Phil 101
May 14, 2012 12:35 PM   Subscribe

What were your experiences with philosophy courses like in university, non-philosophy majors?

I teach philosophy courses at the second and third-year levels at a research university. My students are a healthy mix of philosophy majors, minors, and people taking the courses as electives.

As I try to teach in a way that connects with all of them, I'm struggling to recall what it was like before I majored in philosophy and got my Ph.D. I'm also wondering what philosophy courses are like for people who aren't intending to major in the field at all.

I do have a good sense of the various difficulties that philosophy assignments can present to students with different backgrounds. What I'm more interested in is what students personally think about the subject matter--the specific way philosophers have of approaching things, and so on. Did you find it fascinating, infuriating, revealing, disappointing? If you just took a philosophy class or two, what were your experiences of the philosophy department?
posted by Beardman to Education (31 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
One of the things I found frustrating as a non-major taking philosophy courses was (in those pre-Internet days) the lack of resources to "catch up" on prior work in a field. If I could go back in time and ask those professors for a favor, it would be a set of suggestions for, and pointers to, reliable overviews of the different areas of philosophy under discussion.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:41 PM on May 14, 2012

Not to bum you out or anything, but my school had a Critical Thinking component that required a semsester of Philosophy or something similar. I chose instead to read a textbook and test out of the subject.

Philosophy is so specific to those interested in the subject and it bored me to tears.

What is your feedback from your students? A good teacher can make anything interesting, case in point, Geography of Ethnic Neighborhoods, for my Diversity components (welcome to the California State University system!) I thought I'd hate it and it was great!

Are your students engaged? Do you lecture or do you mix it up with exercises and labs?

Just some thoughts.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:43 PM on May 14, 2012

I found it fascinating, but I am weird like that and usually the teacher's pet (because teachers and librarians are freaking awesome). I definitely saw other people roll their eyes when forced to just think about something that wasn't going to get them money or be instantly practical. But for me, I liked the presentation of things as a problem. So with Descartes, my philosophy professor would talk about how would you know if things you experience were real, or just fabricated. It would start off as a critical thinking exercise. It also helped when there was an event nearby (a formal debate about the existence of god) that my professor suggested we could attend. And maybe part of what helped him (with me at least) was the way he related all the material but presented it as if he was just finding out about it himself. Something about the way he asked questions and presented the material had the air of "does anybody know? you could have some novel thought that will solve this problem."
posted by cashman at 12:47 PM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

What helped me was the professor reminding me it was about logically thinking about the questions, not trying to come up with the "correct " answer. Seems self-evident but no.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:49 PM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm going back about 20 years, but I took a 101-level class as part of my BA program and thought it was pretty interesting stuff. Two of the textbooks we used were Six Great Ideas (by Adler, which I no longer own) and Philosophy and Contemporary Issues (which, inexplicably, I do).

Like just about all undergrad work, the more you put into the class work (which was all discussion-based), the more you got out of it.
posted by jquinby at 12:50 PM on May 14, 2012

I really enjoyed my first couple of philosophy classes in college, to the point where I planned to be a major. But I ultimately quit once I got enough credits for a minor, since I was frustrated with how irrelevant the classes felt. (Granted, I wound up with an English major instead so I may not be one to talk about relevancy.) I was much happier with discussing big questions about the meaning of life and art and so forth (cliche as that sounds) or even with the straightforwardness of my logic class than with debating which particular philosophical term best applied to a work of literature.

Another problem for me was some of the other philosophy students, who were very dismissive of anyone who wasn't into the same cognitive-science worldview that they were. I wound up preferring my classes which were more Socratic call-and-response to the ones which were purely student discussion.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:51 PM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

The 101 course I took was a one size fits all kind of thing that could be used to satisfy humanities credits or be the prerequisite for upper level PHIL classes. I found it terribly boring to memorize which man was involved in which particular movement and then just regurgitate that on a test with hardly any synthesis. I suppose knowing the historical movements is a useful framework for more serious study, but for those not going on to upper level Philosophy courses it should have been more tailored towards understanding practical aspects of philosophy and the language tools that one can obtain from it.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:52 PM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I talked my way into an 200-level course on Existentialist Philosophy because I didn't want to take "Philosophy and Society" or whatever the 100-level course was. We read Sartre and Heidegger in translation, but I think we read all of Being and Nothingness and Being and Time. I liked the former better than the latter.

