What Do Experiments in Philosophy Teaching Look Like? (guest post)

“There is room to think creatively about how to improve learning and love of philosophy via innovation in pedagogy.”

That’s Russell Marcus, professor of philosophy at Hamilton College, and Catherine Schmitt, an undergraduate at Hamilton studying philosophy and neuroscience, writing about the experiments in philosophy teaching they’ve facilitated as part of the Hamilton College Summer Program in Philosophy (HCSPiP). In the following guest post, they share some observations about successful philosophy teaching innovations, and invite readers to share their own.

What Do Experiments in Philosophy Teaching Look Like?
by Russell Marcus and Catherine Schmitt

We often think of innovations in our philosophy teaching in terms of introducing new content. Student learning, though, may depend as much on how we teach as it does on what we teach. Moreover, since few of our undergraduate philosophy students will continue on to graduate work, and since philosophy departments are widely under pressure to justify our curricula and classes, attention to improving the classroom experiences of our students is essential. And diversifying our discipline may be a matter not only of broadening the kinds of texts we produce and study but also of how we manage classroom discourse.  So, what do experiments in philosophy teaching look like?

The Hamilton College Summer Program in Philosophy (HCSPiP) was developed on the principle that there is room to think creatively about how to improve learning and love of philosophy via innovation in pedagogy. We offer instructors a uniquely unrestricted platform to experiment: no content requirements, no prescribed classroom structure, and no grades. To three instructors each year, we provide twenty eager undergraduate students, three graduate student tutors, and the opportunity to try something new. The courses selected for the program have varied widely in content, more and less familiar: democracy in Athens, argument mapping, personal identity, existentialism, philosophical methods, comedy, discourse in the digital age, racial and gender violence.  More important: they have allowed us to explore new ways to engage students. The magic of the program lies in the countless number of ways a course might be taught and the multitude of lessons and new ways to teach that participants and instructors might leave with. After three successful years of the program, we’ve compiled a list of five observations from some successful experiments in pedagogy.

(1) Successful experiments must be accessible to and inclusive of all students; balancing inclusiveness with innovation is a challenge.

Every philosophy teacher has had the experience of some voices dominating a classroom and others shrinking away. One or two voices can end up monopolizing creative projects or conversations, especially if they are imaginative and unstructured. Some philosophers are naturally more fast-thinking than others or feel more empowered to add their voices to a conversation. Ensuring that students are able to participate equitably requires adding some rigidity and rules to class structure.

Some classroom experiments require equal participation from each student. In 2022, Ashley Pryor (University of Toledo) used improv games in a course, “Philosophy and Comedy.” Students had specific roles in each improv game that required speaking in turn. In 2018, Prof. Juli Thorson (emeritus, Ball State University) had each student creating their own art in her “Drawing your Identity.” However, many innovations in pedagogy are most rewarding with open ended discussion, or student driven projects and ideas, and some voices tend to dominate in such more loosely structured classrooms.

To the end of helping us to manage this challenge, we are grateful to have received funding from the Grant for Innovation in Teaching from the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT). In preparing for next summer, we hope to have the help of an inclusivity coordinator who can aid us in implementing techniques to bolster equity and diversify perspectives while still enabling innovative teaching styles. A call for applicants is on our website here.

(2) Successful experiments in philosophy teaching often integrate non-traditional kinds of source material, including literature, art, comedy, and games.

Philosophical conversations and learning can be initiated by all sorts of human experiences and interactions.  Philosophy becomes significantly more interesting to students when integrated with a broad variety of contemporary tools. This summer at the HCSPiP, Prof. James Garrison (Baldwin Wallace University) plans to mix teaching Wittgenstien with a variety of games, while Prof. Rebeccah Leiby (University of Baltimore) will teach Hobbes’s political theory on the Minecraft platform. Modern innovations continually provide more possibilities for tools with which to teach philosophy; last summer, Prof. Mike Barnes (Australian National University) taught a class on disagreement in the digital age, using online platforms with varying degrees of anonymity to explore how human self-expression and decision-making change in different contexts.

(3)  Successful experiments in philosophy teaching often allow students to share their talents or skills.

Teaching is a relational practice, and effective teaching entails meeting students where they are. Students learn well when allowed to bring their own lives and interests into the classroom and they often have talents that go unrecognized in the philosophy classroom. An experiment might ask them to put philosophical views to music, draw pictures of theories, or design games around philosophical problems. Philosophy can be a meeting point between an instructor’s expertise and student skills.

For Prof. Leiby, the idea for her course “State of Nature (Ultimate Survival Mode)” was borne out of teaching a course in which most of the students, in her words, “Would have preferred to be playing Minecraft.” Rather than divorce student interest from classroom experience, Leiby had the idea to merge them; what might happen if students play out Hobbes’ creation of social contract in an online game? The Minecraft platform enables students to live out and experience political philosophy in the classroom.

(4) Successful experiments in philosophy teaching need not aim at purely academic learning.

Few of our undergraduates end up pursuing graduate work in philosophy, but philosophy can be useful for all of our students. We can help students to write, think and communicate better. We might even help them to live lives of greater fulfillment. Even our most ambitious students, like those who apply and are accepted for summer philosophy programs, approach their work with an undercurrent of wondering how philosophical thought and argument might be applied outside of the classroom.  (Incidentally, if you are or have a student who would be a good fit for our program, applications are due on March 13.)

In 2019, Prof. Ann Cahill (Elon University) taught a course on metacognitive reflection on classroom interactions. Students were asked to reflect, for each of their contributions to discussion, on the kind of conversational move they were making. For example, are they giving supporting evidence of another’s claim, a counterexample to a principle under discussion, or a request for more information? The process naturally slowed down the conversation and was difficult for participants, especially at first. Asking students to reflect on their conversational moves could be done in any class. Cahill asked students to do it in a course on racialized and sexualized violence, focused on work by George Yancy and Susan Brison.

(5) Successful experiments should be available to other philosophy teachers.

A technique that depends essentially on one person is not useful for us. A professor with a good sense of humor, for example, might engage students in lecture readily and actively. Not every professor is naturally funny, though, and successful pedagogy cannot hinge on an individual trait if it is to be replicable. In contrast, an innovation such as using improvisation in class to loosen students’ minds and lower the barriers to entry in conversation is open to any instructor; the rules of an improv game are straightforward and require no special training to employ.

We also need to pay attention to disseminating our work broadly and accessibly. There are some platforms available, many of them on social media which can be restrictive or otherwise problematic. Traditional journals, like the preeminent Teaching Philosophy and AAPT Studies in Pedagogy are useful, but can tend to favor theoretical approaches over nuts-and-bolts teaching innovations. There is room for other platforms, like the Talking Teaching initiatives of the AAPT, weekly casual conversations around pedagogy available to anyone. Every good teacher is a thief. We need more opportunities and freedom to share our ideas.

The HCSPiP culminates in a pedagogy conference, streamed live and archived, at which instructors reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and what they might carry forward to their home institutions. In addition, this year, from the Small Grant Fund of the American Philosophical Association (APA) grant, we have support to bring in a pedagogy resident to help us to reflect on our work and disseminate it better. A call for applicants is also on our website here.

So, what do your pedagogical experiments look like?

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