Syllabus Sleeper Hits
The fall term is getting underway at many institutions of higher education, and a philosophy professor has written in with a suggested topic for discussion: syllabus sleeper hits.
I thought it might be timely, and useful, to invite people to post their syllabus “sleeper hits”: articles that might not be obvious or canonical choices, or which might have seemed like gambles to teach, but that precipitated unusually good class sessions. We all have them, don’t we? And since many of us have our syllabi on are minds right now….
Readers, what have you found to be your syllabus sleeper hits?
I’ve found that James Stockdale’s reflections on how the Enchiridion by Epictetus helped him survive as a prisoner of war in Hanoi work very well when covering virtue ethics. The students find his story very engaging. Here’s one version: “Stockdale on Stoicism II: Master of My Fate“.Report
Every fall for the last 10+ years I’ve taught an Ancient Greek Philosophy survey. And each time I’ve begun the semester by reading Joseph Tussman’s “Why Should We Study the Greeks?” Even if you don’t buy all of his argument, it’s very effective at getting students to reflect on why most colleges require some coursework in Western civilization, and it sparks a good discussion about the nature of general education.Report
Mary Midgley’s “Philosophical Plumbing” facilitates a good discussion of the point of philosophy, the need for it, and also of Lockean consent theories. This last one can be useful anticipation of later feminist philosophical material or discussions of contractarianism.Report
Barbara Montero’s ‘Proprioception as an Aesthetic Sense’ is both an amazing and interesting paper, and very very fun to teach/generates great discussion. It was probably the best day of my philosophy of sport class, but you could teach it in a wide variety of courses (aesthetics, mind, feminist philosophy, etc.). I paired it with Thi Nguyen’s short piece in The Philosophers’ Magazine on the aesthetics of rock climbing.Report
Aesthetics tends to be far more popular with the students than it is the profession, and students love it. Some things that have really gotten them going are Noel Carroll’s philosophy of horror stuff, where it turns out that horror movies are dramas of scientific investigation and getting the right balance between open-mindedness and skepticism. Students *love* Nick Riggle’s “Street Art: Transfiguration of the Common Places”, which is a definition of street art, and an account of its special place in the art world. (Briefly: it’s the art form that makes use of the *street* as a medium, where the street is essentially public.) There’s a symposium on the value of ruins, that ran a few years ago in JAAC, about the special value of really being there with old stuff, and why it’s an interesting question. The students get really, really into this. And, as a general topic: bringing in sociological critiques of taste, especially Veblen/Bourdieu type stuff, is vastly useful in introductory philosophy and intro ethics courses – it’s a very nice, tangible way into questions of social construction, etc. I use a short piece from Andrew Trigging called “Veblen, Bourdieu, and Conspicuous Consumption” which makes a lot of these ideas available at the intro level.Report
Also, Schopenhauer’s remarkable essay, “On the Suffering of the World,” which argues that: 1. the animals are better off than humans because they think less; 2. humans keep animals as pets because we’re jealous of their relatively thoughtless bliss; 3. the best explanation of our nature is either that we’re made by random uncaring nature or by a being out to make us suffer., and 4. therefore, if there is a good God, then the only logical explanation of our condition is that we are being justly punished for past sins, so we must already be in hell.
I teach in fairly conservative, religious country, and teaching this thing in intro never fails to get all the students sitting straight up in their chairs, fascinated and riled up. They are bemused and pissed off and can’t stop talking about this paper. When I do my year-end survey about favorite papers and what changed their mind the most, this paper inevitably comes up on top.
Decent translation free online here: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/pessimism/chapter1.htmlReport
Thi, these are awesome. They make me want to teach aesthetics!Report
I always liked to assign the first 50 or so pages from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in my lower-level intro or ethics courses, or upper-level courses where there were likely to be non-majors. I don’t agree with everything Bloom writes, but his discussion in that first part of the book, including the role of universities, is useful for getting interesting discussions started.Report
I like Anthony Kreider’s “Prayers for Assistance as Unsporting Conduct” (Jnl of the Phil of Sport, 2003) in either a philosophy of religion or philosophy of sport class. Is asking God for assistance in a sporting contest (academic test, job application, whatever) an attempt to cheat? It gets them more interested than the Cosmological Argument.
