A photograph of a traditional seminar-style discussion.
A traditional classroom scene

The way I like to put it is students in a philosophy classroom are regularly given answers without having the questions, and by having that experience first they have a bunch of questions they can then bring to the text.

Professor Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Elon University, has published extensively on teaching and learning, especially in relation to the practice of teaching philosophy. Like many philosophers, he wants students to critically evaluate their beliefs. However, his approach to actually getting students to do so can be considered unusual – as he does not think people generally are great at explaining what they believe. For our series on Teaching Philosophy, Justice Everywhere interviewed Bloch-Schulman about his teaching philosophy and practice.

(The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Justice Everywhere (JE): So, what do you do that you think is interesting and worth sharing?

Stephen Bloch-Schulman (SBS): I’m quite taken with Eric Schwitzgebel’s critique of intellectualism about belief – as he understands it, the intellectualist view is that we can know what our beliefs are by simply looking inside our own thinking, that we are transparent to ourselves.

I think the opposite is true, I think that we are very opaque to ourselves. I’m not really interested in merely asking my students what they believe and then critically examining what they say, because I don’t actually think that that’s what they believe. What I’m trying to do instead is find ways that students can reveal their beliefs to themselves and to me, rather than asking and assuming what they say accurately reflects their beliefs. I construct all sorts of experiences for them to have wherein they will reveal to themselves, and to me, what their beliefs are without them knowing that that is what they are doing.

Here’s an example that I think shows how it works. I was teaching a political philosophy class, and the second unit was on John Locke and Amia Srinivasan on the role of consent and contracts. So, the unit started with me telling all the students that we needed to leave the classroom and sit in the hallway. Once outside, I explain  that we need to decide how we’re going to act when we go back into the classroom. And students at my school have had that conversation a bunch, they know how it’s supposed to go, they trot out the clichés they’re supposed to offer, like “let’s only use I-statements”, those kinds of things. The students write that down, everyone signs it, we go back into the classroom, and I go and sit in the back corner and play video games on my phone. And students are looking at each other, and it takes them a couple of minutes, but then it occurs to someone that I’m actually abiding by all of the rules they created. And finally they come together and go “Oh, he’s actually doing all of the things that we said everybody needed to do. Let’s go back outside and decide again”.

Back outside, they again try to articulate what it is that everyone is supposed to do. And then we go back into the classroom and again I abide by the rules in a way that totally doesn’t look like what they think a teacher should be doing.

The same thing happens, they realise that I’m still abiding by the rules they created, we go back outside, and finally they’re like, “Oh, we need to talk about all the stuff that Stephen is supposed to do”. In this first two sets of rules, they have, without knowing it, articulated a Lockean understanding of a contract: that each person’s role should rightly be to do no harm to others (hence the care about only using “I statements”). As Alcoff notes in her rightly lauded “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” the goal of such limitations is to protect oneself, in purity. But, Alcoff argues, it is both impossible to accomplish this and, more importantly, the goal itself is harmful because it limits the possibility for responsibility, for collective goals. That is, students have offered a vision that, without saying it, centres negative liberties. If, on the other hand, I had asked them what they thought of such a vision of negative liberty in a typical discussion, many would likely (and, in my experience, students at my school do) reject it, recognizing the way it atomizes, individualizes and fails to take into account interdependence and common cause.  

Recognizing that the first two contracts failed, they write out all the things Stephen is supposed to do: Stephen needs to stand at the front, and he needs to teach us stuff, and he needs to correct our homework, and he needs to give us the syllabus, this long list of things I’m supposed to do. And then they give it to me, and I refuse to sign it. Because, I say, “why would I sign that? That’s just a list of things I’m supposed to do.”

Again, their beliefs have come to light: that it is only the faculty member who has collective responsibility in the classroom; students do right merely by not doing harm to other students. I am needed for the class and for their learning; but they are not, and the other students are not, either.

And then it gets really good, because what happens is they start asking about their own responsibilities for their own learning, and for their learning in the classroom.

It’s only then that they come to understand the assumptions that they are already making and that they have to grapple with. And they, at that point, make very different decisions. And they’re great. Last semester they said “oh, we’ll talk every class”. And I said “OK, but you can just say bullshit. What is the kind of talking that actually leads to learning?” And they decided that there are four different kinds of comments that students make that can lead to learning. I said “great, so each of you is going to do at least one of those four in each class period?”And they said yes. So, I printed out four pieces of paper for all of them, and any time they did [contribute], they put their piece of paper on the table to say that they had added to the class discussion by asking a clarificatory question, for example, and at the end of the class we could see how they had lived up to their responsibility.

[T]hat exercise reveals essential things about what the students believe, reveals essential things about the way Locke sets up his understanding and reveals essential things about what Srinivasan is doing in critique of Locke.

