Getting Philosophy Syllabi Right

Student evaluations can be flattering; they can be unfair; they can be good reminders to get our act together. A few weeks ago, I received my student evaluations for the ‘Twentieth Century Philosophy’ class I taught this past spring semester. As I read them, I came upon one that brought me up short, because it stung:

I appreciated the professor’s enthusiasm about the early portion of the class, but I was annoyed that it resulted in the syllabus being rewritten so that the already extremely minimal number of female and minority voices was further reduced.

My initial syllabus included readings by: Russell, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Austin, Quine, Davidson, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, Beauvoir, Irigaray, Du Bois, Rawls, Macintyre, Dewey, Rorty, Taylor. In the first class meeting, I discovered half of my students had no prior background in philosophy. As a result, in the course of assigning and discussing Russell, Wittgenstein, and Ayer, I provided my students a crash course in introductory philosophy just so I could establish some elementary metaphysical and epistemological definitions and distinctions. This slowed us down considerably; I spent two weeks on Russell, two on Wittgenstein, and one on Ayer. Needless to say, I had to drop some portions of the syllabus. I could have shitcanned Ayer, but I ended up getting rid of Austin, Davidson, Heidegger, Irigaray, Rawls, Macintyre, Rorty, and Taylor. Drastic surgery indeed but by then, I had realized my original syllabus had been too ambitious–the length of some of the assigned excerpts was non-trivial for undergraduates–and that it was better to slow down, and get straight about the most important issues at play. (In my defense, I will make the claim–one confirmed by some students–that I was able to show my students how twentieth century analytical philosophy of language was relevant to our reading and understanding of Foucault, Gadamer, and Derrida.)

Some reduction of the syllabus, and the compressed nature of the later discussions in the semester was forced upon me by the need to provide an extended introduction in the beginning of the semester. This same lack of student preparation also slowed down my discussion of Quine; my discussion of Gadamer also went on longer than I expected. Later in the semester, I added Nietzsche’s ‘Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’–even though not strictly ‘twentieth century’– to supplement Foucault on truth. 

My initial selection was not ideal. Too many men; not enough women; Du Bois all by himself. I have some excuses to offer. Mostly: I made the syllabus in a hurry, and I lacked preparation in some issues and authors I could have included.  Most problematically, I simply excluded non-Western philosophical traditions. I then chose the path of least resistance; I picked an anthology of readings that seemed to strike a good balance between analytical and continental thought, and which, besides the usual metaphysical and epistemological readings, included social and political philosophy, existentialism, pragmatism, and feminism. (I was struck by the fact that most twentieth century philosophy syllabi I saw online were less varied than mine, which suggests the lack of variety complained about by my student might be a problem for others too.)

I can, and I think I will, do much better by simply planning my syllabus preparation better the next time around.