a) the proper objectives of a proseminar, (b) what your own experiences were like, (c) what your current department does, and (d) what you think would be ideal for a semester-long proseminar.

Readers?

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Komal
Komal
5 years ago

This is a topic that recently came up in a seminar for first year students in my department. I suggest making proseminars more diverse, including some non-Western philosophy if there is anyone qualified to teach it (in our department there is a full professor who is more than qualified to do so, but he is never asked to teach a proseminar), including some continental, and including some Ancient. People who are not very interested in analytic philosophy of language, mind and other ‘core’ areas tend not to have an easy time with proseminars (I include myself in this).Report

Another Anon Junior Person
Another Anon Junior Person
5 years ago

In my department, the pro-seminars revolve around a core text (with some branching out, to include related papers) or a core topic. The core text and/or topic are supposed to be broad enough so that the first year students have the opportunity to delve deeply into a unified topic, while at the same time read foundational works in a variety of related, but separate, fields in philosophy.

A consequence is that each pro-seminar can take on a different profile from year to year. This allows (at least in theory) the philosopher leading the seminar to include underrepresented philosophers, either in the core text or in the related papers. A couple years back, for example, Anscombe’s “Intention” was the core text.Report

Scu
Scu
5 years ago

Not sure I am defending it, but here is how the pro seminar was done when I took one. We read recent articles, and in a couple of cases books, by the faculty. We were also expected to pick a dissertation written by a graduate of the department in the last decade, and write on it. The last assignment allowed you to picture how a dissertation was its own genre, and not a polished book.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

Why not center the course around Sally Haslanger’s recent book? It brings together issues in metaphysics, epistemology, social philosophy, feminism and critical race theory. Haslanger’s work also takes interesting methodological stances (e.g. on what we should be doing when we’re giving accounts of concepts), so it brings in a bit of metaphilosophy along the way. Getting first-year PhD students to engage with lots of separate issues, and the connections between them could be pedagogically beneficial and inspiring for them.

Another recent work that manages cross-over research in the same ballpark is Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
5 years ago

One thing that I think would be useful is raising this very issue with the students. I think it is important that they learn about particularly influential philosophers, but this can be done in a context where we don’t assume that whether someone gets to be a particularly influential philosopher depends entirely on merit.Report

Christopher Stephens
Christopher Stephens
5 years ago

We no longer have a Proseminar for various reasons. But: when I did teach it, I used a combination of classics in different areas plus we read papers by the people giving talks in our colloquium series that term. I got all of the people giving talks that term to agree to send us their papers in advance and we read and discussed them before the talks. So students got exposed to some classics in the field and some recent trendy stuff. I think the combo worked pretty well. We also had better discussions at the colloquia. In our case the “classic” papers we decided upon by drawing on a pool of suggestions from the faculty. A lot depends on what your goals are for the proseminar.Report

Michael Brent
5 years ago

Great question. I share the worries that are suggested by Alex Guerrero, and think that a proseminar need not focus on a specific text, theme, or issue at all. Rather, by engaging with any excellent philosophical text from a wide variety of traditions, the aim of such a seminar could be to help new PhD students begin to write as early as possible, and through feedback provided by the instructor(s), to begin to learn what is involved in writing a publishable paper. This could shift the focus of the seminar away from a ‘Greatest Hits’-type of course, and highlight the importance of developing excellent writing skills and habits as early on in one’s academic career as one can.Report

RM
RM
5 years ago

A model I really like is using the proseminar as a way of introducing what work the faculty in the department is doing. So, pair one article from the wider philosophy world with an article on the same topic from the faculty, and then talk about it. (Bonus points if the faculty member can sit in the class for a bit on the day their work is being discussed.) This helps first year students interact with faculty, which can be a bit intimidating at first, and give them something to talk to them about outside of the class. It’s impossible to have a semester-long class carry the burden of showing people the best examples of all of philosophy all while bringing everyone up to speed on what everyone should know, and then also teach from an appropriately broadened canon. I think it’s better to just treat proseminar as an introduction to the department.Report

