How Is This Course Intro To Philosophy? (guest post by Shen-yi Liao)


The following is a guest post by Shen-yi Liao, assistant professor of philosophy at University of Puget Sound. A version of it first appeared at Medium.

How is This Course Intro to Philosophy?
by Shen-yi Liao

Kristie Dotson’s “How Is This Paper Philosophy?” (2012) argues that the pervasive culture of justification within the profession makes philosophy unattractive for diverse practitioners, especially members of marginalized groups. Questions like “how is this paper philosophy?” signals the existence of certain norms that make some philosophical works legitimate and others not. Crucial to the culture of justification is the assumption that such legitimation norms are commonly-held and univocally relevant. Given these assumptions, compliance with legitimation norms confers positive status; for example, papers that are norm-compliant are thought of as real philosophy.

Dotson’s target is professional philosophy. Perhaps it is unsurprising why academic philosophers who have been professionally rewarded by the legitimation norms would defend them and even naturalize them. It is more surprising, at least to me, that many of my first-year intro to philosophy students seem to hold similar legitimation norms.

Introduction to Philosophy
Thankfully, my department and university give us much latitude to teach introduction to philosophy the way that each of us wants. In recent iterations, I have been teaching a course themed on language, knowledge, and power. Here’s the reading schedule from last semester’s version of the course:

In many respects, it’s actually a rather orthodox course: we talk about ideas of Grice, Austin, and Quine; we read papers by philosophers employed in prestigious mainstream analytic departments; we talk about metaphysics, language, and knowledge.

Yet, many students seem to be asking “how is this course intro to philosophy?”

For example, one student commented:

I would like to say —at the beginning of the semester, I felt I’d been mislead and was frustrated, as I was expecting this course to revolve around the “foundational” philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, etc. However, looking back on what I’ve learned and read, I’m really grateful to have had exposure to this school of thought, as I doubt I would’ve thought about these issues at such a depth had I not taken this class.

On RateMyProfessor I have gotten accusations that I am not teaching real philosophy. “Taking PHIL 101 from Sam felt more like taking a 200 level class on sociology.” “The first half of the class wasn’t even philosophy. It was a sociology class.” In fact, even students who really like the course express the same sentiments:

PHIL 101 ended up being much more informative than I was initially expecting. Although a discussion about old Greek men who thought a lot before eventually drinking hemlock wouldn’t have been wholly dissatisfying, it pales in comparison to the direction in which you took the course.

I think these student responses demonstrate just how pervasive philosophy’s legitimation norms are. They are not only held by professional philosophers; they are even implicitly held by first-year students for whom this might be their first exposure to university-level philosophy.

The Pipeline Problem
One place to contextualize my anecdata is philosophy’s “pipeline problem”, which concerns the attrition of members of marginalized groups at different educational stages. (See Morgan Thompson’s overview of the gender gap literature; and — very incomplete list — Calhoun (2009)Botts et al (2014)Lee (2014)Baron et al (2015)Leslie et al (2015)Thompson et al (2016)Lockard et al (2017). And Lionel McPherson’s and Shelley Tremain’s criticism of the “pipeline problem” framing.)

One theme that has emerged from the research on philosophy’s pipeline problem is the significance of “pre-university factors”. For example, even before taking any university-level philosophy course, women are already less interested in majoring in philosophy. That is, it’s their pre-conception of philosophy that makes them uninterested.

In my course, I really try to emphasize the practical pertinence of philosophy — concepts like hermeneutical lacuna or exercitive act can be incredibly helpful for understanding inequalities in our social world. This emphasis is one part of what Dotson calls the culture of praxis (in contrast with the culture of justification) that includes “value placed on seeking issues and circumstances pertinent to our living, where one maintains a healthy appreciation for the differing issues that will emerge as pertinent among different populations”.

Given the responses I get, I sometimes even wonder whether students come in thinking that philosophy should be practically impertinent. (If it’s pertinent, it must be sociology!) If so, then that might be yet another harmful effect of philosophy’s culture of justification. Despite many wonderful efforts of public philosophy in recent years (such as Hi-Phi Nation), it seems that a problematic pre-conception of philosophy remains on the minds of many students before they get to university.

Diversifying the Canon
Another place to contextualize my anecdata is amongst the recent efforts to pluralize philosophy syllabuses and canon. (See Anderson and Erlenbusch (2017); and—very incomplete list—American Society of Aesthetics’s Diversity Curriculum GrantsDiversifying SyllabiDiversity Reading ListReadings on Less Commonly Taught Philosophies; and The Deviant Philosopher.)

These efforts arose, in part, as responses to philosophy’s various inclusion problems, including the pipeline problem. The hope is that, to simplify a bit, diversifying the content of philosophy courses can give students a more pluralistic understanding of philosophy. I am, obviously, sympathetic.

These efforts have gotten pushback from some professional philosophers. Predictably so, given the profession’s culture of justification that Dotson identified. But the responses I get suggest another source of pushback: from the students themselves. When the syllabus fails to include canonical figures like Plato and Aristotle, students might worry that the course is not really philosophy (even if they like the course).

Language, Knowledge, and Power
To be clear, this post is not about criticizing students for their pre-conception of philosophy. Their responses are, to me, completely understandable, in the social context that we live in. But what’s the best way forward?

Perhaps it’s to adopt a kind of strategic essentialism, on which the expected canonical figures are taught alongside less commonly taught ones. But, of course, there are all the standard problems with strategic essentialism.

For now, I’ve capitulated. The next iteration of this course will be—pending approval—taught under the name “Language, Knowledge, and Power”. (Here’s the syllabus, and I welcome your feedback!) And I think doing so makes the most sense for various esoteric institutional reasons. But still, I wish courses like mine could just be taught as Introduction to Philosophy without getting questions like “how is this course intro to philosophy?”.


art: Chen Xiaoyi, “Koan” (Jiazazhi Photobook)

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moderate
moderate
3 years ago

I don’t know why anyone would deny that this is a philosophy class, but it seems odd as an *Intro* to philosophy class. The reason isn’t that it doesn’t include ‘canonical’ figures, but simply that the topics discussed seem rather narrow. Issues of racial & gender identity are, of course, perfectly legitimate and important philosophical topics, but they are only one small part of what philosophy discusses, and thus it seems odd for an intro class to focus exclusively on these issues. It seems to me that it would be better titled ‘Philosophy and Identity’ or something like that.

I would say the same thing about an Intro course that, for example, discussed everything through the lens of Christian theology: the metaphysics section discussing only arguments for God, the ethics section discussing only divine command theory and natural law, the epistemology section discussing only faith & reason, etc. That would be a perfectly fine class, but I would be disappointed if I signed up for an Intro to philosophy class and got that.Report

moderate
moderate
Reply to  moderate
3 years ago

Edit: I had missed the line at the end about changing the name of the course going forward. In that case, I think the course makes perfect senseReport

Ian
Ian
Reply to  moderate
3 years ago

It seems you have some projects notions regarding Introductions. While what you say makes sense, it could be argued that the point of an introduction could be learning how the topic works and therefore the specificity or generality of the material is less important.

In other words an Intro to Philosophy might not have to comprehensively scratch the surface, but rather be a topics course with a beginner’s level of analysis.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  moderate
3 years ago

I agree with Ian here: I do not regard the point of Intro to Philosophy to be ‘give the history of the Western canon’ but rather to introduce the actual *doing* of philosophy. As such, any themed course can serve the purpose of introducing philosophy, provided it actually involves giving the students the basics of argumentation and analysis.

Whether or not a particular student (or even lots of them) would be disappointed in taking the course really ought not be the instructor’s concern. For instance, I specialize in Phil Time, and I’m sure many of my students do not like me focusing on Phil Time during the metaphysics portion of my intro course. So what? Others may like it a lot. Are we trying to please them, or educate them? It is not as if there are not other sections to sign up for if you don’t like the syllabus in one instructor’s course.Report

Colum
Colum
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

See below, the comment by Frank.

By your reasoning, a course that took as its sole theme libertarian political philosophy, looking almost exclusively at optimistic practitioners of this school, would be a perfectly fine introductory course.

I’d love to hear those who see no problem with the syllabus in the OP as appropriate for a general introduction to the field answer the indicated concern. I haven’t yet seen one here.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Colum
3 years ago

By the time I got to this comment, someone has in fact responded the way you desired, and I agree. Provided such a course actually involved some metaphysics, epistemology, etc. — and I think you could do it, if you tried hard enough — and provided basics of argumentation were taught along the way, I’d be fine with it qua course, although I wouldn’t personally take the course myself.Report

Colum
Colum
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

Well, as another commenter notes, the Koch brothers are actively seeking to make as many philosophy introductions about libertarian political philosophy as they can. If you want to offer decent arguments against such a project, you will have to abandon or revise your argument in support of the syllabus in the OP, it seems.

I could introduce metaphysics, epistemology and everything else in philosophy by way of having my students only watch Star Trek and talk about. Somehow, I still don’t think I can convince myself that it’s okay to do so, much to my disappointment. There are other relevant considerations, it seems.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Colum
3 years ago

I have no idea what the Koch brothers are doing and find the whole idea that they are influencing my teaching personally rather suspect. But even if they are doing so, then all I have to do is resist making such a course. Problem solved. I need not say that no one can ever do so. (I am sure many people want to use many different ideologies, say, leftism for nefarious purposes. Cough, cough. I don’t think we need to forbid all discussion of ideology on these grounds.)

Clearly many people on here have very different ideas about how the education philosophy should proceed. I think using pop culture is a great idea and have actually built whole sections of intro-level courses around Star Trek episodes, Doctor Who episodes, and the like. I don’t see how there are relevant considerations that should prevent this and I see a number of good reasons for doing so. The students like it, I like it, it shows them the ways in which philosophy is embedded in every day life, it provides an excellent springboard for introducing the more difficult ideas/readings, etc., etc.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  moderate
3 years ago

I have taught intro in many different ways. My sense is that, no matter what you do, you’ll disappoint some people and excite others. And I don’t have a very clear sense of what is the best thing to do. But I would just like to broaden the discussion a little more in thinking about who we might disappoint with what material, and how that might contribute to philosophy’s so-called pipeline problem, if people are concerned with that. (And to be clear, I think there’s at best a weak correlation between course content and type of people attracted. So many other factors are involved.) I only want to claim that this is one plausible way to excite some people about philosophy, even if it might also disappoint others.Report

loveitTT
loveitTT
Reply to  Shen-yi Liao
3 years ago

Love the post, Shen-yi. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be taking a cue from you for my own intro course.

And please, disregard the detractors and trolls. They are inadvertently proving your very point about the heavy policing of philosophy’s borders.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
3 years ago

The borders of philosophy are always going to be porous and flexible. I don’t think that this means that there aren’t borders, but they are nowhere near as narrow as many both within and without the profession seem to imagine. I would also submit that if we were able to identify something like a disciplinary limit, it would be immediately subject to change as philosophy grows, develops, and evolves.

Even when philosophy pushes up against the borders of other disciplines, it is by its very nature so broad that I would be hard pressed to say that it has exceeded its legitimate purview. In fact I would consider myself to be hard pressed to say what that purview is.

Talking about the borders of philosophy always runs a very serious risk of excluding marginalised voices, even if that isn’t a conscious intention. That, to me, seems like the biggest danger.

On the other hand, I don’t think any of us want philosophy to be a free-for-all in which there is no rigour to our questioning. Given the choice, however, I think that we are always well served by regarding more kinds of questioning as philosophy than fewer.Report

Cautious Until Tenured
Cautious Until Tenured
3 years ago

The metaphysics on this syllabus concerns only social constructivist theories. What about form and matter? Where are Plato and Aristotle?
The language on this syllabus concerns slurs, hate speech, and conflations of speech with violence. What about sense and reference? Where are Mill and Frege?
The epistemology is concerned with viewpoint epistemology and epistemic injustice. What about justification and knowledge? Where are Descartes and Hume?
Granted, those are all (gasp) dead white men. If you’re concerned about issues of representation, use contemporary texts by a more diverse group of philosophers who discuss these same issues.

The problem is not that these aren’t philosophical topics. It’s that it represents a very narrow, social-justice oriented perspective on these topics.
The problem is not that these topics approach philosophy from a “practical” perspective. It’s that it approaches these topics from a PARTICULAR practical perspective that is extraordinarily controversial.

It’s certainly not a problem to include some texts like these on an intro to philosophy syllabus. But the glaring omission of so many classic and important philosophical texts and topics shows that this is a wholesale rejection of the canon of western philosophy – that may not be the best approach to take in Phil101. I understand thinking that philosophical practice should be reformed in some ways and working to promote that through your teaching. But this syllabus as a whole reads like an endorsement of a controversial ideological agenda.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Cautious Until Tenured
3 years ago

“The problem is not that these aren’t philosophical topics. It’s that it represents a very narrow, social-justice oriented perspective on these topics.”

It seems that the other options are to take a perspective that is anti-social-justice-oriented or that excludes social justice concerns entirely. I suspect the latter is something you and many other commenters would prefer. But that is just to say that you don’t take social justice concerns to be relevant to “the canon of western philosophy”, when, of course, they very much are.

“The problem is not that these topics approach philosophy from a “practical” perspective. It’s that it approaches these topics from a PARTICULAR practical perspective that is extraordinarily controversial.”

Please, name me any topic in philosophy that isn’t extraordinarily controversial. I’m a metaphysicist, and the very existence of my subfield as a proper field of inquiry has been hotly contested both lately and throughout history.

“But the glaring omission of so many classic and important philosophical texts and topics shows that this is a wholesale rejection of the canon of western philosophy.”

That’s a rather huge leap to make. I teach a themed course = I hate all dead white men? Please. Even if I take you charitably here, you are assuming that Intro’s role is to teach the western “canon” (itself a hugely controversial notion, as well as what the canon should be). As I said in a previous comment, I rather think that the goal of Intro is to teach the doing of philosophy, not its history.

“But this syllabus as a whole reads like an endorsement of a controversial ideological agenda.”

Yes, it does — although I think the word “agenda” is loaded language. But at any rate — so? Ought we not endorse controversial views? Are we not supposed to be giving the students the tools to think for themselves, and are they unable to criticize an idea unless multiple other viewpoints are provided to them? Did you need to read white nationalist literature before deciding it was a crock of shit? I suspect not, but if you’re going to try to take the high road on me, then I’ll just say that this syllabus alone does not provide evidence that the professor does not provide potential counterarguments in the course of discussion/teaching.Report

OnTheMarket
OnTheMarket
3 years ago

I regard this as professional misconduct.

