The Point and Selection of Readings in Introductory Philosophy Courses


“What role should readings play at the lower undergraduate level in a philosophy class?”

That question was sent in by a reader, who explains the motivation for the question:

During my own undergraduate years, I did readings for some classes and not others. I never found readings especially helpful in understanding lectures. In fact, I usually have to use what I learned in lecture to understand what I read (that is, I can only understand something if I read after class rather than before). I remember a lot of what I learned in class, and not at all what I read, except how it was really hard to not fall asleep while I mindlessly turned the pages. Granted, my case might not be general: I might’ve had a different learning style than others; I might’ve had profs who were especially good at lecturing and bad at assigning readings, etc. So, my question is: what should the act of reading accomplish in intro-level philosophy classes?

We could add to the inquiry: how does your view of the role and aims of readings affect which readings you have your students do, how much reading you assign, what reading-related work you ask students to do, and so on.

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Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
2 years ago

I’m all for instructors thinking more carefully about what students will get out of each reading and how each relates to the course. I think approaching a course with a learning-centered focus will often drive instructors to think outside the typical canon. For example, a learning-centered approach would be very critical of any answer that some text is assigned because “students will be expected to know it.” Expected by whom? And will all students be subject to this expectation? Usually, I think this type of response is short for “philosophy majors will be expected to know it when they get to graduate school.” And that just reveals that the instructor is focused primarily on a very small subset of their students.

Also, I highly recommend teaching students how to read to avoid some of the “mindless page turning” type of reading. Teach students how to read well so that they can bring their questions and some context to class discussion. The goal isn’t to make it to the end of the text, but to struggle to understand the text. David Concepcion’s paper is a great way to think about teaching students how to read: https://philpapers.org/rec/CONRPWReport

Conor Mayo-Wilson
Reply to  Morgan Thompson
2 years ago

I want to second Morgan Thompson’s point that we ought to think about how philosophy can benefit everyone in the class, not just a select group of students.

But I think it’s important to realize that one philosophy course — let alone one assigned reading or one class meeting — is unlikely to have any lasting effect by itself. If one asked “What is the value for third graders of this one arithmetic assignment?”, one would likewise answer, “none.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t assign math homework.

A difficulty with existing educational literature is that, following the model of laboratory science, it focuses on small interventions in a single classroom and assesses the effects at the end of a single course (or unit of a course). If we could encourage grant-funding agencies to support longitudinal studies that attempt to follow individual students through a curriculum, we’d learn things of greater value, I conjecture. Additionally, another pet peeve of mine is focusing on student performance on papers and exams. Thanks to existing educational literature, I have been able to help my logic students get better at the exams each year, but I wonder if that improvement comes at the cost of some students hating logic by the end of the course. Instead of asking just “What readings or assignments would help students learn skill X?”, I’d like to see instructors ask the question, “What readings or assignments would help my students develop a passion and commitment to lifelong learning so that they’ll continue to acquire skills post-college?”Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Conor Mayo-Wilson
2 years ago

Great points, Conor. I agree that it would be nice to see more longitudinal studies in the empirical literature. I think there are some studies that look at students’ grades not in terms of the current course, but in terms of the later courses students take in some discipline. Students who learn more skills in an introductory course ought to perform better than students who learn less in future courses. If there are differences on average, perhaps we can (defeasibly) infer that some instructor’s course taught students more than another course.

Of course, that sort of study runs afoul of your second concern. It’s a major shortcoming of the empirical literature. Yet, a lot of philosophers in the AAPT are arguing for learning goals beyond just understanding, evaluation, or application of existing views. Kevin Hermberg has argued for developing a growth mindset as a learning goal. Stephen Bloch-Schulman has argued for the learning goal of asking interesting philosophical questions (i.e., question-centered pedagogy). Merritt Rehn-Debraal has argued for developing student curiosity as a learning goal. I think all three of these possible learning goals would contribute to developing the students’ motivation to be life-long learners.Report

Rick Repetti
Reply to  Conor Mayo-Wilson
2 years ago

Best quote: ““What readings or assignments would help my students develop a passion and commitment to lifelong learning so that they’ll continue to acquire skills post-college?” That’s a very high standard, but I’m not sure whether there’s a one-size-fits-all reading that satisfies it. I don’t remember many of my intro to philosophy class readings, from my first class. I read the Republic over the summer, outside of class, in prep for a course on it, and was moved by it. But during my first class, the Apology, the Euthyphro, and Plato’s cave moved me, but in class debates are what first grabbed my interest.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Morgan Thompson
2 years ago

