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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Letting Students Write the Rules

I mentioned before that I’m driving to the University of Kentucky eSports Lounge this weekend to give a talk on how rules structure a classroom.

But lately I’ve been wondering:

Why are so many philosophy classes structured the exact same way?

Most philosophy courses I’ve taken, sat in on, or TA’d for share this in common: We want students to know the Canonical texts and Important views in some subject—philosophy of music, epistemology, metaethics, whatever you like. So the professor assigns readings and prepares accompanying lectures. Students are assigned three or four essays to assess their growing competence. Finally, we give them grades so the middle of the curve will be somewhere in the B’s. Ta-da!

These classes are lovingly designed, often very good, and much more unique than I’ve made them sound. Still, they do have the same basic structure. And it doesn’t have to be that way!

But to be honest, we don’t teach syllabus writing very imaginatively. I was told that for the job market, I would need to make an extended teaching portfolio with seven or eight completed syllabi that I could talk about in interviews.

So I did.

But this process really encourages you to think of a syllabus as a mastered reading list interspersed with occasional assignments. And then, the process above makes sense.

Say you have to teach Intro Ethics. Hoo boy, what can’t you miss? Well you have to cover Utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill…) and Deontology (Kant) and Virtue Ethics (Aristotle, maybe something fun like Nick Riggle’s On Being Awesome) and you might have time at the end for some applied stuff.

Just split your reading list into three or four sections with concluding essay prompts aaand you’re done!

All you had to do was go on autopilot and recreate the classes you’ve been in before.

(I think that’s basically how a lot of social practices are reproduced.)

While my sample syllabi do vary a bit in terms of assignments and structure and expectations—Hi there! I am a competent job applicant—given more time, I’d still like to make the syllabi I’m teaching this fall a bit more dynamic.

After all, a syllabus looks kind of like the rules of a game.

I’d like to think students taking my class are playing a game on Suit’s definition, though I should ask them what they think next time.

After all, my students are trying to:

  1. achieve a specific state of affairs (get good grades)

  2. using only means permitted by rules (no plagiarism)

  3. where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means (No, ChatGPT can’t write it for you in five seconds.)

  4. and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity. (You wouldn’t want a worthless degree...but yes, “just because” looks optimistic.)

Suits also has a “more portable” definition:

playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles

When you play chess, you choose to try to checkmate me, so now your knights have to move in L’s. (They didn’t before.)

So even if you “have” to take my class because it’s the last one scheduled that meets your degree requirement, you don’t really have to be here in college—do you? (If you’re only here at gunpoint, Suits agrees you’re not playing anymore.)

I guess some students may feel genuinely obligated to go to college, or to earn a college degree to invest in their career earnings. College is probably useful for your future, and I’m sure many treat it like work as a result.

But supposing you’ve voluntarily chosen to pursue a college education, that’s what you’re getting right now! Degree requirements are part of that, kind of like moving the knights in L’s is part of chess.

In choosing to play a game, we willingly bind ourselves to its rules—and hope the experience will be worth it.

So why not write a syllabus worth playing?

Why not negotiate at least some of what we’re reading on the syllabus?

Why not let students share their own interests and expertise so we can build and tailor the syllabus together? We’ll have better discussions and assignments!

Why not try something different?

It’s something I’ll experiment with going forward.

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