Encouraging Your Promising Students To Take Another Philosophy Course


This is a good idea:

Every semester, about this time, I identify students in my intro classes who are doing reasonably well, seem interested in philosophy (based on class participation, conversations in office hours, or written work), and are not graduating in the near future. I email all of them individually (although of course the letters are somewhat repetitive) and suggest that they take more philosophy, and why. I encourage them to come talk to me about which classes they might be interested in.

This seems to be pretty successful. Almost all of the students I email come talk to me, and I have good evidence that the majority take more philosophy classes. (Of course, I don’t have access to course rosters in the worlds in which I didn’t do this)

There is some risk that contacting students in this way could favor certain groups over others. In my experience, without any deliberate preference towards any group (except as noted above), at least 50% of the people I’ve emailed are women and the lists reflect the diversity of my classes in other ways as well.

That’s Brian Talbot (Washington University in St. Louis)—who says he doesn’t deserve credit for the idea, which he has seen others discuss—with a timely reminder of some of the benefits of reaching out to students individually to encourage them to take other philosophy courses.

staircase by Diapo

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Immanuel
Immanuel
3 years ago

We do the same thing at our department, and it’s been pretty successful. At one point I was worried that the practice favors people who are more confident or more charming, so I decided to send the email to anyone whose average grade is B+ and above (by the time we’re 3/4 through the semester). I personalize each email and that takes a little bit of time — but in my experience, it’s been really worth it. Report

Henry Shevlin
3 years ago

I’ve done this myself, and I think it can definitely be effective. One other risk worth flagging, though, is whether it’s always in a student’s interests to take an additional philosophy course. Naturally, I think philosophy can teach very important skills, but I have worried on a couple of occasions whether personally encouraging a student to take more philosophy courses (especially when philosophy isn’t likely to be their major) might, for example, lead them to graduate later than they otherwise would thereby taking on more debt (and so on). I think this can be dealt with somewhat by just making sure that you’re not leaning on students or pushing them to take more courses; something like “Your performance in this course was outstanding, and should you wish to take more philosophy courses, I expect you’ll do very well. Particularly relevant to your interests may be Professor X’s course next year on Y.”Report

Sahpa
Sahpa
3 years ago

Why are we interested in doing this? I’m not just trying to be contrary. In most cases the majority of (unrewarding) labor gets pushed off onto grad students (or onto adjuncts–whether by increasing the current adjuncts’ workloads or by hiring new ones) so what justifies working to increase their workload like this?

Are we operating under the assumption that our department needs more people enrolled in its courses? What justifies such an assumption? Obviously this will differ from dept to dept. It certainly is not true in general. But even among the depts that *do* need more enrollees (to, for example, justify their employment and funding), it is entirely unclear that this is the best good-faith strategy for addressing that need.

If our department doesn’t need more people enrolled, then presumably it is only the interests of the student herself that matter. The idea seems to be that there are some students for whom it serves their interests to continue taking philosophy courses, but who would not do so absent one of their current professors reaching out. Moreover, these students are mostly the promising ones, or at least the promising ones are well-represented among them.

But notice the weirdness of this conjunction of claims. Presumably, it is the less-than-promising students who are most well-served by further philosophy courses, insofar as those courses are particularly well-suited to cultivating their critical-reasoning skills and their being less-than-promising is indicative of their having poor critical-reasoning skills! (Obviously some students will be hopeless, and they are less than less-than-promising!)Report

MA Student
MA Student
Reply to  Sahpa
3 years ago

“The idea seems to be that there are some students for whom it serves their interests to continue taking philosophy courses, but who would not do so absent one of their current professors reaching out.”

Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems that in addition to noting the weirdness of the conjunction of this claim with the next, you are implying that this claim is odd on its own: that it’s odd to think that students who would be well served by taking more philosophy courses would need specific encouragement to do so. On the contrary I think this claim is probably correct in many, perhaps most cases – for one reason or another it doesn’t occur to a student for whom taking more philosophy classes would be rewarding that they might consider taking more philosophy classes. This is probably especially true of students from marginalized groups.
As Henry above pointed out its important not to make them feel like they’re being pressured into taking more philosophy (maybe they have better things to do) but indicating to them why they might want to consider it and how they might go doing so can help them make more informed choices.Report

Sahpa
Sahpa
Reply to  MA Student
3 years ago

I never said that that claim is odd in its own right, and it would be a bit silly to think it is. I also don’t think I implied that, but if I did, I hereby cancel the implicature.Report

Sahpa
Sahpa
Reply to  MA Student
3 years ago

I’d also point out that if your interest is to enhance participation by marginalized groups, you should target your outreach efforts to them in particular, not to the “promising” students, who are more likely to be white and men anyway (insofar as privilege makes it easier to display philosophical promise).Report

MA Student
MA Student
Reply to  Sahpa
3 years ago

I think part of the concern about who is more likely to display philosophical “promise” can be dealt with by contacting all the students who have a grade above a certain threshold, as suggested by Immanuel above. This helps ensure that it isn’t just the most visible students (who I imagine would be more likely to be white and male) who get encouragement.
Now obviously a student who has difficulties with writing, presenting their arguments in the standard way, etc. because of lack of privilege might nevertheless be someone for whom philosophy would be a rewarding pursuit, given some work. First, I suspect that such students are often recognizable as such, and can be given specific encouragement. Second, though, if the student is struggling at the Intro level it may be that taking more philosophy courses before they have mastered the basics would be counterproductive.Report

MA Student
MA Student
Reply to  MA Student
3 years ago

Also, I think the goal of increasing participation by marginalized groups and the goal of students from marginalized groups considering philosophy as an option are somewhat different, although the latter contributes to the first.Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Sahpa
3 years ago

Re: the assumption that a philosophy department needs more people enrolled in its courses, Sahpa’s comment that “It certainly is not true in general” is a claim I do not understand. Perhaps Sahpa’s department is not in need of more enrolled philosophers, but it certainly IS true in general and has been for some years that in the humanities, enrollments are down, that the humanities has graduated fewer majors than it used to, and that in general, most institutions of higher ed have explicitly stated that resources will go to departments with enrollments and majors. Any Google search can provide many sources on this, and here’s one: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/06/05/analysis-finds-significant-drop-humanities-majors-gains-liberal-arts-degrees

One could argue that enrollments are not the same as majors, but it is difficult to increase majors without increasing students’ enrollments.

In addition to low enrollments in the Humanities generally, the field of Philosophy has further gaps in diversity; since some colleagues report that writing to all promising students raise the return engagement of all sorts of students, and students from less well-represented groups even more than those from the usual groups, I’m hard put to think of a reason not to write to students if one can carve out the time to do so. Between downward enrollment trends generally and a lack of diversity among undergraduate students, there’s plenty of motivation to contact intro students.

Is it weird, the conjunction of claims that {there are some students for whom it serves their interests to continue taking philosophy courses but would not do so absent one of their current professors reaching out}, and {these students are mostly the promising ones}? Of course, it’s a bit of an uncharitable rephrasing to suggest that the professors contacting B-and-better students don’t believe the lower-performing students have interests in better skills, so if the uncharitability is the source of the weirdness, then that’s the problem with the conjunction, i.e., the second half of it is false (“these students,” those whose interests are served by better skills, being “the promising ones”). But those of us who do contact our higher-than-average performing students aren’t operating on the assumption that C-and-lower students need no skill-development. We’re deploying our time resources where they’re more likely to succeed; as the OP and early commenters said above, it is time-consuming to contact students individually, and so we contact those who demonstrate that they could do more philosophy very well, but who may not believe that they are promising students, or that professors noticed they were very good, or that this major exists, or that they are welcome to enter or expected to enter the major. True, I’m not reaching out to all individually. I DO want all my students to develop skills, and since it’s hard to contact all the undergrads here individually, I instead settle for teaching them skills in intro classes in huge batches. After that, and when I can, I have zero problem with writing to well-performing students in part to increase enrollments in my department’s courses and major. I think Philosophy has a lot to offer and we should not going gently into the night.
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D.C.
D.C.
Reply to  Sahpa
3 years ago

” insofar as those courses are particularly well-suited to cultivating their critical-reasoning skills and their being less-than-promising is indicative of their having poor critical-reasoning skills! (Obviously some students will be hopeless, and they are less than less-than-promising!”