I was a snotty senior physics major and thought I knew everything. I'm sure the professor loathed me. I remember that I really didn't get the question of what it meant to perceive, and kept boiling everything down to really mechanical terms, though I think that after I argued with the prof for a while, he finally impressed on me that we weren't talking about synapses and electrochemical signals.

If I remember correctly, I was almost the only student in a class of 20-30 who asked questions.

When I sat down to take the first exam, I saw that there were four questions. In my bluebook, I wrote one paragraph for each question, and felt that I had completely answered each question. I looked around. 15 minutes had passed, and everyone else was writing furiously. I added another paragraph to each answer, elaborating and giving an example. An additional 5 minutes had elapsed, and everyone else was still writing. I kept adding paragraphs, each additional paragraph growing more discursive and less relevant to the question at hand, until someone else turned in their exam, at which point, relieved, I turned my exam in and left.

I got an A on the exam (and in the class), so I guess understood the concepts well enough—or was able to produce the correct keywords on the essay questions? I don't know if I really learned much at all about what it meant to think and communicate as a philosopher. But the class was pretty old-school, I guess, and it wasn't explicitly about how to think like a philosopher, it was about what the philosophers thought, if that distinction makes any sense.

At some point in my life, the moral of my philosophy-class anecdote turned from, "Physics majors are teh smrtest at everything!" to "I was such a snot, and I probably missed out on a lot of learning due to my arrogance."

I'm sure I would get a lot more out of the class if I re-took it today!
posted by BrashTech at 1:01 PM on May 14, 2012

As a freshman I enrolled in a seminar with a very famous professor of Classics. I was so excited.

I dropped it two or three weeks later when it became apparent that Famous Professor's idea of a "seminar" was sitting back and letting the students (just one student, mostly) talk, rather than telling us anything himself. I wanted to hear what the professor had to say, and he wasn't sharing. It was an enormous disappointment.

Bottom line, please don't let one chatty student make the rest of the class into his captive audience and waste everyone's time... My long gone 18 year old self thanks you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:01 PM on May 14, 2012

My experience, as a Political Science and Linguistics major with a natural interest in philosophy to begin with, was that my intro-level philosophy class was horrifically vague and unguided. The teacher was a rather elitist profesorial type who rambled on tangents well over the depth of most of his students, then allowed the students to ramble on with their own thoughts or commentary that usually had nothing whatsoever to do with the topic a hand. At times I suspected he was enjoying the embarrassment of seeing some poor kid blab on stoner-style for twenty minutes about Reality (while I suppressed the urge to bash my head into my desk). So my suggestion? Keep it concise, but not dumbed-down. Structure your lectures so there is a theme or topic and then if you must discuss, guide the discussion so it stays somewhat within the theme. Try not to go down too many existential rabbit-holes with the beginners.
posted by celtalitha at 1:02 PM on May 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Philosophy 101 class I took was great, though it was a small class and unnaturally full of people who wanted to be there. I recall it being an elective, but I could be wrong about that.

The only complaint I had is that we dove right into the material (largely Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy) without any prior discussion of what philosophy was or why it was important. This was less an issue for me personally (I had studied on my own during high school), but some of the other students were caught a bit off guard.
posted by tomwheeler at 1:02 PM on May 14, 2012

I took philosophy of logic and philosophy of religion. Like Burhanistan, I never was engaged by the *history* of philosophy stuff, but I loved the methodology.
posted by RobotHero at 1:07 PM on May 14, 2012

We had to take one of those mandatory first year Introduction to Philosophy courses in my first year undergraduate. Like tomwheeler, I would have preferred a bit of preamble before plowing straight into Descartes. Actually, I had been expecting at least a bit of the course to touch on the history of philosophy, if for no other reason than to provide a convenient framework on which to hang the various advances in philosophical thought. That wasn't forthcoming from my prof, and I thought the class was the weaker for it.

