Pedagogies and Pedagogical Community of Practice
Just as our introductory classes center the collective “we” — “How Should We Live?” and “What Can We Know?” — our pedagogies writ large and our pedagogical community of practice are also shaped in the plural. In doing so, we do not lose sight of the presence of each student in their particularity. We think deeply about how each class can benefit every student: the student for whom this is their only foray into philosophy, the student who will become a major, and the student who will go on to get a Ph.D. in philosophy (hello Claire and Helen and Emily and maggie and Kit!). None of our classes have prerequisites, a situation that results in almost every class having a wide variety of philosophical experience within the community of students; facilitating such classes requires a keen sense of where students are in their own development, as well as a department-wide commitment to communicating regularly about our students and their progress so that we can challenge and support them. Rejecting the banking model, we focus less on content knowledge in favor of habits of mind, dispositions, and skill-building. Philosophy, for us, is rooted in pedagogical practice, not academic appointment
We emphasize that our students’ work and our work is situated within the context of multiple communities, and that philosophy has the potential — indeed, the responsibility — to respond productively and effectively to the changing interests and needs of the communities in which we are located. To do philosophy, we hold, is to simultaneously work with, in and for community, and to clarify and understand one’s own responsibilities to collective action. This commitment entails explicitly helping students to build the habits of mind, dispositions and skills that will serve them as they participate in their many communities. Listening as a critical thinking skill; researching with a mind towards who has been left out of the canon and why; skilled attention to the structures that encourage myopic individualism at the cost of solidarity and justice; all these foster the flourishing of both individuals and communities.
The Philosophy Department as a Community of Pedagogical Practice
Learning is not understood in our classes as an individual process with self-centered goals, so it stands to reason that teaching is not understood in our department as an individual undertaking. Faculty members enjoy talking with others about teaching, do so regularly, and recognize that we have much to gain from each other, relying on each other’s shared commitments and experiences. To continually develop more effective ways of fostering our students and their learning, the department has a long-standing history of collaborations and discussions about teaching. Many of these discussions take place in our pedagogy lunches, which are informal, voluntary bi-weekly gatherings throughout the school year to discuss challenges and successes in classes that are currently underway.
Due to these habits of collectively working on pedagogical challenges and innovations, faculty have co-presented and co-published presentations, articles, and books on philosophy and pedagogy, thus further fostering a community of practice where pedagogical innovation, exploration and growth are seen as the hallmarks of departmental citizenship. This record of collaboration includes dozens of presentations at American Association of Philosophy Teachers events, articles in peer-reviewed journals, and a recent book on the pedagogical role of questions in the classroom. We are proud to be the only philosophy department who has been recognized multiple times with the Mark Lenssen Prize, given by the American Association of Philosophy Teachers for the best article in philosophy pedagogy over the previous two years. Members of our department have been recognized by teaching awards at both the university and college award, and we are proud to claim among our own Stephen Bloch-Schulman, the inaugural winner of the Prize for Excellence in Philosophy Teaching, a national award given annually by the American Philosophical Association to a philosophy instructor exemplifying the highest standards of teaching excellence.
Additionally, we routinely engage students and alumni in pedagogical conversations as participants, co-researchers and leaders. We regularly co-publish and co-present with students on issues of teaching and learning, including in Teaching Philosophy and Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, at the American Association of Philosophy Teachers Conference/Workshop, at APA teaching hubs, at the meetings of the Lily Conferences, and at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. We often run pedagogy discussion groups inviting students as participants or facilitators, including groups on feminist and critical race pedagogies. Additionally, several members of the department, along with three then-undergraduates, engaged in a two year study of the underrepresentation of female-identified students in our classes.
This list of signature pedagogies are intended to show some of the many ways we have tried to achieve the goals articulated above. No one faculty member uses all of these pedagogies, and everyone uses at least some of them. They are signatures of the department and when we think about what makes our department distinctive, these types of pedagogies quickly get mentioned.
Student Directed Pedagogies
We often ask students to, and educate student how to, direct their own learning in a variety of modes; this includes, for example, determining topics for papers, co-creating course modules and rubrics for assessment, acting as Teaching and Learning Apprentices, and research on teaching and learning in philosophy (including researching the underrepresentation of female-identified students in our classes).
In the course “Crafting a Meaningful Life,” Nim Batchelor invites his students to write a mini-autobiography. The idea is to prompt students to reflect across episodes from their past that shape their values. They are then invited to consider how they plan to live the remainder of their lives in a manner that will enhance the meaningfulness of their lives. [see: This Life Story Project assignment.]
