Established orthodoxy indicates that the ideal pedagogical method centers on small, discussion-based classes. Such a model enables "active learning" that, coupled with on-the-spot guidance from a skilled faculty member, is much more likely to change deep thought patterns than traditional lecture-based approaches. The emphasis shifts from the assimilation of content (and its regurgitation) to learning how to learn — how to be a better reader, how to think more critically and creatively, how to collaborate with others in the task of learning.
Few would doubt that this model sounds very appealing. Yet the experience of many educators inclines them to believe that it is unrealistic. Students, it seems, are generally too unmotivated to make it work. As a result, discussion falls into the all-too-familiar patterns: a mostly silent classroom tunes out as the same students dominate the conversation, more intent on getting “participation points” than advancing anyone’s understanding. Even worse, students apparently don’t regard the discussion model as an ideal and often actively prefer lectures. After all, why should they have to listen to the free associations of their peers when they’re paying a lot of money to have access to an expert? Thus, teaching evaluations often push us away from current thinking on “best practices.”
My early experience in teaching also led me to believe that the discussion model was overhyped. Yes, it could work in grad school or even in upper-level courses — but first-year students just didn’t know enough. Everything changed, though, when I started teaching at Shimer College, a small liberal arts institution in Chicago with a distinctive discussion-centered pedagogy based on a Great Books curriculum. Within the first few weeks of teaching there, I realized that the central problem with the pedagogical ideal of small, discussion-based classes is that hardly anyone is really doing it. Many pay lip service to it, but administrative pressure to increase class sizes and a lack of buy-in from faculty ensures that the ideal model always remains a supplement to more traditional methods.
What Shimer’s approach showed me is that if you’re going to do a discussion-centric model, it has to be the main event. I think of the skills required to succeed in such a pedagogical model as a foreign language—you can’t learn them in a handful of supplementary discussion sections per week. The very best way to learn them, of course, is through immersion. The way this works at Shimer is that every single class, from day one, is a small, discussion-centric class, where class participation accounts for roughly half of a student’s final grade. There is no way to “opt out” of the hard work of discussion: students have to figure out how to learn in this style if they are going to succeed at all.
First-year courses can certainly be difficult, though the amount of progress from the first to the second semester is often remarkable. All the familiar pitfalls of class discussion make an appearance: the vague free-association, the off-topic remarks, the sense of competing monologues that don’t quite come together into a real conversation. The faculty’s primary job in these class sessions isn’t so much to supply content as to help students get over these problems and become productive participants.
The key to cultivating a productive discussion, in my view, is Shimer’s Great Books curriculum. Many associate such curricula with cultural conservatism and a narrow focus on “dead white males,” but that is misleading. For me, the importance of the model stems from three crucial pedagogical advantages. First, it provides a center of reference and authority for the classroom other than the professor — or the students’ own personal opinions. The standard for whether students are on-topic is whether they can support their views from the text, and the standard for whether a remark is helpful is whether it advances our understanding of the text. Second, the emphasis on reading primary source texts means that the texts reward and require discussion. In contrast to a textbook or an introductory secondary source, primary sources don’t come “pre-digested” and must be worked on.
Third, it allows us to get past the dreaded “why are we reading this” syndrome: the model guarantees that the texts under discussion are always widely agreed to be worthy of attention. The exact configuration of core texts of course varies from school to school. St. John’s College, for example, one of the leading Great Books institutions in the country and an indispensable point of reference for all such programs, takes a basically chronological approach in its core reading list, with a strong emphasis on classical antiquity and without much concern for disciplinary boundaries — but still with considerable diversity, particularly in the modern period. Shimer’s core curriculum follows what’s known as the Hutchins model, which is divided into the three primary disciplinary areas of humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and includes a greater emphasis on more contemporary works. Other colleges use other models, but the shared feature is a concern to choose texts that students will agree that one “should” read — with no requirement than any text be written by someone who is dead, white, male, or any of the above.
The combination of the discussion model with the use of primary texts creates a situation where students are forced to take responsibility for their own education. Instead of getting the material pre-digested in the form of lectures and introductory textbooks, they have to grapple with it themselves. Class sessions then become a chance to actively work on the text with an experienced faculty member and a group of similarly-motivated peers. To me, the real turning point in a Shimer education comes when students come to fully understand this and hold themselves and each other accountable for their contributions. Things don’t automatically go smoothly after that point — people are people, after all, and personalities are bound to clash in unpredictable ways — but the older students generally take an active role in working to solve the problems that do arise, rather than tuning out when things don’t go to their liking.
