Ryan Johnson contacted me after my posts (here and here) on teaching Aristotle through active teaching exercises to tell me about his own active Aristotle classroom. I think you will share my enthusiasm for his creative approach. This is his account of how he teaches Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
For me, metaphysics is a practice. While theoretical, it is still something you do. If a qualifier is helpful, let’s call it lived metaphysics. I learned this from reading ancient metaphysics, especially Aristotle’s τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά. This sense of metaphysics as a lived practice inspired how I teach Elon University’s Ancient Philosophy class. The constant theme of our class is: metaphysics is not a rarified, merely theoretical discipline, but is an activity, a practice. Metaphysics is something you really do. The question was how to turn this into a class.
Here are the four main ways I teacher ancient metaphysics as a practice. First, I turned Aristotle’s Metaphysics into a five-act Shakespeare-inspired play and used that to structure the course. Second, I turned Act I, which focuses on the moments in pre-Socratic philosophy that Aristotle discusses in Book I, into a series of experiential learning exercises. I developed these with the always creative and inspiring Rob Leib of Florida Atlantic University. Third, the students’ semester-long writing assignment was to write their own metaphysical treatises, as well as critique each other’s treatises and then re-write their own in response to their peers’ critiques. Fourth, students performed what I call metaphysical ekphrases. Read more
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.
I am a little more than one week in to teaching my ancient survey. This is my second time starting with Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I know that sounds wild, but I think Aristotle sets up principles that make it easier for students to see what the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod are doing, and he gives us a lot of vocabulary for thinking about what counts as knowledge. My theme for the course as a whole as a search for a good measure. I like to frame the beginnings of Greek thinking as the opening up of and taking seriously of the question of whether we have or need proper measures for living and knowing. I teach Plato’s Euthyphro and Protagoras after Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod and then I come back to the Nicomachean Ethics at the end. I think it works well, but I’ve been trying to find ways to get students to engage more actively with the texts earlier on in the semester, especially since the Metaphysics is hard.
I’ve also been recently inspired by colleagues at Ball State whose workshops I attended when I gave the keynote at the Conference for Pre-College Philosophical Engagement in April. Matthew Hotham and Jen Howland both ran workshops where they had students do an active exercise in order to think through some complicated concepts. Jen set up a capitalist regime where only she owned the means of production and the rest of us had to fight with one another, organize against her, get co-opted as law enforcement and snitches — what started as just a simple claim she made at the beginning articulating the terms ballooned into an intricate representation of how capital works including how it draws on principles of competition and insecurity in the community. It was very cool. I was not able to pull something like that off in the discussion of the law of non-contradiction. What I did was more like what Matt did in his group. First he asked students to define a religion. Then he gave out packets that included a slip of paper that described a religion and asked people to decide whether it really was a religion and to think about what standards they used to make that judgment. It forced students to think about why they used the standards they did and whether they should always apply.
I did something a little bit like that. I printed out ten slips of paper with various claims from the second half of Aristotle’s Metaphysics IV. These were claims that Aristotle uses as examples to say either that the person was violating the ban on contradiction or was invoking it even if they claimed to deny the need for such a ban. For example, the first one was, say something that is meaningful to you and to someone else. Aristotle says to do this and thus to differentiate oneself from a plant is to invoke the law of non-contradiction. Another one said, to avoid tripping in the well, an action that implies that you are stating that tripping in the well is bad, not not-bad. I divided students into groups and asked them to explain how the claim on their paper either violated the ban or invoked it. We started the exercise on Wednesday when they had only read the first several chapters of IV where Aristotle sets up the need for the starting-point of theoretical knowledge and then articulates it. Then students had to read the rest of the book where Aristotle says he can’t demonstrate the truth of the claim but he can refute anyone who denies it. Students then had to reference the reading to explain how their claim would violate or invoke the ban on contradiction. Read more
Yesterday at breakfast I proposed a thesis about the structure of Socratic questioning that my friend John Bova once put to me as we were reading the Charmides together in Greek. His thesis that I have found useful is that Socrates’s interlocutors often begin with a definition that is a particular, like quietness in the Charmides, whose problem is that it lacks a sense of the good. But then when the good is offered as a definition of the virtue, as Critias does in the Charmides, it lacks any concrete meaning. Socrates is then dialectically trying to pull together the concrete sense with the good, or my way of understanding this is to concretize the good. Bova talks about this in terms of a Badiouian kind of diagonalization, but I think it could be understood as manifesting the good in the production of the self.