In one iteration of “How Should We Live?” places the emphasis on biomedical and environmental questions of applied ethics. Through engaging with community organizers in Alamance County who work on issues of health and sustainability, students take up these concerns as they shape our own wider community, in conversation with existing efforts concerned with how we should live. [see: Lauren Guilmette’s How Should We Live? syllabus]
In one iteration of “How Should We Live?” students work in groups to develop philosophic expertise in topics that they choose; the students then receive individual reading assignments based on the group’s conversation and interests. [see: Ann Cahill’s How Should We Live? assignment]
Another iteration of “How Should We Live?” asks students and the faculty members to co-construct the course exams. Grappling with the challenges of such a collective decision-making practice, students not only read about the concept of “community” but enact a community where grades are at stake. (see: Ryan Johnson’s co-constructed exams in How Should We Live?)
In another iteration of the Critical Thinking course, students work through a series of ten steps, each centered on a specific skill, at their own pace (thus, after the first class or two, there is a one-room schoolhouse, with students working on different steps and doing different sorts of activities based on the student’s own needs). [see: Ann Cahill’s Critical Thinking syllabus and her article co-authored with Stephen Bloch-Schulman
Many faculty members seek to create ways for students to work and to learn how to work collaboratively on a wide range of philosophical tasks, ranging from writing philosophy papers to designing and implementing activist projects to presenting work both in class and in external venues.
In Health and Social Justice, Lauren Guilmette brings students to engage in our regional community, in collaboration with Alamance County community organizers. [see local Burlington Times-News coverage of Elon students helping to build Morrowtown Community Garden, also covered by Today at Elon, 2022.]
Stephen Bloch-Schulman has taught Reclaiming Democracy, a multi-institution/community collaboration, bringing together students and faculty from 5 or 6 Greensboro (or near Greensboro) colleges and universities, with community members, to study, learn and impact local democracy. [see: Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s syllabus from his Reclaiming Democracy class.]
Many of our ethics classes constitute the class itself as an ethical community: e.g., one class creates its own procedural ethical commitments and practices, including co-creating a major Ethical Change Project as well as grading standards and class operating procedures. [see Anthony Weston’s 2018 book, Teaching as the Art of Staging]. In one practice, Stephen Bloch-Schulman and students leave the classroom to sit on the floor until they can together come up with and agree to a contract that will be the social contract for the class experience; including both faculty and student responsibilities.
In many Methods of Philosophical Inquiry classes, students engage in a two-day Writing Workshop that requires them to complete specific forms to give feedback on their peers’ work; students then use the feedback to focus their revision. [see: Ann Cahill’s Writing Workshop form.]
Scaffolding Student Work and Feedback Loops
Assignments in philosophy classes often include a reiterative metacognitive approach with many subassignments that requires students to reflect on work they’ve completed, identify ways to improve it, and enact those revisions. This approach can include getting formative feedback from instructors, peers, and external sources.
In the Methods for Philosophical Inquiry class, students are required to complete a scaffolded writing assignment that leads them from proposal through the final draft, including a reflection assignment centered on the scaffolded process itself. [see: Ann Cahill’s scaffolded assignment from her Methods class.]
In the 2020 iteration of Senior Seminar on Michel Foucault’s 21st Century Afterlives, Lauren Guilmette made the most of remote teaching by using Zoom to connect our students to leading scholars in the discipline. The course engaged how Foucault’s ideas have influenced feminist, queer, and other critical lines of inquiry, and with the generous support of a Phi Beta Kappa Fund for Excellence Grant, each student got to meet virtually with a Foucauldian philosopher of their choosing. With the support of this external mentorship, each student developed a seminar paper from scaffolded smaller assignments, culminating in a Zoom workshop in which scholars gave students feedback on their seminar papers. [see Lauren Guilmette’s 2020 Senior Seminar Workshop Schedule.]
Diversifying the canon
The philosophical canon is an object of respect and contestation. Many faculty seek to include in their classes voices, methods and modes of doing philosophy that have been traditionally excluded, marginalized, or forgotten.
One iteration of Modern Philosophy engages the philosophical content of 17th-century thinkers through the most popular form of writing in the period: letter-writing. Class focuses on reading letters (by Descartes, Elisabeth, Cavendish, Spinoza, and others) and writing letters to those classic figures. This epistolary focus re-centers the conversation about Modern Philosophy to include and recognize the oft-forgotten importance of women philosophers in the Modern period. [see: Ryan Johnson’s Modern Philosophy syllabus].