All this leads me to believe that when the ideal model is used in a thorough-going, uncompromising way, it really is ideal. Yet I can already anticipate an objection: this all sounds great, but it would cost too much. In an era when colleges and universities are constantly trying to cut costs through large classes and online education, Shimer’s approach admittedly may seem unrealistic. I believe, however, that it’s not a matter of “cost” in an abstract sense, but rather a matter of priorities. At Shimer, the priority is classroom instruction, and everything else takes a back seat to that. We have no athletic programs, a relatively low number of administrators (with academic administrative responsibilities rotating among current faculty members), and no buildings to maintain (we lease space from the Illinois Institute of Technology). Faculty salaries are lower than average, but aside from a handful of courses (taught by semi-retired faculty members or administrators with academic expertise), all teaching is done by full-time faculty. Overall, Shimer manages to remain faithful to its model while keeping tuition levels comparable to other small liberal arts schools — without having the luxury of a large endowment.
Another possible objection is that the outcome is ideal because Shimer students are ideal — this would never work at a less selective institution. It is true that Shimer students, like the students at basically all small liberal arts colleges, tend to be more privileged by most measures. Even more crucial, in my view, is the fact that Shimer’s student body tends to be very self-selecting: students are very clear about what the college is offering, and they aren’t going to attend if they aren’t interested in our pedagogical model.
I’ve spoken of the lack of faculty buy-in at other institutions, but I think this points to an even more important factor: student buy-in. If students don’t care, if they’re enrolled for utilitarian reasons and have no intrinsic love of learning, they will most likely wind up failing — and dragging the class down with them. Hence it seems to me that less-selective institutions could offer an optional program for interested students, much like those at two of the City Colleges of Chicago (Harold Washington and Wilbur Wright Colleges). Shimer has worked with Harold Washington in particular for many years, and several of their Great Books students have ultimately finished their four-year degrees at Shimer as a result. Many other community colleges around the country have found success with Great Books programs as well.
The more difficult problem, though, is what to do with students who have the motivation, but are less academically prepared. Shimer deals with this in part through an innovative scholarship program where students come to campus for a day to simulate the kinds of discussion and writing we require — and they can earn a full-tuition scholarship on the strength of their performance alone, regardless of their official credentials. However, one could argue that that merely allows us to reach students who really do already have the skills, but haven’t signaled those skills in the accepted ways. One might suspect that something similar is going on in community college programs, which often tend to attract the more precocious students.
One potential solution might be to organize the core curriculum, at least in the early stages, explicitly around difficulty or accessibility. This might mean starting with more contemporary works (Toni Morrison rather than Shakespeare, for example) or works with more immediate contemporary relevance (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish rather than Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason). It might also mean focusing on works that appeal with particular urgency to one’s target population. For instance, a Great Books program serving students on the South Side of Chicago might do well to lead off with great works in the African-American tradition, then branch into other intellectual traditions with which those works are in dialogue.
More broadly, a new Great Books program that aims to serve underprepared students should be bold and experimental, ruthlessly cutting works that fail to reach students and reaching in unexpected directions for those that do. If one needs to start with films and graphic novels in order to get the discussion started, even that shouldn’t be out of bounds if one embraces the view that the point of the Great Books curriculum isn’t solely to represent a particular vision of our cultural heritage, but to cultivate a collaborative learning environment that allows and requires students to take an active role in their own education.
Developing ways to make this type of curriculum more widely available is hugely important as a matter of justice — why shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to try their hand at the “ideal” pedagogical model? On my more cynical days, I do agree with the view that there are some students who are simply never going to be motivated enough to do this kind of work, who are in college just because their parents are making them, or because they feel like they vaguely “should” be, or because they want to get a good job. Yet I don’t think its idealistic or unrealistic to assume that there are students who really do love learning and who are coming to college to pursue that love, at least in part.
In fact, I think we should ask ourselves whether our supposed “realism” about students’ abilities and motivations is foreclosing the possibility for students to really blossom. We should consider the possibility that it is precisely the more passive instructional methods that we “realistically” embrace that in part produce the “reality” (boredom, instrumentalization of learning) that those methods are supposedly responding to. Under different circumstances, perhaps even some of my best Shimer students could have wound up resigning themselves to tuning out and resentfully waiting for the professor to just tell them what’s on the test — and by the same token, I suspect that some of those bored students could be successful in a model like Shimer’s if given the chance.
As James Baldwin draws to a close his 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” — eventually pitting Richard Wright’s Native Son against Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin — one reads: “But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being…” What I once heard in these words was a call to the humanities: Our humanities are our burden.
Rather than leave the humanities by the side of the road what is more difficult is to accept the stacks and stacks of them at our disposal and find or make a use for them in the curriculum of liberal arts education. More to the point, Baldwin’s essay seemed a dare to me, personally. He dared me, while hewing syllabi on the south side of Chicago, to make use of the protest novel (be it by Stowe or Wright), regardless of its alleged shortcomings. So, I assigned both Stowe and Wright in my next ethics class, which resulted in months of lively, original, and unplanned discussions comparing and contrasting both of them with various motifs in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.