He also assigned us an essay, in which we were to argue for or against the existence of God. Our marks were dependent on whether our arguments fitted his worldview, and he didn't tell us what that worldview was until *after* we'd submitted our papers. Arg.
posted by LN at 1:19 PM on May 14, 2012

please don't let one chatty student make the rest of the class into his captive audience and waste everyone's time

ARGH YES. I had a similar experience which I found so unimaginably tedious that I feared I might gnaw off one of my own limbs to escape.
posted by elizardbits at 1:24 PM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did you find it fascinating, infuriating, revealing, disappointing? If you just took a philosophy class or two, what were your experiences of the philosophy department?

I took Philo 101, then later at another school I took an intro to logic course and then the next course in the logic sequence. I HATED Philo 101- well, I don't know if I hated it, but it just felt weirdly self-involved to me. I wouldn't say I'm in the "everything you learn in college must be immediately applicable to your career" camp (hello, I was a liberal arts major, come on), but something like Plato's cave allegory drove me nuts as an 18 year old. Who CARES if we're in a fucking metaphorical cave??? Who GIVES a fuck??? I still have to get up every day and come to class and eat lunch and do my homework and I just. Don't. Care. We once had to read two essays, one by an atheist and one by a theist, one whose child had suffered a serious illness and one whose child had died, and we were supposed to figure out what that said about God or...I honestly forget the assignment, but there was definitely supposed to be some sort of contrast between the two and all I remember (and I definitely wrote about this at the time) was that the two guys both said, "Well, when bad thing happened to child, I was confused and really sad, and I leaned on my family for emotional support, and I wasn't sure why it was happening but decided ultimately I couldn't really know and found a sort of comfort in that." I'm sure there were finer distinctions that I couldn't grasp at the time, but to me, reading that basically supported my conclusion that I just didn't care whether God existed or not because people seem to act the same way and find comfort in the same things regardless.

Of course I later loved logic because it involved basically puzzles and rules that set bounds on a particular universe and allowed you to deduce things and I found that delightful.

Now as a non-student person I find myself interested in, I guess, questions of ethics (not really a student of philosophy, ah, clearly, so that might be the wrong term), rather than "pure" philosophy (see previous parenthetical). Someone told me once that her final exam question in an upper-level philosophy class was, "Aliens have just landed on Earth. How do philosophers X, Y, Z and Q react?" I thought that was neat because, naturally, it involved having to apply philosophy to the world.

So, I guess, beware that a) your students might not be especially subtle philosophic thinkers and might need some guidance as to why particular things are relevant and, b) there might be a class of student that approaches philosophy the way I did and is only interested in the discipline if it gives them some idea of what to DO (or if it guided some people at some time in what THEY chose to do- ie, "Well, this crazy Greek philosopher said to do blah blah blah which to us seems weird but when all the Greeks did it it started a war!" or. something?).

But the more I type this, the more I feel like- well, some classes in college just might not feel relevant to you. I got a C- in Philo 101 (ha, like you couldn't figure that out from reading this comment) and in retrospect it was a step in me learning, "Well, some things you won't like or enjoy but someone smarter than you decided you have to learn them to get your degree and you don't have to like them but you do have to do them or you'll get a C- and later need a ridiculous score on your graduate admissions exam to make up for it and you'll have to study for the exam more than you want and your only joy at that time will be typing long and rambling comments about philosophy on AskMe so it's probably better to buck up now than later." Some people learn that in Philo 101, some learn it in English Lit, I don't think it particularly reflects on your discipline if some students aren't that into it, and I don't really think you should bend over backwards to MAKE them be into it. It's one of the things they have to learn to deal with to be a grownup.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:24 PM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

As an engineer, I'll admit it took me some time to wrap my head around the idea that we were discussing questions that HAD NO ANSWER.

I remember trying very hard to figure out which of these philosophers was "right" (ah, my younger self, you were so amusing back then!), and when we just kept turning over more and more questions, I started getting into the idea that no one was ever going to have the right answer. It was pretty freeing, and I found myself really enjoying the discussions at that point. I think if it had been made clear at the beginning of the class, I would have had less trouble getting into the meat of the course.