My colleague Kevin Miles responded to my claim rather forcefully. He said, what could that possibly mean? Like me, Kevin doesn’t think that the good has a metaphysical reality in Plato’s dialogues. What could I have meant by the good? We spent an hour or so over breakfast working it out. My colleague Lew Cassity thinks of the dialectical interplay in terms of weighing pleasures and pains. We tried to get to the point, not where we agreed with one another as much as where we understood what we each were saying. It looks awhile. Along the way there were moments of real tension, maybe even frustration, but in working it out, I found the disagreements themselves helped illuminate and clarify what we were thinking. Without the disagreement, the specificity would not have been reached. Read more
Tomorrow I leave for a month in Europe. I feel bad because everything seems to be going poorly and I’m leaving. Maybe I just need to be on the road, not checking the news and social media all the time, to come back for a better fight. I am spending the first week thinking and talking about ancient pedagogy in Athens with my GLCA ancient philosophy collaborators and a colleague at the American College of Greece, then a couple weeks bouncing around southern Europe with some friends, and then a week at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in Italy, talking about Aristotle.
In the midst of everything going on, I’ve been thinking about why Plato and Aristotle matter right now, or ever. Miranda Pilipchuk recently wrote about the need to decolonize the canon where she talks about studying Plato and Aristotle for the sake of understanding the tradition without denying their contribution to marginalizing women and people of color in the field. She’s right. But I’m also interested in reading these philosophers against the way the tradition has read them to marginalize these folks, reading Plato in conversation with Baldwin, for example, or Aristotle against various traditions that use references to nature to exclude or oppress those deemed more natural than rational.
But lately I’ve also been thinking about the practices of reading as a practice for just community. Given the various aporiae Plato investigates and articulates concerning teaching and learning virtue, it would seem almost impossible to learn virtue from another. Virtue is learned not as a set of propositions. One cannot know before she knows what virtue is whether the person teaching virtue and justice knows it. The solution seems to be that each person needs to investigate for themselves and not take anyone else’s view without examining it and themselves carefully. Reading Plato’s dialogues themselves seems like a practice in this kind of learning. Jill Frank argues in Poetic Justice that reading Plato is a democratic practice, that Plato doesn’t present his city or its education or his critique of poets in order for the reader to take them in hand as truth. This makes sense given the difficulties he raises across the corpus about learning virtue. Instead, Plato has Socrates present these accounts for the reader to grapple with, to discern and investigate context and connections and to be changed by the investigation. It seems that the engagement with the text also prepares us to really listen to the calls of justice from others, and to see the difference between the account that looks good and the account that is good, between the desire for power for power’s sake and the desire for power to improve the world.
So yes, that’s me, again with Plato and Aristotle.
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, which frankly seems like a scheme to make the appreciation come in the form of useless cards and treats rather than cost of living raises and the securing of pensions. Apparently, it began in 1980 sanctioned by Congress originally as one day in March, but then in 1985 the AFT rallied to move it to a full week–the first full week of May. Today, May 8 is Teacher Appreciation Day.
A couple things have got me feeling particularly sympathetic to K-12 teachers this year. For one, I spent a lot of time in the last several weeks expending some effort on behalf of a student that finally came to a good result and I’m very happy about it. But this work took a considerable amount of my time at a very busy part of the semester, and up until the very end when the happy result was achieved it felt like it was going nowhere. Good teachers at underfinanced schools do this kind of thing all the time. The extent to which it was emotionally exhausting to me gave me renewed appreciation and empathy for public school teachers.
Yesterday I was going through some old papers, looking for my autograph from Ollie North on the occasion of his ascendancy to the presidency of the National Rifle Association. And I found a note that my ninth grade English teacher wrote to me when I graduated from high school (see photo above). Mr. Bender had a sign over the chalkboard in his classroom that read “Homer Nods.” Homer nods, Mr. Bender would explain to every new class of girls at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, means that even great geniuses, literary and otherwise, make mistakes. My senior year I was selected as one of the graduates to speak at graduation on the basis of my submitted speech I called “Homer nods.” I can’t even remember what it was about now. Probably something about humility amidst our capacity for greatness.
Mr. Bender would argue with me in the hallway even after I was no longer his student about the finer points of grammar. He thought I was wrong to pronounce “harassment” with the emphasis on the middle syllable. He joked about HARassing me to pronounce it correctly. I was happy to show him that the dictionary included both pronunciations. Even Homer nods.