Assigning a text because students will be expected to know it in grad school does not show that one is focused on a small subset of the students. It may simply be that one is guided in one’s curricular decision-making by a sensitivity to what will help the most capable students be successful in grad school. This is not incompatible with also being guided by a sensitivity to helping all other students learn. If good decisions are made, it seems plausible that being guided by both sensitivities will not necessarily have an overall negative result. Why think otherwise?Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Jen
2 years ago

Jen, I agree that it is possible making decisions of what texts to include in an introductory course can both “help the most capable students be successful in grad school” and foster learning for all students. I just think that it is often not the case that these texts and chosen assignments/in-class activities help make these goals compatible. Focusing on a small subset of students who will be expected to know classic texts in graduate school often should be a secondary goal (at best) for introductory courses. If one is discussing Hume’s problem of induction because both it is a good introduction to issues in epistemology and philosophy of science and it is text a small number of students will be expected to know in graduate school (or in other undergraduate courses), then more focus should be on the first goal. The instructor may need to spend a significant amount of effort deciding how to assure students learn the problem of induction: How can the instructor make Hume accessible for students who may not be used to reading historical texts? How can class time be structured to give students enough time to grapple with the problem of induction? How can the problem be motivated for students who are uninterested in philosophy (and/or taking further philosophical courses)? All students benefit from focusing more on how to best teach the material accessibly and with sufficient motivation. So, I think other pedagogical goals should take precedence over teaching the canon to prepare some students for graduate school, especially in the case of introductory courses.

Also, I predict that beginning from questions about student learning (e.g., how can I best motivate some issue or philosophical theory for all the students in my course?) will often suggest teaching non-canonical texts over canonical texts. The canon is very historical (which can be difficult for some students, but reading historical texts could be a goal for the course!), often presume a lot of background knowledge about theories in vogue at the time, and may require a lot of motivation for *all* students to connect with them. Sometimes these texts are worth putting in the pedagogical effort to teach them well for all of one’s students, but I’m claiming that often instructors don’t do this and that sometimes it isn’t worth the effort given the instructor’s pedagogical goals. Sometimes non-canonical texts just do a better job. So, there becomes a trade-off between favoring one’s pedagogical goal to prepare a very small subset of students for graduate school (in an introductory course no less!) and to help all students enrolled in one’s course learn the arguments, problems, and positions. I think for introductory courses we should choose the latter goal.Report

William
William
2 years ago

The lecture is to help you understand the reading because you are trying to learn the ability to understand difficult texts.Report

M
M
2 years ago

My experience as an undergrad was the exact opposite, I got a lot out of the readings and rarely got anything out of lectures, unless the lecturer was exceptionally good. This post helped me realize that’s not everyone’s experience, and I shouldn’t discount the value of lectures.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
2 years ago

I mean, in theory, you should give the students a reason to want to keep on trying to read something difficult. If you were a really good lecturer, you build up to some problem that looks really difficult to solve, and then fail to solve the problem and say, by the end of the lecture, “the solution is in the reading for this Tuesday. See you then!”

Then, of course, you could start Tuesday’s class with a reading quiz, something along the lines of, “in the previous class, I pointed out that there was a very difficult problem. What was it?” and “in the previous class, I said our reading held the solution to the problem. How did the author solve it?”

Of course, that only works for readings that try to solve problems! A lot of important readings, even in philosophy, probably don’t.Report

Jeff Maynes
Jeff Maynes
2 years ago

I see the readings as serving a number of purposes:

(1) As serving the goal of helping students learn to read complex texts.

(2) As vehicles for intellectual reflection outside of the classroom.

(3) As sources of information to help frame and advance classroom activities.

(4) As exemplars of how to write philosophically (when chosen carefully!).

(5) As helping students to think about the details of philosophical argumentation, for the sake of recognizing the logical significance of those details and the intellectual value of thinking carefully.

(6) As practice in developing research skills, such as the ability to read a text and identify the structure of the debate, further places one could go for more information or arguments, etc.