Most of the students were excited to read what they considered to be classics. What was more impressive and joyful to watch unfold was the way by the Wright’s and Stowe’s characters and narratives — regardless of what Baldwin sees as their shortcomings — gave the students a working and almost personalized vocabulary with which to interpret, analyze, and comprehend many of Nietzsche’s themes and insights. This allowed Nietzsche’s lofty rhetoric to seem a little less distant and, at least by way of Bigger Thomas, the transvalution of values became applicable on 95th Street. The very idea that Stowe, Wright, and Nietzsche were not made to be read alongside one another or that our doing so, in this class, was in some way strange was never voiced.
I do not teach in a Great Books curriculum, but I am a believer. I am not ashamed of the Great Books. If teaching at St. John’s or Shimer College represents a certain institutionalized kind of Great Books orthodoxy, then I am at least a layman of the Great Books, if not an iconoclast, and maybe even a heretical reformer. Whether from my own personal hubris, naïveté or arrogance, I believe that it is part of my job to choose the Great Books or, at the very least, to choose what great texts could be used this semester to illuminate or drive home the key points or high notes of this particular class. If this means that I am destined to vulgarity by allowing myself to teach and read texts that may never grace the annals of official Greatness, it is only because the owl of Minerva begins its flight only at the fall of dusk.
Chicago State University is the oldest public university in the Chicago metropolitan area. Its student body is comprised overwhelmingly of minority students; most of whom are black or African-American and, judging from the enrollments in my class, the majority of whom are women rather than men. Many are products of the Chicago Public School system. In my philosophy classes at Chicago State I advocate a discussion-based classroom that some might call Socratic. The classes rely heavily on weekly intertextual adventures with primary sources. I do not assign textbooks and rarely indulge in the use of anthologies. Class discussion and participation account for almost half of the overall grade. Although the students do take a sizable and challenging exam and must write a term paper of moderate length, they learn quickly that their true homework is to read multiple primary texts and find connections between them in order to illuminate, criticize, or supplement those very texts.
This does — credo! — contribute to an overall improvement in the caliber of their writing. I don’t teach my students how to write, but rather try to teach them how to read and, as such, to succor a love and appreciation of lifelong reading. This approach appears to inculcate in the student a vocation of scholastic responsibility. They consider it their job as college students to read, learn and master — as much as such a thing is possible — as many "classics" as they can be exposed to during the precious reading time allowed to them during their college years (which I constantly remind them is a luxury that they will all-too-soon come to miss) and, further (perhaps I should add Baldwin’s phrase, “infinitely more difficult”) not just use that information to spit out book reports and answer trivia questions, but rather craft an intelligence from that information by finding or creating a way by which this canonical intelligence sheds insight and comprehension on other fields of study and other non-canonical approaches.
If reaching an understanding is what they want to get out of a class (a teleological or practical ambition, which I leave up to them to decide), they are obliquely invited to consider that if they cannot use this understanding to understand something different or something more, then perhaps they (or we) have not understood it that well, at all. Students feel proud and confident when one of their own customized and idiomatic intertextual connections or tropes help another student in the discussion reach an understanding on a particular point that the latter may have missed without the help of the former. It is almost an epiphenomenal bonus that this cooperative understanding which emerges through class discussion comes about only by way of an applied cultural awareness and knowledge of classic or canonical texts.
This often requires a thematic approach to reading texts. It is important to get across to the students that this is not the only, nor the best, nor the most desirable way to read a text. But even this is a crucial opportunity to impress upon them that a text — specifically, the great texts — can and must be read in multiple ways and one is never, truly, done reading any of them regardless of their approach.
Rather than merely memorize the names and definitions from a list of informal logical mistakes, my classes will prepare for a discussion about such informal fallacies by reading from the speeches of Malcolm X, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I find that students are apt — more so than rehearsing such errors from textbooks — to grasp, remember, and even enjoy the intricacies of enallage and homonymy or the fallacies of amphiboly and accent after struggling with Slothrop’s various uses of “You never did the Kenosha kid” or the tragicomic dangers of equivocation after reading Uncle Toby tell Lady Wadman that she shall see the very place or put her finger on the very spot where he received his war wound.
Even the best and brightest students can fall into momentary disinterest if discussion seems to collapse into an exercise in bookishness or erudition for erudition’s sake. Glazed eyes, drooping heads, and the checking of text messages can accompany any litany of Latin names. But rather than let a species of anti-intellectualism take root and win the day, those very eyes and heads tend to brighten and perk up when such thoughts are addressed (or, better: applied) through the words of Malcolm X.
