A few years ago, I was asked to write a piece on my public-philosophy pedagogy for the blog Teaching Thursday. It appears that the blog is no longer online and I wanted to repost it because I refer to the essay surprisingly frequently. It is very “inside baseball,” and probably mostly of interest to other teachers, but it does provide a good glimpse into the choices that college professors have to make when they decide to do something like PQED, WHY? Radio, or The Institute for Philosophy in Public Life.
“Leaving the Classroom Behind: “Teaching” the Public Humanities”
First posted online on August 12, 2010.
In the last two years, I have become immersed in the public humanities movement: the attempt to bring philosophy, history, literature and other related arts out of the classroom and into the general public. For me, it took the form of founding and directing the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life (IPPL), a partnership between UND and the North Dakota Humanities Council. We have a radio show, a film series, a blog, a lecture series, an annual magazine, and a fellows program. With all of this in mind, Bill asked me to reflect on the difference between teaching in the classroom and teaching towards the general public, a task that is made more difficult by the fact that I am reluctant to consider any of my IPPL work as “teaching” at all.
While many in the general public like to learn, very few of them feel comfortable being taught. Once out of school, people like to consider themselves autodidacts, and nothing alienates them more than a person who imposes classroom structures upon a conversation, speaking to them as if they’re students and implying some sort of intellectual superiority. Most people associate school with homework, hierarchies, and lack of voice, and while for many, college was a better experience than high school, university life is still associated with grading, tests, and stress.
Furthermore, while college is voluntary in some cultural sense, the commitment to be in a classroom and the consequences of non-participation provide pressure to, at minimum, be present for class sessions. There are no such motivations in public philosophy. Every decision to listen to an episode of the radio show, every choice to read a blog or an article, every physical effort to attend a film or a lecture is a unique and discrete commitment to choose inquiry over other pleasures. Certainly, a classroom has its distractions, but community-based philosophy competes with television, sports, dinnertime, pornography, family, sleep, walking the dog, getting stoned, surfing the internet, working out, and everything else you can think of. We are just one option among an infinite list of things to do, and to make it worse, people most often listen or read when they are coming down from the day, not revving up>
IPPL therefore has to attract and motivate both those who are already interested in philosophy and, given a very narrow window of opportunity, those who can be persuaded that they will be interested even though they don’t know it yet. Thus, much more than in the classroom, I have to make philosophy interesting, relevant, and compelling. I have to sell the subject the way that I would sell a used car. But even then, given the nature of active learning, I can’t sell with smoke and mirrors, up-sells, or use dishonest advertising knowing that I can forget about the consumer once he or she has bought the product. I have to continually sell and resell, proving time and time again that philosophy is still relevant, that it is still interesting. This I do by slowly revealing what I believe to be the truth: that philosophy touches all of our lives and helps us to understand ourselves and our world better. I can’t offer a book by Plato with the promise that Republic will solve someone’s marital problems, but I can, very gradually, use inquiry to help people reflect on their decisions and their values.
Philosophy is about us. It’s about people we know and places we live. It’s about sex and death, fear and revelation, authenticity and actualization, individual failure and desires. It fills in the pictures of what we want and who we hope to be, and while I can show this in the classroom using a syllabus, good discussions, wisely chosen texts, and ever-developing student/teacher relationships, with public philosophy I have to find some way to give people a glimpse of all these possibilities as quickly and succinctly as possible. The ideal public philosophy event is synecdochic, a revelatory glimpse of the promise of a twenty-five hundred year-old discipline. A perfect event is a bit like a first drug deal – we give you this one for free because we know that you’ll get hooked, hoping that you’ll come back on your own, a regular compelled by an inner desire for more.
But just as I’m not teacher in this context, I’m also not a drug dealer. Neither am I the wizened old philosopher who has come down from the mountain or dared entered the cave to lead the ignorant through the darkness. I’m a huckster, a playmate, the guy who offers the promise of something new, something exciting. I hope it’s something hip but I’ll settle for being a pleasant distraction. I aim to be the mythical guy you might want to share a beer with, but hope to be someone with whom you’d enjoy a nice stroll, chatting away while you notice how the leaves have turned color or the water seems very high this year. Eventually, maybe, you’ll want to go to a museum with me and share your thoughts on a painting, consider my point of view to modify your own, and dare the joint project of embracing the avante garde, that object d’art that makes you uncomfortable but compels you to it all the same. But I admit, I’ll settle for the beer and see what happens next. Just getting you on the stool next to me is hard enough.
