Friday, October 21, 2016

Storytelling in Philosophy Class

One of my regular TAs, Chris McVey, uses a lot of storytelling in his teaching. About once a week, he'll spend ten minutes sharing a personal story from his life, relevant to the class material. He'll talk about a family crisis or about his time in the U.S. Navy, connecting it back to the readings from the class.

At last weekend's meeting of the Minorities And Philosophy group at Princeton, I was thinking about what teaching techniques philosophers might use to appeal to a broader diversity of students, and "storytime with Chris" came to mind. The more I think about it, the more I find to like about it.

Here are some thoughts.

* Students are hungry for stories, and rightly so. Philosophy class is usually abstract and impersonal, or when not abstract focused on toy examples or remote issues of public policy. A good story, especially one that is personally meaningful to the teacher, leaps out and captures attention. People in general love stories and are especially ready for them after long dry abstractions and policy discussions. So why not harness that? But furthermore, storytelling gives shape and flesh to the stick figures of philosophical abstraction. Most abstract principles only get their full meaning when we see how they play out in real cases. Kant might say "act on that maxim that you can will to be a universal law" or Mengzi might say "human nature is good" -- but what do such claims really amount to? Students rightly feel at sea unless they are pulled away from toy examples and into the complexity of real life. Although it's tempting to think that the real philosophical force is in the abstract principles and that storytelling is just needless frill and packaging, I think that the reverse might be closer to the truth: The heart of philosophy is in how we engage our minds when given real, messy examples, and the abstractions we derive from cases always partly miss the point.

* Personal stories vividly display the relevance of philosophy. Many -- maybe most -- students are understandably turned off by philosophy because it seems so remote from anything of practical value. What's the point, they wonder, in discussing Locke's view of primary and secondary qualities, or semi-comical far-fetched problems about runaway trolleys, or under what conditions you "know" something is a barn in Fake Barn Country? It takes a certain kind of beautiful, nerdy, impractical mind to love these questions for their own sake. Too much focus on such issues can mislead students into thinking that philosophy is irrelevant to their lives. However (I hope you'll agree), nothing is more relevant to our lives than philosophy. Every choice we make expresses our values. Every controversial opinion we form depends upon our general worldview and our implicit or explicit sense of what people or institutions or methods deserve our trust. Most students will understandably fail to see the connection between academic philosophy and the philosophy they personally live through their choices and opinions unless we vividly show how these are connected. Through storytelling, you model your struggle with Kant's hard line against lying, or with how far to trust purported scientific experts, or with your fading faith in an immaterial soul -- and students can see that philosophy is not just a Glass Bead Game.

* Personal stories shift the locus of academic capital. We might think of "academic capital" as the resources students bring to class which help them succeed. In philosophy class, important capital includes skill at reading and evaluating abstract arguments and, in class discussion, skill at working up passable pro and con arguments on the spot. Academic capital of this sort also includes knowledge of the philosophical tradition, comfort in a classroom environment, confidence that one knows how this game is played. These are terrific skills to have of course; and some students have more of them than others, or at least believe they do. Those students tend to dominate class discussion. If you tell a personally meaningful story, however, you can make a different set of skills and experiences suddenly important. Students who might have had similar stories from their own lives now have something unique to contribute. Students who are good at storytelling, students who have the social and emotional intelligence to evaluate what might have really happened in your family fight, students with cultural knowledge of the kind of situation you describe -- they now have some of the capital. And they might be a very different group from the ones who are so good at the argumentative pro-and-con. In my experience, good philosophical storytelling engages and draws out discussion from a larger and more diverse group of students than does abstract argument and toy example.

If philosophers were more serious about engaged, personal storytelling in class, we would I think have a different and broader range of students who loved our courses and appreciated the importance and interest of our discipline.

[image source]

8 comments:

howard berman said...

By 'story' do you mean the kind of stories Jesus or Socrates might tell in the Bible or in Plato, or a witty or charming anecdote before plunging into a business meeting?
Do you consider philosophy more amenable to stories than physics? Physics for poets isn't quite the same, and no amount of sugar can help the medicine go down any better and do its thing

Unknown said...

Behaviors and introspection from story telling come to us via "The Wizard of Oz"...
...Openness to help along the way, the need for courage, feeling, thought and wonder in face of an unknown world...

Jorgen said...

I tell a couple of 'stories' in class - i.e., personal anecdotes. I am also very open an honest with my students (which is to say, I don't really separate how I am in my professional life with that of my personal life). I also constantly connect up the topics in my ethics classes to real-world, contemporary, personal, or relevant events. This is one reason I include a 'psychology of evil' section in all of my intro to ethics classes (largely influenced by parts of your PHIL 005 - Evil class, for which I was a TA before leaving UCR)... once students agree that Eichmann is still MORALLY responsible, despite the PSYCHOLOGICAL factors that made it easier for him to participate in such atrocities, they start to realize that the same is probably true of the contemporary evils in the world (slavery, animal/good ethics, how women are treated/portrayed in the media, etc.) to which they themselves contribute. Students also can examine their actions (and others' actions) from a psychological as well as a moral standpoint, which I think is very important. I couldn't draw that tight of a connection without of the use of 'stories' - whether personal or otherwise (and often I ask students for their stories). It's no wonder that Chris McVey and I were got along so well while I was at UCR, we both view philosophy as a way of life rather than as a merely academic endeavor.

Unknown said...

I use personal anecdotes as a way of illustrating the material in my psychology classes. It's a way of providing a clear, personal application of the material rather than a hypothetical one. Some students have commented that this helps them remember the central concepts that we cover.

Aaron Lercher said...

There's a big difference, I think, between two kinds of story in philosophy. Some stories illustrate abstract or very generalized ideas by showing an example of what these mean. It isn't possible to understand what certain ideas mean without working through some examples. There's no claim that such stories offer evidence (unless an explanation of meaning is itself a kind of evidence).

Other stories are used as counterexamples, showing that a plausible principle might not be true in general. There's a claim that the latter stories offer evidence.

Callan S. said...

I think maybe it's like a good review. A good review tells you about the product, not just the reviewers feelings about the product. I've bought products that although the reviewer didn't like it, they described it's actual features and they were what I wanted.

A story doesn't just boil down to what the story tellers feelings for this or that are. A story describes a set of physical circumstances - and listeners attach their own values to those circumstances.

Ralph Forsberg said...

I, too, have always found that telling personal stories that relate to topics in class was an excellent way to connect with students, show them that I was not just a pedant, that I had personal experiences that caused me to go into philosophy and kept me there. I also found that making jokes about myself or self-deprecating comments connected me with students; judging by 35 years of student comments they appreciated that. I had one student who said, "The way you talk about yourself, your experiences and dah dah, you don't seem like a PhD in philosophy." I asked, "Is this a good comment or not?" She replied, "Definitely good, your classes are like real life." So, my hearty recommendation and applause for the article and the teachers who prompted it. We do not need to give the appearance of being in that dreaded "Ivory Tower".

CA Heaven said...

Telling stories is a great idea. I wonder how I could make it to fit into the course I'm teaching on geophysical inversion. Should be possible. Just takes some creative thinking >:)

Cold As Heaven