JE: That sounds interesting, but I think the corridors in my university are too narrow for this!

SBS: That reminds me – one of the things I like to do when we go into the hallway is actually to rush out the door and put all of my stuff in the good spaces, so the students have to sit of the floor. And none of them move any of my stuff. Then we get to ask what happens when someone takes up more space than they’re supposed to – how I haven’t left enough for everybody in the way that Locke wants, and the importance of that for Locke’s understanding of political community.

And then, when we get to Srinivasan and her work, which is on the way we consent to things even though we wouldn’t if we had more power, I ask again about their experience making the contract, and they all say “no, we wouldn’t have agreed to any of that, except that you’re the teacher and we’re supposed to do what you want”. It gives us an insight into thinking about consent in the way that Srinivasan wants, which is that consent matters but it’s not the only thing we should be taking into account, we should always be taking into account the way in which power is working. So that exercise reveals essential things about what the students believe, reveals essential things about the way Locke sets up his understanding and reveals essential things about what Srinivasan is doing in critique of Locke.

JE: What would you say are the main benefits you’ve experienced with this approach?

SBS: One of the main benefits is that they read much better. They just read better when they’ve had that experience and they start reading Locke and they recognise their own experience in what they’re reading. The way I like to put it is students in a philosophy classroom are regularly given answers without having the questions, and by having that experience first they have a bunch of questions they can then bring to the text.

I think one of the other real benefits is them coming to understand themselves better. I think this way of teaching helps them reveal to themselves, and to me, what they really believe, and we can then critically evaluate it.

JE: Finally, do you have any suggestions or recommendations for people that would like to implement this approach? And, specifically, for people who may be on adjunct-type contracts or PhD students who might find themselves slightly more constrained by institutional requirements or expectations?

SBS: Here’s what I would say before I give concrete advice. There was this great study by Lee Shulman at Stanford, who ran the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning. The study was to get Stanford graduate students in the education programme and to ask them about the undergraduate classes they had taken. And what he found again and again is that there were classes that graduate students had no idea they had taken as an undergrad. I have a hard time thinking that if you had no idea you took a class the content of that class had any impact on you. Not that it’s not possible, but it seems unlikely.

So, one of the things I would say is that we tend to think about content much more than we should, and we tend to think about experience much less than we should. I think that’s really important, and so my advice is to have a clearer and more honest discussion with yourself about how much of an impact content coverage really has on most of the students you’re teaching. I think that’s needed to start asking entirely different questions about what good teaching looks like. I’m not saying that people should teach like I do, but I’m pretty committed to the idea that they should not teach the way I often see philosophers teach, which is based on what Freire would call the banking model of education, which is “I know some stuff as the faculty member, I’m going to tell you some stuff, you’re going to memorise it and then you’re going to tell it back to me on the exam”. Even if the content were absolutely essential, all of the empirical research I’ve seen on the way people learn reveals that that actually doesn’t work very well. So, I think the key is not to have an answer to what you’re going to do, but is to be more sceptical about whether the teaching you’re doing works right now.

What would I say for adjuncts and graduate students and new faculty? I would say that if they feel compelled to cover a certain number of thinkers or a certain set of ideas that they pare down the amount that students read as much as possible, and by that I mean something that people probably won’t believe – start with more, but try to get down to, say, 30 pages per semester – and talk about it in much more detail. If you try to have students read less, they’ll pay attention more and you will have time to do other things in class.

I think we fail to recognise the skills that students would need in order to make sense of what we are asking them to do – we haven’t taught those skills and yet we expect that students are able to bring those skills to bear on the tasks we’ve given them. If I give a student homework and I say “read Meditation I”, the number of skills that they need to bring to understand what’s going on is enormous – as I showed in the videos I included in “A critique of methods in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in philosophy” that allow us to compare the way senior majors read a text to the way philosophers read that same text. And so we would do better if we taught less – fewer ideas, fewer people and fewer words.

Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century aims to feature posts, interviews and case-studies broadly relating to the topic of “Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.” A non-exhaustive list of possible topics includes:

  • Accessibility and inclusion;
  • Using new technologies in the classroom; 
  • Intersectionality in the classroom; 
  • Teaching controversial topics and/or controversial authors;
  • Ongoing calls to diversify/decolonise the (philosophy) curriculum;
  • Different ways of delivering typical political/moral/social philosophy education.

Please get in touch with Sara Van Goozen if you would like to contribute, or if you have any suggestions (for instance someone who does something interesting and new in the classroom who might be interested in talking to us).

Sara Van Goozen

I am a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York. My research interests are in global ethics, just war theory and global justice. My book “Distributing the Harm of Just Wars” is out now with Routledge. I am the editor of Justice Everywhere’s series on pedagogy and the practice of teaching philosophy, Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.