Diversity in the Philosophy Classroom

Diversity in the Philosophy Classroom, by Kate Brelje

As I think about diversity in my everyday life in philosophy, my thoughts are pulled towards teaching. Diversifying the philosophy classroom is essential, not only for inclusion of more individuals, but also for creativity and improving our philosophical inquiry.

In my own classroom, I’ve been developing tools for doing this. One of the front lines of diversification is the syllabus. Not all subject matters or pre-concocted syllabi allow much room for an instructor’s creativity and freedom – but most allow at least a little wiggle room. This wiggle room is essential for getting broader representation of authors and philosophical approaches. Getting new readings in on the ground floor allows students to witness the sheer breadth of philosophical thought and might help facilitate them finding representation of themselves in our broad tradition.

The second level of diversification is classroom activities. By broadening the ways that we talk about and witness philosophy, both academically and in the world, we can gain insight into all the ways philosophy could be meaningful to particular students. This might be a segment of John Oliver, who often at the very least provides short segments ordered around an argument on topics such as the death penalty, mass incarceration, and nuclear weapons. Or it might be an array of art examples, or a volunteer project, or a film. By extending the application of philosophy outside of the classroom, we can show students how what we’re doing, albeit occasionally esoteric, connects to their practical lives. But if the subject matter one’s teaching isn’t so easily applicable, even having different internal course structures – quizzes, surveys, discussions, question and answer sessions, debates, and town halls – can help students find a way that they best access the information.

A third level of diversification that I am going to appreciate is a transition from professor/instructor focused instruction to student focused instruction. Over the course of the semester, I move the structure of my class from interactive lecture, to large group discussions led and developed entirely by students, to individual student research presentations. This gradual transition, punctuated by group speakers, helps diversify participation in classroom instruction. It offers students a chance to participate in their learning direction – by guiding and building it, rather than having an instructor dominated education. I help to lay the conceptual foundations in the first part of the semester, so that we can all build the discussion together, using shared conceptual vocabulary. Finally, students are able to present their own research and insights, fully transitioning to intellectual leaders and participants in the classroom, and hopefully beyond.

This may not be the type of diversification that you expected to read about on a MAP blog. But I think it ties into the more MAP focused types of diversity in an essential way. By starting the conversation with everyone on board, so to speak, and facilitating every students’ capacity for leadership in the classroom, we can, in minor but important ways, assert the value and capabilities of each individual’s contribution. When students are supported in their learning in the classroom, they can better see themselves as worthy students of philosophers, as people who can gain something from philosophical learning and contribute to furthering philosophical thought. This requires alternative conduits for the teaching and doing of philosophy.