Friday, September 13, 2013

How to teach intro to philosophy

A better title might be how I teach intro to philosophy. In general, I see the intro to philosophy course as a way of teaching students how to engage primary sources of philosophy in reading, writing, and talking. As such, I don't see the principle purpose of the course is to introduce students to the various subfields within philosophy. So, in terms of syllabus design, I usually pair a reading from the canonical tradition with a text that is usually at least a little outside of the canonical tradition. This has two important consequences: (1) It really helps to get the students in the work of comparing and contrasting works we read. In an intro class, that sort of work could be something that needs scaffolding, and starting with the syllabus really helps. (2) It gives the students a large breadth in philosophy. So they see that philosophy can be produced outside of the 1.5 million or so square miles that usually comprise the production of most texts read in intro classes. So, if I was to teach an intro class tomorrow, it would probably look something like this (excluding departmental demands):

Block One:
Plato's Crito and Apology. These are both fairly classical texts in intro to philosophy.
We move from the Apology of Plato's Socrates, to the apology, the closing statements, of the Russian punk feminist band Pussy Riot (their closing statements can be found here). These statements, which are explicitly philosophical, also help contemporize Plato's own work. From Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's closing statement: "We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk."
We move from Pussy Riot, to Henry Oruka "Sage Philosophy" and "Philosophical Sagacity in African Philosophy" (h/t to Peter Gratton for the Oruka suggestion). Oruka's work on Sage Philosophy is obviously contrasted to the the punk sensibilities of Plato's Socrates and Pussy Riot.

Block Two:
We read Plato's The Symposium. Again, a traditional reading in intro to philosophy classes.
We move from that text to John Cameron Mitchell's film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The film obviously references Aristophanes' talk in "The Origin of Love", and in general you can read the film as commentary on The Symposium.
However, both of those texts focus on gay male or heterosexual love. So we move to Maria Lugones' essay "Playfulness, "World"-Traveling, and Loving Perception". While not an necessarily a contrast with the previous texts, Lugones provides us with another iteration, in a different direction, on the thematic of love.

Block Three:
We start with Descartes' Mediations, again a traditional text in intro to philo courses.
(Depending on the time, we might watch The Matrix).
We then pair Descartes with Shankara's The Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (h/t to Jason Wirth for this suggestion). Shankara is a nondualist Indian philosopher, and his views of reality and nondualism contrast with Descartes. His views of students and teachers is also a good place to revisit the question of the practice of being a philosopher that we had explored in block one, this time adding the ideas of Descartes' methodologies and Shankara's notions of discipleship.

Block Four
These three texts probably get taught equally in intro classes, but they work so well together.
(1) Nietzsche's The Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life.
(2) Simone de Beauvoir's introduction and conclusion to The Second Sex.
(3) William James' The Will to Believe.

So, a few questions for you, dear readers. (1) How do you approach your intro to philo courses? (2) What texts do you find pair well? Are there obvious pairing that I am missing? (3) Any major criticisms here?