Amy
Amy
5 years ago

Mine was similar to Alex’s, and I have found it to be immensely helpful (even though I don’t focus on any of the areas we discussed in proseminar, and I do think the concerns about canon that others have mentioned are important). One thing that I think is important is how the proseminar is taught. The first year of grad school can involve a lot of weird jockeying for position, and I think it can help to give every member of the first-year class a chance to feel like s/he has something to say, so it doesn’t feel like one person is the expert. That’s one reason to favor a series of papers over one core text, unless that text can bring in a lot of different areas or perspectives.Report

Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
5 years ago

As long as we’re talking about Sally Haslanger…

Sally’s proseminar earlier this year included some wonderful non-canon readings. My favorites were two by Philippa Foot: ‘Moral Arguments’ and ‘Moral Beliefs’. (Foot, Marcus, and Anscombe seem to be excellent prosem material.)Report

Anonymuse
Anonymuse
5 years ago

This is a great question, thanks Alex and Justin for bringing the issue to the attention of the philosophical community. My personal experience as a graduate student in the first-year seminar was unpleasant to say the least. We read only classics (articles and excerpts from books) in Phil of Language, Epistemology, Metaphysics, without even one article in Ethics or Political Philosophy. All authors were White men. Both instructors and students were men but me. There were other isolating factors that are not necessarily typical, so I won’t list them. But as someone who works in Ethics I constantly felt unprepared compared to my peers, who all had done work in those areas, and I was also constantly aware of being the only woman in the room, literally and metaphorically. So I highly recommend bearing in mind that students come from different areas of specialization and it would be good to either have a core text that is sufficiently broad or accessible in its topic or methods or a variety of texts. I should say that I enjoyed the kind of work we were asked to do (short papers and presentations), but I could have done it so much better in different circumstances.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
5 years ago

Wait, Philippa Foot is non-canon? Not in the world I live in.Report

Anon grad student
Anon grad student
5 years ago

Hi all,

I’m a first year just wrapping up a great proseminar. While I think it is necessary to include a diverse dry or authors, I would have been frustrated if the readings had not been “canonical,” whatever that means. Proseminars can help students who don’t have a lot of background in core areas get a few of the commonly referred to and influential texts in the discipline under their belt. It is totally possible to do this while maintaining a diverse syllabus, especially when moral philosophy is part of the course. Like one of the above commentors, I did not have a lot of language/mimd/metaphysics going into grad school, but it’s been really beneficial to get that in a proseminar.Report

Joe
Joe
5 years ago

At my department the pro-sem leader last year basically used it as a platform to promote current work (s)he found exciting and interesting. The harm to the students was palpable, since they exited a pro-seminar, and entered their second year of graduate school, without a detailed study of “Two Dogmas”, or “On Denoting”, or a large number of other pieces. These aren’t just “canonical”, they invented the language we use to talk to one another. For example, it is because I read the Russell-Strawson debate in my prosem that I understand the notion of presupposition and presupposition-failure. Reading (and group-studying!) these papers is critically important: take your 4-5 favorite philosophical notions and imagine that, instead of being fluent in their deployment, you simply were lost in a haze whenever you heard them used. Would you say that you would be in a worse-off position?

For the same reasons, if there is ONE course which should not be subject to canon-revision pressures, it’s the pro-sem. You have 15 other graduate courses, and countless other undergraduate courses, in which you can push your particular views on how the canon should evolve. Then, in 50 years, proseminars can look different/better. I look forward to that day: I don’t think the canon is as powerful, diverse or interesting as it could be. But I do not like seeing first-year graduate students come out of a pro-sem without basic literacy. Please keep it (mainly) canonical.Report

1st year grad
1st year grad
5 years ago

I think a lot of thought gets put into what students will read for prosem and not very much into what they will *write*. It would have been extremely useful to get constructive and consistent feedback throughout the semester on shorter writing assignments.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

I had a good proseminar experience, but then moved, as a faculty member, to a department where the seminar didn’t work as well. Even in my graduate program, the course ebbed and flowed in its effectiveness depending on who was teaching it and who was taking it.

