Taking stock

We’re about half-way through the term and, with reading week next week, I have a bit of room to breathe and take stock of how things are going.

Before this term, I had about three years of teaching experience: one year as a TA at Durham and two years teaching at Roehampton. As a TA, I think I achieved an ok balance between promoting discussion and providing information, but I was probably a little prone to assuming the position of the ‘subject supposed to know’. The insecurities of PhD research left me all too ready to jump in and provide the answer. At Roehampton, for the first year and a half I did PowerPoint based lectures, spiced up with fairly frequent questions to the class. At the end of that period, though, I was frustrated. While there was some class discussion, it tended to be too brief and usually took the form of students trying to figure out the answer to a question I had asked. It was much rarer for the students to question the text themselves (at least out loud).

This approach to teaching is problematic. Following Freire, I’m opposed to the ‘banking’ model of education. As he explains, this model installs the teacher as a person with authority dispensing knowledge to be stored and returned. This method presents two issues. First, we grade students against rubrics that privilege critical analysis. If class is spent explaining a text, with some time devoted to historical critiques (or even my own critical analysis), I’m effectively expecting students to pick up the tools of critical thinking without over providing a space for them to offer their own analysis of the text. Even when I gave reading questions and started sessions off with small group discussions, when we came back as a group it tended to be my own ideas that directed the conversation. Then, come the end of term, I’d mark essays and wonder why the work was so descriptive.

Second, most of my students don’t need to know much about Descartes’ Meditations. They’ll go on to a variety of careers, very few of which will involve critiquing the trademark argument. I certainly think that their lives can be enriched by reading the Meditations and thinking about how Descartes influenced subsequent philosophy, but this requires actively engaging with his ideas. The point is not to learn about Descartes, but to think with Descartes. Put another way, as has become my little motto, we’re not here just to study philosophers, but to think philosophically.

My last semester at Roehampton I switched to using a SMART Board and putting key quotations on PowerPoint slides. This improved things a bit. I still found that the PowerPoint dictated our discussion, though. So when I started at Chichester I decided to work with the following rules: there will be no lectures and no PowerPoint; students will dictate the questions we discuss; and essay questions should make it virtually impossible to write a descriptive piece of work.

In each of our classes, we begin by discussing our reactions to the text. What were the major themes? What are the major components of the argument? What questions does it raise? Are their obvious weaknesses? I make a list of the questions and critiques and we work our way through the text trying to answer them as best we can.

At this point in the term, I feel like it’s working pretty well. I find this approach both more stressful and more rewarding. Students talk a lot more, but it can be tricky if we’ve read a particularly difficult text. In sessions on Aquinas and Spinoza I had to slip into lecturing mode, but was able (I think) to bring it back to a decent conversation. I find that I spend about the same amount of time on teaching prep, but this time is almost entirely reading. That’s great – I like reading. I used to spend hours preparing lectures and PowerPoint presents. It also means that the conversation is more likely to veer into areas beyond my ‘expertise’. No matter how much Ranciere I’ve read, it’s hard to tell students that I just don’t know the answer. Finally, I have to trust the students will show up having done the reading and ready to discuss the text. I could probably wing it for half a class, but it wouldn’t be a very productive session. So far I’ve been impressed with the degree to which students are doing the primary reading, the supplemental reading I provide and even seeking out their own resources.

All in all, this different approach has allowed me to enjoy teaching even more and have lots of interesting discussions around the issues that the students raise. They have an opportunity to think critically in class and push one another to question their assumptions and beliefs. Hopefully I don’t find out that I’ve been deluding myself when they fill out module evaluations…

‘Identity politics’ and the philosophical canon

Yesterday, Brian Leiter offered his thoughts on identity politics and the study of philosophy. Leiter perpetuates a line of thinking I often come across – surely they don’t expect us to include non-whites in the curriculum purely for the sake of diversity. As Leiter says, ‘should we really add East Asian philosophers to the curriculum to satisfy the consumer demands of Asian students rather than because these philosophers are interesting and important in their own right?’

A few things: first, as far as consumer demands go, this doesn’t seem that bad. If there are philosophical traditions which stem from the same cultures as your students, at the very least incorporating those traditions alongside the western tradition seems like a good goal. If a university can invest in new cafes, new study carrels and add more options in the dining hall, adding an elective module on Asian philosophy feels like a reasonable concession.

Second, Leiter’s phrasing of the question implies that the rich philosophical traditions of South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia might not be interesting and important in their own right. He references Nussbaum later in the post and perhaps she would be a good place to start. Her work is part of the established tradition, but she finds it worthwhile to engage with Indian philosophy. The Durham philosopher of Law Thom Brooks does as well. These aren’t examples of people pursuing some radical agenda – they find interesting patterns of thought in Indian philosophy which challenge and push Western thought. The fact that they, and many others, find philosophy from outside Europe and North America ‘interesting and important in their own right’ is a good reason to begin to include it in our teaching.

Third, there’s the problem of teaching what you don’t know:

most Anglophone philosophers have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it.  Some regret the ignorance, others think it is excusable since there are so many philosophical traditions in the world and one can only master so many, and others just don’t think about it at all because it is possible to pursue an academic career in philosophy ignorant of a lot of things, including large swaths of the history of European philosophy…

It’s simply not acceptable for a philosopher to ‘have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy’. Even the phrasing points to the historical relationship between Europe, North America and the rest of the world – a relationship in which the humanity and agency of any not-white person is denied, oppressed or, at best, begrudgingly and partially acknowledged. To have no opinion on that state of affairs as it bears on your field of research is inexcusable. To return to the previous point, this objection only makes sense if you think there’s a real possibility that traditions of thought developed over thousands of years might not have interesting things to say.