Argumentum ad populum feels a little closer to home when reading: “One of them will never come after one of you. They all come together.” Argumentum ad misericordiam has a little more gravity after reading: “With the skillful manipulation of the press, they’re able to make … the criminal look like the victim.” If the difference between ad hominem (circumstantial) and ad hominem (abusive) just isn’t clicking, it only helps to consider how: “in Asia or the Arab world or in Africa, where the Muslims are, if you find one who says he’s white, all he’s doing is using an adjective to describe something that’s incidental about him, one of his incidental characteristics; so there’s nothing else to it, he’s just white.” After that connection is made, it is easier to identify argumentum ad veracundiam when Malcolm compares that Muslim world to: “over here in America … when he says he’s white, he means the boss.” The fallacy of suppressed evidence or the Straw Man version of ignoratio elenchi seems less abstract while reading: “They take one little word out of what you say, ignore all the rest, and then begin to magnify it all over the world to make you look like what you actually aren’t.” The fallacy of composition (and, by contrast, division) is just waiting to be explained with Malcolm’s dinner table analogy: “Because all of us are sitting at the same table, are all of us diners? I’m not a diner until you let me dine. Then I become a diner. Just being at the table with others who are dining doesn’t make me a diner.”
These are just a few examples from only one of Malcolm’s speeches; the one delivered at Ford Auditorium in Detroit on February 14, 1965. (By the way, the students are more likely to remember the Latin names of the fallacies after experiencing them in action by Malcolm, even though he does not call them by their Latin names.) With the proper patience and an eye for detail, almost any of his speeches suffices as a dangerous supplemental text to both formal and informal logic. I’ve had similar success with Noam Chomsky’s Failed States. The same could be said for reading Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury” from Sister Outsider alongside René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy or Zora Neal Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain in tandem with Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (or, simply, the Bible).
It does not always work, of course. There are collateral failures. It does not go by unnoticed when a business major drops my business ethics course because reading a scant 20 lines from the Iliad about the problem of greed is not what the student wished to sign up for. And it is the case that some students simply aren’t prepared to jump into a whirlwind of primary readings. A student who misses one week of class can feel overwhelmed that he or she is already 300+ pages behind.
But being the vulgarian Great Bookist that I am, I can indulge in merely decent books (which is to say, more readily available and readable books) in order to get to the Great Books; to achieve, like Milo and his calf, a progressive resistance that can build up the reading muscles over a matter of weeks. Once a student, who has not yet given her or himself over to a consistent practice of reading or, perhaps, was simply never encouraged to do so, knocks out Kurt Vonnegut’s Galàpagos in a week — and is a bit surprised to have done so, quite easily — he or she is likely to make it through Aristotle’s Parts of Animals in the following weeks, and within a month is working through Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man with a working set of intertextual concepts that feel quite close to home.
There is, of course, a very real danger of such a curriculum coming off as a one-sided hermeneutic by which certain texts resistant to the status quo or stereotypical power codes of the established canon are only appreciated through the Eurocentric lens of that very canon. I can anticipate such criticism from thinkers and critics, whom I take very seriously and whose concerns I share, such as Amiri Baraka, Gayatri Spivak, or Edward Said. I do not think that an intertextual approach necessarily condemns one to making sense of resistant texts only by the yardstick or measure of accepted ones. James Baldwin did not need Dostoevsky to understand Richard Wright any more than Cornel West needs Chekhov to understand John Coltrane.
As cautious and concerned as I am of being complicit in various forms of Orientalism, Eurocentrism, or logocentrism I am even more concerned at allowing that caution to squelch the priceless and productive intertextual adventures that may result from refusing the separatism that forever quarantines the likes of Baldwin, Wright, Malcolm X, and Lorde to what Bertrand Russell calls “the evils of specialization” in The History of Western Philosophy as if they have nothing to teach — as dangerous supplements — to students also interested in Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, or Freud. But, once again, even this danger and problematic is a teachable moment in such classes by which to discuss and address the appropriateness or inappropriateness of such a curriculum. And you are likely able to end such a discussion in such a class — if such discussions or classes have ends — as I have, with Audre Lorde: “while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
Virgil W. Brower is full-time lecturer in Philosophy at Chicago State University, where he has taught for nine years while completing a dual-Ph.D. program with the Chicago Theological Seminary and Northwestern University in theology and comparative literature, respectively, with a home department in philosophy. He is author, most recently of, “Ethics is a Gustics" and “Speech and Oral Phenomena.”
The union for tenured and tenure-track faculty members at Macomb Community College, which has been independent of national unions since its founding in 1967, has voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers. Dawn Roberts, president of the Macomb Community College Faculty Organization, issued a statement in which she said: "MCCFO is a strong and effective union. But with the mounting attacks on unions and public K-16 education, it is imperative that we affiliate with the larger labor movement in order to remain viable and effective. AFT brings broad experience, effective representation, and technical expertise that will be of great benefit to our members."
In today’s Academic Minute, G. Thomas Couser of Hofstra University explains how memoir is often the precursor of social change and the increased acceptance of minority groups. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.