One iteration of the Ethical Practice class is built around an engagement with difference: the goals are: (a) to build trust with those who are different from ourselves, and (b) to explore the value (and limits) of trust. The class uses only work by philosophers from underrepresented groups within philosophy and videoconferenced with those authors still living, so that students got to think with, see, talk to, and interact with a diverse set of philosophers [see: Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s Ethical Practice syllabus].
In Lauren Guilmette’s 2021 iteration of Senior Seminar, “Philosophy of Archives,” students reflected on archival silences and absences as well as what appears in various archives, and spoke with archivists as well as philosophers to think about the ethics and politics of preservation. We considered what it might mean to “do justice” to those whom Michel Foucault called “infamous men,” and those whom Saidiya Hartman called the “wayward,” remembered in the archives only in their judgment by power. [see Lauren Guilmette’s 2021 Philosophy of Archives syllabus.]
As philosophers we see, and encourage our students to see, ideas and arguments as products of specific historical processes and contexts. Ideas do not appear in a vacuum, cut off from prior ages, but are inextricably endowed with the traces of previous perspectives, contexts and positions; they are also shaped by systemic exclusion of multiple and intersecting social groups. Focusing on the historical situatedness of ideas, we help students thereby think historically.
In the current iteration of Ancient Philosophy, students choose a tragic or comic play to read and research further as a group, and design a multimedia presentation including historical background and a performance [see Lauren Guilmette’s Tragic/Comic Play – Group Presentation Assignment]
In an older iteration of Ancient Philosophy, the goal was to make students see, if not live in, the world differently using something they learned from or found in these ancient texts on metaphysics. Students do this in practical ways, specifically, by developing their own metaphysics in dialogue with the ancients.[see: Ryan Johnson’s Ancient Philosophy syllabus].
In an older iteration of Ancient Philosophy, students performed close exegetical readings of primary philosophy texts [see: Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s Ancient Philosophy syllabus].
Thinking is responsive to its material conditions, which includes the disposition and composition of one’s body, as well as its relations to other bodies and the larger physical/natural world. Some of our classes provoke and explore the changes in thinking that correspond to changes in embodiment on all of these scales and the changes in embodiment that correspond to changes in thinking.
One iteration of Ethical Practices engages in walking exercises with the aim of setting philosophical thinking in movement through the world, determining the rhythm of thought by the fall of one’s steps. [see: Ryan Johnson’s Practice of Walking assignment].
In another example, Sydnie Rogers (Elon ‘22) began research into phenomenological conceptions of “skin” and “flesh” in her 2020 Senior Seminar work with Lauren Guilmette, and went on to develop this into independent research and an award winning SURF presentation with Ann Cahill in Spring 2022. [see Today at Elon grad spotlight on Sydnie Rogers.]
Embodiment also means recognizing ourselves as animals among other animals and in the larger natural world. From in-class “happenings’ to week-long camping trips, pedagogies can be designed to thematize and provocatively work the edges of such embeddedness. [see: Anthony Weston’s papers “What if Teaching Went Wild?“, “Working the Dark Edges” and “Moments of Grace”].
One aim of a philosophical life is its contribution to communities. Students spend time learning how to assess the strengths and challenges of communities and how to work with communities to meet their needs (both the needs of the community and the needs of the students) and to see the way, as Lilla Watson highlights, our liberation is bound together.
In one iteration of How Should We Live?, to focus on community, students conduct community interviews and every class meeting includes a student presentation about an interview that a student conducted with someone in the greater Elon and Burlington communities in which the class questions were discussed. [see: Ryan Johnson’s Community Interview assignment].
An iteration of Ethical Practice, focused on Danielle Allen’s work, Talking to Strangers: Anxiety of Citizenship Since Brown V. Board of Education and used the Humans of New York blog as a template for the creation of a class blog, Humans of Alamance County blog, for which students to talk with, photograph and share stories of strangers. [see: Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s Ethical Practice course syllabus].
In service of learning how to think with others and adopting a critical stance towards one’s own ideas, we use pedagogies that require students to take others’ points of view, highlighting the need to be aware of the perspectives and think with an audience. This breaks the mold of student’s writing only to/for the professor, and encourages student commitment to the quality of their work.
In the step-by-step Critical Thinking class, the final step requires students to research a topic, take a position on that topic, and then invite someone who is not a member of the Elon community but who has a vested, authentic, and opposing position to the students, and debate them. [see: Ann Cahill’s Step 10 assignment].
