TAing Intro Philosophy Pt. 1

Yesterday I ran three sections for the first week of spring quarter. This time around I’m TAing intro to philosophy, and some of the information in my slides seems like it might turn out to be useful. So I’m going to give blogging it a go. Since the audience is all of you on the web rather than just my class, I’ll be re-orienting the material accordingly.
Since the section met before any course content was on the table, I only had the course expectations and introductions to work with. Still, every section took the whole time and had to be cut off. First I went over course expectations, then did an icebreaker, then gave tips, then moved to discussion. In retrospect, I might have swapped the first two since the introduction activity got the class more active.

Course Expectations

I break the learning of philosophy, like foreign languages, into four parts: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. To facilitate learning to read philosophical texts, students are expected to do all of the readings listed on the syllabus. This is graded via exams. There will also be writing assignments to evaluate students’ ability to write philosophy. To aid this, there will be practice assignments in section that will contribute to their participation grades.
For listening, learning philosophy and interpreting complex speech will be developed through lectures and conversations. Attendance of lectures and sections will be graded. Putting philosophy into words is often the first way of making sense of things. As such, all students are expected to speak in discussion.
Of course, things happen. I’ve noticed that some students are horrifically overstressed. I understand that a lot of my students have several other classes, jobs, family obligations, and illnesses/disabilities. I take a moment to acknowledge this and encourage students to ask for help early, justified by the fact that I can be way more helpful with more time.
Following this, I moved onto communication standards. In email: I email back within two business days. I try to extend the same courtesy, though, and always give my students two days’ notice. In discussion, disagreement is actively encouraged. Nonetheless, civility is required at all times. We’re here to talk about concepts, reasons, ideas, etc. Not about the person talking. I draw a comparison to dodgeball. Normally, it’s not okay to whip balls at people. Just like how it’s not okay to tell people their deeply held ethical or religious beliefs are wrong. But in gym class, you can throw a ball at someone, and in philosophy class you can throw a rhetorical ball at someone. Even in gym, though, you can’t whip the ball at someone’s face, and in philosophy class you can’t just insult people.
I do call on people at random. Or in particular if someone seems like they have something useful to say. I have three reasons behind this. One, it forces all students to participate. Two, often the quietest students know things but are shy. Part of my goal is to train confidence in speaking to a group. Three, research indicates members of certain demographic groups tend to dominate conversations. I can use my position of power to amplify voices that might otherwise be silenced.
On a different note, yes, everything is a matter of perspective. You should have a perspective. When asked for perspective, I ask that my students please give it. It’s okay to be unsure or change your mind. Taking a position lets us play around with the ideas and see what works.

Introduction Activity

The activity begins by having everyone choose a partner. Then they, obeying a slide on the wall, collect the following information about their partners and become ready to share it:
  • Name
  • Major(s)
  • Year
  • Where you’re from
  • A major non-academic interest
They share this info about their partners. Now I’m 15-20 minutes in and everyone has spoken once. I also got to share all of this information about myself, so they know a little about me. But now I want to get some philosophical thinking going, so I ask them to  find an issue on which they and their partners disagree. In addition, they explain the reason for the disagreement. For example, I think we shouldn’t blame people. Lots of people disagree. But the reason I think we shouldn’t blame people is because people never have the ability to do other than they do, and blame is useless. Someone might disagree with either of those two, and whichever they disagree with is the more basic reason behind our disagreement about blame. The students got into pairs for another ten minutes and shared. Interestingly, in two or three of the three sections, students spontaneously added their input to the disagreements of others. (Lots of death penalty and abortion. Amusingly, one “trivial” disagreement from each class, including James vs. Jordan and whether pineapple goes on pizza.)

Tips & Tricks

I’ve been made aware of the fact that a lot of UC Riverside students haven’t really been taught how to effectively navigate college coursework, nor philosophy coursework in particular. So I offer the following hints on day one:
Reading: Ideally, read three times. First, skim to get the general “plot”. Second, read to understand. Third, read to see which points you can press up against and which parts from the start pay off in the end. (Less ideally, at least read the section headings and first and last sentence of each paragraph.)
Writing: Start early! I’ll provide more writing guidance as we approach the papers, but ideally, you should write down your thoughts in response to the readings to practice putting them in concrete form.
Listening: Paying attention can be hard. Use note-taking to your advantage. Too much: Writing down every word. Too little: Not writing down anything. Just right: Putting down the stuff you want to remember later but get out of your mental space for now.
Speaking: Philosophy is hard. You may want to have your thoughts mapped out on paper to guide you when speaking in class.

Why Are We Here?

Finally, I try to motivate the class. Most of the students are in the class because they were told to be. But I think the questions themselves are interesting. Who/what we are matters. What matters matters. And for a lot of people, the (in)divine nature of the universe matters.

Also, the skills themselves are incredibly useful. In an increasingly divided world, being able to read or listen to someone and thoroughly understand what they believe and why they believe it is important. Then, being able to come up with your own views, subject them to rational scrutiny, and then articulate them in spoken or written language clearly and interestingly enough for someone else to bother consuming is also, I take it, a rather desirable skill. I invite my students to partake in the project of developing these skills and answering these questions. I hope they accept.

The slides are available here: Phil_1_S_1 (1)

2 responses to “TAing Intro Philosophy Pt. 1”

  1. […] week I continued running sections for introduction to philosophy. We had, in theory, read Bertrand Russell’s […]


  2. […] Posts: Week 1, Week 2. In week 3, the class turned to argumentation. This again left me a fair bit of freedom, […]


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