Also, yes, what Burhanistan said was true. I saw no good reason to memorize who was responsible for which particular school of thought, but that's really a minor gripe.
posted by blurker at 1:26 PM on May 14, 2012

I took a couple of philosophy electives as a sociology major. One was a logic class, which I enjoyed because it was essentially a set of puzzle games and math-like statements with its own language which was a lot of fun. The other was I guess a more general philosophy class. I didn't really care much for reading Descartes, etc, but I did like actually arguing in class groups about the various thought experiments and ethical dilemmas.

I remember some very vocal physics and other hard science majors who got very upset at times because their approaches to the problems were sometimes not all that compatible with what was intended - like wanting to measure brain activity to determine consciousness.

I'll admit it took me some time to wrap my head around the idea that we were discussing questions that HAD NO ANSWER.

This was a biggie for me. My first couple of assignments I was really stressed because I thought I had to figure out the One Right Answer to the problems. When I realised that that wasn't the expectation and that it was about the journey, as it were, coming up with the arguments became a lot more fun.

Some of the discussions I found a little pretentious. I think I really enjoyed ethics and the actual learning to construct formal arguments because I could see the practical applications, whereas some of the big metaphysics stuff seemed a bit pointless, since most of it seemed like stuff that was inherently unsolvable and not really particularly useful to anybody in real life.
posted by lwb at 1:39 PM on May 14, 2012

My experience in philosophy was that I'd read a text, come up with counterarguments and write a paper on them, and then listen to the professor tell me what I should have argued instead, followed by the instruction to rewrite the paper.

This was not a good experience--it was a charade. It was also the last philosophy class I took.
posted by johnofjack at 1:46 PM on May 14, 2012

I took two philosophy courses as a linguistics major -- one was logic, which was a required course, and formal logic is almost more like math than like philosophy, but I enjoyed it as symbol manipulation. The other was an elective on Contemporary Moral Issues. (Animal rights, abortion, and one other I don't remember... maybe euthanasia?)

I really, really liked Contemporary Moral Issues. I knew I wanted to get a little taste of philosophy in my college years without taking a couple millennia of philosophers squeezed into a semester-long overview course, and CMI provided exactly what I wanted from a philosophy course. We read about four or five papers on each issue, and had a seminar where we talked about the various moral arguments, and the big thing I brought away from it is that moral philosophy is always a push and pull between being guided by our own moral intuitions, and creating a logical hermetically sealed system even if it results in outcomes that seem heartless. It was refreshing to see issues that are yelled about on the news every week discussed in a rigorous way, where I could understand and sympathize with the arguments on both sides even when I didn't agree with them. And it was a good introduction to a few basic philosophical concepts (utilitarianism, natural rights) even though we didn't have time to even scratch the surface of the history of philosophy.

(Now that I think about it, though, that course must've been a nightmare to grade.)

It's ten years later and I can still remember the abortion paper about the kidnapped violinist.
posted by Jeanne at 1:50 PM on May 14, 2012

Or rather, the concert-goer who gets kidnapped in order to save the life of the violinist.
posted by Jeanne at 1:51 PM on May 14, 2012

I expected "fascinating," but I got "infuriating." Almost an intellectual allergy. My experience of the Philosophy professors: pompous blowhards, in the extreme. Sorry -- you asked! I'm sure you do better. (If you were a pompous blowhard, you wouldn't be asking this question.)

I've always loved thinking about the big questions addressed by philosophy, and still do. I was surprised to find that I was repulsed by the way that the people (no, mostly men only) who are called Philosophers think and write about these questions. They seemed to be going out of their way to complexify simple concepts. I wasn't sure if it was malicious obfuscation, or extreme self-important bloviating. A simple idea that could be clearly and beautifully expressed in a few paragraphs would be beaten to death in a multi-volume treatise, so painful to read.

I love books and reading and questioning and thinking, but my brief attempt at an undergrad Philosophy course made me want to go out and play in the dirt. It went beyond "this Emperor has no clothes" all the way to "this Emperor is the walking dead, infested with putrid maggots." I had the same reaction to economics.

Sorry to malign your life's work like that -- I've been saving that up for decades. More politely, I would say that apparently it just didn't suit me.
posted by Corvid at 1:56 PM on May 14, 2012

Many years ago, as a non-Philosophy major, I signed up for a class on Ethics. Great subject, no?