It is inappropriate to indoctrinate students with a political ideology, and this is a transparent attempt to do just that. There is an element in our profession–of which Dr. Liao, apparently, is a member (along with several people represented on his syllabus)–which is all-consumed by race, gender, disability, and advancing odd-ball, authoritarian leftist policies. This element has a distinctive style of “argument” for their views, and it is distinctively feeble–when it is intelligible at all.

What is not feeble is how this element has silenced criticism by creating a culture of fear within the profession. To criticize this element is to put one’s self at risk of being regarded as some kind of reactionary Trump supporter (one’s leftist bona fides be damned). But it is this very element of the profession, and how smug and ludicrous it seems to the public, that has stoked the rise of Trump and helped the American right dismantle academia in recent years.

Dr. Liao’s braggadocio is both obvious and misplaced. The proper emotion, having comported himself in this way, is shame.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  OnTheMarket
3 years ago

It is absolutely essential that we resist the trend that you describe, as it is one of the things that is threatening the very survival of our discipline in the academy. This is precisely the sort of thing that right-wing state legislators in states like mine use to justify the cutting of budgets and the imposition of statewide core curricula in which the humanities have a much diminished place. For people who like to ventilate so much about “power,” they are shockingly ignorant as to how it actually works and how easily it will be deployed against them.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

“We can’t talk shit about the Nazis because they’ll shut us down!”Report

Another Gopher
Another Gopher
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

she says as trump takes everyone’s rights awayReport

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

What a foolish comment. I am concerned with protecting my discipline and the humanities more generally, from the predations of right-wing state legislators in my state, and this is your answer? When that hideous piece of right-wing propaganda, “God is Not Dead” came out, we watched our enrollments plummet. (We are in the buckle of the Bible Belt.) And when we try to argue, “No, this is not what we’re about! We’re not politically compromised, left-wing activists trying to indoctrinate your kids” they point precisely to stuff like this — and nationally prominent fiascoes like the shameful Hypatia affair — as evidence that we are exactly as they have characterized us. And the result won’t be traditional philosophy courses like the one I’ve described. It’ll be no philosophy at all.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Daniel, don’t you think that the movie was made despite the fact that it had no resemblance to actual philosophy classrooms suggest that right-wingers do not need you or any other professor to be a radical left-winger to paint professors as such? It’s just like when Republicans would accuse Obama of being a socialist despite his very mild centrist policies; it’s not Obama’s responsibility to move farther to the right to ameliorate the republican’s nonsense concerns. Unless you spent every class just playing Milton Friedman lectures on YouTube, the right wing will scream about how radical you are until your program is defunded. The kind of people who make or enjoy watching “God is Not Dead” are not in the business of being reasonable, as you might have guessed from the fact that they… made or enjoyed watching “God is Not Dead”.

The way to protect our humanities is to unseat the right-wing legislators. Yes that’s hard, but it’s the only way. Like you said, it’s all about power. 😉Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Evan
3 years ago

Unfortunately, you don’t “unseat the right-wing legislators” in a state like mine without peeling people off from the other side, and even the center Right in an area like this are full of evangelical Christians.

You don’t win political fights in states like this by bulldozing through with the most extreme version of your side.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  OnTheMarket
3 years ago

Okay, now I’m losing my temper. How is it that 34 people — presumably philosophers — liked your comment thus far? Come off it, folks.

First:
“It is inappropriate to indoctrinate students with a political ideology, and this is a transparent attempt to do just that.”
The articles listed raise questions concerning the rights of minorities. True. So, do you hold that there is one political ideology that cares about these issues, and the other competing ideologies don’t care at all? Or, rather, is it the case that all of the ideologies have something to say about these issues? If so, then how are you construing the raising of these questions as an attempt at indoctrination? Do you believe the very mention of minority rights is likely to convert all the students en masse to caring about such things? And do you believe that this is a bad thing? Why? Because you disagree with the standpoint, and you only want to train students to agree with your point of view? Hmm, that seems suspiciously like an attempt to indoctrinate others.

Second:
“There is an element in our profession–of which Dr. Liao, apparently, is a member (along with several people represented on his syllabus)–which is all-consumed by race, gender, disability, and advancing odd-ball, authoritarian leftist policies. This element has a distinctive style of “argument” for their views, and it is distinctively feeble–when it is intelligible at all.”

So being concerned with a particular social justice issue as your main field of interest is somehow a bad thing now? If you don’t mean that focusing on social justice is somehow an inappropriate philosophical subfield, then why not condemn logicians for being all-consumed with logic, and so on? And if you do mean that, then please do explain why caring about minority issues is inappropriate. Oh, it’s because those are “oddball authoritarian leftist policies”? Oddball? Really? Shall we exclude all controversial or unusual philosophical ideas from being discussed on these grounds? Shall we exclude any view that has ANY relation to political ideology from the proper purview of philosophy? If so, why? Oh, it’s because you think social philosophy is “distinctively feeble” and unintelligible? Wow, that’s a controversial view (to be the most charitable that I can). Maybe we should exclude you from bringing up some a controversial position in public discourse. Or maybe we should just ban any the presentation of any arguments we find unintelligible or feeble to students. Fine, I’ll stop teaching eliminative materialism in Intro to Phil Mind. Etc.

Third:
“What is not feeble is how this element has silenced criticism by creating a culture of fear within the profession.”

You and those who agree with you don’t appear very afraid to me. But maybe you’re simply saying that you’re afraid to tell others in person, not on the internet, how you feel, because you know they will disagree with you. Well, I don’t like telling others I’m a panpsychist, but sometimes you just man up to it.Report

CurrentGradStudent
CurrentGradStudent
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

Emily’s 4:45 comment seems to change the subject. Introductory philosophy courses can have many aims. They can eschew some of dominant approaches, and they can bring in new texts by more diverse writers if the instructor honestly feels that such things serve the purpose of an intro philosophy course. But *even if* one of the instructor’s goals is to change the trajectory of the discipline, intro-level students need to *know what the discipline is*. Else, you’re going to have ill-informed students blasting away against the likes of Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Hume (read: “Old White Men”) without having *read* them, putting up caricatutes in the service of political ends.

It’s one thing to bring in some new elements. It’s another to take away the fundamental building blocks that are needed if we’re going to properly seek to make some changes. You can’t actually do good academic philosophy without grasping what’s come before. That’s just hubris, and much of the argument in support of this professor’s syllabus seems like strained, backwards reasoning expressed in order to fit his political and ideological views. I agree that it is irresponsible *even if* I were to agree with his/her substantive views.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

I’m not sure if you’ll see this, Emily, but I just want to say that you’re definitely not alone in your frustration with the comments here. These people are insufferable. Be strong and hang tough. I wish you all the best.Report

CurrentGradStudent
CurrentGradStudent
Reply to  JT
3 years ago

“*These people* are insufferable.” Wow. Well, at least you’re honest in your approach: No need for rational argument or justification, let’s just push our politics through with whatever power we have, and our opponents will do the same, and we’ll just fight it out with brute pressure and force.

If that’s your view, do the rest of us a favor and don’t come crying back to appeals to “justice” or “the right” when your efforts to push through your views by sheer power come up short and you need to appeal to some other avenue of persuasion.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  CurrentGradStudent
3 years ago

That’s what’s so funny about their “power” narrative. They do everything possible to ensure they will lose, but then talk about how everything is a matter of power.

You’d think that people so obsessed with power would be more interested in winning in tangible ways. Of course, actually winning is hard work and often requires compromise through the forming of coalitions, with those with whom you may disagree quite a bit, but with whom you agree enough. And this is hard, because it typically will mean reigning in the more excessive elements of your activist wing. Much easier to engage in hashtag and call-out campaigns and purity purges and to take hopeless stands that will then gain you props from your peeps. It’s all rather pitiful, really.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  CurrentGradStudent
3 years ago

Was I talking to you? No. Was I trying to convince anyone I take to be an opponent? No. Was I outlining my view about how to engage with my opponents? Again, no. Also, for the record, no, I don’t identify my opponents with the ‘right’, because I don’t find the distinction meaningful. But you’re right that I have no intention of trying to persuade anyone of anything in the comments here. I’ve been through what Emily has and I have no desire to do so again. And so I wanted to commiserate and give her my support. I don’t see how any of that is your business.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  JT
3 years ago

I wasn’t talking to you either. I was talking to CurrentGradStudent.

As for “what’s my business,” this is a public forum and I’ll decide that, not you.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  JT
3 years ago

Sorry to burst your bubble, but I was replying to the other guy, not you.Report

Car Nap
Car Nap
Reply to  JT
3 years ago

Ha! I wasn’t talking to ANYONE!

So, by the rules of this game, I win.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  JT
3 years ago

I was clearly talking to Emily. Don’t be thick.Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I’m sorry, but I think your student who complained is absolutely right. Especially if the course is part of a General Education curriculum as our Introduction to Philosophy Course is.

Introduction to Philosophy is an opportunity to introduce students to the history and central topics of our discipline. It is not offered so that professors can inculcate students in their own ideological commitments, as your course obviously, transparently is.Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

There also is something rather weird about lamenting a “culture of justification” in a discipline, in which epistemic concerns are central to so many of its sub-disciplines.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

You don’t really think the author is complaining about *epistemology*, do you?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

I was very clear about what I was addressing my comment to. I even quoted it.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I see that you quoted it. And I am pointing out that there are multiple senses of “justification”.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

Dotson’s paper explicitly draws a link between the “culture of justification” she dislikes and internalist epistemology. So, yes, it’s fair to say that Dotson is complaining about epistemology.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
3 years ago

She draws a link to internalism by way of analogy to her sense of the word in the phrase “culture of justification” — she isn’t actually criticizing internalist epistemology (as best as I can tell).Report

Michel
Michel
3 years ago

This is clearly a themed intro course, and I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m increasingly thinking that themed courses are a better way of going about teaching intro-level philosophy than the more usual smorgasbord of topics or historical progression of “greats”. The smorgasbord is a shotgun approach that offers a tiny taste of several different topics or thinkers; the themed approach, on the other hand, offers students a stable focus around which to organize their thinking and practice their newly-acquired methods, and allows them to engage with a topic in depth and in a sustained manner. I think that probably gives them a much better idea of what philosophy is like and how it’s done, and promotes a better path to acquiring the kinds of competencies we expect from them a couple more courses down the road.

It looks to me like a lot of the comments upthread boil down to complaints about the approach being taken being different from the poster’s preferred model of intro to philosophy. That, plus what looks to me like some bad-faith complaints about propaganda and indoctrination. Themed courses especially seem like they’re bound to be lightning rods for these kinds of criticism, but I’m not convinced that the complaints are on target. It would be pretty easy to raise these kinds of complaints about most syllabi for intro to philosophy, or to particular subfields of philosophy (hell, about most syllabi period!).Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Michel
3 years ago

I disagree entirely and do not think “themed” courses are what one should be doing in Introduction to Philosophy, especially not when the course is a part of the General Education curriculum, as many (perhaps most) are. And there is no “bad faith” involved in objecting to engaging in transparently ideologically motivated pedagogy, especially with Introductory level instruction. If anything the “bad faith” is on the part of those who do engage in such pedagogy.

I also call BS on “it would be pretty easy to raise these kinds of complaints about most syllabi for intro to philosophy.” Sure, you could do it, but that wouldn’t make the complaints credible.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I don’t see why themed courses can’t serve as intro courses, so long as broad areas of philosophy are introduced. We must all choose something to illustrate what it is to do metaphysics or epistemology. And there may be added benefits if you can tailor the class to a cohort of students from a particular major. An intro course focusing on themed topics that are already of interest to the students may lead them to get a bit more out of the course than they would from a more generic intro. Most intro students aren’t going to be philosophy majors, and we should recognize that in our teaching.

That said, the above course is very centered around a particular political view, and (as others have said), shouldn’t be sold as a generic intro. Maybe label it as an intro, with the “Language, knowledge and power” as a sub-heading?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  ajkreider
3 years ago

‘Themed’ of course, can mean a lot of things and I would agree that some of them would be entirely appropriate ways of teaching Intro. I’ve done such courses myself. But what seems to me clear is that such courses must at a minimum introduce students to the central figures and topics of philosophy. Themed courses that do not do that — and especially themed courses like the one described in the OP, which have such an obvious, naked ideological agenda behind them — strike me as inappropriate, given the purpose of Introductory level courses and General Education.Report

chronos
chronos
3 years ago

I am sympathetic to those who are concerned with the course, since I think it is too narrow and doesn’t sufficiently introduce students to the main ideas of philosophy and is more an upper level course. But let me note a different worry with this approach. Does it occur to you that you may be doing a disservice to your colleagues in your program, since students from your class will have satisfied the “intro” requirement, but don’t really know common issues in the field? So when students take advanced classes they can’t be expected to know “logic, ethics, broad historical periods, mind, god, free will, etc.” This means your colleagues’ classes will now suffer because students are basically unprepared for more advanced work and your colleagues will have to address this somewhow. So, in a way, this seems like an worrying approach that can be seen as placing a burden on some of your colleagues. Is that not a concern?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  chronos
3 years ago

This is an excellent point that had not occurred to me on first reading the piece. A student who had taken this course and then wanted to take upper-division histories of ancient or modern philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of mind, theories of ethics, etc., would be crippled in their ability to navigate the material and would place the professor in an impossible position.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I was taught the Republic 3 times in 3 different classes in undergrad. I never took an epistemology course until grad school. Somehow, I and my professors managed.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

Good for you. Maybe some of us think that isn’t a good way to go about educating students. That’s what we’re doing here: weighing in on a post describing an Intro to Philosophy course.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

My point is that every student will have different backgrounds and take different courses and that no one intro course is the same as the next. Yet we all manage to teach students with different educational backgrounds all the time. Are you saying Intro courses should be standardized across the discipline?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

Given that we have no governing body with the authority to do this, the point is moot. It is worth noting that philosophy is one of the few disciplines in my college that does *not* have a standardized introductory level curriculum.

