The following speech was delivered in a slightly altered form at the APA Central Division meetings held in Louisville, Kentucky on April 25, 1992. The session, chaired by Professor Martin Benjamin, offered three invited presentations on the nature of introductory philosophy and was sponsored by the Central Conference on Teaching Philosophy. Though I put the speech aside for several years, it occurred to me recently that with modest editing and a few added references this might be a suitable piece for an informal forum such as this. And, though the pedagogical references throughout are to my introductory philosophy course, I think that it is possible that many lower-division humanities courses could take the same approach with the same potential benefits--and risks--as my own.
DOCTORING 101 STRANGELY, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP BOMBING AND LOVE THE WORRY
V. Alan White
University of Wisconsin--Manitowoc
My title should tell you a couple of things. One is that, if you haven't read the program closely enough to be wary, now that I've read my garish title to you, it's too late to leave the room unobtrusively. Another is that, although I want to tell you quite seriously about how I teach Philosophy 101, I intend to do so in a fashion that might well put strain on your good sense of metaphor and analogy, if not also your acquaintance with popular culture. But invitations to torment so many distinguished colleagues who have volunteered for the experience are hard to come by these days, and so I intend to relish mine.
While finishing my Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, I was hired by the University of Wisconsin Colleges, which is a collection of thirteen two-year campuses strewn around the state serving as feeder institutions for Madison and the other four-year campuses. I rather like referring to the UW Colleges as the M*A*S*H units of the University of Wisconsin--we specialize in a form of brain triage (pardon my eliminative materialism), operating mostly on the middle-to-lower quartiles of high school graduates. The ones not too badly damaged and those we patch together go on to more refined institutions; the others, unfortunately do not. Of course the metaphor snaps right there: an increasing part of our educational enterprise is concerned with returning adults who wish to further their education, and our accessibility and low tuition make us ideal for that student population.
However, to attempt to repair the metaphor a bit, there are other similarities of the University of Wisconsin Colleges to M*A*S*H units. We in the UW Colleges do our work on the gritty, everyday front-line of collegiate education. We are--naturally--underfunded, horribly compensated, overburdened, and ignored as much as possible by the higher echelons of University of Wisconsin. But like the repetitive, meatball surgery done by Hawkeye and Houlahan, teaching as many as four or five (or even six!) sections of Introduction to Philosophy a year can make you or break you. In nearly eighteen years of my tenure in the UW Colleges, I have taught somewhere between 60-70 sections of 101--more than a lifetime's worth for many Professors. I have come to report to you today that I have not only survived in these circumstances, but that I have learned something from them. I have learned to doctor the introductory course so that it not only seems to benefit my students, but remains a constant source of challenge and satisfaction for me (I bet you didn't think I really could wrench sense from my title! And I'm not done with it either, believe it or not.).
But I really would give you a mistaken impression if I compared myself too closely with Hawkeye Pierce ala Alan Alda (though we do share the same first name). Hawkeye, as you know, is a brilliant and ever-resourceful professional who stays right on top of his work. And then there's me. I have to confess, as I have done elsewhere, that the way I teach 101 now is perhaps more the result of adaptive pressures in the classroom than any pedagogical élan of mine.
Specifically, early in my career I taught a fairly standard intro course based on the traditional topical approach. In the course of a semester I'd cover most of a topical anthology with a mixture of objective and essay evaluation. After not many semesters at UW, however, I could see that neither I nor my students were getting much out of 101. In the usual professorial fashion, of course I entirely blamed everything on students who seemed ill prepared for collegiate learning. And somewhat like British colonialists speaking to heathen foreigners, the first thing to try was to slow down. Instead of covering most of the text, why not just pick three or four interesting topics and dwell on those? So I tried that, and voila!, meager success was mine. Objective test scores improved and class discussion was a bit more satisfactory. However, the essays didn't improve much, and frankly I still got the impression that they just weren't learning what philosophical thinking was all about. So naturally I reactively took the next logical step--BRITISH ACCENT: perhaps they'll comprehend if I just speak simply and more slowly--I cut the topics down to just a couple. Now I was teaching, for example, a section on philosophy of religion and one on free will, and covering about a dozen or so articles. Students were definitely comprehending more of what they read, and I could see more lights turning on in class, but student writing still was unacceptable in quality and pointedly unphilosophical.
