Assignment - Find a Political Philosop-her

Introduction

This assignment instructs students to look at the website, Philosopher (originally Political Philosop-her), created and maintained by Meena Krishnamurthy at politicalphilosopher.net. The site, as Prof. Krishnamurthy says, “showcases work by philosophers from underrepresented groups in philosophy.” [hotlink for this quote: https://meenakrishnamurthy.net/]

In some of my introductory and intermediate courses, I do not always have the opportunity to deviate from the usual course outline filled with canonical texts, and even when I can, choosing just one or two representatives of All Women or All Philosophers Not European is not conducive to the aims of a course. One semester, I was feeling especially constrained by our short terms (just 12 weeks) and the needs of students in a wide survey course on introductory moral and political philosophy. Yet I was also growing dissatisfied with students’ under-exposure to the liveliness and vastness of contemporary philosophical exchange. Since their term papers could be on subjects picked from a list of many possible topics, I decided that it was up to the students which Deviant Philosopher to bring to their understanding of the course.

The assignment, replicated in its entirety below, begins, “To complete the third homework of the term, you will need to identify a philosopher from the politicalphilosopher.net website whose essay or interview relates to your choice of topic for your term paper, and work out a way to use a selection or portion of it as a source. (If a reading or a philosopher has moved you to change your topic, please say so in your answer to the first question below.)” I provide the questions further down this page.

What this assignment does:

  • Moves students to find out for themselves the content of a website offering active (political) philosophers’ views from diverse viewpoints.
  • Enables the students to choose for themselves which living philosopher to bring to bear on their own term papers and their own understandings of the course material.
  • Integrates some advanced reading and writing of a living political philosopher into the central task of the course.
  • Accomplishes the goal of putting a different exemplar before students, a counter-stereotypical, not-yet-canonical, living and breathing philosopher (and if they are browsing the site for the best source, several exemplars), raising their awareness of multiple modes of being a philosopher.
  • Scaffolds some of the work of the term paper, so that misinterpretations or missteps on this lower-stakes assignment can be corrected or redirected before the higher-stakes term paper.

Background Information

Courses / Topics

This task was effective in my first-year course, Introduction To Philosophy (Moral And Political)

This assignment can also be used in courses on Applied Ethics/Moral Issues, Social and Political Philosophy, Feminist Philosophy, Philosophy of Race, Introduction to Political Philosophy.

Motivation

In survey and introductory courses, the aims of the students’ interests and essays may be very wide, and at the same time, the expectations of the instructors of courses for which this is a requirement may be a bit limiting, so that some canonical work is a fixture. When the content is not easy to vary and the students’ interests are disparate, having the students tell me which Deviant Philosopher is appropriate to the mission of the term may be much more fruitful for everyone, accomplishing my goal of raising their awareness of multiple modes of being a philosopher, than having me tell them who to look at.

Logistics

This activity requires access to the Internet and is best accomplished when a student or a group already has a paper topic in mind. I assigned it on an individual basis, although we talked about it in class as a group more than once.

Texts

This assignment asks students to draw associations between the canonical texts of the course and the blog post they chose at politicalphilosopher.net.

Connections

The connections are entirely up to the student, although it is advisable that a professor model how to apply the words of a philosopher from politicalphilosopher.net to the concepts or theories covered in the course, so as to show the students how it is done. One way to do this is by requiring just one of the posts at politicalphilosopher.net, early in the term, on the syllabus in the same week as a canonical text for which the political philosopher’s post would serve as a support, a counterargument, an application or extension of the reading for that week.

Activity Plan

Here are the instructions I gave to the students.

Homework #3: Find a Political Philosopher

To complete the third homework of the term, you will need to identify a philosopher from the politicalphilosopher.net website whose essay or interview relates to your choice of topic for your term paper, and work out a way to use a selection or portion of it as a source. (If a reading or a philosopher has moved you to change your topic, please say so in your answer to question 1, below.)