While I am certainly sympathetic to the OP’s concerns, and I think you could construct a great proseminar around Fricker’s book (for example), I don’t actually think it matters all that much what is taught. No course is going to be able to do what some students seem to crave, i.e., give everyone an adequate foundation for graduate study, no matter what their specific area of interest. If you expect your seminar to do this, you are bound to be deeply disappointed. This attitude also can lead people to feel that if some topic or area is neglected, then it is fair to infer that the department doesn’t really value said topic. For these reasons, I think it is important to manage expectations about what the proseminar is supposed to do and be about.

What made my graduate experience successful: no grades, lots of timely feedback, one-on-one meetings with faculty members, weekly writing assignments, peer feedback on seminar papers, having two faculty leaders with very different pedagogical styles, having a generally supportive, lively, fun atmosphere.

In my experience, these things were much more important than the philosophical content of the course. I think students need to remember that the proseminar can’t provide them all the content they will need to succeed in grad school–if you aren’t assigned “Two Dogmas” or some other classic essay in proseminar, I don’t think this is a deep problem. A successful seminar will leave you with the skills and confidence to go to the library, read it on your own, and then talk about it with your peers and professors.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

Here’s a fact which some of you will find almost unbelievable but which suggests a big cultural divide in profession. Until I began to read this thread I literally did not know what a proseminar was. And this despite the fact that I am a well-published philosopher in his late fifties. (I gather from the contributions that it’s the seminar class you take in your first year of graduate school which is designed to ensure a general level lf philosophical literacy, and that it is therefore non-optional.) The reason is, of course, that, as is common in the UK and Australasia, having completed my (three-year) BA, I did a research-only PhD. with no taught component. Whatever general literacy I may have as a philosopher, over-and-above what I learned as an undergraduate, I either taught myself through general reading or acquired by picking other people’s brains. (There is a lot you can learn from casual conversation). This suggests something interesting about the OP’s query. It is not just that for a non-North American teacher the question would not arise. In so far as there is a corresponding question, it would be not even be addressed to the same audience. . It would not be ‘What texts should we set in our proseminars?’ It would be ‘What books or articles should we read (or make sure that we have read) outside our specific research areas in order to be reasonably well-rounded philosophers?’. The first question is from a teacher asking other teachers (and perhaps former learners) for advice on to run somebody else’s education. The second is from a learner asking other learners and ex-learners for advice on how to run their own. I’ve got suggestions to make and recollections I could post about the second question. As for the first, it is too alien to my experience for me to have an opinion.Report

Komal
Komal
5 years ago

“… they invented the language we use to talk to one another.”

Not really. It is a language many people use, but not all of us, and certainly not all of us all the time. In fact, part of the problem is that it is a language many of us are being made to speak more than we want, and at the expense of others. Basically the only reason you’ve given for why the prosems ought to remain canonical is that the very bias that that would amount to is manifest in other contexts. That is not a good reason.

I think canonical texts *should* be taught in prosem, but I just don’t think that is *all* that should be taught. Having one piece of Ancient or Indian philosophy won’t kill anyone, just as making people not too interested in analytic philosophy of language read some Russell won’t kill them, and will in fact benefit them.

Another potential solution to this problem is to just do away with prosems. I favour that option.Report

ejrd
ejrd
5 years ago

For goodness sake, please make sure your proseminars also introduce grad students to the professionalizing aspects of academic philosophy. Don’t assume 1st year students know how to do the teaching/research/seminar-taking balance or that they should have their eye on publishing things in graduate school. The realities of the job market are such that I think proseminars absolutely need to include more than just “here’s some philosophy to introduce you to graduate-level discussion.”Report

Izzy
Izzy
5 years ago

I think the proseminar should consist of some canonical texts and significant contemporary responses to them. This should admit of some degree of diversity at least in terms of perspective since contemporary responses to Kripke and Quine include people of underrepresented groups. In addition, echoing sentiments above, there are plenty of other graduate opportunities to diversify philosophy education (that are currently underused). One caveat is that I think we should revise what we consider “cannon” to some degree inasmuch as anyone should think that it excludes philosophers such as Anscome, Foot, etc This sort of expansion of the cannon should happen at least every five to ten years.