For several years, the Senior Seminar has centered on works of a living philosopher, who attends the student conference and discusses the student’s work; in addition, the final papers from the class need to be “one click” away from being submitted to an undergraduate journal with students encouraged (though not required) to submit their work for review in these journals. [see: Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s Senior Seminar syllabus].
As noted above under the Signature Pedagogy “Scaffolding Student Work and Feedback Loops,” Lauren Guilmette’s 2020 iteration of the Senior Seminar paired each student with an external mentor of their choosing, from a selection of over a dozen leading scholars invited to participate virtually from other universities. Students got feedback from their “visiting scholars” in a virtual workshop setting, and also got to hear and respond to presentations of the visiting scholars’ own works in progress. [see Lauren Guilmette’s 2020 Senior Seminar syllabus.]
Earlier, in 2015, two sections of our introductory ethics classes completed the same writing assignment and then developed ways of evaluating each other’s assignments before submitting the best ones to a philosophy blog. [see: Ann Cahill’s How Should We Live? Collaborative assignment and Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s Ethical Practice syllabus].
We do not assume that the limits of learning are fixed by the walls of a classroom or a class, but instead seek to develop practices that spill into and out of the classroom, and from one class to another.
We are open to, and encouraging, of students writing work that engages with, and counts for, more than one class. For example, Billie Waller (Elon ‘23) worked on a substantial research project across Methods and Senior Seminar that they later successfully submitted and presented at a professional feminist philosophy conference. [see philoSOPHIA 2022 conference program.]
The 2016 Senior Seminar, Gastrosophia, sought to not only philosophize about food but also to make eating and cooking into a philosophical act. The final exam is a choreographed event in which eating becomes a philosophical act akin to reading Plato or discussing Kant. [see: Ryan Johnson’s Senior Seminar syllabus].
Environmental Ethics typically meets out of the classroom, and as much as possible outside and at near-campus locations such as the University Farm (Loy Farm). [see: Anthony Weston’s Environmental Ethics syllabus].
The Environmental Visions class has typically been scheduled in long afternoon blocks to enable trips, so most of the time the meetings are on the road, visiting local ecovillages, animal facilities, nature sanctuaries, and others,in which students engage in energetic conversation with staff people and other professionals and activists. [see: Anthony Weston’s Environmental Visions syllabus and another version.]
Teaching as Staging: Drama and the enactment of scenarios
The first lines of the first chapter of Anthony Weston’s book explains and makes the case for teaching as staging:
“Picture a college teacher who regularly sets up classroom scenarios – challenging problems, unscripted dramas, role-plays, simulations, and the like – such that the scenario itself frames and drives most of the action and learning that follows. Sometimes these scenarios can be seen coming; other times they just seem to happen unexpectedly and on the spot. Students in either case quickly learn to just go with the flow… and, by design, that flow can often be powerful indeed.”
In Roman Philosophies, panels of students role-play Roman philosophers. In addition to learning about theories of ancient Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism, students become-Roman philosophers on campus, including acting out these identities in a public stage setting in The Great Hellenic Debate. [see: Ryan Johnson’s Roman Philosophies course syllabus].
Many courses Anthony Weston taught staged a variety of scenarios in which students were challenged to articulate and develop positions or ideas on the spot, allow them to evolve, collaborate with others, and role-play. [see: Anthony Weston’s article “Experiential Education on the Edge: SETI Activities for the College Classroom” and his Environmental Ethics syllabus].
Coming to terms with one’s experience in constructive and insightful ways is a challenging form of second-order thinking.
We ask all majors to reflect on their experience as a philosopher and how it connects to their classes (both those they have already taken and those they wish to take) and their lives in a Progress report in preparation for their advising session. [see: the Semester Progress Report instructions].
In the course “Crafting a Meaningful Life,” Nim Batchelor invites his students to write a mini-autobiography. The idea is to prompt students to reflect across episodes from their past that shape their values. They are then invited to consider how they plan to live the remainder of their lives in a manner that will enhance the meaningfulness of their lives. [see: his Life Story Project assignment.)
Faculty members of the department place a high value on mentoring of students. Along with advising and in-class mentoring, faculty often encourage students to continue developing promising work that they’ve accomplished within a class. Moreover, precisely because the major is not designed with the requirements of graduate school in philosophy in mind, we see individual mentoring as a necessary element of preparing those students who do want to attend graduate school for success.