But if you are asking me purely at the level of the merits of the various ideas, then my answer is: “Yes.” I think that there are a number of ways one can do a credible, responsible Intro to Philosophy class, but I would draw some general boundaries.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  chronos
3 years ago

I think this is an important concern. I think of intro (as some other commenters in this thread note) as more about teaching philosophical skills: how to read an argumentative paper, how to write an argumentative paper, how to make distinctions, how to define concepts, etc. And, frankly, I don’t think there are radically different skills in reading and writing about, say, Elizabeth Barnes’s article on disability pride compared to, say, Elizabeth Barnes’s article on metaphysical indeterminacy. Indeed, my hope is that I am teaching skills that are transferable to other parts of students’ collegiate experience and beyond.

I do think the course does not prepare students for Formal Logic. Fortunately/unfortunately, I teach Formal Logic, so that will be no burden to my colleagues.Report

Ann Levey
Ann Levey
Reply to  chronos
3 years ago

In my department we have a variety of introductory courses: “Sex, Love and Death”; ” Morality, Virtue and Society “; ” Mind, Matter and God ” (formerly introduction to philosophy” and “How do we Know?”. So students come into second year courses with a variety of backgrounds. As long as they have some basics of argument and critically reading philosophy texts it seems to work well enough that we don’t have a standardized intro course as a pipelineReport

Recent grad
Recent grad
3 years ago

One thing that bothers me about this course is how contingent it all is. Change the world a lot and there’s likely still the mind-body problem, the free will problem, the question of knowledge, the question of how one ought to live. But shake up history and it’s not clear that a lot of the issues in the syllabus are still pertinent. This isn’t to say they’re not important. Obviously historically contingent things can be of great importance. They’re also philosophically important, I think. But they’re a bit downstream and, I think, too downstream to constitute, on their own, a good introduction to philosophy.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

If I take a Wittgenstein course I’m going to learn about the (alleged) logical structure of language, rule-following, and a bunch of other stuff that would be interesting regardless of the contingent biographical details of his life. Those subjects would have been just as worthy of study if Bertrand Russell had written that material, or Saul Kripke, or whomever. Wittgenstein’s *work* has non-contingent significance.Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Hi Justin,
I think you missed my point slightly. I agree that the fact that we read the historical figures we do is largely contingent. I’m concerned instead with the issues they discuss. And of course some of the issues they discuss will be relatively contingent, but others much less so. Contingency, in this sense, can come in degrees. So I’m fine with intro courses not reading the moldy oldies. But I’m less fine with intro courses which don’t focus at least some on the issues they discuss.

Regarding your question about why we should care about what’s pertinent in other worlds: because it is a decent measure of something like timelessness and some philosophical questions are important because they are timeless.Report

anonymuse
anonymuse
Reply to  Recent grad
3 years ago

Oppression seems pretty timeless to me. And a lot more crucial to how we ought to live our lives than rule-following or the mind-body problem.Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
Reply to  anonymuse
3 years ago

Anonymuse,

I don’t deny that oppression is potentially timeless. But if it *is* timeless, then so are questions about the general nature of value, wrongdoing, personhood, etc. ButI don’t see readings pertaining to *those* on the syllabus. To simply start with oppression and never get more general–that’s the sort of thing I have in mind when I say that the issues are a bit too downstream to constitute an intro course on their own.Report

Ann Levey
Ann Levey
Reply to  Recent grad
3 years ago

Philosophers have always been engaged with puzzles of their times. Shouldn’t we be also?Report

Jimbob
Jimbob
3 years ago

These are growing subfields within the discipline, so I see nothing wrong with including these topics in an intro to philosophy course, provided of of course they are near the back.

Part of the problem is that these are subfields; essentially applied philosophy. How are the students going to write intelligently and rationally about these subjects if they have had no prior philosophical training? Having proofread papers (up to doctoral level) in other humanities, I can say with confidence that the level of rigor in philosophy is much higher. Part of the reason is that we study the classic works of philosophy closely. I don’t see how focussing on a narrow set of subfields within philosophy will elevate students to this level.

Another problem I see is that the course (from what I can tell) only discusses these topics from a left wing perspective. You might think differing views are wrong, immoral even, but they are not irrelevant. It is important to learn about theories from the source. You wouldn’t have a lesson on rationalism/empiricism while just reading the former. One must read someone’s arguments as they present them themselves. I see not a single paper on the reading list which presents things from the other side, so to speak.

The author also complains about the criticism rather than taking it on board. Rather than accepting that the course may lack the rigor and comprehensiveness of a traditional intro to philosophy course (not to mention alienating conservative students), the author assumes they are wrong.Report

Joe
Joe
3 years ago

I am not at all concerned by the exclusion of Plato and Aristotle: I think that almost any topic can, in principle, serve as a way to explore philosophy. I am shocked that someone who cites diversity and inclusion could be so cavalier about the blatant political slant. To be clear: I agree with virtually all of the politics in these readings. I identify as a feminist and as an ideology-critic. But you are *certainly* excluding a wide range of students from full participation in philosophy if they are going to be asked to take a series of controversial left-wing opinions as representative of social-philosophical thought *as such*.

I’ve been kind of afraid to join the Heterodox Academy… this post has pushed me towards ignoring the risks and publicly standing against what is plainly a serious injustice in the academy.Report

Another Gopher
Another Gopher
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

Agreed. What I find particularly troubling is that every reading on the syllabus advances left-wing arguments without a scintilla of material offering counterpoints. It is not hard to imagine conservative or moderate students avoiding the course or feeling intimidated by a classroom pedagogy wholly dominated by far-left-wing ideologies. Indoctrination is not a protected form of academic freedom.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Another Gopher
3 years ago

Are there academically rigorous right-wing treatments of race or sexual violence?Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Evan
3 years ago

Evan, there are certainly philosophers (no idea if they’re right-wing or not) skeptical of many of the approaches taken in the articles on this syllabus. Take Quayshawn Spencer’s recent work on the philosophy of race, for instance.Report

Mark Alfano
3 years ago

I confess myself confused by the hand-wringing and onto-divan-fainting up thread. Surely (surely!) no single-semester course can even hope to introduce the most hard-working students to all of the topics, positions, arguments, concepts, and controversies that might be presupposes by a 200-level (let alone a 400-level) course in philosophy. Or even a majority of such topics. Or even a significant plurality. You have to pick and choose. Sam picks and chooses in a somewhat idiosyncratic way. So do lots of others. The folks who pick and choose all and only (!!!) what they take to be canonical may feel that they’re not picking and choosing, but that just evinces their blinkered perspective, not their pristine a priori comprehension of the essence of philosophy.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

So you discount the concern expressed by Chronos above?Report

SPENCER CASE
SPENCER CASE
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

And you would feel the same way about a comparably right wing syllabus that also excluded cannonical texts? So we’re going to do Christina Hoff Sommers and my Quillette essays and some Thomas Sowell, but no Plato, Aristotle, etc. and no liberals. I think you would — and should — find that objectionable.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  SPENCER CASE
3 years ago

So in this thread we have people saying Star Trek and Jordan Peele are great tools for teaching philosophy but Christina Hoff Sommers and Thomas Sowell are inappropriate for it. Does it strike anybody that the original poster might not be the only one with a double standard when it comes to scholarly quality or relevancy? Does it strike anybody as a little bit ridiculous that in the same thread where people are bemoaning the fact that philosophers have to justify their beliefs we are seeing a reference to “well-established, well-respected philosophers” as though that’s an important determination?

The fact is that much of the reason those philosophers are “well-established” is because their conclusions are politically convenient. It is so absurd to see this denied repeatedly. It is right in everybody’s face. The fact that you see material that under feminist epistemologist’s description takes liberal/leftist/etc. positions as assumptions rather than conclusions as “advanced” speaks volumes as well. The idea must be that we convince students to be liberals/leftists/etc. in introductory courses and then then, once we’ve convinced them, we let them take “advanced” courses. This seems to strike you as unproblematic. The doublethink required for this discussion is really incredible.Report

Dahmir
Dahmir
Reply to  SPENCER CASE
3 years ago

I just want to say that Justin Weinberg is acting really unprofessionally in this comment section.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  SPENCER CASE
3 years ago

Just to clarify, since yesterday I was completely startled by the vehemence of Justin’s reaction: I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the quality of any philosopher’s work, merely to offer an explanation for the popularity of some stuff as compared to other stuff. I trust everyone reading this can think of brilliant people who get little recognition inside or outside the discipline. I really hadn’t intended to express anything different from what I was getting at in (2) in my chronologically earliest comment on this thread, where I talked about topical trendiness turning in part on political projects.

On the other hand, if what Justin is claiming is that it’s “ridiculous and extraordinarily insulting” is to suggest that politics not only affects but more or less determines what some philosophers and non-philosophers find interesting, I can direct him to a great deal of equally trendy philosophical material whose thrust is that one cannot do metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on without in some sense doing politics. Surely “politics determines philosophical trends” would be one of the least radical corollaries of that line of thinking.Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Justin: I agree that Mills and Fricker are legit choices. The point is that I wouldn’t put together an exclusively right wing syllabus, not that that was the best one I could possibly come up with. And if I added Robby George and a few others like that who are practicing philosophers with publications, etc. the thought experiment wouldn’t much different. And I agree with Oliver that this cuts both ways. If you want to endorse idiosyncratic choices that go beyond the normal respected figures — or at least the freedom of individual instructors to make such choices without being accused of “not doing philosophy” — then that goes both ways.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Mark Alfano
3 years ago

What a dishonest characterization of peoples’ concerns. Fortunately it’s all there for people to read and form their own judgments, rather than depend on your skewed description.

That you think teaching Plato or Aristotle or Descartes or Mill constitutes “picking and choosing” representing a “blinkered perspective” is a far better indication of the bizarre view of our subject and of the purpose of general education pedagogy embraced by some members of our discipline (as well as the OP) than anything critics could have said.Report

mrmr
mrmr
Reply to  Mark Alfano
3 years ago

I agree that there’s nothing wrong with idiosyncratic choices per se. But if one makes a series of highly idiosyncratic choices in constructing a syllabus, it’s a banal result that the students wind up expressing surprise. I think formal methods are great, and I think you could construct a cool intro course that focused almost entirely on applications and interpretations of statistics and game theory. But no doubt you would get plenty of end of year comments along the lines of “jeez, it’s called intro to philosophy but it turned out to be a math class.”Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Mark Alfano
3 years ago

“Some picking and choosing is unavoidable; therefore, all picking and choosing is equally reasonable” seems to be the clear implication of what you’re saying, and it seems pretty clearly wrong. Of course there is no platonic ideal of the The Intro Course, but that doesn’t mean that all intro courses equally serve the pedagogical goals of such courses. Of course instructors should include topics they find pertinent or exciting, but that doesn’t mean instructors should build undergrad courses based entirely on what they find interesting.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Mark Alfano
3 years ago

Yes, teaching Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Mill is picking and choosing. Why not teach (also/instead) Kongzi and Mengzi instead of Plato and Aristotle? Why not teach Spinoza (or Avicenna?!) instead of Descartes? Why not teach Sidgwick instead of Mill?

A super-nice thing about philosophy is that you can refer backwards and forwards in its history while doing it. I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that Sam — like any other competent philosophy instructor — sometimes brings up relevant exemplars and texts that aren’t on the reading when it would be helpful for his students to hear about them.Report

Another Gopher
Another Gopher
Reply to  Mark Alfano
3 years ago

whatever the principled issues, stuff like this hands hard rightwingers everything they want on a silver platter re: the public narrative on higher education. and people wonder how trump ended up in office…Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Mark Alfano
3 years ago

You might want to read more carefully. This is what I said:

“That you think teaching Plato or Aristotle or Descartes or Mill constitutes “picking and choosing” representing a “blinkered perspective” ”

And of course it does no such thing.

The idea that teaching Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, etc. in survey courses is somehow controversial or requires explanation really says everything about how fringey some people in our discipline have gotten. And its not a good thing.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

“The idea that teaching Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, etc. in survey courses is somehow controversial or requires explanation really says everything about how fringey some people in our discipline have gotten.”

It’s almost as if philosophers want to criticize views rather than simply accept them because they are “supposed to”.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

No, it’s as if some of us actually know the history of our subject, have decades of experience teaching undergraduates, and have some conception of what is appropriate in the teaching of introductory and general education.

I understand that you don’t agree, but don’t pose as if ours is not a legitimate point of view or as if it is our view rather than yours that is eccentric and far-out. Just look at the introductory level anthologies on every respected academic press and see what’s in them. There’s a reason.

The burden is on the person proposing the radical change and I don’t see that burden has been even remotely met.Report

jdkbrown
jdkbrown
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

“No, it’s as if some of us actually know the history of our subject, have decades of experience teaching undergraduates, and have some conception of what is appropriate in the teaching of introductory and general education.”

So, all of this is true of me, too, Daniel–and I disagree with you about the best way to teach intro.Report

Colum
Colum
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

One’s MP is another’s MT, mind you.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

DK: How often do you teach Kongzi and Mengzi? How often do you teach Avicenna and al-Ghazali? How often do you teach Queen Christina’s letters along with Descartes?

Have you even read any of these sources? Until I hear otherwise, I’ll assume the answer is ‘No’ and rest content in my assessment that you have a blinkered perspective.

Also: why should all of us — around the globe — have to worry about what your awful state legislators might think of our syllabi?Report

CurrentGradStudent
CurrentGradStudent
Reply to  Mark Alfano
3 years ago

So the point is that an instructor can “pick and choose” in an idiosyncratic way without any responsibility to the discipline itself??!

This seems like it goes too far in the other direction. After all, if I write up a syllabus that has no women writers, I’ll get blasted for that lack of diversity. Would it be acceptable for me to make the same argument Mark Alfano just has in support of this syllabus?

Why can’t you ever defend a political/ideological position while conceding that sometimes it goes too far? I just don’t understand that. The bending-over-backwards to protect comrades-in-arms just undermines your larger credibility.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  CurrentGradStudent
3 years ago

Yes, that is what I implicated. I definitely implicated that because we have to pick and choose, it’s OK to pick and choose literally anything. I definitely didn’t implicate that, because we have to pick and choose, there will inevitably be a very large majority of eligible literature that we end up ignoring.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

My favorite part about this post is the affected naivete of the author: “Actually this course is quite conventional because we talk about Quine!” Nothing disingenuous about that claim, of course!
Would it really kill you to admit that this is a really narrow, ideologically-driven syllabus?

