Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Given that Cavendish has been getting a lot of love around here (and rightly so!), I thought readers of this blog might like to know that there will be a teaching edition of Margaret Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy published by Hackett (and edited by me).

I alluded to this in an earlier post asking what early modern texts are most in need of teaching editions. And I’m glad to see that I don’t need to make the case for the value of such an edition, which would make it easier to include her in early modern survey courses. Unfortunately, though, it likely won’t be available until 2016.

And if you are unfamiliar with Hackett’s series of teaching editions of key early modern texts, I’d recommend taking a look!

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How To Teach Modern Philosophy

There have been several wonderful discussions here about teaching modern philosophy. Lewis has posted on this topic several times, as has Tim Yenter. The discussions in the comments on each of these four posts are also really lively and interesting. I myself have posted on this topic.

I’m indebted to these discussions in my recent essay, “How To Teach Modern Philosophy,” which appeared in the journal Teaching Philosophy. I can’t be sure, but it may also be the first time The Mod Squad has appeared in the notes or bibliography of a journal article!  In any event, I thought that the Mod Squad community might find the article to be of some use.  Here’s the abstract:

This essay presents the challenges facing those preparing to teach the history of modern philosophy and proposes some solutions. I first discuss the course goals for such a course, as well as the particular methodological challenges of teaching a history of modern philosophy course. Next a standard set of thinkers, readings, and themes is presented, followed by some alternatives. I then argue that one ought to diversify one’s syllabus beyond the canonical set of six or seven white men. As a first step toward that goal, I propose several ways to include women philosophers in the syllabus. I then lay out assignments and in-class activities that aid students toward the course goals. I conclude with a consideration of the challenges and rewards of teaching modern philosophy.

As I am always looking to improve my teaching, I’d be delighted if anyone has feedback.  Thanks (and apologies for the self-promoting nature of this and my next post!).

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As a follow-up to Lewis’s post on Early Modern Survey Courses, which has an an excellent discussion in the comments, I thought I would pose a narrower question.

How do you teach the rationalism-empiricism distinction in your survey course?

Do you structure your class around the distinction, reading the rationalists together and the empiricists together? Does Kant save the day? Do you avoid the distinction? Do you teach separate courses on rationalist and empiricist thinkers? Do you emphasize some other distinction or a network of issues?

I wonder if, even though many of us don’t find the distinction very useful in our own research, we might still find it a useful heuristic for students first encountering early modern thought.

My version of the survey course would seem, on a brief scan, to divide roughly into rationalists and empiricists, but I don’t present the class this way. In fact, about midway through I give a 10 minute talk about “rationalism vs. empiricism.” I tell them that people will expect them to be able to discuss our figures along this line after they leave this course, here are 6 or 8 different things that people sometimes mean by that distinction (each of which draws the line differently), and here are a few reasons for thinking the distinction is not particularly helpful or deep.

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For the first few years after receiving my PhD, I largely followed what I perceived to be the “canon” when teaching the history of modern philosophy: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant — with the emphases on Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Since then, however, I’ve tried in various ways to challenge that canon in my teaching, but I have found it to be difficult to do well. In this post I’d like to share my current strategy toward this goal. My purpose here is not to condemn those who teach in that (usually epistemology focused) style, but only to provide a picture of what I am doing currently, in the hopes that it might be useful for others — and to get some feedback on how to improve it!When I first sat down to rethink my modern syllabus, I made a list of thinkers I would like to include, if time were not a factor. The list was over 20 thinkers long. Given that I also like to focus in some depth on at least a few texts, I knew that I couldn’t devote class time or assignments to nearly that many. I couldn’t find a principled way to narrow the list in a way that would at the same time present some of the important philosophical developments of the period while also providing debates that hung together thematically in some sense. I also didn’t want to fall back into a narrative that pretends the conversation was all and only about the mind-body problem, or the problem of knowledge, or even just the nature of state sovereignty, to name a few themes around one which could structure such a course.

I realized that what I wanted to do most was to convey all of it — the richness, diversity, and, at times, strangeness of the philosophical discussions that developed in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was that diversity and richness of thought, above all, that I resented having to exclude from my previous courses. So here’s what I’m trying now.

I have a fairly standard series of thinkers and texts assigned that will serve as the basis for essays and discussion, but, in addition, each student is assigned one of those 20 or so “secondary” thinkers. The student then has the responsibility to serve as the advocate for that thinker in our class.

At the beginning of the term, I ask the student to complete a lighthearted survey of their opinions on a variety of relevant issues, from their thoughts on the nature of the mind-body relation to their preferred vacation spot — Paris or London? Or Connecticut? They also indicate their majors and other interests. I take these results and try to match up the students with the thinkers.

Sometimes the matching is easy — a student interested in feminism? How about Wollstonecraft? A chemistry major? Boyle. And so on. Other times the matches are looser, but I allow students to swap or plead for a different thinker, and so on. The point, really, is to get them invested in their thinker.

That way, some of the diversity of the period gets represented, each of the students get to attain some expertise (she’ll be the resident expert on her thinker), and it will also invest the student in the period — she’ll have a horse in the race, so to speak. I find that this helps to enliven the material for the students.

