Last week I pledged to (re-)introduce my love of my field and our topic into the room, and this week I spent a fair amount of time attempting to do that. The idea was (and is) to be sufficiently contagious so that my students would be more motivated and therefore better positioned to take on the harder course material.
And it wasn't just me who thought the current topic is difficult. I again used the one-minute paper approach at the end of class Tuesday to get a sense of where they're struggling, and this time I found much more sophisticated questions (which was nice) and much more agreement about what remained confusing. Which is to say, pretty much every main point from Tuesday's session.
Okay, so two things to accomplish this week, then—light a fire under them about philosophy and clarify everything.
This order seemed less tall the more I thought about it. Many students were struggling to understand a philosopher's claim that the very nature of bodily experience (of a tickle or itch, say) defeats Descartes's claim that the mind and body are radically distinguishable. It seems like a straightforward claim, but it's not, particularly considering what it's in response to. Looking back, I see that on the first pass I focused too heavily on explaining the professional backstory—the professionalized conversation between academics—and not enough on the why. For example, I hadn't (publicly) asked why these authors still feel compelled to respond to Descartes some four hundred years later? After all, he's not just dead, but very, very dead. In fact, why think about this stuff at all?
So we went all the way back to the first drawing board, back to the why. My students offered some interesting answers to the fundamental Why's, including the observation that perhaps some writers were professionally invested in being correct, and that's why Descartes must be wrong.*
But the answer I didn't get was the one I emphasized the most—namely, that all this stuff is simply crazy on its face. For philosophers (and bunches of other people, too), very little space lies between puzzlement and wonderment, and it's this combination of admiration and astonishment that can get lost. If you stop to think about it, much of the obvious and the mundane turns out to be anything but. We're the rare kind of creature that has a body and a mind, has thoughts and experiences, can think and talk about things. Why write and think and talk about these facts? Because if you stop and think about them, you have to, and that's what we did (I think) for the beginning of class Thursday—stop and think, recreate getting hit by the wonder before we went back to the puzzle.
We then did go back to the texts, which went a little better, in no small part because I spent some time on my own in front of a blackboard working out how to make a map of the material that they could better navigate by. Their midterm essays are due in roughly two weeks, so I guess we'll see more clearly how we're both doing.
Lastly: Number of students who came to lunch with me this week: 3. It's a start.
*That was the first answer, too, oddly enough, which strikes me as a little cynical coming from a bunch of freshmen. But anyway.