We got a tiny pinch of Aristotle, a tiny pinch of Epictetus. The rest of the class was the prof talking about Thoreau and Robert Pirsig, the Zen/Motorcycle Maintenance guy. Which if the class had been advertised that way, that prof probably would have gotten students who were interested in what he had to say. Instead, we students sat through several weeks of boredom in what really felt like a bait-and-switch. It felt.....(wait for it)....unethical.

So yeah, don't be that guy. Personally, I actually think it's okay to be quirky, even to be a blowhard, just give people a hint of what they're getting into before they walk in the door. (In this particular case, the realization that the class was not as advertised didn't sink in until after it was too late to drop it.)

As someone walking into the subject from the outside, the history of how ideas developed over the ages is what I would have found interesting. Here's a selection of big names, let's put them into context. But that's just personal preference.
posted by gimonca at 2:12 PM on May 14, 2012

(That said, I think I still have my copy of the Enchiridion around here, somewhere....)
posted by gimonca at 2:15 PM on May 14, 2012

I took more than a few philosophy classes, in the hopes of adding it to my degree as a minor, but had to give up due to the incessant bickering between my classmates. It induced the same type of anxiety in me that watching people argue on news shows does. However there was a TA that I really liked and remember to this day, I also still have the book from his class, 8 years on. He was very thoughtful but also very excited in an understated sort of way that was inspiring.
posted by PaulaSchultz at 2:25 PM on May 14, 2012

I took a couple philosophy electives and a couple theory based anthro courses that were mixes of anthro and philosophy majors.

I had mixed feelings-- some of the things we read were interesting and really resonated with me, some resonated with me but the language used was so obscure that I had to read the thing multiple times which I didn't necessarily have time for, some of the stuff was worth reading multiple times even though it was difficult to understand, and some of it straight up made me roll my eyes at its pretentiousness combined with its lack of insight. Really all over the map reactions, I guess.

I also felt like a lot of the time, the classes (which were all discussion based) turned into the professor and a handful of the most well-read students talking philosophy while referencing philosophers that hadn't actually been assigned in the class or theories that we hadn't covered. This had limited interest to everyone else in the room.
posted by geegollygosh at 2:48 PM on May 14, 2012

It's great that you're asking this question!

I was a strong student in university, and the only class I dropped was a Philosophy of Language class. It was taught by a full professor who lectured to us for two-and-a-half hours. We did some reading, came in, and sat there while he explained what we had just read. So the format of the class was terrible, and it's difficult for me to separate my thoughts about the subject matter from that.

I do think that, for my undergrad self at least, framing philosophy as a conversation, showing the ethics connection to societal issues, and using active critical thinking problems would have worked much better. I think framing philosophy as a series of questions helps, too -- for the non-major who isn't used to reading a text, it helps to be reminded "so-and-so has been banging on about ABC part of language for three hours because they're trying to answer XYZ question."

So maybe give students tips on active reading and how to approach a philosophical text? And frame texts within the disciplinary conversations/controversies, letting students know that this thinker may or may not be responding to this other thinkers work on whatever thingamabub. We have NONE of that, just a reader with "important selections" and a professor that summarized the readings rather than giving us any context... not good at all. And honestly, even upper-level philosophy undergrads may or may not understand the entire context of a new reading, so I think it's helpful for all levels.
posted by lillygog at 2:49 PM on May 14, 2012

And, to actually answer your questions more directly, I found the overall experience very frustrating. The in-class lecture largely repeated the material we had just read. When the professor did try to prompt in-class discussion, his prompts fell pretty dead, so all of us majors and non-majors were either unusually dopey, or he didn't do a good job of prompting discussion for anyone. I did also have the experience other posters writing about, that the professor would quickly reference outside theories without explaining to the newcomer why those theories were relevant. It seemed like he quickly went over the head of both majors and non-majors alike, and had trouble breaking down concepts in more than one way. Either you got the material as given in the primary text, or didn't get it at all -- the professor was not good at finding more than one way to explain a concept.