What a shame, though. Students often pay a lot of money to go to school, presumably hoping to acquire genuine, lasting knowledge.

As someone who cares about the education of students, it pains me to see professors turning universities into social-justice madrasas. As a right-wing Christian who wonders if we wouldn’t be better off without higher education in its present form, I applaud your efforts to discredit the whole institution.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Interesting choice of word, “madrasa”. You do know that madrasa is simply the Arabic equivalent of “university”, right?

If you really believe higher education is a bad thing, then what are you doing here? Why don’t you lament all syllabi? But, of course, I suspect you only lament the ones that don’t impart “genuine, lasting knowledge” — i.e., “things you personally find important to learn”.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

I’ve taken a couple years of Arabic language courses, so yes I know what “madrasa” means; and no, it isn’t *equivalent* to “university” because it’s broader than just that. Obviously I was alluding to the dogmatic Islamist schools, which you are surely smart enough to figure out without my having to point it out.

The fact that you can’t distinguish a criticism of ideologically narrow curricula and an expression of personal preference speaks volumes. Perhaps next you’ll tell me that all choices of course content are “equally valid”…Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Okay, perhaps I shouldn’t have said “equivalent”, although we might get into a discussion of what that term means. What I meant was, as you know, to criticize your use of the word to allude to the radical schools, since (a) the word does not just mean “radical Islamist school”, and (b) you were setting up “madrasas” as the enemy, rather than just social justice movements you disagree with — an odd and vaguely Islamophobic choice.

I was also taking you to task for saying that “ideologically narrow” curricula cannot impart “genuine, lasting knowledge”, when I suspect there is plenty of equally “ideologically narrow” curricula that you WOULD regard as genuine knowledge. So, there absolutely is personal preference here.

And no, I don’t think all choices of course content are “equally valid”. I think philosophical course content should pertain (in a very strong sense) to philosophy, and should primarily involve the transfer of philosophical skills and methods — a view that clearly has some serious opponents in this comments section, but there you have it.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

The dogmatic Islamist theological schools are bad at teaching students to discover the truth. If you find that assessment “Islamophobic” then tough.

What ideologically narrow curricula are you prepared to say I prefer? Don’t beat around the bush.Report

Colum
Colum
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

To be fair, the madrasas of, say, 10th century Baghdad were, like, the place to be if you were around then and wanted to study pretty much anything. (Slight exaggeration, sure.) The term only recently got its pejorative connotations in the west.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I’ll take 10th century Constantinople instead. Far more ancient manuscripts and a strong tradition of logic study….Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I’ve no idea what specific ideology you prefer (except for the vague terms you described yourself in), only that you likely have some set of preferred ideological stances, since most people do. And being as you mention “imparting genuine knowledge”, I assume there is some set of curricula that you think meet this criteria (of “actually” imparting knowledge). And I’m guessing (guessing, admittedly, though it’s a fairly good guess I’d bet) that the curricula that meets this criteria of yours HAPPENS to be the one(s) that line(s) up with your preferred ideology.Report

Dahmir
Dahmir
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

You’re just concern-trolling at this point.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
3 years ago

I share other posters’ concerns about the political slant of the course. But I just have concerns, not outright condemnation. And I think there’s a lot to like about this course. Here’s why:

1. Content vs. Way of Teaching: Just because the course has a slant doesn’t mean that the professor is intolerant of differing views. I doubt any of the posters here know what Liao is like as a teacher; regardless of his personal views, he could be very accommodating to people who are political liberals, moderates, or conservatives.

2. Content as Pedagogically Better: Non-radicals might find the readings thought-provoking. Views that are not all that often heard in the mainstream, and that seem to you to be obviously wrong, often inspire the best discussion and thinking. So, pedagogically, this–like a course that included lots of neo-reactionary voices–could be really good. (That said, I may be underestimating how widespread the radical point of view is; it could be that it’s well-represented in lots of TV shows, movies, websites, etc., in which case it wouldn’t necessarily be as pedagogically effective as I imagine. But in my experience as someone whose students are primarily working-class and/or Hispanic, these perspectives aren’t familiar to them.)

3. Themed Courses: As for the thematic nature of the course, again, I don’t have a problem with this. I teach themed intros as well: “Human Nature and the Meaning of Life” and “Philosophy and Popular Culture”. In the latter course, I not only teach about philosophical themes as they manifest in pop culture (e.g., The Matrix), but also how to take a philosophical approach to the ways we take in pop culture (viz., via our portable devices; on this subject, I teach people like Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, Michael Lynch, Simone Weil, Kevin Kelly, and Plato). I definitely have a point of view — I think that our portable devices are harming our attention spans and make it more difficult for us to cope with boredom and develop a coherent sense of self — but I also try to challenge my point of view, and give at least a couple of readings that challenge this point of view. In addition, part of the reason I teach about our devices’ effects on us is so I can give an assignment that I think allows for significant learning: I give my students a techno-fast, where they have to fast from a kind of technology (e.g., social media, TV shows/movies/YouTube, or video games) for two weeks, and the readings equip them to better observe their own experiences. This leads to my next point …

4. Learning Outcomes before Assessment Instruments, Assessment Instruments before Content: I think the best way to design a course is by backwards assessment: start with what you want your students to learn, then figure out assignments that will give you evidence about whether your students have or haven’t learned that stuff, and then come up with content. (I’m not the only one who thinks this is a good way to design courses; L. Dee Fink, among many others, argues for the same approach in his _Creating Significant Learning Experiences_.) Depending on what Liao wants his students to learn, this could be a great way to teach them.

5. What about Core Philosophy?: I think it’s important for students to get exposure to the core issues in philosophy. Here’s why: (a) it allows students to appreciate a distinctive methodology that they won’t get in other disciplines. (b) It prepares them to take future philosophy courses. (c) This stuff is important to know. However, Liao’s approach allows for (a) and (c). As for (b), OK, it might not prepare them for future philosophy courses, but it also may inspire them to take future philosophy courses more than the standard approach does. And sure, when they get into later classes they may not be as prepared as other students, but they may also have a distinctive point of view that the other students don’t have, and this point of view could enrich the classroom discussion that takes place in ancient philosophy or epistemology or whatever. Moreover, don’t assume that just because a student is taught form and matter or the causal theory of reference that they will actually learn it. Students have to be motivated to learn. And it could be that Liao’s content, which is more immediately relevant and less abstract than the typical fare, will help them remain motivated to learn, for reasons that I present in 2.
That said, I do have one worry: students who take this course and then decide to take future courses in philosophy because of it might feel tricked. They might think that philosophy is like what it was in Liao’s course, but then discover that different professors teach quite different stuff. I think this is a genuine cost of Liao’s approach.

6. Doesn’t This Course Just Present an Extremely Controversial Point of View as Though It’s Right and Marginalize Other Points of View?: First, this depends on *how* it’s taught. See 1. But also, I think people overestimate how controversial it is. While I personally think I would disagree with almost every bit of every reading, including the “ands” and “ors”, I also recognize that in the humanities and, to a lesser degree, in the social sciences, these points of view aren’t controversial. Unless I’m mistaken, they’re so dominant that questioning them is seen as a personal failing, either moral or intellectual. Indeed, the way that we normally teach philosophy — where many of us think there’s an objective reality, where we don’t emphasize power relations, where we invoke natural science as a neutral arbiter of the truth — is extremely controversial, especially in the humanities. Personally, I think this is a reason to keep teaching the normal approach to philosophy; it’s useful for students to have a number of different ways to look at the same thing. But if you’re convinced by this approach that power relations are fundamental to how we understand the world, then it would make sense to teach in this way, just as I’m convinced that there is a truth, that there are relatively impartial ways of getting at it, and that natural science has a great track record of discovering truths (and I teach my philosophy classes this way; I don’t usually spend much time on making global skepticism seem reasonable, for example).

7. Isn’t This Comment Overly Long? And Doesn’t It Put Way Too Happy a Face on What’s Going on Here? Yes, my comments is too long. I’m not a concise writer. And yes, this overly long comment probably puts too happy a face on what’s going on; I suspect that a disturbingly large number of people in the humanities would, if they had their druthers, expel me and people who think like me from the academy. And I suspect that many, perhaps most, people who take Liao’s point of view would think the way I teach philosophy is “problematic” and should be changed. But here’s the thing: I think they’re wrong, but despite that, I think they have reasonable, interesting arguments, and I’ve learned a lot from them. I certainly wish they would think the same of me, but I’m a giant weirdo.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Could you possibly virtue-signal any harder? You’re shameless.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Who, me?Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Robert Gressis
3 years ago

I was replying to Justin.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Yes, Justin, that’s *exactly* what I was getting at!

Shameless.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I find it ironic that most of those who like to accuse others of ‘virtue signaling’ don’t realise that such an act is itself a form of ‘virtue signaling’ by their own definition. On the other hand, I do like it when fools reductio themselves. Net neutral, I guess; so, nevermind, as you were.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  JT
3 years ago

“by their own definition.”

Um, what definition?

BTW, care to leave a name with that insult?Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

No, I don’t care to share my name, as indicated by my use of my (real) initials. I’m a private person; what’s it to you? Anyway, I take it that this is broadly reflective of how the term is used: https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/2701968/virtue-signalling-meaning-origin-examples/ . Seems pretty clear to me that your calling Justin out for shameless ‘virtue signalling’ fits the definition. Careful you don’t cut yourself with that axe you’re grinding.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

So you take an anonymous cheap-shot about how I’ve owned myself by my own definition, and you support this contention by supplying someone else’s definition.

Take the L and move on, Captain Courage.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Cheap shot? Sure. But given your initial comment, and on the principle that a turnabout is fairplay, I don’t see the problem. Also, it’s a bit rich for you to frame this as me putting another’s definition in your mouth, given that that’s the standard usage (which you do not deny) and you gave no indication that you were radically breaking with it. But, fine. Whatever. I’m curious, though, to see if you actually do have a definition on which complaining about ‘virtue signaling’ doesn’t count as a form of ‘virtue signaling’. I’m not holding my breath though, so take your time.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Put a name on your insult and I’ll play along. Otherwise, have a nice day.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Lol. OK, so don’t play. I’ve had my fun anyway.Report

Brandon Warmke
Brandon Warmke
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

JT writes: “I’m curious, though, to see if you actually do have a definition on which complaining about ‘virtue signaling’ doesn’t count as a form of ‘virtue signaling’.”

On Tosi’s and my account of moral grandstanding (as previously discussed on this very blog), it is possible to complain about or accuse one of grandstanding without thereby grandstanding. (This of course does not justify any particular complaint or accusation.) However, grandstanding is not the same as virtue-signalling, so this may not be entirely relevant to this particular meeting of minds.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Brandon Warmke, sounds interesting–I’ll have to take a look at your paper! My sense is that proponents of ‘virtue signaling’ talk take it to refer to a special species of moral grandstanding, though I’m not sure how to spell out the difference at the moment.Report

Brandon Warmke
Brandon Warmke
Reply to  JT
3 years ago

We discuss the differences in the book and explain why GS is the better phenomenon to focus on when it comes to normative appraisal. Fwiw, we don’t mention ‘virtue-signalling’ in the paper because the term hadn’t been popularized yet when we wrote it. Stay tuned.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Brandon Warmke
3 years ago

I’ll keep an eye out for it!Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Robert Gressis
3 years ago

Thank you again, Rob, for your thoughtful constructive criticism.

Re: ‘I suspect that many, perhaps most, people who take Liao’s point of view would think the way I teach philosophy is “problematic” and should be changed.’ We probably do disagree about pedagogical choices, but I definitely would think what you teach is intro to philosophy. And, even when we disagree, I think there are many reasonable pedagogical choices can be made that are radically different from my own (and so should not be changed).

Re: ‘What about Core Philosophy?’ I definitely appreciate your outlining these different considerations. My aim is to teach relatively transferable skills so that, if students are sufficiently excited to take another course in philosophy, they will have those transferable skills. And really, I don’t think the things I assign are written very differently from what might get taught in a metaphysics or philosophy of mind course (to just take two “core” fields I’m relatively familiar with). But my more meta-comment is that it just really depends on the university structure, the department course sequence, and various institutional context factors.Report

Samuel A
Samuel A
3 years ago

Cool syllabus, Sam. I agree with the commentators upthread about the desirability of themed intro courses, and I think this could be a great one. However, I also see how students can feel like they didn’t get what they signed up for (which is a general issue with themed intro courses, especially ones with an interdisciplinary flavor, like this one).

I’ve found that when I teach courses that aren’t what my students might expect given the course name, it helps if I spend some time early on “selling” my approach to the students. I give an argument for why it’s desirable to teach the class in my way — and then I make it a teachable moment by asking the students to generate objections to my argument, come up with replies to those objections, and so on. (I make sure the students know that we’re going to do it my way, even if they end up not being persuaded by my argument.) I’ve found that this kind of meta-reflection helps students see what I want them to get out of the semester, and helps them appreciate my rationale (even if they disagree with it).

Were you able to do this kind of meta-reflection in the class you taught, Sam? If so, was it helpful? Or did these comments persist despite your “selling” the class to the students?Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Samuel A
3 years ago

Agreed. I would add that carefully explaining to the students, at the beginning of the semester, the differences between philosophy and fields like sociology may help.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Samuel A
3 years ago

I’ve tried to engage students in similarly meta discussions, e.g. by teaching Russell’s “What is Philosophy”, at the start of the course, but I think it’s all so hopelessly abstract and inside-baseball for students. I do think about whether it’d help to teach Dotson’s “How Is This Paper Philosophy” or something similar at the end of this course… but ultimately I am not sure such meta discussions are ultimately beneficial or even interesting to a class of mostly first-year students who mostly will not major in philosophy. But it’s a tricky judgment call.Report

Evan
Evan
3 years ago

I just recently graduated with a degree in philosophy (which I loved and would choose again), with currently no plan to pursue the discipline at a Ph.D. level, and I thought a student’s perspective might be useful here.