There are over 100 philosophers in total to choose from. One way to find a relevant philosopher may just be to google relevant terms with the addition “site: politicalphilosopher.net,” like this.

Screenshot of Googling "monogamy site:politicalphilosopher.net/"

See? I searched on a key term plus the phrase “site: politicalphilosopher.net,” and now I don’t need to read over 100 posts. I can just skip to Carrie Jenkins’ work on monogamy and love.

(Browsing the site is still fun and worth doing. The most recent are on the first page.)

You can refer to a line or a discussion in a philosopher’s blog post that supports your view, or disagrees with your view, or provides a perspective or a question that helps you focus your paper topic. Below are specific instructions to complete this assignment.

  1. In a sentence or two, restate your topic from Homework #1, or a more focused version of it, or clarify the new topic if you have chosen a new topic. At this point, you should be narrowing down the topic from its initially broad statement to one more specific.
  2. From the Philosopher website, choose a philosopher that you find offers a related point, discussion, or counterpoint to your view. Identify exactly which philosopher you have selected, by telling us (a) the name of the post, (b) the date of the post, (c) and the URL. This question is worth three points, because we really want students working hard to be very accurate as to your sources.
  3. From the post identified in (2), what sentences or topics do you find could serve as a source in your term paper? What does the blog editor or the guest-writer say that you could agree or disagree with, or reflect on to develop your own views further? Be specific as to whether you are quoting the editor (Meena Krishnamurthy) or the guest. In this part of the assignment, just transcribe the selection you’re quoting and the source, that is, who said it and what they said.
  4. This question is the longest part of the assignment, and as always, you are encouraged to go into some detail and not just write the minimum: Why did you choose the content you provide in (3) above? Did it provide you with a point of agreement, of disagreement? Is it because you had not previously considered the perspective it offers, or because it made a factual claim that you’d like to investigate further? Give this at least two sentences for a minimum grade and preferably more.
  5. Last question, regarding our reading for the week: Identify a line or passage in the canonical philosopher’s text for this week that relates to any of your answers to above, and tell me exactly where you find it, and how it relates to your paper topic. Take a little time on this. Don’t rush your answer. Work out a good one.

Permutations

Although I assigned this task to individuals, it could certainly be done by groups as well.

Although I assigned this task at a first-year level to students, almost all of whom were fresh out of high school, they did find it one of the more challenging tasks of the year, and it may be more effective in classes in which the students have more philosophical background to bring to their understanding of blog posts. Having said that, however, I must say that my intro students did really good work on this task.

I leave it unstated whether or not to explicitly draw attention to the Deviant nature of this assignment. At the introductory level, I did not go into much length as to how Meena Krishnamurthy is not a canonical philosopher (yet!). Instead, my students came to take it for granted that their chosen authors are part of an ongoing conversation.

In light of the preceding point, permutations may including tasking the student with finding out more about the Philosopher, looking for their website, doing a presentation to the class or adding to the writing assignment regarding whom the author is, where they work, what they teach, and so on. I aim to re-humanize and de-mythologize the disciplinary tendency to treat philosophical figures as brilliantly distant, otherworldly denizens of a world unavailable to the rest of us, so I’m considering this permutation for my own future classes.

Discussion Questions

Instructors may wish to follow up this activity with the following questions:

  • How many philosophers on politicalphilosopher.net did you find that are writing about your topic – one? Ten? Are they writing about similar perspectives, or do they seem to disagree with each other?
  • Is the philosopher of your choosing in agreement with the canonical philosopher we’re reading in the class? Is theirs different? Are the differences owing to writing now instead of then, or is it a difference in theory, or in approach?
  • Do you find yourself reading the website differently than you read our class texts? Are you picking up particular jargon? Do they write with a point, a thesis?

Try before you buy!

If you’ve never looked at politicalphilosopher.net, you’re advised to consider searching on it for the sorts of essay topics that you might have students write on, if you plan to ask them to apply a reading from this website to answering your essay prompts.

Author Information

Kathyrn J. Norlock (Trent University)
kathrynnorlock@trentu.ca