Signature Pedagogies

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Philosophy @ Elon

Goals

Elon’s philosophy department seeks to develop and practice pedagogical approaches that draw from and connect meaningfully and substantially with students’ lived experiences [see: our department’s “An Unfinished Manifesto for Philosophy as Transformative Practice“]. The department is committed to philosophy as a transformative practice. To that end, the department has identified multiple goals that inform our pedagogical approaches.

We view our students as on a journey and a developmental path, and we want to conduct ourselves, our classes, and our extra-curricular engagements with our students in a way that honors, respects and enables each student. This manifests itself (in part) as a consistent honoring of where that student is on their journey with an awareness of their interests and struggles. That is, we want to enable philosophy as an internal resource of insight, critical perspective and as something that authentically enhances that student’s journey and life. We also aim to embody philosophy as a way of dwelling and as a lived experience. In our view, no discourse that calls itself philosophical can be separated from the philosophical life, just as there is no philosophical life that is not intimately linked to philosophical discourse. Philosophical discourse and life inform each other. Philosophy is not merely a system to ingest but an invitation to a new form of life, active reflection, and vibrant wisdom and because life is lived with others, philosophy is best pursued in dialogue and community.

For example, we consistently invite students into the process of making meaning. Reading a text then becomes an opportunity to connect the philosophical material to their own lived experience, to their own developmental quests, and to the communities of which they are a part. In this and in other modes, we aspire to a consistently invitational mode; our goal is to encourage students by welcoming them into conversations, ideas, the ways of living philosophically. This commitment is present in the tone we use in class, how we write syllabi and how we think of our role as mentors who hope students will find philosophy rich, rewarding, generative and downright fun.

Simultaneously, we emphasize that our students’ 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 interests and needs of the communities in which we are located. To do philosophy, we hold, is simultaneously to work with, in and for community, and to clarify and understand one’s own responsibilities to collective action.

Signature Pedagogies

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 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. Click on the (plus) tab to see examples of each.

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).

Examples:

In this 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]

In this How Should We Live course, 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]

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.)

As this How Should We Live? class focuses on the “we,” the community in the title, Ryan Johnson asks students not only to read about the concept of “community” but to enact community, to become-community. As on form of community decision-making practice students and the faculty member co-construct the exams (see: Ryan Johnson’s co-constructed exams in How Should We Live?)

Teaching and textbooks as an extension of practice – toward philosophical engagement as the reconstruction of practice

In our “Unfinished Manifesto” for Philosophy as a Transformative Practice, we write: “We wish to reclaim the spirit of philosophy that John Dewey described: as a “dramatic, restless, co-operative, inquiring” practice in which even “the highest flight of metaphysics always terminates with a social and practical turn.”  Thus we call for the return of [philosophy] as a practical instrument or function for the reconstruction of daily life, as an articulation of and practice in human thriving, and as an antidote for the banality of evil. Philosophy’s purpose and promise is to render life more fully, existentially livable, richer in its possibilities, brimming with integrity and curiosity, acutely sensitive to its challenges and demands and delights. Members of the department have produced a variety of textbooks that represent philosophy in this spirit – both 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.

Examples:

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.”

Other books by Anthony Weston are written in a similar spirit: A Rulebook for Arguments; A Practical Companion to Ethics; Creativity for Critical Thinkers and Creative Problem-Solving in Ethics.

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.

Stephen Bloch-Schulman and Anthony Weston are currently working on a textbook intended for introductory students on how to ask questions and how to respond to questions, with the working title: Thinking Through Questions.

Collaboration

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.

Examples:

In the Methods of Philosophical Inquiry class, 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.]

Stephen Bloch-Schulman co-teaches 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 loc al democracy. [see: Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s syllabus and article 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 article “Teaching as the Art of Staging”, forthcoming].

Scaffolding Student Work and Feedback Loops

Assignments in philosophy classes often include a reiterative 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.

Examples:

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 Philosophical Methods class.]

This year’s Senior Seminar includs subassignments for annotated bibliography entries, an introduction/outline, a proposal (presented to the department and to the philosopher whose work made up the core text for the class), a full draft and a final paper, ready to be submitted to an undergraduate journal [see: Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s Senior Seminar Syllabus].