Apparently I had some pent-up angst about this class! I was looking forward to the subject and thought it would be right up my alley (language and linguistics major), but I think the professor just had a particularly tough time. Maybe he was good with advanced grad students, but he could not do the sort of re-framing and alternate explanation that undergrads usually need.
posted by lillygog at 3:51 PM on May 14, 2012

A waste of my tuition money. Go on MIT OCW and teach yourself stuff.
posted by lotusmish at 3:56 PM on May 14, 2012

I majored in Sociology and Spanish, but took a logic class and a 'real' philosophy course, called something like Morality and Moral Issues. I think the logic class actually satisfied a math requirement. I really enjoyed them both (the Morality course more than logic, though). I did take both courses in the honors sections, which I presume affected how they were taught (much smaller classes, more discussion & writing than lectures). I also enjoy thinking about things, even if I don't come to a decision on where I stand on the issues.

What I liked about them: they helped cement the way to write/organize an argument for me. Establish a premise, if we take it as true, this follows. Disagree with someone else's premise, or disagree with the conclusions he draws from his premise. This way of thinking has, I think, helped me tremendously (I'm in grad school).

The morality course was taught by a grad student or lecturer. She did the usual good-teacher things: she was prepared for class, knew her content thoroughly, and knew how to facilitate discussion (asking the right kind of questions). We had some kind of "reader" as a text book. I kept it because I liked the class.
posted by kochenta at 6:40 PM on May 14, 2012

My professor was an awesome, interesting quirky guy: an honest to goodness hippie educated at Yale who'd founded an alternative college called Johnston College in the '60s that still exists today (which, admittedly, is pretty rare when you're talking about '60s movements). He had years and years of experience--literally about four decades--teaching PHIL 101 by the time I went through his class and had refined his teaching to a very specific, very off-putting style.

-The readings were excerpts from the classical works (so, your Socrates, your Descartes, your Nietzsche) provided without a great deal of context
-I was reading peer-reviewed journals and scholarly materials even back then and I found the reading level difficult (philosophical works are dense); I know I wasn't the only one, because that was a seminar in which the 'teacher's pet' spoke up a lot, a few others spoke up a little, and most spoke up never at all
-The professor had badly concealed contempt for our inept ramblings on the topic (a fact illustrated by our final, which he required that we 'dirty' up with coffee grinds or whatever and then we had to make the paper impossible to open and then we had to deposit the thing on a particular marble bench in front of the Admin building--no fucking way he read those papers! And I knew it and the wasted effort really bothered me. His pedagogical point, to say the least, was unclear)
-I went into the topic perfectly open to it (having learned the idea of Plato's cave in high school and liking it a great deal) and I left it vowing never to take another philosophy class again in my life

So, what would I recommend?
-Be generous in the provision of background and critical materials and be honest with your students about your expectations that they read them
-Don't allow discussions to turn into 'abortion is good because...abortion is always evil because...' undergrads riffing on a topic they know too little about. I would also urge for discussion of the application of philosophy in other areas (war, suffrage, whatever) because abortion is the most cliche ethical philosophy discussion EVER
-If you are doing an intro class and you have the chance to set your own syllabus, please do a section on logic! and modern philosophy! Philosophy stretches back so far in time that it's easy to concentrate on the greats and ignore current developments
-Don't allow discussions to be dominated by one particularly bright (or particularly loud) student--basic classroom management in other words
-Undergrads are often laughably naive and facile thinkers; it would be helpful for them if you felt compassion rather than contempt
posted by librarylis at 8:05 PM on May 14, 2012

One data point for you: I was in college in the 70s, had to take 2 philosophy courses but wasn't a major or minor. First course was in "logic" but was actually critical thinking and understanding the prevalence of nonsensical thinking in politics, the media, interpersonal relationships, etc. Teacher said ignore the Latin terms, just understand the different types of fallacies or misdirections. I loved the course, got a strong A. Second course was History of Philosophy. I despised it. Teacher boring, uninterested in the students, exams just wanted us to vomit back the book. My evaluation 40 years later? First course was definitely worth my time and parent's money. Second course like having your house worked on by a lousy connection between what was needed and what was delivered.
posted by forthright at 3:07 AM on May 15, 2012

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