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Because philosophy involves questioning our most basic assumptions, it appeals to the rebellious. But it also requires clarity and rigor. To do philosophy well, one must balance willingness to criticize with respect for interlocutors, in pursuit of the best answer. It requires intellectual courage and skeptical playfulness. One must be an active partner in the conversation.

When concluding a personal identity unit of Introduction to Philosophy, in which we have read Hume, Locke, and Reid, I open class by asking, “What do you think makes you who you are? Why?” They collect their thoughts, draw up a one-minute argument to present to classmates, then debate the issue. Each participant is provided with ordered, color-coded flashcards to hand in with each comment, allowing those who have not yet spoken to “jump the queue” by holding up their first card. This levels the playing field for students hailing from a variety of cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom are first-generation college students.  It helps shy people to feel less singled out while preventing more talkative individuals from dominating the discussion. I use the whiteboard to keep track of ideas as they develop: for the personal identity debate, students bring up things the importance of memory, the impact of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, whether change is compatible with persistence, and the relative virtues of explanatory depth versus simplicity. This encourages the class to take each other’s contributions seriously and to work out answers collaboratively.

One important part of a humanities education is learning to read critically but sympathetically. Undergraduates often need resources to make sense of primary texts. In one exercise, I use a series of slides to look at passages of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, separating Kant’s descriptions of cases from the maxims he identifies for them, and his applications of the Categorical Imperative. Students generate maxims for the cases he describes, then apply the Categorical Imperative themselves. They compare their results with Kant’s, thereby becoming familiar with the method he proposes while evaluating his deployment of it.

I typically start class meetings with examples drawn from the week’s reading. For instance, in Ethics: Know Thyself, when discussing Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures, I ask the class to indicate, with a show of hands, whether they’d choose to become  “lower” animals, like hamsters, in exchange for a full share of hamster pleasures. Opening with a compelling example allows students to understand the major issues involved: here, the tension between the egalitarianism of valuing creature comforts, and the intuitive importance of more complex abilities. They return to these examples in written assignments, concluding a value theory unit by writing papers explaining why they would (or would not) opt to become hamsters, drawing on Mill and Bentham to support their thesis. 

I involve students in class content by assigning small groups the task of developing lectures to teach their classmates various portions of texts. For the topic of mind/body dualism, for example, groups present on letters from Descartes’ and Princess Elisabeth’s correspondence on the subject. Each group is provided a framework for the presentation: clarify the main thesis and supporting reasons, talk the class through an example, identify strengths and weaknesses of the approach, connect to other issues encountered in the course. This gives them incentive to make sense of the reading while showing them how lectures are put together, thus also enabling them to follow lecture portions more efficiently. 

Students who are included in each step of the process of developing a coherent, plausible argument finish the course equipped to participate in philosophical conversations.