I think an intro Philosophy class should teach students how philosophy is done and why it is important. From my experience, the intro/canonical material was often the hardest to justify as an important area of study. The only time I’ve ever been embarrassed about my major was reading the Gettier paper in my intro to Epistemology course. On the other hand, issues like race, sexual violence, and hate speech are issues that we deal with every day in our society. I think we can all agree that these are issues that probably need more nuanced, careful and analytical treatment in the wider discourse. Shen’s class gives the students the theoretical tools and the opportunity to do just that. These are topics that even non-major students talk take interest in outside the classroom, and I can think of no better advertisement for philosophy than a class that improves the quality of those critical discussions that take place outside the classroom.

There’s a lot to be said about the hand-wringing over the supposed ideological bent (for such a supposedly left-wing syllabus there is nothing anti-capitalist of note), but that’s a whole other post. All I’ll say is that I would have loved to have taken Shen’s class.Report

MBW
MBW
3 years ago

It sounds like a neat course, Sam, but I think I’d balk at considering it to be a syllabus for introduction to philosophy. That your students balked, too, doesn’t surprise me or indict them in my eyes particularly; you’re doing something new. (That’s good! We should innovate. But it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re surprised.) A quick glance suggests that nearly everything you’re reading is not only very, very recent (post-2000-ish?), but concerns fairly specialized questions that are criticisms of dominant approaches. E.g., can one understand what’s interesting about applying metaphysics to race and gender when one hasn’t studied any canonical metaphysics? Or grok what’s innovative about standpoint epistemology without having any background in the rest of epistemology?

The change in title seems to me apt, even as I agree that everything you’ve listed on your syllabus is philosophy. It’s just perhaps not an *introduction.*Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  MBW
3 years ago

I do think that’s a cost. And I’ve taught intro with, e.g., a subtheme comparing Western and Chinese philosophers on moral psychology and ethics, so I am not opposed to that approach. Again, there are many tricky cost-and-benefit balances to be made, and I don’t know if mine is correct.

I do think that one can learn about race and gender without “applying metaphysics” to race and gender. (In fact—here’s my one radical opinion in this discussion thread—I increasingly find the contemporary metaphysical discussion about race (don’t know enough about gender) to be an unhelpful distraction from understanding race.) And that’s enough for this course.

Note that, however, one can ask the same kind of questions for practically any intro choice one might make. Can one really understand Mill’s consequentialism without contextualizing it against the Mohists’? Can one really understand the significance of the Mohists’ consequentialism without reading also the Analects and Daodejing? My view, FWIW, is that in most cases a selection of reading can fit into a number of very different grand narratives. But, of course, it’s part of the instructor’s job to design a course that brings out a grand narrative.Report

Tim O'Keefe
3 years ago

Not on the topic of the OP, but looking over the schedule, it struck me that four of the class days were marked “NO CLASS away at a conference.” I’m curious–is this a common practice? In my experience, faculty arrange for somebody else to fill in when they know they’ll be absent, or they schedule an exam or some other activity and ask a person to supervise it. But my experience may be atypical, and it’s probably easier to get somebody to fill in if you teach in a department with a large faculty.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
3 years ago

I certainly couldn’t get away with it at my institution.Report

DCA
DCA
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
3 years ago

Professors at my undergrad and graduate university would just cancel class. Although, four seems rather much.Report

SLACer
SLACer
3 years ago

Among the many things I find puzzling about the comments here are the assumptions about what an *introduction* to philosophy does, who it serves, and its role in a curriculum. I’m confused about why so many commentators are concerned about intro *content* as opposed to *method*. At my school, as at many others, the number of majors is very small compared with the number of students who take a single course in philosophy. Moreover, as with many programs, the curriculum is pretty open: that is, you can take many of the 200-level courses without an prereqs. The upshot of this is that almost everything in the curriculum (besides the 300-level) functions as an *intro* to philosophy for most of the students in the course, whether it’s Metaphysics, Philosophy of Race and Gender, Global Justice, or whatever. And as long as all of the faculty know this going in and teach accordingly, it works really well: we educate a huge number of students in philosophical methods, using a wide variety of contents to do so. So I’m really not sure what all the hand-wringing is about.Report

Michel
Michel
Reply to  SLACer
3 years ago

I think this is really important. To my mind, course content does less to prepare students for future classes than a focus on methodology does, especially for beginners. The week you spend reading Aristotle doesn’t do a whole lot to prepare anyone for metaphysics 300 (nor, indeed, for Aristotle 300). What it does is start students on the path of breaking down a difficult text, and thinking about the structure of an argument. And that’s a goal easily served by lots of different content.

To be sure, I think every philosophy major should have read Aristotle. But I think that exposure needs to occur in an upper-level course devoted to Aristotle; a week or so in intro just won’t do.

For example, I think you could teach a perfectly respectable course in metaphysics on the existence of god (not that it would be eapecially representative of metaphysics!) that featured no explicitly “anti” readings. After all, the reason there are so many “proofs” is that previous proofs are obviously inadequate in some way or other. And it’s not that hard to get that dialectic going in class, even without contrary readings. It’s just a little harder on the instructor, and depends a whole lot more on how he or she actually teaches the material. And none of that is going to be evident from a mere list of readings.Report

MBW
MBW
Reply to  SLACer
3 years ago

A valuable point, although I disagree. For a student who isn’t going to continue in philosophy, which is the vast majority of them, the content to which they are exposed may well matter more than their facility with philosophical methods. Obviously, a good introductory course will teach both, but I’d be inclined to place somewhat more weight on content in a situation where I’m not likely to be recruiting future majors and minors.Report

One Bourbon, One Scotch...
One Bourbon, One Scotch...
3 years ago

I’m starting to rethink my commitment to doing a shot every time someone describes the criticism as “hand-wringing”. Uggggghhhhh…..Report

Frank
Frank
3 years ago

ME: Hey check out my new intro to philosophy syllabus. We’re reading: John Locke, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, Harry Frankfurt, Loren Lomasky, David Schmidtz, Robert P. George, Sherif Girgis, and Jason Brennan.
FRIEND: I don’t know man. What’s with the narrow focus on political philosophy and economics? And dude there’s obviously a pretty strong right/libertarian bias here.
ME: Don’t worry, dude. It’s a *themed* course. Plus the lefty students will enjoy the challenge the course presents to their views. I mean sure there are other readings I could’ve selected to avoid the problems you describe, but hey, in the end we all gotta choose some readings right?
FRIEND: Oh, cool. I’m entirely satisfied by that response. I don’t know what all my handwringing was about.Report

Michel
Michel
Reply to  Frank
3 years ago

Introduction to Philosophy: Libertarianism would be an unusual choice of subject matter, but it’s not like it would amount to malpractice or indoctrination or propaganda. Not qua list of readings, anyway.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Frank
3 years ago

That’s a good response. I certainly think that if someone were to propose that syllabus, a lot of the same people who praise Liao’s syllabus would condemn this one (though it’s possible that this one is objectionable while Liao’s is not).

That said, I’d have to hear more about how this course went. I can certainly imagine it focusing on property, which sits squarely in political philosophy, and then ramifying out into other fields, like aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. Hayek wrote really cool stuff on epistemology; Burke on aesthetics; etc. And you could move from self-ownership to the metaphysics of the self and see how the two relate.

But the more I think about it, the more that looks like a political philosophy course. So it seems inapt to teach it as an intro to philosophy. Do you think Liao’s course is just a political philosophy course? It seems to me to cover things like metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of language, but I could be convinced into thinking that its content is too narrow for an intro course.Report

OpMinority
OpMinority
Reply to  Frank
3 years ago

Good parody but your fake syllabus contains far more diversity of thought and less ideological slant than the target.Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
Reply to  Frank
3 years ago

Reminder to everyone putting forward arguments favouring the OP syllabus that this actually somewhat happened, and it looked awful:
https://thebaffler.com/latest/the-handmaiden-of-entrepreneurship
(I couldn’t find if there was a post on DailyNous on this previously)Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Frank
3 years ago

As Rob Gressis says, there seems to be very plausible ways of developing this idea into an introductory course. I look forward to reading your syllabus and learning from it!Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
3 years ago

The fact that some things are philosophy and other things are not philosophy is neither deep nor oppressive. Compare the fact that some things are tables and other things are not tables.

Like above commenters, I am concerned not only by
(1) the obvious political bent of the syllabus, but by
(2) the trendiness of the topics – compare the replication crisis in psychology, due in part to that discipline’s eagerness to put itself to work for trendy political ends – and by
(3) the fact that supposedly dominant methods are critiqued without ever being introduced. This is what they call “poisoning the well”, I believe.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
3 years ago

I am also a little bit troubled by the amount of non-philosophical material – a popular film, a review of it by a novelist, some podcasts and radio shows, etc. – that has made it on. Perhaps replacing Plato with Fricker is defensible, but replacing Aristotle with Jordan Peele?Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
3 years ago

One last comment – I should spend a minute and get all these organized in my head before I post – is that there is something downright sinister, like doublethink-y, in removing Plato and Aristotle in favor of papers all written in the past few decades and then claiming that doing so supports “diversity” on the syllabus. Plato and Aristotle were more different from almost any of us than almost any of us are from each other. It is incredible that people who lecture others about historical context and social construction and so forth then claim that the ancient Greeks were not “diverse”, that they were “white males” in the same way Bertrand Russell or David Lewis might be. It is the sort of thought process one expects in Teen Vogue, not in a professional philosopher.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
3 years ago

Just on (2), I think that is an argument that people like Jesse Singal would like to make, but I am not sure it stands up to scrutiny. One of the earliest articles that triggered discussions of replication was Bem’s article on ESP. I don’t know what trendy political ends might be served by endorsing ESP. In addition, one can also find many earlier discussions about replication and methodology; many psychologists I know of go back to Meehl, who is inspired by Popper. I am not sure which trendy political ends are served then, but perhaps historians and philosophers of psychology and statistics can weigh in.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Shen-yi Liao
3 years ago

I don’t mean to deny that there are non-political reasons that things can be trendy.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

There are so many ridiculous comments about how course content for Phil 101 doesn’t really matter. Why doesn’t it? The answer: “Because what’s important is teaching methods of doing philosophy.”

If teaching methods is important, then shouldn’t the content of the class be largely about method? E.g., deductive logic, inferences to best explanation, fallacies, that sort of thing? In that case it would make far more sense to assign a logic text and Quine’s “Web of Belief”. Maybe read a few articles to give students a chance to practice method application, but that would be secondary…

Choice of course content matters a great deal, and only the oblivious or cynical would deny this.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

“There are so many ridiculous comments about how course content for Phil 101 doesn’t really matter. Why doesn’t it? The answer: “Because what’s important is teaching methods of doing philosophy.” If teaching methods is important, then shouldn’t the content of the class be largely about method? E.g., deductive logic, inferences to best explanation, fallacies, that sort of thing?”

Isn’t this a bit like telling people it’s ridiculous to think it doesn’t matter what kind of bike you learn to ride a bike on because if it were the method of bike riding that mattered most, we’d teach the method itself rather than suggest getting on a bike and giving it a try?Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
3 years ago

No, it’s not, because those activities aren’t particularly analogous. Practicing by reading articles and assessing them surely helps, which I noted. But if you want to get good at assessing validity, you need to know what validity is. If you want to get good at inferring to the best explanation, it helps a great deal to have a decent mental model of what that involves. Directly teaching those topics is a better way to teach method than not directly teaching them!

So which are you, oblivious or cynical?Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Wait, so no one told you in your intro class what validity was, or did you take a logic course as your intro?Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
3 years ago

I didn’t have a 101 at my undergrad, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t know what validity is until you’ve studied logic. The one-line definition about preserving truth from premises to conclusion isn’t enough to assess deductive validity in practice.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Ok, so two things: One, you didn’t take a 101–did your philosophical education turn out alright? Two, sure, I understood validity better after taking logic, but also, I took to logic in part because I had practice analyzing arguments from intro.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

To be clear, I’m *not* arguing that 101 should be a direct study of philosophical methods. I’m saying that *if* the point of 101 is to teach philosophical methods, then the content of the course should mostly be about those methods.

Surely there are great 101 courses that simply cover rigorous articles or passages about subjects of perennial philosophical interest. You can surely also pick up some knowledge of method in such courses.

Content choice matters, however, and ideologically narrow content will make for an inferior course.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I’m not sure why you think you can read the ideological narrowness of the course content from the course readings though. As I said below, my intro courses centered around themes in Catholic thought. The readings for my intro ethics course we’re extremely narrow, ideologically speaking — but it was a philosophy class, and I had an excellent instructor, so we weren’t expected to absorb the ideology of the readings but rather analyze the arguments, including wrestling with, and where fitting, objecting to the ideological assumptions contained therein.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I look at the original post, and then I look at your comment wondering why I think that syllabus is ideologically narrow… and all I can ask is this:

Is this what feminists call “gas-lighting”?Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I’m trying to engage with you politely because I figure your hostility is probably coming from somewhere. I’m trying to assume you’re not just an asshole who likes lashing out at people you’ve never met because they don’t share your politics, but rather, your sarcasm and what looks to me like condescension must be coming from a place of sincere and legitimate frustration. But I’ll be honest, it’s not super easy. So, please note, I am granting the readings represent an ideological narrow lens in exactly the same way I am saying that the readings in my own u dergrafuate intro courses also represented a narrow, albeit different, political ideology. What I am objecting to is your assumption that the ideology of the class content is reducing to the content of the readings. This is because in my experience discussion plays a significant role in philosophy classes, and it often takes a critical approach to the readings on the syllabus.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

*undergraduate
*reducible
(Typing from my phone)Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I sincerely appreciate your patience, but I’m incredulous about the fact that anyone could look at the syllabus and think that this is a good course. (Actually, let’s just say “good for an intro” to narrow the discussion.) I’ve been in the academic world at the grad level for 7 years now but I still can’t get over this sort of thing.

Here’s what happens. Each paper will have assumptions that one will either accept or not. If those assumptions seem innocuous or at least plausible to all (or most) students, then great. These papers aren’t “narrow” in the sense I intend here.

When an article makes tendentious assumptions, or assumes things that many students find obviously absurd, then one of two things can happen. (1) Teacher says “look, just take the assumptions for granted an assess the argument.” Sometimes a teacher *should* do this. (2) Teacher says “It’s okay to challenge the assumptions, let’s talk about them.”

Assume a course has articles which make assumptions from a narrow political perspective. If (1) is always or often the case, then anyone who doesn’t share that perspective is going to be disengaged, un-invested in the results of the argument. For those students it might as well be a paper on Zoroastrian theology. Less learning will happen for them.