It was somewhere at this point of the evolution of things that late one night a black rectangular monolith must have appeared at the foot of my bed with loud strains of Strauss' Zarathustra booming in the background, for I actually began to think about the purpose of 101. And I began to ask myself, what should students really come away with? It became apparent to me that this latter question was already being partly answered in the evolution of my 101 course to this point: I wanted my students to become better and clearer thinkers, more appreciative of the subtleties and pleasures of philosophy. Why not design the course so that Intro students have a chance to become significantly involved in doing philosophy--to let them become philosophers, at least of a sort? Weren't they in fact doing better with a focus on fewer topics? Then why not restrict their focus further to only a single topic! And thus my present approach was born.
So I started to reconstruct my course appropriately. First I needed a topic. My early efforts involved teaching the free will problem, which seemed to work all right, but I experimented with others too, including one semester on the concept of identity. (That failed miserably, despite my endless puzzling about whether the transporter on board the Enterprise was in fact a Kirk-transporter or a Kirk-destroyer-replicator. (Years before Picard and Janeway, you see.) Nothing seemed to work as well as a course on free will, however. The reason for this is that free will stands out as one of those immortal fascinations--how we think about human freedom entails much about how we think about ourselves and the significance of our lives. The lesson here is that the kind of course I propose must examine such a fundamental concept or problem to hope to hold student attention throughout the semester. In addition, I particularly like the free will problem because it is amenable to a fairly clear and concise logical presentation. I have taught the course for about ten years as a free will-focused course, and it continues to work so well that I am reluctant at present to consider changing topics.
Secondly, I needed to revise evaluation in order to place greater emphasis on critical writing. Since my then-wife was a first-rate instructor in writing at the University of Wisconsin--Green Bay, I enlisted her assistance. We came up with a series of assigned-topic papers--anywhere from three to six--which helps students think through certain crucial junctures of the free will problem in a progressive way, paralleling the curriculum. Thus, the first paper is always purely expository on something like the logical structure of the dilemma of determinism. The next paper might focus on inductive arguments for the determinism of human nature, and request an analysis of their strengths and defects. The third might explore the conceptual foundations of compatibilism and incompatibilism, and so on. But the last paper is always the students' defense of one view against the others, with an additional section on how their preferred view would require societal change--they finally get the chance to show me that they have become minor philosophical experts on free will. Though constantly revised through the years, I must say that I have become quite satisfied with this interventionist approach to teaching philosophical writing. And no--it's not the panacea, and yes, some students still just don't get it. By the way, I still give objective exams--including a final--which I have found keeps a sobering check on my congenital tendency toward grade inflation.
Now that you see basically how my 101 came to be and how it's structured, let's get on with a few gory details. I rely on a fairly traditional lecture-discussion format, with the students reading primary texts on free will from an ordinary topical anthology (in recent years I have added Thomas Nagel's What Does It All Mean? as a nod to heterogeneity). However, whereas a few years ago I assigned ten to fifteen articles across the semester interspersed with my own lecture material thrown in to connect them, I now have expanded my own contributions through xerox and lecture so that I assign as few as a half-dozen articles besides. (Before you ask, yes, I am in the process of writing a full-fledged text, tentatively entitledFree Will from the Ground Up. Though PLEASE don't now compare my speech to those obnoxious half-hour infomercials on television.) I think it important to immerse students in the works of philosophers directly, but it is equally important to show how these works relate to one another in deep, meaningful, and critical ways. Much of my own material in the course therefore is expository, but it also explores many tangential issues in ways which invoke direct comparison of different philosopher's views on free will.
