(Paul): The conceit of our course is this: Philosophy can help you think about your life and maybe even make it better.
Into Philosophy was influenced by one of the books that inspires me the most, We Are All Explorers: Learning & Teaching with Reggio Principles in Urban Settings. Currently, I’m at work on a book about the politics of wonder.
(Paul): The realization I’ve come to over time is that how we introduce students to philosophy makes a difference for students in terms of attitudes, continued engagement, and learning outcomes.
One of the key commitments of “Philosophy as a Way of Life” courses is what we’ve come to call “immersive assignments.” These ask students to practice some philosophical way of life, reflect on it, and produce something to capture what they learned in the process.
By articulating this position, we shed light on presuppositions. We come to realize that some of the things being assumed aren’t what’s actually going on within the educational enterprise, and some of the assumptions that are shaping the practice are doing so in ways we might find questionable or at least worthy of reflection.
I think the best way to allow student interests to inform our courses is to be in genuine relationship with students: working side-by-side, knowing and interacting personally enough to be able to say, “Hey, do you think your peers will be interested in a course that deals primarily with problems with work and overwork?”
(Sidra and Nathan): Can you speak to the course being “open access”?
(Jeremy): This course is intricate and amazing.
Finally, we invite in guest speakers to class, ranging from local leaders in the Catholic Worker Movement to Mike Schur, creator of “The Good Place” and a writer for “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.”
Where I Come From
I thought hard about appropriate course-level learning goals – and from there, standards I could use to make sure we’re doing something useful. How was I going to assess whether what we’re doing in this class is helping the students in a meaningful way? Finally, I got to go crazy with the reading list and how I wanted to deliver the actual course.
I’m also intentional about doing the things I ask my students to do. If I ask them to share personal details in an essay (e.g. whether they think practicing a religion is part of the good life), I share some of my own experiences and journey in this respect. I’m at least as open and vulnerable in class – in a way appropriate to the educational context – as I’m asking them to be.
(Sidra): How do philosophy and literature relate?
What I’ve Learned from the Brand New Student
(Jeremy): What have you learned from working on the course?
(Paul): The relationship between philosophy and literature is complex. It seems that narratives are a good way to introduce students to philosophical issues as they arise from the first-person point of view. A character’s action can be more fully developed in the course of a story.
Meghan had this conversation with the dean of the college about how Notre Dame should have a flagship philosophy course like Michael Sandel’s “Justice” course [which they included in the eventual course! – jbk]. He said he’d back her up and provide support. So we started dreaming. We even met with a production team on campus who fanned the flames of the idea.
(Paul) I like to think of university as a place where we prepare students to live good lives. This is one model out there in the higher education literature. We have to take into account the social, cultural, and economic realities of the role college plays in the lives of students who choose to go to college. We have to make good on the promise of providing experiences that can expand a student’s perspective and help them craft their soul. A school is more likely to accomplish these things by providing curriculum that is designed with them in mind, that takes who they are – and what they need to succeed in their lives – into account.
If we spark curiosity, and show our students what philosophy can be for them, they’ll often become better philosophy teachers for themselves than we could hope to be.
Supposing that philosophy can be for everyone, how you design your learning experiences is what brings it alive. For instance, I teach a course on agency and responsibility. We read Aristotle, some of the situationism literature, and a bunch of contemporary pop-psychology on habit formation. Then we track our habits and see whether the “science of habit formation” tracks Aristotle’s ideas about virtue, and what we should think of all of this in light of situationist critiques.
Work & the Ideal School
Anyway, we started designing the first version of the website as a free WordPress site, and I prototyped annotated digital essays that would help students engage with the primary texts we were assigning them. We spent months filming videos and creating content.
For instance, Steve Horst and Stephen Angle at Wesleyan University have long used an activity (in a decades old course called “Philosophy as a Way of Life”) where they have students map out their desires and figure out which are instrumental and which are final (in Aristotle’s sense). I made a version of this as an animated video plus worksheet.
Another idea we got from the folks at Wesleyan and Stephen Grimm is to have students read Stoic aphorisms for a week, practice Stoic meditations, and start writing their own Stoic journal in the style of Marcus Aurelius.