If (2) is always or often the case, then everyone will become irritated that the “reactionary” students always raise objections to the assumptions so that that engaged students can’t get to what they see as the “good parts” of the argument. And if they always (or nearly always) reject the initial assumptions, as is likely to happen with some students when the course syllabus is politically narrow, then the critical engagement is always happening apart from the arguments of the paper, and you get an unstructured (and likely not all that fruitful) class discussion.

Maybe you can mix (1) and (2) for different lessons but you’re still going to get a mix of the bad results.

Grad students who aren’t left-ish know what they’re getting into. Maybe the same is mostly true of upper-level undergrads. But can’t we avoid this nonsense for 101 students?Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

Like I said though, this is essentially analogous to my own undergraduate experience (I’m not Catholic, and most of my classmates in undergrad were seminarians) and I found it extremely fruitful. Surely it depends quite a bit on the classroom environment, and whether or not a professor can genuinely cultivate an inclusive classroom culture, whether or not they can balance one and two productively, etc — but having this kind of experience in my 101 was exactly what pulled me to philosophy. Having deep and meaningful conversations with my classmates about issues that were personally and culturally important to all of us, and across ideological lines, facilitated by philosophical methods made clear how significant and relevant philosophy is.

So, I agree completely that it could go wrong, I just also think it could (and in my case, did) go very well.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
3 years ago

The assumption (implicit and explicit in varying comments above) that the politics of the syllabus will thereby be replicated in the classroom is slightly odd, I think. My introductory classes in philosophy were also themed, and not with broadly “left” philosophy but rather around Catholic themes. I would recommend those courses to any undergraduate, and yet the syllabus for my introductory ethics course only included work by David Oderberg. It was an excellent course, and I learned an extraordinary amount about philosophical methodology, but importantly, given that we were learning how to do philosophy, critical engagement rather than toadying deference was the classroom norm, so the politics of the readings did not necessarily reflect the politics of discussion.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
3 years ago

In general, I think you’re right. Unfortunately, I suspect that radical left-wing philosophers are less likely than average to be so cosmopolitan in their teaching. After all, how can they tolerate airing of and critical engagement with a theory of race (e.g.) they deem wrong and (therefore, apparently) racist, when racist speech itself is violence according to them?Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Introduction to Philosophy is not a skills or methods course, although one learns skills and methods in taking it. Skills and methods courses are Critical Thinking and Introduction to Logic.

Of course the content matters. A good part of the point of Introduction to Philosophy is to introduce students to some of the primary conversations on core topics that have been going on since the pre-Socratics. My course begins with Plato and ends with Ayer. In between, student read Aristotle, St. Anselm, Montaigne, Pascal, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Mill. Primary sources in every case, not a textbook. If they go on to further study in philosophy, they have a good foundation from which to tackle upper level material, whether Intro is a prerequisite or not. And for those who never go on to further study, they’ve received a solid education in one branch of the humanities.

I can’t even believe we’re having this conversation. Or that the OP is serious in proposing that a course like the one he describes could credibly play the role of an Introduction to Philosophy course.Report

chronos
chronos
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

You might be interested to read the actual catalogue description for Introduction to Philosophy at Puget Sound. Just thought I’d add this.

https://www.pugetsound.edu/academics/departments-and-programs/undergraduate/philosophy/course-descriptions/Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  chronos
3 years ago

So his course is not even consistent with the description in the university catalog.

This whole thing is like some absurd parody. I’m starting to wonder if the OP isn’t punking us.Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
3 years ago

Cautious Until Tenured writes:

“The problem is not that these aren’t philosophical topics. It’s that it represents a very narrow, social-justice oriented perspective on these topics.”

Emily quotes this and responds by saying:

“It seems that the other options are to take a perspective that is anti-social-justice-oriented or that excludes social justice concerns entirely. I suspect the latter is something you and many other commenters would prefer. But that is just to say that you don’t take social justice concerns to be relevant to “the canon of western philosophy”, when, of course, they very much are.”

Here we see the left version of “You’re with us or you’re against us.” Not pushing social justice to the hilt is betraying social justice. The alternatives are either ignoring social justice (i.e., complicity with injustice) or else actively promoting injustice.

If we don’t admit some alternative to these three possibilities, then we are accepting the proposition that all thought must be subordinated to political objectives. This means that there is no meaningful distinction between teaching and indoctrinating, or between philosophical dialectic and propaganda. But these distinctions do exist. And we must accept them if we are to use reason to find out what political objectives we ought to be pursuing in the first place.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Spencer Case
3 years ago

I do not see how you get “pushing social justice to the hilt” out of “raising social justice concerns”.

I do not think social justice concerns are solely political objectives, but FIRST AND FOREMOST philosophical issues that philosophers (not everyone, necessarily, but those who specialize in such) ought to concern themselves with.

I do not think that teaching philosophical issues that happen to have relations to political ideologies in today’s climate counts as “indoctrinating” or “propaganda”. I do not think that teaching philosophical issues involves teaching them there is only one correct conclusion. I do not think teaching ANY philosophical issue ought to involve teaching them there is only one correct conclusion. That is not our job qua teachers as I see it. It is to bring the issue before there minds and give them the tools to analyze it themselves.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

This is an amazingly flatfooted reading of what Spencer said. It is quite clear that he got “pushing social justice to the hilt” out of the trichotomy that you quite clearly set up between a) a social-justice-oriented perspective, b) an anti-social-justice-oriented perspective, and b) a perspective that excludes social justice concerns entirely; not out of “raising social justice concerns”, which is of course a much less objectionable thing to do that no reasonable person would reject (which is why you’ve retreated to it now).Report

feminist epistemologist
feminist epistemologist
3 years ago

I have so many concerns with this. I think it does a disservice to emancipatory teaching.

So much of the content of this syllabus frames claims about how gender works, what oppression looks like, how racism operates, etc as assumed premises for further conclusions (e.g about how we should speak and act). But the point of classes like this is to teach such that beginning students approach claims about how gender works, what oppression looks like, how racism operates, etc as justified CONCLUSIONS of arguments, not assumed and accepted PREMISES. I know it is uncomfortable to have to argue that sexism, racism, homophobia, etc are bad (and to explain why), but that’s the thing that students need to be given reasons for in the first place.

Why? Because 19 year old beginning students do not operate with the field of knowledge many lefty philosophers do. They are apolitical, confused, non-aligned, apathetic, misinformed, disinformed, actively hostile. You can’t assume they will agree with you about any of this.

There’s so much work that offers feminism, anti-racism, etc as conclusion rather than premise — iris Marion Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression” comes to mind, Elizabeth Anderson, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum — but I know the literature you’re assigning here and it really doesn’t play that role.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  feminist epistemologist
3 years ago

If you are right, then this is criticism I think that is appropriate and legitimate, as opposed to nearly every other comment I’ve seen here. (I do not know the literature presented on the syllabus well myself.)Report

Colum
Colum
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

Thank you for deigning to respond to so many inapt concerns!Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  Colum
3 years ago

You are right, I have been too tendentious. I find these lines of argumentation very frustrating, and internet forums are terrible places to argue.Report

CurrentGradStudent
CurrentGradStudent
Reply to  Emily
3 years ago

Emily, do you really believe that, as you write in the earlier reply to this comment, “nearly every other comment” you’ve seen here is not “appropriate or legitimate”? Are all the rest of us totally out in the woods with our other concerns about the syllabus? This worries me perhaps even more than the syllabus itself.Report

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

I agree with “feminist epistemologist”, but hope it goes without saying that to fully rebut the charge of indoctrination, one would also have to ensure the syllabus also includes the best arguments against the conclusions presented by Young, Anderson, Sen, et al.Report

SPENCER CASE
SPENCER CASE
Reply to  feminist epistemologist
3 years ago

“Emancipatory teaching.” All teaching is emancipatory in that it liberates the student from ignorance. If it’s emancipatory in a political sense, then what you are talking about is indoctrination.Report

Feminist epistemologist
Feminist epistemologist
Reply to  SPENCER CASE
3 years ago

No, it’s not. Indoctrination is dogmatic, unresponsive to contrary evidence, and taught under compulsion. The point I made above is that providing students with claims as the conclusions of argument rather than assumed premises makes the arguments available for evaluation and response — the opposite of indoctrination.Report

SPENCER CASE
SPENCER CASE
Reply to  Feminist epistemologist
3 years ago

If students who want a degree cannot avoid attending classes in which left wing ideology is being propounded, then it’s arguable that they are being taught under compulsion. There are many people in this thread who find what is be taught dogmatic. In any event, I think if the primary purpose of a class is to inculcate the students with the professor’s ideology, then that’s sufficient for indoctrination. That goes for right as well as left political ideas.

Let me ask you this. Do you agree with the proposition that scholarship and activism are two basically different enterprises? To be clear, I don’t mean that the one can never be relevant to the other or anything as strong as that. I mean that just as medicine and law are different kinds of practices, so are scholarship and activism. Does that sound right to you?Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  feminist epistemologist
3 years ago

I appreciate this criticism and references. I do want to make clear that I intend the course to be about (not surprisingly) social language and social epistemology. Is the claim that it is impossible to teach a course on, say, racial slurs without also teaching Young, Anderson, Sen, Nussbaum, etc.?

As I responded to MBW above, I think that almost any article can fit into multiple “grand narratives”. So I think it is one, but not only, grand narrative to really go into detail about oppression and then go into the linguistic and epistemological aspects.

I definitely want to hear more your ideas about liberatory teaching at the introductory level since that is something I very much want to do.Report

Joe
Joe
3 years ago

I do not have a.problem with themed or narrow intros (my intro course consisted of reading a work by Nikolai Hartman). But this is not really conceived like that – it’s an intro to progressivism and social justice movement as currently exercised in mostly anglophone and particularly US academy. Its not really an intro to philosophy, Western or Eastern. It’s presenting a social movement’s philosophical underpinnings. It reminds me of introduction to philosophy in former communist.countries – which really was Marxism-Leninism critiqur of capitalist societies and reactionary philosophies (which, were presented as being all wrong and ideologically corrupt). For real philosophy, we would go to dissidents who (former professors) were working manual jobs…Report

OpMinority
OpMinority
3 years ago

Typically in a philosophy course (particularly at an introductory level) there is some discussion of why a thinker or argument might be wrong and of possible counter-arguments.

So I’m curious, what alternative philosophical views and arguments will be presented which criticise and oppose
Mills on race and social constructionism
Olasov on All Lives Matter
Fricker and Jenkins on hermeneutical injustices etc.?Report

Rose B
Rose B
Reply to  OpMinority
3 years ago

I think that this is the most important criticism of the syllabus presented here. I recently got my undergraduate degree in philosophy, and all of the best courses I took involved the establishment of a dialectic between opposing viewpoints. I don’t see any works in the syllabus that argue against social constructivism, standpoint epistemology, etc. So while I agree with most of the conclusions in the papers listed and consider myself a fairly radical intersectional feminist, but I can’t help but feel that, as a result, students will fail to learn about the fundamental process process of doing philosophy.

A less important point: I think it’s fairly insulting to students to be absent for so many conferences! I paid my own way through college (with the help of financial aid), and I would be furious if I was assigned ‘Get Out’ as an assignment for a philosophy class! That’s simply not what I’m paying for.Report

Alan White
Alan White
3 years ago

Browse through the listings for Intro/Philosophy at a place like textbook.com as I did in researching about what is taken to be standard curriculum in this course. You’ll find many dozens of texts the majority of which are primary/secondary historical or topical surveys. As well you’ll find many edited by recognizable names, particularly if there have been multiple editions. And the majority are male. Surely this lays plain something about the nature of the current norms of what constitutes a “proper” introduction to philosohy.
The concerns voiced above above about ideology’s place in the intro course can’t be ignored either. With respect to open-access public institutions (like where I’ve taught for decades), the political atmosphere of the state simply cannot be disregarded with respect to curriculum design, and in large part due to many conservative legislatures controlling the purse strings for higher ed. Weakened tenure, strict rules prohibiting political advocacy, and even calling out specific courses for slanted content are the result of increased politically-motivated oversight of higher ed, helped along with the “businessfication” of its administration. It would be imprudent for institutions like mine to ignore these factors in designing intro courses.
Still, as I stated in the first paragraph, the current norms of introductory philosophy are a product of traditions that clearly stress certain figures and problems that have been deemed “classic” in the Western culture of its development, and mostly as evaluated by one gender at predominately elite institutions. But as has been pointed out by many here, though perhaps most students at flagship elites have the requisite background in history and culture to navigate the usual surveys, this is certainly not true at the vast majority of open-access institutions, which by number and enrollment outstrip those elites. Philosophers at these institutions would to well to think twice about teaching the “usual” survey courses that have been constructed for decades with a certain kind of student in mind that is no longer the typical one.
I have mentioned my own “single-topic” 101 here at DN several times as an alternative which attempts to provide students with deep and prolonged experience in acquiring argumentative skills and a grasp of what constitutes philosophical expertise. I say this just to call attention to the fact that there are alternatives to surveys, and ones which can avoid undue controversy in today’s powder-keg political atmosphere.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Alan White
3 years ago

Alan White wrote:

Philosophers at these institutions would to well to think twice about teaching the “usual” survey courses that have been constructed for decades with a certain kind of student in mind that is no longer the typical one.

= = =

I completely reject the idea that somehow, Plato’s dialogues or Montaigne’s Essays should have any less significance for new student populations than for old ones.. Indeed, the whole ideas smacks me as vaguely racist in its presuppositions.

W.E.B. DuBois didn’t think so either:

“I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”

From “The Souls of Black Folk”

= = =

Too bad that today’s self-styled “progressives” fail to understand this.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Thanks for the reply Dan. I’m only questioning how far we can press pedagogical values based on the classics in the face of so many students, irrespective of background, who lack the preparation for placing them in a broad context of understanding. I’m saying that the general–and shifting–demographics of students has to matter in developing strategies of teaching them, and in particular in open-access public institutions.
BTW–do you ever write and reply fast!Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Alan White
3 years ago

Alan: I’m sitting in an airport. There isn’t much else to do.

