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Report on the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Research and Teaching Collaborative Initiative

Crossposted from the Great Lakes College Association Center for Teaching and Learning blog.

The GLCA Ancient Philosophy Research and Teaching Collaborative Initiative began in 2014 when several of us in the GLCA who work in ancient philosophy began a series of conversations about how we might take advantage of the resources we share across the consortium for teaching and writing in ancient philosophy. In particular, we thought that ancient philosophy was a good site from which to think about pedagogy since these ancient thinkers were interested in questions of what it means to learn and to teach. These thinkers take seriously the problem that the person who does not know tends to be unaware of what she does not know, so the learning process becomes a paradox: how does a person enter a learning process if she does not realize that she needs to learn? Realizing one needs to learn at some level involves already knowing that which one needs to learn because to recognize this point suggests you know the knowledge you lack is missing. How can you identify it as missing if you do not know it? If you know that you miss it and therefore in some sense know it, then you don’t need to learn it because you know it. Some in-between space is required which allows the movement from not knowing to recognizing ignorance and fostering a desire to know.

If the learning process involves this paradox, teaching must be something more than simply providing information and expecting students to regurgitate it. Teaching must involve creating a motivation to learn on the part of the learner, a recognition that one’s understanding is inadequate and a desire, therefore, to pursue deeper understanding.

Plato speaks in the Republic of the process of education as a turning of the soul toward truth and away from the mere semblance of it. It isn’t that the student has no understanding. Whether they did or not is something about which ancient thinkers disagreed. Aristotle thinks the common understanding has some value as a point of departure. At various points in his dialogues, Plato has Socrates suggest that the appearances of things deceive us when we take the appearance to fully disclose the reality of them. While Aristotle takes the initial way things appear before they are studied as a point of departure for knowledge, Plato is more skeptical of the role of appearances in producing our knowledge. But they tend to agree that the appearances of things and the everyday opinions people have about the world are not sufficient for knowledge. From this point of agreement, they maintain that a student must recognize that the appearance or opinion that she takes to be knowledge is not yet sufficiently grounded to be knowledge. Some motivation that involves a recognition of oneself as lacking in knowledge is a precondition for learning to take place.

These questions and concerns guided our collaborative project both as topics and themes for our undergraduate workshop that we held in the late fall of 2014, 2015 and 2017. In the spring before each workshop, the faculty collaborators met to discuss a theme or text that we would each teach in the course that contributed to the workshop. The first year we all taught Plato’s Republic, the second year we all taught Aristotle’s Politics, and the last year we all taught various Platonic dialogues (Gorgias, Apology, Euthyphro, Charmides) on the role of self-examination and self-knowledge in developing virtue. Students knew from the outset that they would be writing papers to present to students at other GLCA consortium colleges, and they knew that there were only three spots per institution, which encouraged them to up their game. Over the course of the grant, some of us were able to arrange class visits in the courses with one another from year to year. We each exchanged syllabi to have a sense of enough overlap between the courses, though we didn’t each teach the exact same texts every year. The research papers were meant to bring together themes and discussions from the courses as they had developed at individual institutions. The workshop allowed an interchange of these themes and discussions between institutions that then influenced and improved discussion and research projects when students returned to their own campuses.

Students went through an initial draft and revision process before the top papers were sent to the organizer of that year’s workshop who distributed papers to the other faculty for them to be given to students who would be commenting on papers. In smaller classes, this division of labor meant that most if not all students were either presenting or commenting on a paper. Each workshop involved nine papers and nine commentators and a keynote who participated in the day-long workshop before presenting at the end of the day. Faculty and the keynote as well as other students engaged each student’s paper during a Q&A period after each paper in order to give students the opportunity for feedback and to discuss their ideas on their feet. Students remarked year after year how rewarding it was for them to have their ideas taken seriously, often in ways that made them take their ideas more seriously than they had before the workshop. I look forward to repeating this workshop model in other areas—over the last three years I have also been involved with the Women’s/Gender/Sexuality Studies Collaborative Initiative and I hope to do a workshop with a GLCA colleague in feminist philosophies.

While the workshop made the question of what it means to learn and know explicit content for students, these questions also guided the pedagogy workshops that we hosted at our respective institutions—Earlham in 2015, Wabash in 2016, and Antioch in 2018. The organizer of each workshop distributed materials in advance and invited other faculty working in ancient philosophy, including people in classics or literature and from philosophy departments beyond the three initial collaborating institutions. With some materials read in advance and a series of guiding questions on the table for each workshop, we spent three long afternoons into dinner thinking about how ancient thinkers can help us gain clarity on our contemporary challenges in the classroom and offer possibilities for addressing them.

Over the three years of the project, we each presented our work at one of the institutions—not our own—and the other two faculty offered responses that opened into larger conversations. The initiative gave each of the three principal collaborators an opportunity to share our research with one another in a public forum. We tend to think of collaboration in research as co-authoring, but collaboration can take many forms. This focused exchange of ideas allowed each of us to pursue our disparate research interests in ancient philosophy while supporting and encouraging one another’s work. After graduate school, particularly at small liberal arts colleges, the opportunity to have colleagues deeply engage with one’s work beyond a paper at a conference is both rare and rewarding, even more so when it happens over a long period of time. Having laid this groundwork over these last several years of understanding the commitments and interests of one another, we expect this effort to be fruitful for our separate research projects in the years to come.

This past July we used some of the funds that we had left to take a trip to Athens to think further about how to extend our collaboration beyond this initiative in the years to come, possibly by extending this workshop model to a collaboration with institutions in Greece. We are especially interested in how such a project can celebrate the ways that ancient philosophy can serve as a defense of, and an avenue for, championing the liberal arts approaches. My colleagues will follow up on that shortly.

[The first of two companion articles coming out of the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Research and Teaching Collaborative Initiative, Lewis Meek Trelawny-Cassity (Antioch), “Ancient Greek Philosophy and “Difficult Dialogues” in the 21st Century Classroom,” can be found here. The second, Kevin Thomas Miles (Earlham), “Awakening the Teacher Within,” will be posted next week.]

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