Nov 17, 2014

A New Class: Philosophical World Views and Values

This marks my fourth year teaching classes in Philosophy and Religious Studies for Marist College.  The last three years have involved a mix of face-to-face and online classes -- this current academic year, however, I decided to switch entirely to teaching online for Marist.  There's a whole story behind that decision, which perhaps I'll tell in a later post -- suffice it to say that one of the main reasons was to afford me greater flexibility and more time to devote to doing more innovative work in Philosophy -- bringing it into practice, and putting it before a broader public.

In early December, I start teaching a new 10-week online course -- World Views and Values.  It's essentially a variation on Intro to Philosophy, but it's one which transfer students have traditionally taken in place of Intro (which has since been renamed "Philosophical Perspectives"!), and it bears a different course description: 
This course will help students to ask basic questions about the ultimate meaning of life, to take a comprehensive and holistic world view, and to articulate a coherent values system. The basic methodology for teaching the course is comparative and socioanalytic. 
So really, a lot of leeway there for doing what one would like with the course.  I decided to put a lot of thought into designing precisely the sort of course I think might be most useful and interesting for the students -- and enjoyable for me to put together and teach.

Thinkers and Texts Formative Of Our History

Originally, I had in mind two main ideas for the course.  One of them was that I could focus on philosophically basic views on human nature, and connect those up to society and to the cosmos -- that would let me get in some decent emphasis on philosophical anthropology, ethics, political theory, and metaphysics, and perhaps even stray over into epistemology, philosophy of action, philosophy of religion, and aesthetics enough to give the students a taste of a few representative positions in those important fields.

The second one is really an echo of a lecture series I've been kicking around in my head.  Although there's considerable disagreement about just who ought to make the cut, there is some general consensus that certain works -- Plato's Republic, Augustine's Confessions, John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, Immanuel Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (lots of people talk about the Critique of Pure Reason, but I suspect many fewer have actually read it!), Karl Marx's Capital -- have exerted unmistakable influence in the history of the West.

It's not as if those two motifs can't mesh well together -- many of the philosophical works that have attained that sort of prominence (granted, one, which many of our students are unaware of -- but that's the point to teaching them, now isn't it?) did so precisely because they powerfully articulated some distinctive and integrated conception of humanity, society, and cosmos.  And, it's possible to even do justice to the course description with such an approach in mind -- one can certainly work comparison between significantly different perspectives on human nature, society, and environing and underlying reality.

The biggest issue then, after deciding what kind of approach to adopt, is determining who makes the cut -- what thinkers and what works get in.  I always find that very difficult -- I'd love to have the luxury of being able to teach as many of the texts as I think are germane to the topics.  But, even if one could make that kind of admittedly unreasonable demand upon the attentions of students. . . we're stuck with the semester -- or even shorter (in this case, 10 week) -- format.  There's only so many slots available.  So, it's always a kind of triage.

Who Makes the Cut This Time?

In my classes, students -- almost all of them non-philosophy-majors -- actually encounter and study original texts, rather than just pre-digested secondary sources, let alone textbooks.  Given that, I decided that it would be just about feasible -- provided I supported my students with lots of handouts, lessons, and other resources -- to try to cover one main thinker and work (or selections from a work) each of the 10 weeks we have available for the term (which starts in early December, and runs into late February). 

It's a tough prospect -- all those possible influential thinkers and classic works who we could possibly grapple with together -- each of them making a pressing and persuasive claim as to why he or she should be included in the class!  As is always the case, I wavered quite a bit back and forth as I worked towards a decision.  But this time around, I ended up formulating another, connected, longer-term decision which helped provide context for the more pressing and immediate decision.

I'm slated to teach this same class for Marist in the late Spring.  Often, when I have duplicate sections -- as I do for my Ethics classes -- I'll keep most of the class readings, lessons, resources, videos, etc. in place, and make some significant changesto the assignments and discussion forum topics.  What I've done with my past face-to-face Intro classes, however, was to choose new texts -- and develop brand new resources -- every semester.  That's why the Intro to Philosophy video sequence incorporates videos from three different semesters, and provides a pretty decent overview of quite a few approaches and core texts.

