Thursday, October 19, 2017

How (not) to teach philosophy

I went into reading this blog post (by a non-philosopher) on how to teach Heidegger expecting the worst. I didn't find it, but I do think there are problems. The motivating question behind the post is how to apply lessons from The New Education to teaching a class on Heidegger (no more information provided on what from Heidegger is being taught, what the course is, etc.). Cathy Davidson, author of  the blog post and the book in question, champions:
innovators [who] are breaking down barriers between ossified fields of study, presenting their students with multidisciplinary, real-world problems, and teaching them not just how to think, but how to learn.  
So, how to apply this exciting, disruptive (yes I'm rolling my eyes) approach to philosophy? Davidson suggests the following:
  1. Identify twenty keywords in the essay by Heidegger that you are assigning for the class, giving one of these words to each of the forty students in the class. Their job is to write what they think the word means, and to bring this definition to class. They get credit for trying, regardless of whether they get it right, but not if they don't try. Each student reads their definition to the class, then they get together with the other student who had the same word, compare notes, and then jointly compose a definition they are both happy with. Then they read this to the whole class. You can then collect these written definitions and, if you want, give a lecture during the remaining time.
  2. Begin the class by having each student read aloud the one sentence from the Heidegger essay that "they are still thinking about," which they are to have copied out. That's it--this exercise (as far as I can see) is all reading and listening.
  3. Think pair share (I always want to add 'care' to the list somewhere): You ask a question and then give the students 90 seconds to write down an answer. They get into pairs and read what they have written to each other. Then they have another two minutes at most to talk about it and write down a revised answer. Then you go around the room and one person (chosen at random) from each pair reads their answer.
  4. Before they leave the class students have 90 seconds to write down either the one idea from the class that "will keep them up at night" or that should have been talked about and that would have kept them up all night. These are handed to the instructor at the end of the class.
In all of this you are not supposed to tell anyone they have got something wrong, but you can praise right or good ideas. 
Some of the problems that occur to me in connection with all this have to do with numbers. Heidegger is something of a keywords kind of guy, but not every philosopher is. What if there really don't seem to be twenty key words or phrases in the reading you assign? Another mathematical problem is that step 1 seems as though it could take up the whole class. The definitions are meant to be 100-200 words long, which is about half a page. So it could take one minute for each student to read their definitions. That's 40 minutes total. And they still have to pair up, revise, and read out twenty new definitions. I don't think there would be time for a lecture after this.

Perhaps more to the point, what if you want students to get more out of Heidegger's work than definitions of key terms? Or what if none of them get the definition right? Or the credit available (this work is not for an actual grade) is so negligible that significant numbers of students don't even try to get it right?

I don't mean to be completely cynical. Something like this, probably with far fewer key words, could be useful. And Davidson encourages people to adapt and experiment with her ideas. But there are serious problems that she seems to be overlooking.

I have actually tried something like idea 2. In a course on world religions, I had each student read out a passage from a religious text that had struck them and to explain briefly what they thought was interesting about it. It was pretty much a disaster. Students did not want to listen to each other's thoughts, partly because the thoughts in question were very often obviously insincere, the passages having been chosen simply to complete the required exercise. I don't do this any more.

Idea number 3 strikes me as facing related problems. Is 90 seconds long enough to answer any worthwhile philosophical question? Would Heidegger think so? And when an undergraduate discusses their answer with another undergraduate, aren't the blind leading the blind?

Idea number 4 could be worth trying, because it's good to know what your students are thinking or getting out of a course. But a depressingly large number of people saying that absolutely nothing from the class would keep them up at night is surely highly predictable. Actually, honesty about this might not be depressing. But lots of "nothing"s would make the exercise a bit pointless.

It is perhaps telling to see what Davidson expects this kind of thing to achieve:
I promise, you will never have a more alert, engaged, livelier class on Heidegger.
(Her italics.) As she points out, if students are not engaged they will learn nothing. That's true. But is engagement itself the goal of teaching? And would these exercises even work in that sense? Davidson promises that "we know" they will. But what works with one group of students, or when done by one instructor, or with one text, might not work with another. I haven't found this kind of thing to work with the material I teach to my students. I've also observed lots of other people teaching, and I have never come away thinking that I ought to try, for instance, think pair care share. That isn't just because of my grumpy cynicism. I simply have not observed the kind of lively engagement that Davidson promises.

Here's another possible benefit to the new education:
statistically, minoritized students will be represented and we know that can be life-changing
This is a fair point. There are reasons to try to get all students involved in class more or less equally, ensuring that discussion is not dominated by white men, for instance. But there are other ways to do this, such as calling on students who have not yet spoken in class or making everyone do a presentation of some fairly polished work (to avoid the blind-leading-the-blind problem).

One last reason to adopt Davidson's approach:
You have great starting places for your next lecture or discussion or assignment: you have a way to see what they understand, what they don't, what they are missing, what matters to them, what does or does not make Heidegger "count" in their lives, what they are passionate about.
This is another good point, it seems to me. Some form of Davidson's methods would be a good way to find out what students understand and what they don't, what they care about and what they don't. But that's a starting point, not an end in itself. With a philosopher as difficult as Heidegger I think you would have to do some lecturing, or whatever we want to call explaining to students things they don't already understand (since 'lecturing' is becoming a dirty word). And with a subject like philosophy, in which you want students to develop certain kinds of skills, I think you would have to have them do work that requires more than writing 150 words or speaking for a minute or so at a time. Which is all to say that ideas like Davidson's are worth listening to, but should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Why does any of this matter? Because the idea that everybody should be teaching in Davidson's kind of way is very widespread. And that means pressure, some subtle, some less so, is put on instructors to practice this kind of teaching, sometimes by people who understand work like Davidson's well, sometimes by people who merely think they do. Which means the world could use more critical thinking about such ideas. Which in turn means that the experience of instructors and the expertise of people in specific disciplines should not be ignored by colleagues from other disciplines, by administrators, or by assessment types.


  1. seems like a perfectly dreadful example of Heidegger's concerns about education as mere gossip (what-they-say), word for the day apophantic...

    1. Yes, although learning what they say is at least learning something. The goals here seem to be, primarily, entertainment (and hence perhaps good teaching evaluations) and, secondarily, promoting social change. I'm not against these things, but I don't think either should be the main goal of any teacher.

  2. 'Warn them, too, that this is your field and you will be able to spot plagiarism and you do not get credit for someone else's answer.'

    oh how quickly anti-authoritarian posturing goes out the window

  3. "... lots of "nothing"s would make the exercise a bit pointless".

    Maybe, but think of the look on your students' faces when they see all those nothings noth!