During the height of the pandemic in Fall 2020, students co-led virtual conversations about issues and texts of concern to them: 1) Liza Margules and Alexa Rasmussen (both Elon ‘21) worked with Lauren Guilmette to host and moderate a Fall 2020 Feminist Roundtable on Sexual Violence and Strategies of Resistance, featuring Ann Cahill in conversation with Cressida Heyes (University of Alberta) and Dianna Taylor (John Carroll University) [see YouTube recording of this October 2020 event.]; 2) Billie Waller (Elon ‘23) worked with Lauren Guilmette to host and moderate a book panel on GLAAD award-winning journalist Samantha Allen’s book, Real Queer America [see YouTube recording of this event, also October 2020.]; 3) Emily Lange (Elon ‘21) worked with Lauren Guilmette to host, organize, and moderate a panel on an important new book by Lynne Huffer of Emory University [see YouTube recording of this November 2020 event].
Students have co-authored papers with members of the department, including Claire A. Lockard (Elon ’16), Helen Meskhidze (Elon ’16), Sean Wilson (Elon ’16), Nim Batchelor, Stephen Bloch-Schulman and Ann J. Cahill, “Using Focus Groups to Explore the Underrepresentation of Female-Identified Undergraduate Students in Philosophy,” Feminist Philosophy Quarterly (forthcoming); Manor, C., Bloch-Schulman, S., Flannery, K., & Felten, P. (2009). “Foundations of Student-Faculty Partnerships in SoTL: Theoretical and Developmental Considerations,” in Carmen Werder & Megan Otis (Eds.) Engaging student voices in the study of teaching and learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishers; and Stephen Bloch-Schulman and maggie castor, “I Am Not Trying to Be Defiant, I Am Trying to Be Your Partner: How to Help Students Navigate Educational Institutions That Do Not Value Democratic Practice,” Partnerships: A Journal of Service Learning and Community Engagement, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter, 2015, pp. 161-180.
Teaching and textbooks as an extension of practice – toward philosophical engagement as the reconstruction of practice
Members of the department have produced a variety of textbooks that represent philosophy as a means of working out and exemplifying what philosophy in this key might actually look like, and also of making it actually teachable – since so few textbooks offer that chance now.
Stephen Bloch-Schulman and Anthony Weston recently published Thinking Through Questions (Hackett), a textbook intended for introductory students on how to ask questions and how to respond to questions.
The opening line of A 21st Century Ethical Toolbox reads: “The aim of this book is to enable its users to make a more constructive difference, in both word and deed, in problematic ethical situations.”
The Ethical Practice of Critical Thinking, by Martin Fowler, articulates the aim of critical thinking as to listen objectively, dig and research with curiosity, and argue with care. But it’s also ethical: In how we argue and take up the role of a critical thinker, we can also care about how we treat each other. This larger vision of critical thinking allows us to work our way through conflicts so that our community of discourse becomes stronger instead of falling apart.
They Say/I Say
Based on Graff and Birkenstein’s book of the same title, we aim to uncover for students the oft hidden structure to academic work, based on taking up the work and ideas of others (the They Say) and offering something new to the conversation (the I Say). The Graff and Birkenstein book is used, as a whole, in the Methods of Philosophical Inquiry class and often taught, in sections, in other classes.
They Say/I Say is used to structure summaries, first by having students write They Say/I Say summaries from the author’s perspective, then They Say/I Say/I Say summaries that first take up the author’s perspectives and then student’s own response to the author’s response to the They Say [see: Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s Senior Seminar syllabus].
Just-in-Time or Emergent Curriculum
Several faculty utilize course design that responds to students’ work or interests in real time; that is, the particular activities that the students undertake (both the kinds of assignments they complete, and the content of the reading they are doing) are the result of the students’ just-prior work. The students’ own engagement with the course thus has an immediate and perceivable effect on the course itself.
In many courses, Nim Batchelor “flips” the learning process. He provides students with short-answer questions connected with the assigned readings. At the start of class, students discuss their answers, find points of disagreement or unclarity. The class discussion then focuses on those points of need. Students are also asked to write a paragraph at the end of each class session, in which they summarize what they learned that day in class. [see: Nim Batchelor’s class preparation forms assignment].
Many of the Critical Thinking classes use the Step-by-Step method, developed by Ann J. Cahill, in which students work through a series of ten steps, each centered on a specific skill, at their own pace (thus, after the first class or two, the class is a one-room schoolhouse, with students working on different steps and doing different sorts of activities at the same time based on each student’s own needs). [see: Ann Cahil’s Critical Thinking syllabus and her co-authored article with Stephen Bloch-Schulman].
In one How Should We Live? class, students work in groups to develop philosophic expertise in topics that they choose; they are given individual reading assignments based on the group’s conversation and interests. [see: Ann Cahill’s How Should We Live assignment].