(Paul): I try to do lots of things to forge trust. When I’m teaching smaller courses, I meet with students individually early in the semester to talk about their goals for the course and about what they can expect. I do this after the first couple assignments, too, so that they’re getting personalized feedback that feels more like coaching than grading.
Of course, teaching and learning all come down to trust and human connection, whether an instructor is able to create a genuine community in the classroom where students will feel comfortable enough to do the hard inner work of learning. You can have the best syllabus and amazing lesson plans, but if students don’t trust you and each other, I don’t think much learning will happen.
I think students are resilient. Lots of the general polarization problems in our society now – as manifested by, say, the near-constant, largely toxic discourse being churned out twenty-four hours a day on Twitter – don’t necessarily spill over into campus life. I’ve found that students are thoughtful and willing to engage carefully in discussions about even some of the most polarizing issues we’re facing once we’ve gotten to know each other well enough to form genuine relationships.
In class, we’re also clear about norms and expectations. We do a norm setting activity on day one. We revisit our norms from time to time to make sure students are comfortable and to make sure that I know how they would like to contribute to the class.
I consider myself lucky that Notre Dame is situated solidly in a tradition. That gives folks at the school a framework and a starting point. We can say to our students,
This is basically a “philosophy as a way of life” approach. Philosophy has practical implications; it can help us with issues we’re already coming up against in our lives.
There are about five unnecessarily complicated steps in that process, none of which contribute to the course learning goals.
(Paul): Meghan had the idea of hiring undergraduates to lead dialogues in the class and bringing in an outside organization to train them. We piloted a version of the class online with twenty or so students who were enthusiastic. Then we launched the in-person version of it the next fall.
I majored in philosophy and creative writing in college and explored paths as a fiction writer or philosopher. Ultimately, I thought philosophy would allow me to develop both my creative and intellectual aspirations. I took that route.
I also think there are questions about how we’re using institutional resources (and how we can better use these) as a discipline. If schools are willing to support production of such materials for their own students, what a great service to be able to turn around and pool resources with other philosophy teachers. Say that someone’s talent is in creating and sharing lesson plans, and another person cares a lot about making a great animated YouTube series: We can all benefit from each other.
(Jeremy): You’re talking about “God & the Good Life,” Notre Dame’s large-enrollment, philosophy as a way of life class?
“Look, institutionally, the point of this education stuff is to shape your soul, and to shape it in this particular way – is that right?”
Suppose you have a student – brand new to college – and you hand her a paper syllabus. The syllabus tells her to get a textbook at the bookstore and to read pages 333-335. It also instructs her to sign up for an account on the university “Learning Management System,” and to watch for an email with discussion questions to be submitted on a piece of paper at the beginning of class.
In high school and college, I supplemented my philosophical education through YouTube and other online resources. I watched every “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC) I could get my hands on. I listened to audio-books about the history of philosophy and contemporary debates (this was before podcasts). I would read publicly accessible articles, blog-posts, … – whatever I could find.
Or even, “Do you think students will tune out if I start talking about Marx in my course on labor and leisure?”
“God & the Good Life” has always been a large-enrollment, general education class. We’ve ended up teaching about 450 – 600 students per semester.
The whole unit gets students thinking. I think anyone could do something like that in a philosophy course if they wanted to, and that students will reliably respond well to it.
I designed a survey that I sent around to students at Notre Dame. We got a response rate of about 50% [over twice the expected response rate for surveys in most universities – jbk]. The students were very concerned about how their work could contribute to a meaningful life, not just giving them a paycheck.
When we were developing “God & the Good Life,” we started thinking that this was a strange pretense. Most of our students weren’t going to major in philosophy, let alone pursue a job in the field. Why talk so much about the various divisions between sub-fields, or require them to learn conventions about academic writing (by, e.g., having them write a 10-page research paper), when these things are neither intrinsically valuable, nor actually useful for them, given their goals.