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.

Examples:

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].

Belonging and Captivity is an upper-level philosophy class that explores contemporary issues of captivity for people and for animals, and provides perspective on how belonging is compromised or deepened as a basic value. Though factory farms and mass incarceration have very different frameworks and histories, institutionalizing mass confinement as a solution to life’s problems deserves attention. [see: Martin Folwer’s Belonging and Captivity course syllabus and his text “You Always Belonged and You Always Will: A Philosophy of Belonging”].

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 we Skyped 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].

External Assessment

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.

Examples:

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].

In a Critical Thinking course, students are guided to select a topic and try to write a letter that gets published in a daily newspaper.  The idea is to (1) have them join an on-going conversation, (2) to succinctly express their point of view with a solid argument backing it up, and (3) think about and cope with the editor’s decision procedure. [see: Nim Batchelor’s letter-to-the-editor 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].

Permeable Boundaries

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

Examples:

Senior Seminar 2016: Gastrosophia is a class that seeks 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].

In the fall 2017 Modern Philosophy class, students were invited to, and did, initiate a “book club” to which they would invite students from across campus.; see also cross-pollinating.

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 forthcoming 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.”

Examples:

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 teaches stage a variety of scenarios in which students are 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 course syllabus].

Contemplative Practices

Contemplative practices, carefully chosen, and followed with reflection, allow students insight into how they know the world or how they occupy unacknowledged perspectives in their personal relationships. These practices themselves are not discursive but rather a structured and open-ended form of guided experience.

Examples:

Martin Fowler takes the time and effort in many of his classes to help students prepare themselves for learning by engaging in some contemplative practices prior to class.  [see: his Handbook of Contemplative Practices.]

Classes may include  “a wide range of structured experiences in and outside the classroom including solitary silent existential challenges, or non-verbal communal contemplation. The best contemplation is not escapist but is full engagement with the world in ways which restore and free us. (link to Martin’s and Anthony’s classes)

Historical Thinking

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. Focusing on the historical situatedness of ideas, we help students thereby think historically.

Examples:

In the most recent iteration of the 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].

Reflection

Coming to terms with one’s experience in constructive and insightful ways is a challenging form of second-order thinking.

Examples:

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.)

Civic Engagement

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.

Examples:

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].

Mentoring

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.

Examples:
In collaboration with several members of the department, a former student–Claire A. Lockard–wrote and published a paper entitled “Unhappy Confessions: The Temptation of Admitting to White Privilege” in Feminist Philosophy Quarterly.

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.

Embodiment

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.

Examples:

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].

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”].

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.

Examples:

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].

Cross-Pollinating

We do not think of the learning that occurs in the department as having been siloed into classes, and we often encourage students to work on projects for more than one class at a time.

Examples:

We are open to, and encouraging, of students writing work that engages with, and counts for, more than one class. For example, 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, Ann Cahill Ethical Practice syllabus and Stephen Bloch-Schulman’s Ethical Practice syllabus].

The Philosophy Department as a Community of Pedagogical Practice

By and large, teaching is not understood as an individual undertaking; faculty members view themselves as pedagogues who enjoy talking with others about teaching and recognize that we have much to learn from each other.  To continue to develop these, and other, pedagogical practices that best serve our students and their learning, the department has a long-standing history of collaborations and discussions about teaching. Along with informal on-going conversations, many of these discussions take place in our biweekly pedagogy lunches, which are informal, voluntary gatherings to discuss challenges and successes in classes that are currently underway. The department also has long seen its senior seminar as a collective enterprise; while there is a single instructor of record, all faculty members are expected to be available as resources for the students as they write a substantial, original philosophical essay, and all faculty members take part in a conference that highlights the seniors’ work. We also frequently invite each other to visit each other’s classes in a variety of roles (including for “Philosophical Survivor”, wherein we all enact a philosopher that students have studied; student panels pose questions and the class “votes” one philosopher off the island each round until only one is left).  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. [see: our Diversity Infusion Project web site].

Based on and due to these habits of collectively working on pedagogical innovation, faculty have worked together to present and publish articles on philosophy, pedagogy, and foster a community of practice, where pedagogical innovation, exploration and growth are seen as the hallmarks of departmental citizenship.