First I have the students write a short assignment simply summarizing some of the main arguments of their thinker. They then take that knowledge into their encounters with the “primary” thinkers for the class — Descartes and the canonical gang. In their later essay assignments, I ask them not only to present and evaluate, say, the Cartesian method of doubt, but also invite them to speculate as to what their thinker might say in response to the method. Next, after having created this dialectic between primary and secondary thinker, I ask them to weigh in on the debate. That way, they not only get an idea of the argument of the primary thinker, but they also have to think about that argument in dialogue with other philosophers of the period. Finally, they engage the arguments from their own perspective, offering critiques, rebuttals, or whatever.

With each major unit, I include lectures and readings on both the M&E and the value theory from the thinkers in question. Students are asked to choose one or the other to address in their essays; that way they usually have little trouble finding some point of agreement or disagreement between their secondary thinkers and the primary thinker in question.

I’ve tried this once so far and the students loved it. It may be that his kind of approach works well here at Wellesley College but may not elsewhere — I don’t know. In any event, I’m excited to try it again this term.

I’ll end with two questions. First, how do those of you who teach modern philosophy deal with the “problem of the canon,” if you take it to be a problem at all? Second, what are your thoughts on my solution?

Finally, for your enjoyment, here is the list of secondary thinkers my students represented last term (the primary thinkers are the canonical seven listed above). Feel free to comment on my selection as well. Who am I missing?

1. Mary Astell
2. Francis Bacon
3. Robert Boyle
4. Joseph Butler
5. Margaret Cavendish
6. Catherine Trotter Cockburn
7. Anne Conway
8. Jonathan Edwards
9. Thomas Hobbes
10. Julien La Mettrie
11. Nicolas Malebranche
12. Damaris Masham
13. Isaac Newton
14. Blaise Pascal
15. Thomas Reid
16. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
17. Adam Smith
18. Henry Thiry, Baron D’Holbach
19. Voltaire
20. Mary Wollstonecraft


ADDENDUM:  To be clear, I do not take the list above to be a comprehensive account of the significant thinkers in the period.  Indeed, many of the noticeable omissions from my original list were left off simply because there are no easily accessible and representative e-texts or reliable encyclopedia entries that I knew of.  Student accessibility was my aim, not some kind of historical comprehensiveness — I was shooting for a pedagogical tool, not an exclusively scholarly one.  For those kinds of things, I’d recommend Nadler’s Companion to Early Modern Philosophy from Blackwell, Atherton’s Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, and similar works.

Finally, in order to allow students to become familiar with their assigned thinker as easily as possible, I provide to them a  short introductory document that contains a brief overview of each thinker, excerpted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or if there is no entry there, then from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (and in one case I fall back on Wikipedia).  In addition to links to the encyclopedia entries, I also include links to some web accessible and somewhat representative e-texts.  Usually those links are to Bennett’s earlymoderntexts.com or the electronic edition of Atherton’s text, which is available to my students through the Wellesley library’s website.  That way the students do not need to do research or library work on their own to find their texts, nor do they need to purchase anything.  Again, I want the students to get engaged with the relevant concepts and arguments as quickly and easily as possible, which is why I do it this way.

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I’m posting this in the hopes of starting some discussion on the questions:

1) What are some good approaches to teaching history of philosophy?

2) What are some distinctive potential challenges associated with teaching history of philosophy?

3) What are some of the distinctive potential benefits for students of taking history of philosophy courses?

While those questions aren’t specifically about teaching the history of modern philosophy, my views (which, I should add, are still in the process of forming) are based only on experience teaching history of modern, and I imagine that, say, Medieval and Ancient philosophy, have some of their own distinctive challenges and benefits.  I should also note that I don’t really regard anything I am about to say as especially novel or inventive, but I am hoping that it can be a good starting point for some discussion.

I tend to like the metaphor of the philosopher’s toolbox.  These tools include things like formulating deductively valid arguments, engaging with thought experiments, coming up with counter-examples, and so on.  One tool that I think sometimes does not get the attention it deserves, and which classes in historical philosophy are especially suited to help students develop, is that of charitable interpretation.

I don’t think that there is anything shocking or revolutionary in the observation that historical texts are a good training ground for developing one’s skill at being a charitable interpreter.  It is not uncommon for views we encounter in such texts to strike us as prima facie ridiculous or absurd.  But that sets us up to ask a) whether our first glance understanding of the views is correct in the first place and, perhaps more importantly, b) what aims/objectives and background assumptions would make these views look appealing.

So, apart from gaining familiarity with the views of whatever figures we are covering, and getting a sense of the philosophical debates that were going on, one of my main goals is to help students develop their skill at viewing various issues from some seemingly alien perspectives, and developing an understanding of how to best spell out the positions and arguments adopted by figures with those perspectives.

The associated challenge is to get students who are disposed to react to the texts with dismissiveness or confused frustration past those initial reactions, so that they can engage with the text and start building their interpretive muscles; to get them to see the oddities of the texts as footholds for helping them figure out what questions they should be asking about the text, rather than as barriers to understanding the text.

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