But in analytic philosophy, narratives tend to be short and have very little context. (“You appear, suddenly, near a lever that could switch the track that a particular trolley is barreling down…”) Obviously this is to minimize confounding factors. Yet more layered, complex narratives – especially when they contain background, context, and details about a subjects mental life – allow us to more fully appreciate and evaluate things like motive and intention. And when we’re asking really big questions about the meaning of life or whether some choice is consistent with human flourishing, we need to see their actions in the context of a whole life-story – one that’s richly and accurately told.
“God & the Good Life”
Recently, I was writing a (non-fiction) story about this guy who debunks conspiracy theories in his free time (he’s spent a ridiculous amount of time doing this, and for years). Figuring out how to craft that story into a lesson on Plato’s Republic and Frankfurtian “bullshit” helped me see the deeper philosophical issues, and my students basically “co-wrote” the final version of the piece just by engaging with the ideas together in class.
(Paul): When it comes to teaching, I think the biggest thing we could change as a profession is not to assume that our students will be interested in philosophy for the reasons we are or that they want to engage with it in the ways we find useful and interesting in professional environments. Taking the opportunity to figure out what ignites their interest in philosophy and connecting that up with things we really care about is how we’ll increase our ability to teach.
I reflect on my own life, too, because I know that I can’t teach something that I have absolutely no access to in experience.
Teaching philosophy as a way of life puts the student at the center of the whole educational experience, including course design. It takes seriously what our students are interested in. It aims to reach students.
Giving students easy access to the value of philosophy has been huge for me. I used to spend time arguing with people about why they should think philosophy is valuable. Now, in my classes, we just experience that value directly.
(Paul): Yes. Philosophy 101 courses are sometimes taught as an “Introduction to the Philosophy Major” (our old version was), which seems to presuppose that students are interested in learning about philosophy as a discipline. We teach them about the history of philosophy, about how the field has developed, about current methodologies, and about the things that contemporary philosophers care a great deal about in their research.
(Sidra): How do you develop trust in a classroom?
Paul Blaschko has done much to foster Philosophy as a Way of Life at the University of Notre Dame. This is an interview culled from multiple formats (in-person via Zoom, multiple email questionnaires, and editorial follow-up by myself, Sidra, and Nathan Eckstrand). His book , The Good Life Method, co-authored with Meghan Sullivan around many of the issues in this post, is forthcoming from Penguin in 2022.
When we talk about the “value of a liberal arts education” or “humanistic skills” as precise, intelligible things – and things whose value is beyond dispute – we avoid hard conversations. What do our students really care about?
My tactic is always to try to connect with people on the issues that mean something to them and to do this in a way that’s familiar. With friends back home, that might mean asking them questions I’m genuinely curious about over a beer, recognizing that they have experience, knowledge, and expertise (lots of it deeply philosophical), but that it makes no sense to demand that they express it in the way I’m most comfortable with (e.g. formally, with numbered premises, and in reference to some particular theory or philosopher).
(Paul): So many philosophy teachers are independently converging on these practices! It’s as though there’s collective wisdom emerging through teaching philosophy. I love this about “Philosophy as a Way of Life” courses.
I let them weigh in.
Whenever I start thinking about a course I might want to teach, my first impulse is to ask, “Who’s going to be in this class? What are they going through? What are they aiming to achieve in the next five or ten years or beyond?”
I live with my family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where I acknowledge the indigenous lands ceded by the Treaty of Greenville (1795), subsequently violated by the U.S.A. I work in the philosophy department at Case Western Reserve University and serve as a senior research fellow with the Earth System Governance Project, Universiteit Utrecht.
Instead, create a clean course website with intuitive navigation, direct links to readings, and a box where students can complete and submit assignments when their done. You eliminate all the unnecessary processing and reduce the “cognitive load.” Finding ways of doing this with technology can draw attention to the things that really matter.
We briefly experimented with community-based learning projects, too. For instance, when we had our students run “campaigns” on campus aimed at helping the broader community live good lives. We even got into a bit of trouble with the administration when our students starting holding Socratic dialogues outside the dining halls about the ethics of eating and food allocation!
Here’s one quote that I read in my early 20s and still use to keep things real: “Greatness of heart is the true human greatness” (Søren Kierkegaard, 1849). Although I’m not Christian, this quote relays something that I felt in my Slovak family of pretty humble origins. Not letting philosophy go to our heads, we’re all in this together.
