John Torrey is a 2nd-year PhD student at the University of Memphis in Philosophy. His interests include Philosophy of Education, Social and Political Philosophy, Ethics, and African-American Philosophy. He currently serves as the Student Coordinator for Philosophical Horizons, the outreach program of the Philosophy Department of the University of Memphis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Philosophical Horizons, the approach we take with outreach is to emphasize to students that they are capable of engaging the questions they’ve been wondering about. There’s nothing like seeing a student break out of her shell and ask the questions she’s been dying to know. Even if they aren’t necessarily philosophical, I love it when students ask questions. It signals to me that their minds are set on “Wonder Mode” and they’re willing to be inquisitive and drill deeper into a particular question. When students have a sense of wonder, it is much easier to engage philosophical questions and have an active discussion. There are two ingredients that I’ve used in my years doing philosophy outreach that have helped me get the classroom into “Wonder Mode.”
Getting students into “Wonder Mode” may take some time, and this is to be expected. Our students often times tell us that our weekly sessions are the only moments they get a chance to really try to think. It takes some time getting used to being able to think in a different way than they’re normally asked to, so the first few weeks really needs patience. I always think of it like growing flowers; the first few weeks are just watering the seeds, and the last few weeks are watching them bloom.
The second ingredient for “Wonder Mode” is to have creative and relevant scenarios for the students to engage; or simply put, “Make philosophy fun!” I present a fun demeanor with the material, use humor to keep the mood light but engaging, and try to make the atmosphere itself one where they can focus on the discussion as much as possible. With relevant scenarios, such as topics about friendship, the questions themselves seem more realistic and perhaps less complex to engage. This past spring, myself and a colleague, (can I use his name? Michael Butler if so), held a 7 week course with a group of juniors and seniors at a local high school (Fairley High School if names can be used) in Memphis. We covered political philosophy, focusing on governments and societies. One example we used was Hobbes’ “state of nature” and how that would look when trying to form a society. Rather than just keep it at an abstract level, I also liked to ask them to imagine the school itself as a state of nature – every person against every person. I can remember high school and sometimes it felt like that, and from what I hear when we do this thought experiment (this was my fourth time doing this thought experiment with a class of middle or high schoolers) it can still feel like that. But this makes the idea of a state of nature much easier to imagine, as well as the journey towards civil society. The school example even had a built-in benefit – there were positions of power that lined up with traditional democratic positions of power! The principal is like the President, assistant principal is like the Vice President and the school board is similar to Congress, and this all made discussing political issues much more tangible and easy to access…and it made things more fun to discuss as a facilitator.
Wonder Mode is where philosophy and fun merge – it becomes an enjoyable endeavor to think about the philosophical questions that can be cumbersome, difficult, or totally foreign to you. It may not happen every time and it might not show up in the ways you think it will show up in your students, but there is nothing like seeing the light bulb turn on and a student engaging the material because they’ve gotten interested in what we’re doing.