Aug 25, 2019

My Foundations in Philosophy Courses This Fall

Gregory Sadler in Milwaukee in front of US Bank and Northwestern Mutual Life buildings This summer, I got asked again to teach two sections of the Foundations in Philosophy class at Marquette University.  This is my third time teaching this semi-new course, which replaces their Philosophy of Human Nature course (which was basically an Intro to Philosophy course, with a few added features).  This time around, I'm sticking with many of the thinkers and texts that I incorporated in last academic year's classes, but I'm also adding in a few new ones as well.

My viewers, followers, and subscribers usually express considerable interest in how I set up my classes, so I'm going to write a series of blog posts (and perhaps also shoot some videos) about each of the classes I'm teaching this Fall.  This is the first one in that series.

The Reading List

This list of required readings for the class will likely strike many as overly ambitious, particularly those who are more accustomed to seeing philosophy taught to beginners in pre-digested bit-size snippets in Intro to Philosophy textbooks.  My experience in teaching philosophy to non-majors for 20 years, in a wide range of settings, has shown me that students who apply themselves - and most importantly, who are given the right types of support - are up to studying primary texts in the field.

Here are the texts that the students are assigned

  • Plato, Apology
  • Plato, Meno
  • Plato, Republic books 4, 6 and 7 (selections)
  • Aristotle, Metaphysics book 1
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics books 1-4, 6 and 7 (selections)
  • Epicurus, Principal Doctrines
  • Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (short selections)
  • Cicero, On The Ends book 1 and 3 (selections)
  • Cicero, On Fate
  • Seneca, Letters 33 65 and 113 
  • Epictetus, Discourses (selections)
  • Augustine of Hippo, City of God book 5 (selections)
  • Augustine of Hippo, On Free Choice of the Will book 1
  • Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion
  • Anselm of Canterbury, On Freedom of Choice
  • Anselm of Canterbury, On The Harmony part 3 (selections)
  • Al-Ghazali, Moral and Religious Writings (selections)
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (selections)
  • Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method parts 2, 3, and 5 (selections)
  • Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy
  • David Hume, Enquiry Regarding Human Understanding (selections)
  • Dvid Hume, Treatise on Human Nature 1.2.4-5, and 2.3.3
  • Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women (selections)
  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (selections)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra part 1
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism
  • Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (selections)

I also suggest as a secondary, entirely optional work, selections from Hannah Arendt's The Life of the Mind, part 2, which helps to provide a useful narrative for the theme of causality, the will, and choice that runs throughout the class and its readings.

Resources Provided To Students

It is remarkable to me to still see old attitudes about what students ought to be capable of, and what instructors ought to provide - attitudes that can be best summed up as "sink or swim," with the addition of "if you sink, that's because there's something wrong with you, and you don't deserve to be in college".  This was an attitude prevalent among the generations of professors teaching when I was a student, but it has carried on to the present among some.  I see and hear young fresh-out-of-grad school profs saying things like that - or expressing the other side of the coin, and complaining how much we have to 'dumb it down" for our non-philosophy-major students.

As I wrote above, my conviction, based on years of experience, is that college students - and not just well-prepared students from good educational backgrounds - are quite capable of reading, understanding, discussing, and applying classical and contemporary primary texts in the field of philosophy.  They need support, however, in order to do so.  The class has to be well-structured and designed.  Classroom discussions need to be focused on helping the students make sense out of the difficult materials they are encountering.  Assignments cannot be simply "make-work" - and the old three-papers-midterm-and-a-final approach definitely needs to be trashed.

Another very important mode of support consists in providing resources for students.  The technology of course management systems (e.g. Moodle, Blackboard, Sakai, Desire2Learn, Canvas, etc.) provides every instructor with entire course websites for each class they teach.  At present, many instructors - even younger ones - barely use their course sites, complying with the bare minimum of posting a syllabus and the assignments in there.

I build out my course sites so thoroughly that, if a course needed to be adapted to an entirely online setting, I could do that fairly easily.  Each thinker and text that we discuss gets a number of resources provided, intended to help the students make sense out of what for them are quite challenging readings.

These resources include my core concept videos, which are short (10-25 minute) discussions focused on one key idea, distinction, or argument in a text.  These are particularly helpful for some students, who watch them outside of class.  Some will watch all of the videos available on a thinker.  Others will just watch those about ideas they don't quite understand yet.  Quite a few students don't actually watch them, but rather listen to them.  If I have to miss a day of class due to illness, I can assign the videos to replace the missing class session.

Another set of resources I provide are handouts and worksheets. Although the "learning styles" educational theory has been thankfully debunked, it remains true that students do learn material in different modes.  Having key ideas and distinctions from the text presented in visual and spatial forms often proves quite useful for my students (and I use handouts similarly whenever I give a talk or presentation).  Worksheets that guide them through the application of a concept can also prove very helpful as well.

I also write out lesson pages for my students, going over the material we're studying, breaking it down, and framing it in a more contemporary language for them.  These are more or less like blog posts.  I do find that I have to remind some students not to allow these summaries to substitute for reading the text, but they are a very helpful resource for many in my classes.

Each time that I teach a class, I try to create and provide additional resources - new videos, new handouts, new worksheets, new lesson pages (among other things) - for my students, to make the class more complete and robust.  When I introduce new readings - for example, adding Mill's On Liberty this term - I make time to create new material (so you can expect to see some new videos on that text later this semester).

So there you have it - Foundations in Philosophy.  Next week, I'll discuss another one of my classes, most likely the Introduction to Humanities course I'm teaching at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

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