I structure my courses so as to equip and invite students to participate in an ongoing conversation. To promote an inclusive atmosphere and make sure students benefit from their time in philosophy courses, I prioritize and foster collegiality, friendliness, and receptiveness to other perspectives and interests, while encouraging students to articulate and present reasons for their own views. From the first day of class, my students are encouraged to inquire about theoretical implications, play devil’s advocate, and to explore issues from different angles. This gets them to practice philosophy as active participants, not mere passive observers. I am proud when I hear from students that I “made every individual feel comfortable with voicing their opinions”, that “a very comfortable learning atmosphere allowed more discussion”, and that “discussions were something to look forward to”.
Class meetings are structured to foster a participatory atmosphere by treating spoken contributions on a par with submitting written work. Each student is required to contribute regularly to the discussion, which is achieved by having part of the students’ course grade devoted to in-class activities, both in small groups and class wide discussions. This helps shy students to feel less singled out and prevents naturally talkative students from dominating the discussion. They explore all stages of inquiry: asking questions, explaining concepts, raising objections, and defending claims. Since these are basic components of constructing an argument, students who have practiced these in class end up performing better on written assignments.
The class wide discussions offer me the opportunity to demonstrate the process of developing an idea from inception to a full argument. By using the whiteboard to keep track of ideas as they develop, the students can assist me in the process of revising, editing and refining arguments, in a collaborative process that involves the whole class. This encourages students to figure out answers and learn how to refine and express their ideas clearly and succinctly, rather than just passively copying down prepared notes.
An important part of a university education consists in learning to read and make sense of complex and dense writing. I assign primary texts whenever possible. Handouts and multimedia presentations are used, where appropriate, to look closely at particular passages, which helps to develop critical reading skills, and also ensures that students unfamiliar with philosophical writing have the resources to make sense of the texts, and to read generously but critically.
The Socratic method is used to encourage spontaneous and free-flowing discussions while anchoring each class discussion in concrete examples. Class meetings typically start by introducing examples, often drawn from the week’s reading. For example, when discussing Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures, I open class by asking students, with a show of hands, to indicate whether they’d choose to become a “lower” animal, like a hamster, in exchange for a guaranteed full share of hamster pleasures. Opening with a good, compelling example allows everyone to understand the primary issues involved in an argument, and is instrumental in producing an active discussion.
These examples are often brought back into play in written assignments, as well: students conclude one unit of my ethics class by writing papers explaining why they would (or would not) choose to be turned into hamsters, drawing on Mill and Bentham to support their thesis. Students are introduced to and evaluated on methods of presenting evidence, providing reasons for their conclusions, and exploring and responding to objections. By using a class structure that includes students in each step of the process of developing and defending a coherent, plausible argument, they finish the course equipped to participate in philosophical conversations in a variety of contexts.