Also, David Lewis’ “The Punishment That Leaves Something to Chance”. If you commit a crime that has a certain chance of killing someone, whether or not it actually does (such as shooting at a house), perhaps your punishment should reflect the crime: leave it up to chance whether you live or die. (He ultimately rejects this but the path he takes to his conclusion is masterful.)Report
For philosophy of religion: “Awe and the Religious Life: A Naturalistic Perspective,” by Howard Wettstein. The gist: Jewish faith should be conceived of not as belief but as awe that is sustained by religious practices and rituals. That it generated such good discussion in week 11 speaks to how well it went over.Report
Thanks for this. What a wonderful piece.Report
When I teach intro logic or critical thinking, I often assign the “Kid Logic” episode of “This American Life”. I ask the students to represent the arguments the kids make in premise-conclusion format and decide whether kids really use different logical rules than adults. (The answer is: no, they just have less background knowledge and endorse wacky premises.) The students get REALLY into it.Report
I totally want to steal thisReport
Bryan Caplan’s “The World Might Be Better Off without College for Everyone” generated good discussion.
I haven’t used it, but I’ve heard that Georges Rey’s “Meta-Atheism” generates good discussion.Report
Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker article “What Does it Mean to Die?” touched off a great discussion in my bioethics class and I think really helped to show why really abstract debates about the nature of death are important and what impacts these definitions have in real life. I was amazed at how good a job it did getting students interested in the debate. I probably wouldn’t have it as the only thing on the definition of death debate but I highly recommend as a rejoinder to the consensus definition of death in bioethics. A lot of New Yorker articles are very good on philosophical issues. Another excellent one is Alice Gregory’s “The Sorrow and Shame of the Accidental Killer”, which is a far better way into moral luck than Williams and probably even beats Nagel.
Also, it’s not an article but I’ve had good luck using Morgan Neville’s documentary on Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as a counterpoint to Wolf’s “Moral Saints” and I think the documentary also helps to introduce virtue ethics since it’s hard to explain what makes someone like Rogers so extraordinary in terms of consequences or duty. (And if students leave my class having learned nothing else than that Fred Rogers was never a Marine sniper well that’s not a small thing in my book).Report
This Aviv article is a really excellent piece, which I also use in bioethics. Not only does it deal with questions about death, but the actual case involves all sorts of other issues that arise in bioethics—consent, parental authority, allocation of resources, health care and race, etc. (Plus, it illustrates a public role for philosophy.)Report
I want to second the Aviv piece. It’s outstanding.Report
In teaching business ethics to undergrads, two papers (or, a paper and a book chapter) that got good results and generated very good discussion were “The Market for Lemons” – an economics paper by George Akerlof, but one with lots of philosophical importance and accessible to at least smart undergrads, and the chapter “The Frictionless Plane Fallacy: why more competition isn’t always better” in Joseph Heath’s _Economics without Illusions_, which does a great job of introducing the super-important but often ignored general theory of the second best, among other things.
With more advanced students (in my case, smart law students) studying business ethics, I had a lot of success with Eric Orts and Alan Strudler’s paper, “Putting a stake in stakeholder theory”, and with Joseph Heath’s paper, “Business Ethics Without Stakeholders”, though both may be a bit hard going for average business ethics students.Report
My students have told me the best piece they read in my classes is Harriet McBryde Johnson “Unspeakable Conversations”– I pair it with a Singer article about free speech and connect it to a philosophy of disability unit. It inspired probably the best class discussions I’ve had even though its not technically a “philosophy article.”Report
Naomi Scheman, “Forms of Life: Mapping the Rough Ground” in the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein. I’ve introduced this piece in a course on philosophy of language, and it takes discussions in a whole new direction. It’s such a dazzlingly original paper as well.Report