I agree with you in a general, abstract way, but what I find particularly repulsive — and racist/sexist — is the idea that somehow, because there are black people or Latinos or women in one’s classes that one should not continue to expose one’s students to the remarkable works of Plato, Descartes, or Kant. Indeed, the suggestion strikes me as reactionary, rather than progressive.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Thanks again Dan. To be honest, I had no particular kind of student in mind in making my comments–I find most all my students–mostly caucasian too–are under-prepared with respect to history and culture. Best wishes on your journey.Report

Aaron Smuts
Aaron Smuts
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

It’s depressing to think that people are going to be deprived access to the best of the tradition, to the best thinking about big problems, because of their race or gender. It’s even more depressing to think that some members of historically oppressed groups are so traumatized that they are only interested in thinking about oppression. If that’s so, the racists and sexists have won. They’ve killed the souls of their victims.

I hope this isn’t so. I hope this isn’t the best solution to the pipeline problem.

Of course, this is just one course. But this kind of thing looks like an insult to just those it’s designed to help. And students don’t take all that many courses in college. Those in more occupationally oriented degree programs don’t get much gen ed. What? 10 courses? If a few of their profs all get the same idea and focus on identity politics, something awful has happened. How limiting. . . .

If you want to show the breadth of the discipline, then a single one of these units would do. I don’t particularly like any of them. But something similar would work.

I, too, thought this was some kind of parody when I first read over the syllabus. But it didn’t include the Tuvel letter as one of the readings. Any decent parody would include that. Perhaps it would spend a week or two on it.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Aaron Smuts
3 years ago

To be clear, I do not think “somehow, because there are black people or Latinos or women in one’s classes that one should not continue to expose one’s students to the remarkable works of Plato, Descartes, or Kant.” nor do I think “some members of historically oppressed groups are so traumatized that they are only interested in thinking about oppression”.

I just think that it’s possible to teach intro to philosophy without teaching Kant. Also, I teach at a predominantly white institution.

Have you read, e.g., the Alcoff article assigned? I think you might find congenial her criticism of certain “identity politics” discussion of speaking-for. Similarly, you might find Emily Lee’s article interesting because it too rejects the simpleminded “identity politics” that you describe.Report

Colum
Colum
3 years ago

It’s been proposed here that simply being a vehicle for an introduction to the methods of philosophy is a sufficient condition for being a good way of introducing students to the discipline in general — keeping in mind that such courses do indeed serve as introductions to the discipline in general, on the basis of which many students make decisions about majors.

If the sufficiency claim noted above is correct, then we could just teach every introduction to philosophy as an introduction to aesthetics, since virtually every single subdiscipline in philosophy intersects with aesthetics. We could even narrow down to questions about, say, conceptual art in the last twenty years.

That would seem weird to me, though, since then we would be introducing our students not to philosophy in general, but to aesthetics, and to a narrow subsection thereof. And so we might want to change the title of the course in question and offer something else as introduction. Apparently, others have different intuitions. I find this surprising.Report

Rick
Rick
3 years ago

I’ll add my bewilderment at the suggestion that content is basically irrelevant to an intro to philosophy class, either because you can’t cover every single philosophical topic so there is no right or wrong, or because the sole purpose of intro to philosophy is to teach philosophical methods. I think this is strange. It seems to me that an intro to X course ought to have two goals: (1) introduce the methods of the discipline, (2) introduce the subject matter of the discipline. In other words: “This is what we do in X, and this is how we do it.” From the listed syllabus, students can learn something about “how we do” philosophy, but relatively little about what we do in philosophy. (And for the record, I think that Daniel Kaufman’s syllabus above is bizarrely historical, as well.)

Further, philosophers have spent a great deal of time over the past few years discussing (debating) the importance of expanding the canon, having inclusive syllabi, and so forth. One of the points that has been repeatedly made is the importance of introducing a broad range of topics (not merely the “classic” topics), in order to show students that issues of interest to them can be thought about philosophically. Language and epistemology are cool and all, but not of much interest to me. If I knew nothing about philosophy, and just thought philosophy was about language and epistemology (and maybe some racial metaphysics), I would certainly have lost interest in it. An intro to philosophy class that (apparently) doesn’t even *talk* about ethics, religion, government, science, or mind? Yikes. (For this reason, I also didn’t at all like the suggestion a few weeks ago of an intro course that focused entirely on IIRC Aristotle.)

I’m inclined to think that it is to the advantage of philosophy to emphasize a breadth of problems and people in intro courses. The goal is to introduce some basic material and methods, but also to recruit—both future scholars and friends of the discipline who remember how great it was to take that one philosophy class back in college.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

Through that “bizarrely historical” reading list, we are able to discuss issues in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language.

I’d call this a “breadth of problems” and given the diversity of styles presented in the course — dialogues, essays, analysis, and more — I’d call it a “diversity of methods” as well.Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Indeed. But you could also discuss better, contemporary formulations of the same problems using live debates. These debates have *progressed* since those writers.

And I think that it is, in fact, useful to students to show them that there are Real Philosophers who aren’t just dead white guys. I saw your Du Bois example up above, and I don’t find it that persuasive. There are certainly scholars who will feel like they belong anywhere that no one actively antagonizes them personally, regardless of whether anyone else in the room looks like them or has a similar experience. But lots of people, probably most, aren’t like that. Being the only woman in a room full of men is (apparently) often unpleasant and intimidating. Being the only member of your race is apparently often the same. So why not use at least some authors with whom students can identify a bit more easily?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

I disagree with your assessment, and my students are quite satisfied with the way I teach the course. Hey have no trouble “identifying.”Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

> Hey have no trouble “identifying.”

That’s interesting! If a non-diverse syllabus doesn’t impact students’ interest in philosophy, that would certainly turn the conventional wisdom of the field on its head. It would be useful if you wrote up your findings. A lot of us aren’t hearing the evidence you have.Report

Your Friend
Your Friend
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

Don’t forget that the demographics of the students where Dan Kaufman teaches *may* be very different from that of the students where you teach. Further, students who don’t “identify” with the authors Dan teaches *may* know to stay away from his classes.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

The conventional wisdom is wrong. There’s no evidence that a diverse syllabus impacts students’ interest in philosophy. It is mere speculation at this point.

(I’d be happy to be proven wrong, btw.)Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

My students do quite thorough evaluations for every course I teach; several in fact (student govt has created its own evaluation to go alongside the administrative one, and I also do my own.)

I have no interest in “writing it up” and even less in convincing you.Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

To sapha, here is what made me think about this: http://dailynous.com/2017/10/25/women-choose-continue-studying-philosophy/

To Daniel, yes, I know you have no interest in convincing anyone who will ask for evidence for your empirical claims rather than simply trusting that you have a full grasp of who chooses to study philosophy after taking your classes, and why.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

Rick,

Thanks for the link (I’ve read it before). This is actually a good illustration of what I mean. All that study shows is that “similarity” as judged by women students predicts interest in further course-taking. It doesn’t really reveal what factors into the students’ judgments of similarity (why think it’s gender, rather than values, interest in specific topics [note that S3 is also highly predictive], perceived intellectual or creative abilities, or something else?), but even if it *were* good evidence that the gender of the authors on the syllabus mattered, it does not show that enhancing the gender ratio in a more equitable direction would actually drive up interest (it may be that we’re already putting enough women on the syllabus to get as much out of that as we can).

More importantly, the idea of including more women writers on the syllabus is only speculated to be a way to improve gender ratios. No evidence for this causal claim is provided.

I am actually all for engaging in diversifying the curriculum, provided it is done in a way that can (eventually) yield to scientific examination (adequate control groups matter). So usually I don’t chafe at efforts to do so. What I do chafe at is the illicit slide to this being conventional wisdom or somehow a settled empirical question, which it isn’t.Report

Your Friend
Your Friend
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

sahpa,
Rick never explicitly mentions gender identity (or similarity), but instead mentions a lack of diversity. I guess, you assume this is what Rick had in mind.Report

chronos
chronos
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

How about using Dr. Martin Luther King, then? He had a strong background in western philosophy too, and he said once that his favorite philosopher was Hegel. What…..Hegel, you say?! King said that he learned from Hegel that social movements like the one he was fighting for weren’t going to succeed in one leap. First there’s a movement, then a reaction against this, and then a synthesis in society (thesis/antithesis/synthesis). I think there is something to Kaufman’s broader point here that there is lots students can learn from the classics and King and others.Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  chronos
3 years ago

I never said there is nothing to learn from the old dead white dude canon. I, as a still-living white dude, don’t have any objection in principle to a syllabus which happens to be exclusively male and exclusively white (assuming that the most important works are from those authors, of course). But in practice, it seems (per http://dailynous.com/2017/10/25/women-choose-continue-studying-philosophy/) that such syllabi deter women (and perhaps people of color?) from pursuing philosophy.

I’m also not convinced that the author who originally started a trend or a discipline is always the best person to read.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

Not to beat a dead horse, but that study absolutely does not show that such syllabuses have that deterrent effect. That causal link is a speculative explanation offered by the authors of a different correlation that the authors find between self-reported “similarity” to philosophers and interest in continuing to study philosophy. The causal link itself is not demonstrated.Report

Steven
Steven
3 years ago

How could anyone look at this syllabus and still wonder why the University has died? There are many fine philosophers who can’t secure employment anywhere, and all the while people teaching foolishness like this are granted a soapbox to propagandize impressionable youth with their warped perception of reality.

If you can’t help yourself from cramming this nonsense down the students’ throats, at least take it over to one of the other Humanities departments, where you’ll fit right in.Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Steven
3 years ago

> How could anyone look at this syllabus and still wonder why the University has died

Because we got a good philosophical education which taught us about hasty generalizations, and aren’t inferring that this syllabus is somehow representative? I don’t see the reason for hysterics over this, or claims that the University has died. I think the course is probably politically slanted and certainly too narrow for an intro course, but most comments here are are also pretty critical. Hardly an indictment of the discipline.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
3 years ago

The question of what should be in an intro to philosophy course is an interesting one. It obviously can’t reflect what contemporary professional philosophers really discuss, as that takes quite a bit of training and deep knowledge of methods an literature. It could be more historical than methodological, touching on various major thinkers and positions. It could be topical, where the topics are philosophical and are suited to appeal to undergraduates, even if they’re not really major areas of current inquiry (e.g., the existence of god). It could be methodological, whereby clear argumentation and reasoning are the focus, and the topics are just mediums whereby students learn how to practice their skills of reasoning. I don’t see why a “broad church” conception of intro should be rejected, but it also seems like the instructor has a responsibility to clearly state the purpose and pedagogical method of the course up front (which may be the case here, of course).Report

Tim Hsiao
3 years ago

This is the kind of stuff that gives philosophy a bad name.Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Tim Hsiao
3 years ago

you mean like sweeping claims that rely on no arguments?Report

Matthew J. Brown
Reply to  Tim Hsiao
3 years ago

I was thinking the same thing, Tim! Some of the criticisms of Liao’s syllabus in this thread are definitely the sort of stuff that gives philosophy a bad name.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
3 years ago

I see a lot of comments that seem to think that you either think content is important, or you think method is important, or both. But I think people should think more broadly about this. You can have goals for your students that go beyond learning content or skill. In his book, _Creating Significant Learning Experiences_ (revised and updated edition), L. Dee Fink offers a “Taxonomy of Significant Learning” (pp. 34-37) that he divides into six kinds. I’ll list the six kinds and then give bullet points underneath each kind that gives a better idea of what they cover:

1. Foundational Knowledge
* Understanding and remembering information and ideas
2. Application
* Skills
* Thinking (critical, creative, and practical)
* Managing projects
3. Integration
* Connecting ideas, learning experiences, and realms of life
4. Human Dimension
* Learning about oneself and others
5. Caring
* Developing new feelings, interests, and values
6. Learning How to Learn
* Becoming a better student
* Inquiring about a subject
* Becoming a self-directed learner

Content would fall under 1, and learning philosophical methodology would fall under 2. But you can want other things for your student, and you can even give assignments that foster things under 3-6.

Now, you might say: “it’s not the job of professors to do any of 3-6. That’s touchy-feely bullshit.” I disagree, but I certainly understand that reaction. But keep in mind that if you focus on only 1 and 2, it’s actually pretty hard to get your students to learn in any meaningful sense. Here’s some evidence (I’m quoting from Fink):

E1. “Arum and Roska (2011) raised many eyebrows with the conclusion that 45 percent of the 2,300 students assessed in twenty-four institutions showed no statistically significant improvement in their critical thinking skills during the first year and a half of college.” (2)

E2. “Similarly, an expanding study of liberal arts education in a sample of institutional types currently involves over seventeen thousand students in forty-nine institutions (Blaich and Wise, 2011). They are studying seven outcomes: critical thinking, need for cognition, interest in diversity, attitudes toward diversity, moral reasoning, leadership, and well-being. Their data so far indicate that although a majority of students show ‘moderate’ improvement in some thinking skills, more than a third demonstrate a decline in these same skills. Of more concern is the data that the majority of seniors actually graduate with less academic motivation and openness to diversity than when they started. OF SPECIAL CONCERN TO THIS STUDY IS THE CONCLUSION BY THE AUTHORS THAT ‘WE ALSO IDENTIFIED A SET OF TEACHING PRACTICES AND CONDITIONS THAT PREDICT STUDENT GROWTH ON A WIDE VARIETY OF OUTCOMES.’ This would seem to suggest that across the institutions in the study, these effective teaching practices and institutional conditions are not prevalent enough to produce widespread change (www.liberalarts.wabash.edu/study-research). (2-3)

E3. “In another study, in the United States, students who took a year-long, two-semester course on introductory economics were compared with students who had never had the course at all (Saunders, 1980). More than twelve hundred students in the two groups were given a test on the content of the course.
“At the end of the course, students who took the course scored only 20 percent higher than students who had never had the course. Two years later, the difference was 15 percent. Seven years later, the difference was only 10 percent.” (4)

Look again at the part of E2 that is in all-caps. Fink claims that the practices needed to improve student learning is a concern for all six elements of the taxonomy of significant learning. That means you have to get students to care about the material, and the way to do that, sad to say, is to get them to believe that what you’re teaching is relevant to them, to build on their prior knowledge, and to give them a sense of purpose that transcends things like monetary remuneration.