What is the state of their souls when we first meet them? Do they care about what they should care about? And, if not, what role – if any – do I as a philosophy professor get to play in helping them question this?
(Jeremy): I would trust that. Does our profession have anything to learn from the approach that you all are using?
(Jeremy): Paul, can you tell us how an ideal education might work?
Philosophy is for everyone, but we face different obstacles in making it accessible, depending on our students. I am inspired by those who teach philosophy in prisons. I learn from interactions with friends and community members who have no interest in pursuing a liberal arts education, but who are coming up against deep philosophical questions all the time. I grew up arguing about the nature of God and religion with my Irish Catholic relatives, many of whom would find the academic context these debates sometimes take place in totally foreign and alienating.
(Jeremy): So you changed course.
How Trust in Learning Works
What makes a good teacher is genuine concern for the good of his or her students. The focus should be on their agency.
I come from Mankato, MN and read a lot of philosophy in high school. My entry-point was Christian apologetics. I grew up in a family of Catholics and had epistemological and metaphysical questions. As soon as I realized that there were other people out there thinking about these questions, I was hooked.
How the Profession of Philosophy Can Grow
Well, the meaning of life: philosophy classes can work with that. I had a way in to design the course – and it came from them, the students. There are lots of philosophical questions – e.g., about meritocracy, the point of work, purpose and alienation – that would seem to speak to students. I put together a list of topics – e.g., burnout, collective action problems, the common good ….
If you can find a way to connect with the goals and interests of your students – and this often means using technology to strategically strip away the distractions that so often derail them in their learning experience – students will walk out of your class eager to pick up Plato or Simone de Beauvoir next time they have an existential crisis. They’ll see the value and wisdom in the tradition, and they’ll be excited and curious about philosophy. They’ll see and feel its value.
The student feedback was overwhelming. Not only were those issues that might come up for them in the future; they are things that they’re very much struggling to articulate and think through right now in their lives.
(Jeremy): Oh my gosh. I used to ask students to keep an Epictetan notebook in the freshperson course, “Crafting Your Own Freedom.” And that course evolved out of a course with Mark Pedretti in which we asked students to diagram their life-purpose starting from immediate actions, something inspired by the opening of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
This post is dedicated to my father, David Keymer, on his 85th birthday today. He has been an atheist since he was young, but nonetheless taught Sunday school at one point. He studied intellectual history and has consistently been Aristotelian in his approach to good judgment. Most importantly, like Paul, in his decades of teaching in public high school, liberal arts colleges, and state universities while being a chief student affairs officer, my father always put students at the center, aiming for student-led inquiry, clarity, conversation, and hard working fun. I love him dearly for all of these things.
It meant a lot to me to be able to do this. I’d love to see the internet filled with high-quality philosophical content for searchers.
They are a good reminder to me to think about my courses – especially courses where I’m introducing a student to philosophy – as part of a much longer project, and one that I pretty quickly hand over to that student. That puts less pressure on me to pack everything in, or to make sure that the student has all the skills I might possibly help her achieve.
(Paul): One thing I felt strongly early on into the work for “God & the Good Life” was that everything should exist in a single place and be open-access.
I’m always surprised when I make contact with a student years after they’ve taken my class, and hear that it’s had an enduring impact. Often the way that they relate to philosophy is not what I would have predicted at all. It’s humbling that a brief encounter with philosophy could be a shaping force in a student’s life.
Right now, for instance, I’m developing a course on the philosophy of work. I’m starting with an examination of the needs of the students at my particular institution. What are the actual things that my students say that they need?
Each day we assign classic philosophical texts (from Aristotle, Descartes) [or ones that should be, such as from Martin Luther King, Jr. – jbk], but we pair them with an op-ed in the New York Times or a longform article in The Atlantic that somehow connects up with the themes they’re exploring. We want our students to recognize philosophy when they see it in their everyday lives, and to gain the skills they need to think hard about philosophical problems when they brush up against them.
This is an installment of Into Philosophy.