As the discipline grows, the diversity of the cannon should as well.Report

Dale Miller
5 years ago

My graduate department didn’t have a proseminar per se, although we had a “core” of several required seminars (ethics, M&E, phil. of science, logic). But in departments with proseminars, it seems like the right approach to take will depend a lot on the nature of the particular department.Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
5 years ago

The cannon must include a diversity of political views at the very least, as the poet says:

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shout and yell,
Boldly they read and well,
Into the jaws of Philosophy,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

I guess it was a very large pro-seminar.Report

babe
babe
5 years ago

I tried to “diversify” a syllabus for a graduate seminar in ethics this semester to include non-analytic (especially non-analytic feminist) philosophy this semester and the meetings devoted to those readings were pretty much disasters. The reason: (a) I didn’t know those other literatures well enough and picked weak readings, and (b) I’m just not as into that stuff, and so try as I might to present them in as favorable a light as I can, they’re not going to come across as well as the stuff I am into. The students (who are a very diverse group along just about every dimension) were all really glad to move on from the feminism and onto standard, classic analytic stuff. Obviously, diversifying the syllabus wasn’t the problem, doing so poorly was. But I think this mistake is easy to make when you try to add stuff that’s new to you to the syllabus–just keep in mind that you need to give yourself extra time and take extra care in vetting the material. And even then, there’s a risk that it comes across weaker than the stuff you’re more familiar with/into.Report

Josh Parsons
5 years ago

It all depends on what the goals of your pro-seminar are. Most people here are focusing on the idea that an important goal is to acquaint students with a certain canon, but there are other goals too: to provide an introduction to graduate study (what the education people call “learning how to learn”); to provide a model for classroom and seminar interaction (i.e. teach students how to behave in a seminar – especially if departmental seminars are not a good model!); to provide a forum for new students to interact intellectually with their own cohort.

Actually, I’m a bit skeptical about the “canon” goal. After all, every other graduate class aims (in part) to acquaint students with a canon. Is it really the case that there are 12 or so classic articles that every student must have read before they read any other philosophy? I doubt it. If this was true, every student would have read those articles as undergrads. And the articles that people tend to choose are often ones that make no sense at all outside of the context of a “History of 20th C. Philosophy” course (Quine’s “Two dogmas” springs to mind). Add to this that the canon goal is not always compatible with the other goals. Some students will have read the canonical articles before – that gives them a natural advantage in assessment, and, more importantly, a position of power in classroom conversations, which undermines the “model for classroom discussion” goal.

What I try to do is choose recent-ish “coalface” articles of mixed quality that I enjoyed (students can smell it a mile a away if you try to teach material that you don’t like yourself). I tell the students that they can’t expect to understand everything they read (and that that won’t change when they become academics); but that they have different backgrounds and are there to help each other. (And of course I provide some facilitation – for example prompting students who I happen to know have some relevant background that they don’t realise is relevant).

Of course it’s impossible to completely level the playing field, but once you let go of the idea that a pro-seminar has to be “classic articles”, and think a bit more carefully about what you’re trying to achieve it’s a lot easier to pick fun papers that will meet the other goals and exhibit a diversity of approaches and authors.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

I don’t have a strong feeling about the answer, but can I suggest a rephrasing of the question?

Don’t ask: “What shall we put in the proseminar”?

Ask instead: “Should we have a seminar in the first year of graduate school that we make everyone go to? If so, why are we having it, and what is it for, and what skills are we trying to communicate? And only now, having answered those questions, what reading material will best serve this seminar’s goals?”

As Charles Pigden pointed out in a different way, speaking of “the proseminar” as if we all know and agree on what that means is probably concealing a lot of methodological diversity.Report

Elinor Mason
Elinor Mason
5 years ago

I just designed and launched a proseminar at Edinburgh. The aim was to introduce students to a breadth of material, give them some low stakes practice in talking about and presenting philosophy in front of other people, and to help them form social and intellectual links with each other and with staff. Each staff member not on leave taught one class, on one article of their choice with the following guidance: the article should be important, and serious efforts should be made to use articles by women, people of color and other non-dominant groups in philosophy. I compiled a list of possible articles by women, but in fact I think people had lots of ideas anyway, and we ended up with a great topic list, covering a lot of range in lots of directions.Report