The point of this, once again, overly-long comment, is that just because you try to teach students the classics, it doesn’t follow that they’ll be motivated to learn them, and, even if they are, it doesn’t follow that it will make a long-lasting difference to their lives in any significant way.Report

Thinker
Thinker
3 years ago

When did philosophy become so goddamn disingenuous? When did it become okay to not even charitably read (let alone teach) perspectives in opposition to one’s own?

When did it cease to be profoundly unphilosophical to just write off entire perspectives wholesale without investigating and exploring them in earnest? I must have missed the memo.

(For anyone who wishes to ask “Did you have to read Nazi literature before deciding that it’s garbage?”, you may be surprised to learn one day that not everyone who disagrees with you is evil or a Nazi.)Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

Yes, I totally agree–it’s really shocking how many people are writing off Shen-yi Lao’s teaching without earnest investigation into whether or not he’s indoctrinating students or if, perhaps, even though the readings on his syllabus represent views he believes students benefit from critically engaging with. It is surprising that philosophers wouldn’t extend the little interpretative charity necessary to not assume he’s merely written off huge swaths of the intellectual spectrum.Report

Thinker
Thinker
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
3 years ago

At least in my experience, it generally seems that a professor interested in critically engaging with views incorporates readings onto the syllabus which serve that purpose. It’s a completely different ballgame to present or read only one perspective and then ask the class to critically engage as opposed to presenting two or more perspectives that contribute and critically examine each other and then ask the students to carry the conversation further.

The first, one-sided presentation approach seems very likely to end up like a game of “Alright, class, now try to prove him/her (me) wrong.” Which we may as well call indoctrination (though that label by no means does justice to the sort of intellectual abuse and dishonesty in play).

The two- or multi-sided approach, on the other hand, at least gives students the benefit of a more level playing field by virtue of having a philosopher in their corner (and one everyone in the class is familiar with, having read), so-to-speak.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

Yes, but we can see from the syllabus itself that there is critical engagement. Dotson, for example, critically engages Fricker. They have deeply different views about epistemic responsibility, epistemic justice, and agency. So, given that we know the class involves at least some alternative view points being presented to the students, and given that we should charitably assume our colleagues have at least basic pedagogical and intellectual sense, I can think of no good reason to assume entire perspectives are unphilosophically being written off wholesale merely because they aren’t represented in the readings.Report

Thinker
Thinker
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
3 years ago

Let me ask you this: if a political philosophy class taught both Zizek and Negri, would you consider that covering one’s bases in terms of presenting opposing and alternative viewpoints? To me, there seems like a big difference between ” Zizek and Negri are both on the syllabus and they disagree very hotly about things — alternative/opposing viewpoints are being considered.” and “Rawls and Nozick are both on the syllabus such that alternative/opposing viewpoints are being considered.”

Examining disagreements among those who are, in the bigger picture, on the same side of the fence is still only presenting and looking at things from one side of the fence. Just because Zizek and Negri and their disagreements are being engaged with doesn’t mean the professor isn’t excluding or dismissing views akin to those of Hayek.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

The devil is in the details. There are all kinds of fences, and depending on how we focus our attention, different fences may be more productively or interestingly attended too under different circumstances. We might say the same for, e.g., Plato, Aristotle and Descartes in a more standard intro too, depending on what questions we’re asking. My point is this: aren’t we, precisely as philosophers, meant to interrogate details before coming to intellectual decisions? Aren’t we open, at least to some degree, in thinking there’s value in seriously contemplating what seem to be unlikely scenarios, and charitably searching for the best version of our interlocutors position? Shouldn’t we then refrain, where possible, from assuming intellectual bad faith or pedagogical incompetence, even when we don’t get why someone is making the intellectual decisions they’re making? To be clear: I’m all for constructive criticism, so I’m not suggesting we should all defer to one another, but it doesn’t seem like what’s happening in this thread is especially productive or philosophical either.Report

Thinker
Thinker
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

The fence in question is clearly a political one of sorts, and I don’t think anyone has any doubts about that. You can talk about him as drawing more focused fences within those listed on the syllabus all you want, but he’s still working on one side of the fence in question — and that isn’t something that anyone is assuming due to lack of charity. We’re deducing it from his syllabus. The students likening the course to a sociology course isn’t exactly irrelevant, either.

Assuming intellectual bad faith and pedagogical incompetence in this case don’t exactly seem far-fetched given what has already been said above. If these sorts of practices are not only unphilosophical but damaging to the profession (in that they play right into the hands of the anti-intellectuals who stereotype us as engaging in just this sort of indoctrination), then voicing our discontent for them and condemning them doesn’t seem to be unphilosophical nor unproductive.

In all honesty — and I’m done posting on this topic after this, so there is no need to respond here — I think you might want to consider the possibility that you might be being disingenuous here. For example, your claim that Shen-yi *is* presenting alternative viewpoints seems both forced and like something of a last-ditched appeal to save a sunken ship for reasons already mentioned above (teaching Zizek/Negri is very obviously not nearly the same thing as teaching Rawls/Nozick). We’re supposed to refrain from passing judgment until the all of the “details” (which will always be incomplete) are scoured from top to bottom and all other possibilities besides intellectual bad faith and pedagogical incompetence are eliminated? Come on.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

Liao is an active Twitter user. It should be easy to ask him which of the items on his syllabus he disagrees with, whether he considers himself to share the politics of their authors, and so forth. I look forward to the results – he’s not shy about his affinities, and advertising them was the entire point of his post.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

Oh, Thinker, to be clear I wasn’t denying that there’s an obvious political fence, and I’m not sure why you thought otherwise — but, I guess I take it the clear fence in question here is something like that all of these people take it that various kinds of social injustice exist in the world and that this is a bad thing. They may share other things in common like that they are broadly thought of as lefty in various kinds of ways, but, I mean, you know, Aquinas and Nozick might also be thought of as right in certain ways (that’s not a great example, because I think they’re also both left in other ways, but you get the idea) and yet they’re obviously very different philosophical thinkers. But I guess I just want to repeat what I’ve said elsewhere in this thread: It is a leap to assume that because someone is teaching certain readings that they are therefore teaching their students that those readings are /right/. I take it I’m a lefty-feminist-sort (and of the worst kind, according to some!) but I wouldn’t teach, for example, Fricker as a preacher would the Bible, because, among other reasons, while I admire her work, I think she just gets a lot of stuff wrong. I see no reason to assume otherwise about anyone, perhaps, save Fricker herself. I have no idea why you think I’m being disingenuous — I’m being perfectly serious and sincere — but if you’d like to think otherwise, by all means, feel free.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

I have disagreements with every single article, but I also find much to learn from each of them.

To give one concrete example, I think the Mills article is a great gateway drug for people coming from metaphysics or metaethics to philosophy of race (as his Racial Contract was for me). But I also think his discussion of race there overly-simplifies the very distinct forces of racism and their manifestations. In fact, as commented on upthread, I don’t really find the “metaphysics of race” debate all that helpful for understanding race. But I still think it’s a good introduction, and so suitable for an intro class.

I don’t need DailyNous to advertise my political leanings. I have Twitter! ^_^Report

CurrentGradStudent
CurrentGradStudent
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
3 years ago

This comment conflates two issues: the instructor’s approach to teaching what appears on his syllabus, and the syllabus itself. It seems that at least some of the defenders of the latter defend it on the basis of its content, not on how the instructor approaches it. And that’s a valid cause for concern *without* delving into the instructor’s particular approach.

But even if we return to the former — to the syllabus as taught by this particular professor — there are limits to charitable interpretation. One such limit seems to be the selection of the material itself. The criticism is not necessarily that we assume the professor won’t teach the material he is going to teach critically, but that he won’t be teaching *other* material, material that gives students the foundations with which to critically engage from the context of what passes for academic philosophy. And again, you can want to change the content of academic philosophy, but not without engaging with it. That principle, too, does not require too much interpretive charity!Report

CurrentGradStudent
CurrentGradStudent
Reply to  CurrentGradStudent
3 years ago

By “this comment” I am referring to Kathryn Pogin’s comment at 10:45.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  CurrentGradStudent
3 years ago

I was replying to this: “When did it cease to be profoundly unphilosophical to just write off entire perspectives wholesale without investigating and exploring them in earnest? I must have missed the memo.”

I am a little surprised that in this context, I’m being accused of conflating these issues. I was responding to a comment that made an explicit inference from the readings to Liao’s teaching.Report

CurrentGradStudent
CurrentGradStudent
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
3 years ago

First, your original reply was a snarky response that’s not nearly as clear as you now suggest about what within the original comment it was responding to. Second, the original comment does *not* make an “explicit inference” from the readings to the professor’s teaching. There’s a parenthetical aside (the “let alone teach” remark) that might be read as making the inference, but the comment as a whole certainly need not be interpreted in the (ironically) uncharitable light in which you chose to respond to it.

Devolving into who’s uncharitably interpreting whom is not going to be productive, but I stand by my original response regarding the conflation.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  CurrentGradStudent
3 years ago

I wasn’t suggesting that it was clear from my comment what I was responding to. I was suggesting the comment I was responding to was clear. In any case, word. I stand by my comments too.Report

Benjamin Blanchard
3 years ago

As a non-philosopher myrmecologist, all I can say is: I am looking forward to someday teaching an intro Ecology or intro Evolutionary Biology course entirely through the lens of ant biology and ant research. Other related invertebrates may occasionally be admitted into the curriculum as necessary.

I’m convinced it can be done, and would even be more engaging and effective to the average student than most standard, scattershot models. I trust formicid-forward philosophers will agree.Report

Paul L. Franco
Paul L. Franco
3 years ago

A blog comment is not a philosophy classroom, nor is it a paper, so our standards of rigor might change given the context. (There are some metaphysical, epistemological, and methodological claims here that could probably use some unpacking.)

That said, we still might think that certain discursive responsibilities require that one be able to respond to questions and offer evidence for their claims when reasons are requested. (There’s some linguistic/communicative points related to assertion here, as well as epistemological points about what does and doesn’t constitute evidence for certain claims, as Rick points out, both of which could be unpacked further.)

With that in mind, I want to join the folks who are interested in hearing some evidence for some of the generalizations above about “the university” and its death, or even some evidence for claims about this particular class. Take Steven’s claim that (a) the readings on the syllabus in question constitute nonsense, and (b) the professor is using said readings as an opportunity to propagandize. What reasons do we have to believe either (a) or (b)? (Our answers might be related: We might be able to answer (b) by answering (a), especially if the readings are shown to be propaganda; though showing that the readings are propaganda might make it harder to establish that they are nonsense. We’d also have to examine certain background assumptions, e.g., that the professor is not using the readings to criticize the views in question, and see if they hold. Of course, there are some logical–in the broad sense in which someone like Strawson might use “logical”–points here worth unpacking, and we might even say a bit of something about the role of background assumptions in shaping our views of what does and doesn’t constitute evidence).

(On a different note, I’ve added the parentheticals in order to show, in the Wittgensteinian sense, how one might use non-canonical texts, like blog posts, to illustrate canonical philosophical points, tools, and methods. Indeed, suppose someone thinks a few commenters above are trolling, which I am not suggesting anyone is. We might ask what sort of obligation the injunction “Don’t feed the trolls!” embodies, what sort of behavior does and doesn’t constitute “trolling,” what paralipsis and implicature are, etc. etc. Philosophy’s everywhere, y’all, and is more than just a collection of doctrines, even if Descartes’ denial of a vacuum and its relationship to his claim that matter is extension or whatever is really neat and fun to talk about.)Report

Paul L. Franco
Paul L. Franco
Reply to  Paul L. Franco
3 years ago

Addendum: I didn’t mean for my last sentence to imply that commenters on this thread don’t know that “[philosophy] is more than just a collection of doctrines.” Apologies. (A “teachable moment”: Jennifer Saul has a cool paper exploring the different species of implicature, like audience-implicature, which also has some examples students enjoy: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3506193)Report

Steven
Steven
Reply to  Paul L. Franco
3 years ago

I have to say that, at this stage in the shocking free-fall descent of modern society into total absurdity, those still asking for “evidence” or “arguments” or “reasons” in defense of the observation that the University is dead (as though the fact weren’t already self-evident!) are the type, assuming they’re sincere in their incredulity, that still wouldn’t believe the University’s been destroyed even were it finally razed literally to the ground. I don’t know what more they would have to see in order to come to the realization of what’s already happened. The situation calls to mind a famous remark Kierkegaard makes in Works of Love: there are two ways of being deceived, either believing what is false, but also refusing to believe what is true. I think what he correctly says of love applies here, too. I wonder how much farther things would have to deteriorate before those who as yet have not done so would finally accept what has been plain as day for a while now–the University jumped the shark decades ago, and it’s only getting worse.Report

Steven
Steven
3 years ago

To follow-up, I had in mind the plight of apathy when referencing the kind of self-deception Kierkegaard mentions. One way we deceive ourselves, I think, is by choosing to believe that the truth isn’t worth caring about anymore. Because I failed explicitly to mention the role of apathy in modern culture and the destruction of the University, I thought I should do so. I recently came across a beautiful video that resonated with me, and which I share here in the hopes that it may strike a chord with others out there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vFFUh5FKDAReport

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
3 years ago

What a lively discussion! Motion to the floor—let’s try to make sure we’re not letting enthusiasm get the best of care when it comes to how we say what we say. Some of the back-and-forth here would have been more productive, I think, if people were a bit more precise in saying what they have. I’d also like to encourage people to post under their own names—doing so both curtails the tendency for rhetorical excess and, in virtue of establishing that the conversation is being had in good faith, it helps establish a norm on which people can air these disagreements without being subject to social condemnation for doing so.

A commenter upthread said that discussions such as these motivate him to join the Heterodox Academy, though he has so far been afraid to do so. I just want to plug HxA and encourage people worried about the issues that arise in debates like this, from either side, to join. It’s one of the more politically diverse academic organizations around. As of June 26th of last year, with 900 members, 18% identified as Left/Progressive, 17% identified as Right/Conservative, 25% identified as Centrist/Moderate, and 23% identified as Libertarian/Classical Liberal.

https://heterodoxacademy.org/2016/02/24/krugman-is-wrong-we-are-not-conservative/Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Preston Stovall
3 years ago

Preston, I’m scared to post under my own name for fear of professional backlash for holding an unpopular opinion. I think a lot of other posters feel the same way. If so, that says something pretty sad about the state of professional philosophy.Report