When Diana Senechal first contacted me about the philosophy journal her students had put together, CONTRARIWISE, I must admit an image jumped to mind of stereotypical responses to essay prompts, collected and bound from the end-of-year assignments. What else would a high school philosophy journal be? How could one adapt what is usually highly technical, rigorous, and often difficult writing into something made by and for fellow students?
The journal is the months-long work of 27 students at Columbia Secondary School. Published this past spring, CONTRARIWISE pairs serious inquiry with play resulting in a delightful collection of pieces highlighting creative approaches to many philosophical topics. It’s already received praise in a number of places including here. I can attest that it makes fascinating reading and is quite inspirational for me as a philosophy teacher. If you’re interested in checking it out, selections are available online and you can order the journal here. I recently spoke with its two editors and a pair of contributors (thanks Khadijah, Theo, Nicholas and Ron!) about their aims and the process of putting the journal together. I found they had put a lot of thought into what motivates interesting writing and the issues of accessibility that philosophy faces.
We started out by discussing what they wanted the journal to do in terms of mission and goals (the interview has been edited and condensed):
Ron: “We really tried to avoid dry material, because people feel like that’s what philosophy is about ….. That when people think philosophy they seem to tend to think of old people thinking very hard and writing very boring books … anything is really philosophy… and it’s a really fun subject and that’s what we are trying to show.
Nicholas: A lot of people think Philosophy and English are the exact same thing, so in the very beginning we got a lot of essays that were just not as creative as we would have liked and did not really convey the idea that we were trying to have for the journal. We cut a few of those out.
I asked if they had any advice for others thinking of starting a journal; this got the conversation to the playful heart of the journal: a contest!
Ron: “People will not know what you are doing, at least for the first time. It will be very hard to get things. It’s kind of how the contest started: Huge well designed posters (thanks to Professor Senechal) about the contests. We tried to make really fun contests that people would be interested in. … Second, I would say,you are going to get lots of essays. And they’ll be the “Wonderbread and American Cheese sandwich” kind of essay. At least until you make it clear that essays that actually mean something, AND other things are cool: art, stories….
Khadijah: “We really went beyond the typical definition of philosophy and what you see in your basic class. … This was introduced to me as a contest. So it was voluntary. People weren’t forced to do this, and it really covers a lot of ground. … We have things that will make you laugh; things that will make you cry. It’s a very dynamic book.
Ron: [We told the potential contributors]: don’t go out of your way to try to sound smart, because you’re not trying to impress your teacher… let other people enjoy what you’re writing. … So, as Khadijah said, accessible language … and, converse with your readers.
And what were these contests exactly?
Contest one: If someone could temporarily freeze time at will, how long would they know for how long they could do it? Should they do it? How would they know without practice? How would they practice? What would the limitations be? In what ways could they use this creatively? Describe the logistics of time control. Suggest your own logistics. Pretend it’s a fact of life, give it rules. Do any or all of these, we don’t care …have fun, science is optional. Common sense is required.”
Contest two: Assume the world has reached its maximum possible population in terms of population density. How could every individual get enough food and drink to survive; in other words, how could we solve world hunger in a feasible manner? Would we have to leave Earth to do it, and what other measures would we have to take?
Ron: We emphasized that this should be as fun and creative and not serious as possible.
Khadijah: There has to be a degree of eccentricity to the questions that we ask because we are not looking for your basic responses. We need philosophers who can transgress those boundaries and get people to come in and say I want to take a philosophy class and request it in schools around the world and around the nation. We do our best to really make people think. And the questions that they asked me, and I when I looked at them at face value, I thought, “I really don’t know how I am going to answer this.” It makes you think. I think the best questions are the ones where you don’t know how you’re going to answer them. You’re going to have to formulate them and test them. So pretty much you’re a scientist, a philosopher…everything is wrapped up in one.
Theo: When I tell my friends about CONTRARIWISE and I get “inevitable blank stares,” I tell them that CONTRARIWISE is a philosophy journal that analyzes and explores both humorous and serious aspects of philosophy that can help us, in one way or the other, in the real world. I also add on that they would really enjoy participating in CONTRARIWISE events, and that it would greatly benefit them.
What was participating in the contests and writing for the journal like?
Khadijah: I had to shorten my piece… . I think the biggest thing I would say to someone else is that they should strive for a response that most accurately answers the questions posed by the editors-in-chief, instead of conforming to a conventional five-paragraph essay. … The creative voice is compromised when we have to put it into a certain cookie cutter method. … And this is a marketing tool to people who generally think of philosophers as old white men sitting around. … It was very useful for me to be able to concentrate my ideas. When you have to make something concise you have to make it about what is the core of what you want to say. And, how can I package it in a way that people who don’t think like me or don’t have the same interests as me will find interesting? So this is something I will continue to use in my professional career.
In doing some research for this piece I came across a blog post by Dr. Senechal that discussed two important characteristics of teaching: play and piety. I want to point readers to this and comment on how the project of CONTRARIWISE really captures her particular teaching philosophy on balancing these pillars of learning. Teaching today, argues Senechal, has swung too much in the direction of piety: a highly structured focus on pre-specified results (knowledge of facts, specific skills…the kind of activity that results in high standardized test results). The use of play, however, is tricky. Although we learn through play, unstructured play is not as productive as structured play. What’s difficult is finding a way to motivate and structure intellectual activity so that it does not constrain the playfulness. This is something that the editors of Contrariwise faced while developing the journal, and an issue that many of us who do philosophy with young people face. CONTRARIWISE’s model is creative, instructive, successful, and displays great humor. The journal is a great example of playfulness becoming embodied and solid through the goal of a final product. It is philosophy as play turned solid in publication (and social through the publication party!) In the history of philosophy, has the cover of a philosophy journal ever graced the surface of a cake? I doubt it has and I think that it’s fantastic and a most appropriate symbol of what’s been achieved by these students in CONTRARIWISE.
(A special thanks to Khadijah McCarthy, Ron Gunczler, Nicholas Pape and Theo Frye Yanos for taking the time to talk with me about the journal, and to Diana Senechal for arranging our meeting.)
Mark Balawender, a graduate student in philosophy at Michigan State University, is the Communications Director for PLATO. His work focuses on the politics of nonviolent action, and he occasionally does philosophy with 3rd and 4th graders.