Not all of these require course readings, but readings are an effective tool to accomplish all of them. Further, none of these are served by simply giving students readings without instructional support – scaffolding the ability to read philosophical work is still necessary (as Morgan Thompson also nicely pointed out above).Report

Austin
Austin
2 years ago

It may be that students can develop these skills just by participating in lectures and I’m just wrong about this, but I tell my students that if they don’t do the readings and instead rely on me (or on other instructors, or on the IEP or whatever) to explain everything to them they’re not putting *themselves* in a position to understand and critically evaluate difficult texts/ideas. In that situation the instructor or the IEP is a crutch such that when taken away the student can’t explain what the argument is or whether it’s any good. That said, they may still get an A- having done none of the readings.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Austin
2 years ago

It’s interesting that this thread hasn’t been overwhelmed with cries of “paternalism” like the recent thread on attendance policies.

We take for granted that professors are playing our proper educational role when we assign required readings, but it’s hard to see how this is any less paternalistic than determining that attendance in lectures and class discussions are a necessary part of learning. As the reader comment from the OP indicates, not everyone needs to do the readings to learn (and not everyone benefits from doing the readings).

Of course in both cases we need to be mindful about how those requirements are meant to achieve the learning goals for our courses.Report

Rob Wilson
2 years ago

One type of reading in introductory courses that I found incredibly useful in my own first-year experience, in my experience as a TA while in graduate school, and in teaching large intro courses over the past 25 years has been a set of dedicated course notes written by the instructor specifically for the course. Although they can take a few years to work up as an instructor and need to be updated regularly, they serve multiple functions in the course as a whole: they are introductory and provide relevant background; they integrate between other readings, lectures, and tutorials or discussion sections; they are good for students in revising or attempting to get to grips with something that goes by too quickly in lectures; and they can suggest further directions of inquiry for students who want to take the material further than you will in the course. Students have often commented that they are the most valuable part of the course and my sense is that they float all boats, provided that you can get students to read them at all.Report

Berel Dov Lerner
Berel Dov Lerner
2 years ago

By spending part of the lecture reading and explaining the most challenging passages of an assigned text, you can help students gain the advanced skills and strategies needed to read classic and professional (not just popularized) philosophy.Report

Jonathan Westphal
Jonathan Westphal
2 years ago

I agree with Berel. I find students very receptive to a very detailed line-by-line commentary, or sentence by sentence, with interruptions from the class welcomed. ‘What could Descartes possibly mean by this word . . . ?’ I ask. ‘I have no idea.’ What do you think? Students do like to TALK, after all!Report

Karsten Stueber
Karsten Stueber
2 years ago

Look, you need to tell students (particularly in the intro courses) that they should not expect to understand the text reading it for the first time (why would they?) It requires reading and rereading…and some more of that. Moreover they should learn to withhold judgment till they put in the effort. And yes after the lectures reading should become easier. To learn how to deal with the difficulties of perspective taking (and withholding one’s evolutionary based tendency to quick and definite judgment) seems to me a rather worthwhile educational enterprise (particularly in these twitter based times).Report

Irami Osei-Frimpong
Irami Osei-Frimpong
2 years ago

I have reason to believe that coming to philosophy happens in three stages: conversion, hauling, and dialectic. And these three stages are effected by three different activities of the mind. I don’t think intro professors take the difference between these activities seriously, so they teach under the presupposition that the students are already converted. They teach arguments. I suspect the first step is to get the students to recognize the shadows on the wall as shadows and get them to see the enormous shadow making industry that’s occurring behind them. I think the best way to do that is to show people punished for pursuing the truth, so when I teach Apology in intro classes, the arguments are a means to clarifying the spectacle of Socrates’ persecution, but at that stage, it’s not about the arguments, it’s about the spectacle of the persecution in the face of the arguments. Same with Euthophryo, it’s not bout the arguments, it’s about the casualness with which Euthryphro discards the arguments. Same with Republic, it’s not about the arguments, or it would have been over in Book I, it’s about Polemarchus’ casual disregard for argument and commitment to the authority of violence. Digging deep into those spectacles is what provokes conversion to respect for the arguments, then on the second and third reading, I focus on the arguments, once the students have been converted to seeing that arguments matter.Report