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Two Hurdles

After teaching a first year seminar using the IF method for a second time, I’m reflecting on the usefulness of student-centered discussion for this population of students.  My classes have faced two hurdles which have been very difficult to clear: the abstract nature of philosophical aesthetics and the students’ lack of experience in college.  The topics I ask them to discuss – primarly “what is art?” and associated questions, are big, daunting topics.  They are the kinds of topics that intrigued me as an undergraduate, and I found that I could discuss them all day.  But of course, I became a philosopher, whereas none of these students come to the course with that interest.  Our students are required to take a first-year seminar, and most of the ones who select my seminar are interested in art, but don’t comprehend what it is to ask philosophical questions about art.  So that’s a big hurdle.

The second hurdle is provided by their 12+ years of traditional education.  They come to college expecting to listen to teachers talk, read textbooks and take tests designed to determine how well they’ve absorbed the content supplied by the teacher and the textbook.  This educational model asks that they provide zero direction or motivation to learn.  The motivation to do well is supplied entirely by the desire for an A or the fear of an F, or both.  When I put such students into a student-centered discussion and ask them to facilitate their own discussions, they wind up lost.  A few get the idea, and jump right in, and they get a lot out of the discussions.  But the majority of them don’t understand what they’re doing, and it’s amazing that I can explain it to them several times, model good facilitation, show them examples of the outcome of a fruitful discussion, and usually it’s weeks later when they finally catch a glimmer of what I’m asking them to do.  Then they forget that and go back to their old ways. 

One of the hardest lessons for them to learn this semester was that intelligent people can disagree about an important topic.  Many of them never did learn this.  I tried to emphasize that they should think from different perspectives and develop multiple responses to the questions they were asking, explaining that there can be more than one plausible point of view.  One of the groups submitted a final report that showed that they still didn’t get this.  All of their alternate possibilities really just merged into one possibility by the end of the report.  I chalk this up to inexperience on their part.  As college professors, we all see the occasional breakthroughs with our students – someone realizes for the first time that her settled beliefs might be wrong, or that there’s something valuable about an opposing viewpoint.  Being able to look at the world from diverse perspectives is something a college education can provide, but I can’t push that lesson on my students, and if they’re not ready to learn it, they flounder in their group discussions.

Most of my students learned a fair amount, but the road was not an easy one, for them or for me.  I’m hesitant to try this a third time, because the two hurdles stack one on top of the other, creating a barrier few of the students can surmount.  I’m considering two possible options: (1) implement the IF method in upper-division classes; and (2) teach an IF first-year seminar on a less abstract topic.  I tried the first, in a limited fashion, last Spring.  I taught a 300-level course in the philosophy of fiction and I set aside half a dozen class periods for small group discussion with the students taking turns facilitating.  The discussions were much more focused and the topics were better developed than in my first-year seminar, so I might do this again.  I’ve considered the second option as well, although I struggle with the subject matter.  Our first-year seminars are discipline-based, so as a philosopher, the class will be on some topic of philosophical interest, and that immediately tends towards the abstract and theoretical.  So I’m not done with the IF method in my classes, but I need to re-tool my courses to make it work well.