Unconventional Readings in Undergraduate Philosophy Courses


Plato? Check. Descartes? Check. Hume? Check….

The typical introductory level undergraduate philosophy course will have a reading list of rather familiar historical and contemporary philosophers. That makes sense—they’re philosophy courses, after all, and the philosophers we’re familiar with are familiar to us because of the value so many people have found in their works.

[Zola Weinberg, untitled (detail)]

But not all valuable works are popularly recognized as such. There are probably all sorts of texts that would be suitable for a variety of  philosophy courses that most philosophy professors haven’t thought to include.

Brandon Boesch, assistant professor of philosophy at Morningside College, would like to hear about them. He sent in a question for the readers of Daily Nous:

What is an ‘unconventional’ reading that you enjoy teaching in undergraduate courses that others might want to be aware of?

What’s an “unconventional” reading? Let’s err on the side of inclusivity: if you’re not sure whether a reading is unconventional for a philosophy course, assume for the purposes of commenting here that it is. Dr. Boesch offers a couple of examples:

I teach David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” in an intro level class and use it to talk about our relationship with leisure and the role of leisure in human life. When I’ve talked to others, I’ve gotten really cool recommendations that I’ve incorporated into my classes, including Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Median Isn’t the Message“. 

Readers, please tell us about the unconventional readings you assign—title, author, and a brief explanation of why you teach them. Thanks!


Related: Philosophy Data from the Open Syllabus ProjectA Flowchart of Philosophical Novels and StoriesDiversity Reading List for PhilosophyA Collection of Stories for Teaching Ethics


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Amy Berg
Amy Berg
8 months ago

I love Larissa MacFarquhar’s essay “The Children of Strangers” (in the New Yorker and also in her book Strangers Drowning). It’s at least as good as any philosophical text at getting to the heart of questions about morality, demandingness, and parental obligation, and MacFarquhar writes beautifully.Report

Brandon Boesch
Brandon Boesch
Reply to  Amy Berg
8 months ago

This is really beautiful and thought-provoking–thank you! I think I’ll use this when we discuss parenthood in an intro to ethics class.Report

Brendan de Kenessey
8 months ago

I’m sure that I stole this idea from somebody else, but I’m quite fond of Terry Bisson’s “They’re Made Out of Meat” for classes on dualism vs physicalism: https://www.mit.edu/people/dpolicar/writing/prose/text/thinkingMeat.htmlReport

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Brendan de Kenessey
8 months ago

Me too!Report

Erik Wielenberg
Reply to  Daniel Greco
8 months ago

There’s a video of this that I ask my students to watch — https://youtu.be/7tScAyNaRdQReport

Joshua Mugg
Joshua Mugg
8 months ago

‘Are you my mother?”, read on the same day as Plato’s Meno. Philosophy for Children folks have a number of children’s literature that pair nicely with ‘traditional’ philosophical text.Report

Brian Thom
Brian Thom
8 months ago

I use almost no “conventional” works, instead opting to center traditionally excluded or marginalized voices. Sometimes I just don’t use texts at all!Report

Rex
Rex
8 months ago

I sometimes had students in a sophomore-level Business Ethics course read Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent and watch Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
8 months ago

I’ve used Alice Gregory’s New Yorker article “The Sorrow and Shame of the Accidental Killer” to teach moral luck a few times and it works pretty well I think. I’m using Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” this semester to introduce the idea of testimony and the epistemic problems it raises. I can’t say yet how well it works since that units still a few weeks off, but I’m optimistic.Report

Skef
Skef
8 months ago

Let’s see if anyone cops to the *most* unconventional kind of reading: a secondary source!Report

Jake Wright
Jake Wright
Reply to  Skef
8 months ago

Assign a secondary source? I frequently write them up for my students when I think the primary source is just too dense or poorly written for the level of class.Report

Madeline Martin-Seaver
Madeline Martin-Seaver
8 months ago

If we’re taking “reading” narrowly, then I like Eula and Mavis Biss’s article “Are Anti-Vaxxers Conscientious Objectors?” and Harriet McBryde Johnson’s NYT piece, “Unspeakable Conversations.”

If we are being a bit more broad – I’ve assigned the film Moonstruck when I want to talk about family, ritual, fear of death, and art’s role in the good life.Report

Kevin DeLapp
Kevin DeLapp
8 months ago

I often start Intro with the first chapter of Gareth Matthews’s “Philosophy and the Young Child.” It’s short and non-technical and no arguments are made; it simply showcases young kids starting to ponder some basic problems in epistemology and metaphysics. Since most Intro students don’t yet know what “philosophy” even is (does anyone…?), reading about these kids’ questions helps generate good discussion about metaphilosophy. It also has the advantage of reminding many of the students that they too can do philosophy, since many of them identify with the same questions the children are asking.Report

Vojko Strahovnik
8 months ago

Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals as part of the introductory course on ethics.Report

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Vojko Strahovnik
8 months ago

I used to teach that in Intro to Ethics as well! It works great.Report

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
8 months ago

I used to teach Into Thin Air as a way of illustrating moral luck in Intro to Ethics class. They enjoyed it a lot more than Nagel.Report

Nicholas Best
Nicholas Best
8 months ago

I’ve used Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a critique of utilitarianism.Report

Ben Almassi
Ben Almassi
Reply to  Nicholas Best
8 months ago

I’ve also used “Omelas” to interrogate “walking away” as a moral stance.Report

FeministHistorian
FeministHistorian
8 months ago

I have assigned “Nîso-okâwimâwak (Two Mothers)” in my intro to feminist theory class. It’s a wonderful autobiographical piece engaging with motherhood from a lesbian and Indigenous perspective. (Most) students loved it!Report

Last edited 8 months ago by FeministHistorian
Preston Werner
Preston Werner
8 months ago

I have assigned – with some success – David Macaulay’s children’s book “Motel of the Mysteries” as a nice background for philosophy of science, especially feminist philosophy of science.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
8 months ago

On animal minds and moral status, David Foster Wallace’s ‘Consider the lobster’ is a great classic.Report

Jake Wright
Jake Wright
8 months ago

I cannot recommend Drew Magary’s “The Night the Lights Went Out” highly enough. It’s an essay about his brush with death a couple years ago and I use it to talk with my students about death and its impact on the meaning of life. Students seem to really love it, and the piece is so well written. He’s apparently developing it into a full-length memoir.

https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/the-night-the-lights-went-out-1834298070Report

Erik Wielenberg
8 months ago

Octavia Butler’s short story “Bloodchild” (paired with excerpts from Virginia Held’s article “Birth and Death”).Report

Gah-Kai Leung
8 months ago

I have used Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American when teaching ideology. Lends itself to a very rich discussion of (among other things) what developed countries owe the developing world, intellectual virtues and vices, the nature of guilt/blame/responsibility, arguments for and against using political violence, debating political neutrality vs political involvement, the factors that influence the development of our ideological beliefs, and how we should deal with people who are ideologically and culturally very different from ourselves.Report

Last edited 8 months ago by Gah-Kai Leung
Lisa Schoenberg
Lisa Schoenberg
8 months ago

I have another Larissa MacFarquhar recommendation.I’ve used “The Comforting Fictions of Dementia Care,” also from the New Yorker, in Medical Ethics.Report