No doubt many of you have concluded, as one colleague of mine recently did, that what I have done, in effect, is disposed of 101, replacing it with an upper division course which I foist upon unsuspecting freshman. Not so. 101 ought to be a course that introduces philosophy, which I take means that it shows students what philosophy is about, and my 101 does that. But rather than broadly surveying philosophers and philosophies, it shows them broadly how to be philosophical about a very difficult but important problem. And if you think that's all I wish to accomplish--teach them to think well about the free will problem--I'd like to correct that impression, too. For one, my hope is that my students develop thinking skills trying to solve one difficult problem which can be transferred to other thorny issues in their lives. And while it's true I use a single topic to focus my students philosophically throughout the semester, it is not to the exclusion of other significant philosophical issues which intersect with that problem. For example, in the course of teaching free will I also make excursions into matters of axiology (e.g., value components of conceptions of free will), philosophy of language (how does the term "free will" properly refer?), philosophy of science (Humean causation), moral and legal philosophy (what are the conceptual foundations of social and legal justice?), and so on. And I make it very clear to my students about what I'm doing in these excursions: threading a Quinean web with the free will problem as the central orb, demonstrating that the content of what one thinks here may well have logical ramifications over there.
I imagine that you might have other qualms as well. Usually 101 is thought to be the Grand Central Station of philosophy in the context of the broader curriculum. By this I mean that students visit the station and spend quite a while studying maps, schedules, and the routing board to get an idea of where all the subdisciplines of philosophy might take them. Many, maybe most, simply then leave the station, supposedly better educated for having the tour. Others will return to take the Ethics 3:05, or the Logic 2:11, the idea being that they then know very well what their destination is, because they've seen the brochures both for where they're headed, and where they're not. My course, on the other hand, zips them right through the station and plops them on a train. Sure, they get a nice, long ride, but then it's back to the station and out the door. Will they want to take one of the other trains, and will they be prepared enough for those other itineraries if they do?
Yes, to mercifully depart from this analogy, my students do seem to wish to take other philosophy courses beyond 101, and yes, they seem at least as well prepared to do so as students who have had more traditional survey 101s. If anecdotal evidence is of any merit--and I distrust it utterly--prior to my shifting to the single-topic course I had no students who went on to other campuses to major in philosophy (that's about four years total). But since having taught 101 a Sinatraesque "My Way" for about 13 years, I've had dozens of students do just that. No doubt there are several factors at work to explain this fact, but at least this tends to indicate that my intro course doesn't severely compromise students in their further pursuit of philosophy.
On the other hand, and despite my title for this presentation, please do not think that I believe my approach is perfect, and that I always adore teaching it, or that I think I've invented the Ginsu knife of introductory philosophy pedagogy. There are days when Professor and students alike are thoroughly sick of free will (though perhaps not by their own choice). And even when I'm enjoying the class (and most times I am), I am occasionally struck with the nagging thought that I am not doing enough in my class to meet my students' profound needs for cultural and historical enrichment. These are times that--in keeping with the Dr. Strangelove theme of my title--I feel that my approach may not be restricted-topic philosophy so much as "Slim Pickens," with me self-deceptively whooping it up in class, a loose-gun, teaching cowboy, while actually "bombing" terribly. (Hey--I warned you!)
But such misgivings are the bane of any instructor who mulls over his or her teaching. I depart my 101 class sessions more often satisfied than not; my feelings of satisfaction on those days are held a bit more confidently now than they used to be. Certainly I cannot envision returning to a historical or topical survey, despite the fact that those courses supply learning opportunities that mine cannot. But the overall purpose of my course at least dovetails with the spirit of what I once recommended to my Chancellor as the only mode of student evaluation that should be acceptable for philosophy courses, which I dubbed the Socratic student evaluation. That is, our final success or failure in teaching philosophy is really only to be judged by the quality of our students' obituaries. (It's okay, my Chancellor didn't think it was funny either.) Honesty requires me to state, of course, that from this Socratic perspective, no class that I teach can assure that my students' final destinations in life are satisfying and worthy. But my single-topic introductory course can at least put them on an interesting train of thought, and if I'm a bit lucky, it can also show them how to hop others. With these life-traveler's skills, they do stand a better chance of knowing where they wish to go beyond the classroom, and where they might best avoid going. And most importantly, being aware that there's a difference between the two.