The older I get the more I am convinced that critical-reasoning skills are domain-specific. Developing critical thinking ability in philosophy won’t necessarily transfer to other fields/careers.Report

P
P
3 years ago

I guess I thought philosophy helps people become more critical in their thinking snd more reflective human beings. on my view these are just goods, not “good fors”. The mercenRy thinking that pervades academia is just depressing and poison, or at best junk food, for the soul.Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  P
3 years ago

When I was an undergrad, people would sometimes ask: “You’re studying philosophy? What do you want to DO with that?”

I’d often reply: “Philosophy.”Report

Sahpa
Sahpa
Reply to  P
3 years ago

This seems like it is directed at me. The idea seems to be that it is objectively good that there are more reflective and critical human beings in the world, while it is not necessarily good for anyone in particular (including the reflective and critical humans themselves) that there are such beings. That sounds faintly ridiculous, but let’s suppose it is true. Still, it is far from obvious that the way to enhance this good the most is by favoring the select few “promising” students with special efforts of outreach, rather than to favor those students whose reflectiveness and critical thinking would be most enhanced by further philosophy coursework–which seem like the students who are less than promising (but not hopeless), as they have the most room to grow.

More fundamentally, I suspect that the idea that reflectiveness and critical thought are goods in themselves, rather than goods to or for any particular people, is precisely the sort of weird rationalized elitism that I found implicit in the original suggestion. I feel fine saying that because I know that nothing I say will cause any of you to re-evaluate your practices.Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  Sahpa
3 years ago

Revaluing should be useful for the direction of interest pursued by a philosopher…
…Such as comparisons from searches in Biology with searches in Theology–regarding existence, as necessary functioning, Needed For an infinite horizon…Report

P
P
Reply to  Sahpa
3 years ago

“Good for” was s poor phrase choicr, I meant it in the limited sense of vocational usefulness or the like

Here is an analogy. I don’t have much of an appreciation of classical music. I consider this an objective flaw—I’d be better off if I could appreciate it snd this simply because aesthetic contemplation is a great good. I think philosophy has a similiar value. Of course I thought no people benefit in all sorts of ways from studying philosophy, but I wanted to steer clear of any pragmatism c reductionismReport

P
P
3 years ago

I should be clear of m a pluralist about goods. Frienship love creativity in all its guises. And these don’t require philosophy or even an education.Report

Socratease
Socratease
3 years ago

I think flagging philosophy enrollment is analogous to flagging law school enrollment. An abundance of articles on the grim job prospects of students has discouraged enrollment. What can be done? Law schools have given more scholarships, raised admissions standards and worked with employers, alumni and on campus partners to try to keep their pipelines to the firms and courthouses intact. What do philosophers do? Offer a seminar on job seeking skills as a humanities major? Of course not.

I used to reach out to promising students, encouraging them to take more classes if they had interest, in much the same way the OP has done. I’ve stopped, however, because it seems, in the fiction where there are moral facts, an immoral thing to do. Philosophy has intrinsic value, I think, but little extrinsic value to our students. Think of the potential harm. What if they, God forbid, actually became a Philosophy major? There are really only two professions for which I think Philosophy is the best preparation: academic work in philosophy (and what a disservice it would be to our students to encourage them in that direction) and law (jury is out on whether that’s a good option too). I don’t want to be the one to hand a student their own noose, so to speak. Report