So, why not do that this time around?  I can do ten major thinkers and masterworks this term, and then do ten additional ones in the Spring.  Why put in that extra work, though, one might ask?  Well, I've got two other connected projects in mind for this course material.  But first. . .  who makes the cut this time around?
  • Week 1:  Plato - sections of the Republic
  • Week 2: Epictetus - Discourses
  • Week 3: Boethius - The Consolation of Philosophy
  • Week 4: Rene Descartes - Discourse on Method
  • Week 5: Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Discourse on the Origins of Inequality
  • Week 6: John Stuart Mill - On Liberty
  • Week 7: Karl Marx - Alienated Labor and the Communist Manifesto
  • Week 8: Mary Wollstonecraft - A Vindication of the Rights of Women
  • Week 9: Camus - The Rebel
  • Week 10: Martin Luther King - Letter from a Birmingham Jail
All of these works are readily available in the public domain -- which means that students can in effect take the course with minimal textbook costs.

A Video Series - And An Inexpensive Course

All of my online courses involve quite a bit of reading, thinking, writing, and interaction on the parts of the students -- relatively few students say my classes are easy or don't demand much work.  What they do tend to have to say, though, that keeps a steady flow of students attracted to whatever classes I offer (last week, my online intensive 5-week Ethics course filled at Marist in under 15 minutes!) are three main things.

Students who put the requisite work into my classes generally come out of them surprised at how much they were able to learn -- I'm not surprised myself, since I've often got much more confidence in them than they do themselves!  They also tend to remark on the level of support and guidance they get as they work through the material.  While I'm proud of the variety of resources that I develop and provide my students, I do tend to think that this is more a factor of just how bad much online and face-to-face college class design and teaching still tends to be, by comparison.

The other feature of my classes to which they respond very positively, on the whole, are the lecture videos I provide them with.  A common experience in online classes on the parts of students is a sense of isolation, of a lack of interactivity.  Videos can't totally remedy that, of course -- they do tend to suffer from some of the same problems Plato pointed out so long ago about the "frozen speech" sets down in written texts in his Phaedrus -- but they go a surprisingly long way to doing so.

So, I'm planning on shooting an entirely new sequence of course videos -- probably 4 roughly half-hour segments per week will prove adequate -- on these key core texts, for this 10-week course.  Then, in the Spring, I'll shoot another sequencer on an additional ten thinkers and texts -- including Aristotle, Niccolo Machiavelli, and David Hume, among others.  Those will, like all the other course videos I've produced so far, be publicly available for anyone who wants to follow along with them, effectively to reproduce that part of the class on their own.

Marist isn't the only institution I work with, though -- and while I develop those video and other course materials for my Marist students, one of the good aspects about working there is that I retain intellectual property rights to all of those materials I develop.  Marist online courses cost -- just in terms of the credit hours for a part-time adult student -- about $1,800 per student enrolled (and, trust me, the bulk of that is not going to pay professors!).  And those courses have very limited runs, offered only a few times per year, capped at 30 students per section.

What I'm going to do (most likely by early summer) is develop much less expensive versions of the course -- incorporating both 10-week terms' worth of materials (so 20 key thinkers and texts) -- hosted on different platforms for two different kinds of students.

For those who actually want to take a full, 12-week, 3-credit online course, I'll offer the class in Oplerno -- most likely for around $500-600 per student.

For those who aren't interested in college credit, but who still want to take the course with me, i.e. interact with me in online sessions, get feedback on papers, etc., I'll offer the class using an at-present-TBA online platform, probably for $200-250 per student.

And, of course, for those who simply want to work through the texts on their own, aided by the resources I develop, I'll bundle those into a well-organized e-book which I'll offer at some very minimal cost (probably something like $5-10).