When I took IPPL outside of academe, I gave up the animosity I feel, as a professor, to those who would describe philosophy as a “product.” The humanist in me may bristle at the idea of my students as consumers, but the P.T. Barnum knows that once I leave the classroom, the only road to success is philosophy as entertainment, inquiry as sport. The only road, that is, until, the seeker has been sucked in, and philosophy does its magic. Once the discipline has our audience in its grasp then it’s my job to stand out of the way, to let their brains do the selling, and let their souls (in Aristotle’s sense) cultivate their inquisitive virtues.
No matter how hard we try, as teachers, we can’t stand aside. We give permission to our students to work without us, to discuss and debate while we remain silent, but they always feel our watchful eye, and a good teacher always knows when a word, a look, a nudge will bring the class back on track. Public philosophy does not have the luxury of power relations. It is and can only be a suggestion.
So, why would someone want to do this? What motivates a person to move from the structured comfort of the classroom to the uncertain anarchy of the marketplace? For me, it was biographical. I had always had an interest in public philosophy. I had a few relevant fellowships and a handful of interdisciplinary publications, but there was no urgency until the summer I finished my sabbatical. I had been pretty unhappy with some aspects of my professional life and I knew that things couldn’t continue the way they were. My department is small and dysfunctional. It never offered me the intellectual, research, or social cultures I wanted. I had a great travel life, teaching internationally, and presenting at colloquia around the country, but that was elsewhere, not at UND. The classroom was all I had to look forward to. I also knew that my family and I were probably in North Dakota for the duration of our careers. I missed the excitement of New York City, the possibility of what might be around the corner, the intensity of the unknown. Finally, I tired of the posturing and pretensions of professional philosophy. While I love writing for scholars, and I get energized by deeply informed and disciplined debate, I could no longer tolerate the live-by-the-rank-of-your-publisher mentality that permeates my most conservative of disciplines. Additionally, I can’t abide the incessant whining that philosophers do about being misunderstood. We are an insular people yet we blame others for not knowing or valuing our work. I had tenure. I could afford to experiment.
The public humanities offered a new kind of community. It’s a challenge that forces scholars to justify our research, not to skeptical university administrators who seek to trim budgets, but to people who are all asking the same questions: what am I doing and is my time being well spent? What are you doing and does your life make mine harder or easier, more or less interesting? Are you a threat? Am I a threat? Should I be? How can I be happy? How can I make the world better, safer, more hopeful for my children and for the people I love? These are, of course, all the questions of philosophy but ironically, people don’t use philosophy to answer them. IPPL aims to give them the option.
So, my recommendation to the newer faculty who might have an interest in this sort of thing is to keep an eye open for opportunities to engage the general public. Dabble for fun, enjoy the sport. But wait until you are more established, tenured and tired, and looking for a new challenge, because then you can try it out with impunity. (The public humanities do not fit into traditional job assessment structures. My department and I have had major disagreements as to where in my contract IPPL work fits. We eventually settled on a mixture of administration and research, but some of my colleagues are suspicious and won’t consider public philosophy anything but service.) But when the time is right, I encourage you to try it out. See if it makes your job better. The irony is that although my comments here are about how public philosophy is unlike being in a classroom, those differences are about the respective audiences. For me, being a public philosopher has been more like school than anything I have experienced since. I know less, I am more insecure, and my projects are infinitely more tentative than anything else I have done since I started teaching full-time.
But there’s something else too. Not quite two years ago, I found myself in Velva, North Dakota, eating pie with Clay Jenkinson, host of public radio’s The Thomas Jefferson Hour, a person whose work I have admired for many years, and Brenna Daugherty, Executive Director of the North Dakota Humanities Council, someone who would become both a tireless supporter of IPPL and a dear friend. The three of us were killing time before giving a presentation to sixty people at the Velva public library. We walked onto the street, laughingly trying to determine where Eric Sevareid’s childhood’s home was, and I was overcome by a tremendous realization. I was doing my job and I was having fun! I had a community, a group of interested interlocutors, and a challenging mission, and I was having fun. I hadn’t expected that. It was nice.