On Being a ‘Professional Philosopher’, Contd.

In my previous post on being a professional philosopher, I had emphasized the scholarly world: publishing, writing, theoretical orientation etc. Today, I want to take note of another very important duty of the modern professional philosopher: teaching.

Most philosophers in the modern university teach a mixture of classes: the introductory ‘service’ courses, which in many curricula form part of some sort of ‘Core’; required ‘bread-n-butter’ courses that fulfill the requirements for a major; and lastly, some advanced electives, either on specialized topics or particular philosophers. The requirements for a major tend to be organized around the chunkiest, most conventional, divisions of philosophical subject matter: metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, social and political philosophy, philosophy of science, logic, ethics, and perhaps aesthetics. (And of course, ‘period’ courses like ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy and modern philosophy.) Anything else generally goes into the ‘elective’ category: American philosophy, Asian philosophy, philosophy of physics, advanced logic, pragmatism, etc. That is, philosophy curricula bear the imprint of a very particular understanding of their division into ‘areas’; later, in graduate school, these will become ‘areas of specialization’ or ‘areas of expertise’ for job market CVs.

The syllabi for these courses also show a conventional understanding of their content, which is why published anthologies for both introductory service courses (taught to non-philosophy majors) and required courses for majors are so widely available. The reading lists of these anthologies show a great deal of commonality and given the onerous teaching loads of most philosophy professors–unless they happen to have a low teaching load at a rich private university–almost always ensures the adoption of the path of least resistance: the selection of a generic anthology for teaching.  Among required courses too, metaphysics, epistemology, social and political philosophy are very often taught using anthologies with fairly conventional reading lists; there is also sometimes a broad understanding of which topics are to be given emphasis even in a period class (for instance classes on modern philosophy invariably concentrate on metaphysics and epistemology via Descartes, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Spinoza and Kant; there is little note of the social and political philosophy, ethics or aesthetics of the same period.) There is often more creativity visible as you move up the curricular food chain: electives and special topics seminars generally are blessed with more creative syllabi.

The readings for philosophy classes are almost always drawn from ‘philosophy’ texts written by men. Despite the increasing presence of women in the modern philosophy world, they do not figure prominently in reading lists. And neither does material from other sources: novels, political pamphlets, public commentary, poems, movies, artworks (unless in specialized contexts like aesthetics courses).  The corpus of ‘philosophy’ thus acquires a distinct definition for the student and the professor alike.

Without actively changing syllabi, teaching assignments or curricular reform on an ongoing basis, most philosophy professors will teach the same material organized in the same way quite frequently, if not all the time. Many philosophy professors prefer teaching in their own ‘areas’, thus minimizing the time spent transitioning from their scholarship to the teaching; most will not like to teach a new or unfamiliar subject area (indeed, they will often not be so assigned); very often, the inclination on both fronts–the administrative and the professorial–is to get a ‘lock-on’ and stay there. Administrative requirements for minimum enrollment for classes ensures anyway, that most electives will not be offered and when they are, will not run because of lack of enrollment. (Departments guard their course offerings zealously; if another department wants to offer a ‘related’ course, it must seek approval from philosophy. For instance, a History of Hellenic Political Thought offered by say, history or classics, will need clearance from philosophy.)

Teaching as a professional philosopher requires generally, the provision of a list of readings and some written assignments to students; these are often accompanied by exhortations that students concentrate on the primary sources and disdain secondary ones (at least until the primary has been adequately tackled). Students are asked to ‘write like philosophers’ and often given handouts that tell them how a ‘philosophy paper’ is to be constructed, how arguments are to be analyzed and so on. The conduct of a class is also supposed to follow a generalized template: read the material before class, discuss arguments with professor in class. (Thanks to the volatility of insufficiently disciplined, conformist or trained student bodies, this template is very rarely followed.)

This definition of the subject matter of philosophy via its preparatory reading lists into particular subject areas,  emphases and valorizations is part of the education of a professional philosopher; it is where the community comes to realize the discipline’s boundaries, those that will be preserved and fought for in the broader world by departments, professional societies, and publication fora.

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