Something to think about this semester…

Philosophy teachers:  What kind of discussion might you aim for in your classes. Here are some comments I’ve heard over several decades:

a. “You know how it is, if you’re going to say anything in a seminar, it has to be brilliant.”

b. “This is the philosophical method: someone puts up a position and everyone tries to knock it down.”

c. A dialogue:
Speaker One: It’s as though you stand on the top of a hill, and say to your students: This is my position, and anyone who wants to have their own position has to knock me off first.
Speaker Two: Yes, that’s what I do best.

First, some obvious things to say: There’s been a lot of discussion of aggressive philosophy and the antagonist philosophical style. But there’s something else that’s more moderate, and that one suspects a lot of us find attractive. That’s the vigorous “exchange of ideas” that is actually carried on with quite a bit of evaluation. If you pursue this as a professor, you might find yourself saying, “Well, that’s not a bad idea, but it isn’t as strong as the first one, and it doesn’t really answer these other questions.” Or,” yes fair point, but most people nowadays have learned that doesn’t cut much philosophical ice.” Students can be very good at summing such remarks up.

Secondly, the less obvious:  Research we looked at earlier this week strongly suggests that there’s a danger that such an environment dumbs down some students, and these students form identifiable groups.  White women and Hispanics.  It really shouldn’t be a surprise that styles in classes can have discriminatory effects, but now we are moving beyond the anecdotal to some ideas about how deeply seated the dumbed down reaction may be.

An opposite strategy:  to try to find as much worthwhile in each comment as you can, and leave off evaluating the rest.  Should one try something like that?  Do the results we reported on before show that those of us who like to stir up a vigorous and challenging debate have obligation to reconsider?  What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Something to think about this semester…

  1. Looking over this post, I’m stunned at thinking I’ve positioned negatively the place of vigorous and challenging debate. I think, though, we need to distinguish between how we picture it and what really goes on. I remember hearing Peter Strawson saying to Gareth Evans, “I can’t think when you go on like that.” Some styles go beyond silencing people and degrade their ability to think.

    Jemder has linked to a post about what make be a clear and large drop in female applications to philosophy graduate school. Could there be a connection between getting a clear message that philosophy is largely a man’s field, feeling too often one cannot perform well in philosophical discussions, and deciding to do something else. What knows? But it would not be all that surprising if there were. It is the sort of thing, IMHO, we need to consider.

  2. I’m just an old guy who’s done this stuff for a long time–but I’ve always conducted class discussion overall as exploration. I put up an idea, run out a course of argument strongly for and against it, and ask students to try and support both sides. Intellectual respect for shared considered argument is my main pedagogical goal, and inculcating an attitude of skeptical humility for one’s own positions is another. But how do we teach integrating these goals with integrity for one’s own positions–respecting others’ opposing positions while remaining steadfast in believing that one’s own stance is the most rational by offering rebuttals to criticisms? Balancing the fallibility of taking a stance with conviction of taking a stance is the pedagogical “hard problem” of philosophy.

  3. It’s possible to structure discussion not so much around positions (and arguments for and against them, however “openmindedly” postponing judgment) as around problems — in which case discussion is like thinking out loud. There’s room for argument analysis and evaluation, but the bulk of discussion can revolve around the lived challenges that prompt an effort to think through the issue, whatever it is. Much insight in philosophy revolves around asking questions differently rather than around “making up one’s mind.”

    A tremendous shift in classroom energy can happen if we shift the tone from “I think x” (met with: “Oh, I don’t think so, y instead”) to “Here’s a thought…” and “Here’s a concern in connection with that.” (Nothing about this shift means neglecting situated identities and standpoints — one can offer a thought and articulate its likely connection with one’s depth of experiences, background, etc.)

  4. Alan, really interesting comment and observation. I actually find the will suspension of belief pretty easy. One factor that makes it harder than it need be, I think, is a tendency among philosophers to see being in error as a moral flaw.

    Elf, you and Alan are on the same page here, though you are suggesting more specific ways to a similar goal?? Very interesting.

  5. I was hoping to pull in a more radical direction than Alan — in terms of de-centering “positions” as such (not just suspending one’s attachment to them) — but I suspect that the classroom environment fostered by his approach is still one in which flexible problem-oriented thought can emerge and thrive.

    On another note: Despite the fact that my pedagogy has moved toward a problem-oriented approach, my ability to *join* the field of philosophy had everything to do with lots of youthful practice at taking-and-defending-stands (as one apparent way to secure respect at home). Sigh.

  6. I don’t run debates in class anymore. Instead I put students in groups and give them a set of constructive questions. For example, In a philosophy of science class, we read Popper and then we read a primary science paper that has a pretty clear argumentative structure. Then the groups have a question set to discuss: “Pretend you are Popper and that the author of the paper asked you for advice. What would you say? Now be yourself. What do you think is helpful about Popper’s advice? Would you offer different advice? If so, what would you say and why?” You can get people to develop positions, consider applications, and generally be critical and analytic, without it being adversarial. The nice thing is that you can get the groups to report their discussions back to the rest of the class. I find that student engagement is rigorous when I run classes in this way.

  7. I’m a female philosophy student. As an older person, I am not prone to using an apologetic or self-deprecating style of speech. I have nothing to fear from the derision of my peers. However, I do know that my fellow woman students often fear speaking in debate, and that when they do, it is often in a non-assertive and timid, questioning manner. It’s a shame and does not ear them the credit they often deserve for thoughtful and intelligent comments.

  8. Something to consider, in light of some of the research by Nemeth recently discussed in a New Yorker article, is whether conflict might not play a role in promoting creativity and ideas. Criticism and debate need not be stifling. It is interesting to note, however, that the group in the study where the ‘positive’ effect of debate is most evident was one performed on female undergraduates. The gender dynamics, therefore, might be as much a factor in creating a creative and open classroom environment as the style in which the classroom is conducted. The Nemeth paper is here

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