I have more sympathy for the ‘one can only master so many’ forms of philosophy argument. How do you teach a philosopher whose name you struggle to pronounce? But this objection is based on a problematic understanding of teaching. It assumes that teaching consists of a master dispensing knowledge to students who retain and repeat that information for a mark or grade. I’ve been trying to frame undergraduate education in a different way, one which is more collaborative and based on discussion (I do realise I work at a small institution that affords me this luxury). Why not structure a course around trying to create a better course? Allow them to construct an alternative history of philosophy incorporating marginalised perspectives. This provides a forum in which students can explain why they think a new canon is needed. If the lecturer thinks the students are wrong, allow for discussion and debate (sorry I’ve been reading Ranciere lately so now I’m filled with lofty notions about education and liberation). I’m certainly guilty of not teaching material because I feel that I haven’t yet sufficiently mastered it and I don’t want students to ask questions for which I have no answer. We need to ask what kind of message this conveys. ‘I see your point about the exclusion of huge portions of humanity from the history of thinking, but I’m too worried about stepping outside what I know to do anything to address that problem’?

Finally, what I find most frustrating about the post (as indicative of a fairly common attitude) is that it, yet again, reduces everything to a series of problems that matter. The people who count are the ones who speak and write about these problems. We only need to incorporate non-Western philosophers if they have something interesting to say about those problems that matter. The fulfilling thing about picking up African or Chinese philosophy, though, is finding different questions, or similar questions asked in different ways. Not including groups from historically (or contemporarily) marginalised communities, reinscribes that marginalisation. Our syllabi say that they don’t count. This isn’t about identity politics in philosophy. Arguing that it is abstracts the teaching of philosophy from the racial, cultural and gendered contexts in which we teach.


The other day I was thinking about the term micro-agression. I was mostly thinking about the term because of James KA Smith’s unhelpful article and Anthony Paul Smith’s satisfying smack down. At the same time, I’ve been looking at Gramsci, popular education and the relationship between philosophy and the politics of resistance.

In moments of great tension (IS, Ferguson, Gaza) talking about philosophy and resistance/liberation can feel foolish and cheap. True revolutions happen in the streets, collaborating with other workers, not in the comfortable isolation of university offices banging away on a Macbook. Yet the classroom provides a valuable opportunity to teach patterns of resistance – a basic refusal of accepting things as they come to us. Exposing the contingent nature of systems of meaning and production opens up the space for alternatives.

This understanding of micro-resistance highlights what is so disturbing about Smith’s piece (the core message of which is strikingly similar to the Faith and Theology post about apocalypticism that I discussed earlier). A student who has just discovered Freud, Marx, Focault or Said is developing an alternative view of the world. I remember when I was in high school and read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It was utterly disorientating. Facilitating those moments of disorientation and helping students decide how to respond is the greatest part of undergraduate humanities.

Teaching the problem of evil

I imagine most lecturers have a handful of topics (or modules) that they would really rather not teach. I have two main ones (so far): proofs for the existence of God and the problem of evil. The former because it mostly consists of endlessly rehashing tired arguments. Any developments require greater knowledge of mathematics, formal logic or physics than I or the average undergraduate possess. The trick, of course, is to shift the question from ‘can one prove the existence of God’ to ‘what role do attempts to prove the existence of God play in religious discourse’ or ‘what forms of knowledge are privileged by the attempts to prove the existence of God’. The problem is that these important questions require you spend a bit of time reading through the proofs for the existence of God.

My lack of love for the problem of evil stems from the same kinds of problems. I also don’t enjoy having to spend time talking about the depths of human depravity – I’m not an overly optimistic person to begin with and spending a semester talking about the Holocaust or sexual abuse of children makes me feel even more nihilistic than usual. The problem of evil, though, does drive home the implications of deeply held beliefs about God and the sources of evil.

This year, I’m trying to structure my module on the problem of evil in a way that encourages students to think about how ideas of evil are invoked in discussions of gender, cultural difference, class, race, etc. In short why is it that some groups seem to suffer more than others? And why are certain groups more easily cast as evil?

Since most students will be familiar with the basic contours of the debate, I’m only going to spend the first two weeks on the traditional responses (Augustine and Plantinga, Irenaeaus and Hick). To help make the critical turn, we’re going to look at Kenneth Surin’s Theology and the Problem of Evil. The class will mostly focus on philosophy of religion, but Surin’s book is still one of the best challenges to standard theodicy. The chapter on theodicies with a ‘practical emphasis’ introduces people like Dorothe Söelle, who will be unfamiliar to most students. I’ll follow this with Baumann’s essay on modernity and the Holocaust, which I have found to be very affecting in the past.

I’m still searching for the best texts to help students consider the problem of evil in the wider contexts of gender, race, class, etc. I considered using Nel Noddings’ Women and Evil, but couldn’t fit in into the structure of the module (it would require more than one week and I’m struggling to fit everything in as it is). I have an edited collection of essays on post-colonial philosophy of religion and Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought on the way, which may shake things up a bit. I’d love to have the class read William Jones’ Is God a White Racist? (per Marika Rose’s suggestion), but I think I’d struggle to get a copy in the library before the start of term.

I’ll be finishing the syllabus in the next few days. Once I’ve nailed everything down I’ll post it. In the meanwhile, if anyone has suggestions, please let me know.