Justice for goblins

Over at Aesthetics for Birds, Rebecca Scott posts about using D&D for teaching ethics. The activity sounds awesome. What struck me as relevant to my teaching, though, was something Scott writes about course design.

Typically when instructors plan courses, they are taught to use what’s called “backwards design.” You start with the learning outcomes (what you want students to know or be able to do by the end of the class) and then work backwards to design the activities and pick the readings that are most likely to help students achieve those outcomes. And while backwards design is an important element of good course design, if it becomes too all-encompassing as a pedagogical frame, it can close off generative possibilities in the classroom. Backwards design puts the instructor in the position of determining from the outset what the goals of the class are as well as how students will get there.

Of course, there are some specific learning objectives that most philosophy classes have. Students learn to recognize and analyze arguments. They learn to think, communicate, and argue more clearly.1

For students who are going on to take more philosophy courses, they should leave a course conversant with the works of thinker X, distinction Y, and a few other Zs that will help them in future courses. That’s just leading to more philosophy, though. The biggest payoff, an important reason to take philosophy classes at all, is less specific.

For the figures and ideas I teach, the value of engaging with them is hard to specify in advance. Thinking seriously about them is doing philosophy, and that’s what I’d like students to do in my courses. For myself, the lessons I’ve learned and the impact that these thinkers have had on my general view of the world is not something I can tally up as bullet-point learning outcomes. Moreover, I don’t expect or even want students to walk away with the same lessons. The material I’m teaching has more depth than I can say, and my task is just to help students get something out of it.

But you can’t write improve your weltanschauung on the syllabus.

  1. Formal logic courses are a different matter. Students are supposed to learn specific uses and manipulations of some logical languages, so learning outcomes are readily made explicit.

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