Neither he nor I had any way of knowing that I would become a specialist in ancient Greek thinking, that whether Homer really nodded would become a live question for me, that I would become a student of those for whom Homer had been the teacher. I didn’t know then the poetry of the teacher telling the student that even the great educator of the Greeks fell short. I didn’t know how provocative the notion that the Greeks might have been educated by a nodding teacher could be, or perhaps the notion that all teachers nod.
I found this note in which Mr. Bender inverts the meaning of nod from making a mistake to signaling approval and I thought, how very Greek this poetic recasting would be. The teacher nods and nods. And this I appreciate.
Yesterday, after yoga I thanked the teacher for the encouragement in class and he said, “It’s a pleasure to watch you work.” It got me thinking about how the encouragement and positive feedback motivates me to work through the difficult parts of class. When I was in graduate school, I worked for a test prep company where I taught classes and also trained teachers for them. One of the regular strategies that we were supposed to teach was that teachers should provide consistent positive feedback to students, even if students were struggling. Evidence shows that encouragement motivates students to do more work.
Perhaps that point is obvious. And yet, in the classroom, I find myself focusing more on making students aware of their deficits in order to get them to work. In the same way that I sometimes hold back insight in order to motivate insight, I sometimes hold back encouragement to get students to see that more work, more thinking needs to be done. Obviously, it takes judgment. Sometimes students need to be made aware that they are not fulfilling expectations. But often, students need affirmation for the work they are doing in order to be motivated to do more and better work. Read more
At least once a year, I teach a small upper division seminar course that is heavy on discussion. I have been working on strategies to get students to talk through issues that their classmates raise rather than to jump from one free associated comment to another or to think discussion is just asking their classmates to explain things. Last summer I saw some movie about an improv troupe in which they did this exercise where one person started with a name and then the next person had to say something related to that name and the next person something related to that and so forth.
It occurred to me that this exercise could help students think about how to listen to one another and to respond in related ways. During the third week of class, after we had tried to discuss and ran into the typical problems–students don’t pursue issues after the first response, students don’t directly take up issues their classmates raise, students jump quickly to other issues and remain on the surface for all of them, or students speak just to ask clarifying questions rather than to build on ideas–I started class introducing this game. Read more
I want students to write papers in which they genuinely engage a question that is motivated by the text and their own curiosity in which they come to an insight worth sharing. Getting students to this place in their writing is the biggest challenge of my teaching life. One of the difficulties is that students think of writing as a technical endeavor. They are given a prompt. They need to find a thesis that they think that can support based on evidence they can find in the text. They set to work writing the paper by looking for the evidence and then choose a thesis that is most supportable. This approach to writing papers short-circuits the stage of thinking. It is to this stage that I try to return students and get them to work. The problem is that it feels to students like flying without a net. They do not have experience with being asked to think. They do not have experience with being asked to take their own questions and insights and concerns seriously.
This last semester, instead of giving prompts in which I tried to motivate their thinking and then hoping it would push them into the gap for thinking they tend to short-circuit, I told them explicitly that this process of finding their own puzzles and problems was what I was expecting. It helped that in the class I did this most explicitly in, we were reading Aristotle and talking about how wonder is the source for philosophizing because when we come to an impasse, we are motivated to think. I asked them to think about what the impasses in the reading were for them and why and then to delve further into the reading to try to work through their impasses. The very first paper in this class was explicitly on what causes them to wonder in the world at large, and how they understand this process of wonder in the pursuit of knowledge better in light of reading the first several pages of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Read more
Today is the first day of the new semester. Last semester I returned to teaching from a year-long sabbatical. I returned refreshed and tenured (I had already taught with tenure for one semester before my sabbatical as Wabash graciously completes the tenure process in one semester). The year off was good for my research, as we generally understand sabbaticals to be. But it was also good for my teaching. It was good for my teaching as a rest. Recent research shows that the ability to do well over time depends on rest and recovery. It is good to give your mind time off from the tasks that consume you.* I took time off from thinking about teaching to focus on a book project. Ideas for teaching occurred to me in the midst of that work, but I wasn’t trying to come up with ideas for teaching. In planning for last semester, I decided to do some creative non-obvious approaches to organizing my courses because I felt a certain freedom from expectations and a willingness to do what I thought would work rather than what was the typical structure of a course.
As I reflect on how things went, I see four things that I did this semester that made for more successful teaching, four things that were made possible in part by having tenure and then having a sabbatical.
- Slowing down
- Being authentic
- Getting clearer about expectations
- Doing more introduction and transitional set-up
Each of these elements contributed to my goal in teaching to encourage students to engage in the philosophical classroom as thinkers rather than consumers of knowledge. Read more