Stephanie Jenkins is an assistant professor in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University. Her “Philosophy School of Phish” gets students and artists in touch with philosophical questioning.
Which of your courses get students out of the classroom? What project(s) do your students do?
In all of my courses, I design engaged, experiential assignments that invite students to practice philosophical skills in ways that make course concepts relevant to their own lives and communities. In addition to writing traditional philosophical essays, my students conduct interviews, attend concerts, perform supererogatory moral actions, analyze physical spaces, and more. We use these shared experiences as case studies for applying course themes, sparking class discussion, and concretizing difficult, abstract concepts.
Give an example of a successful project.
I will describe my “Artist Interview Project” assignment, which students complete for my online course on the Philosophy of Art and Music. I teach a special section of this course, nicknamed the “Philosophy School of Phish,” that uses the improvisational rock band Phish as a case study. As part of a term-long assignment, students interview artists from the Phish community and write reflective blog posts analyzing their discussions. Thanks to the generosity of Phish “phans,” my students have had unusual opportunities to interview professional artists, including musicians, photographers, filmmakers, poster designers, and more.
I consider this assignment “successful” due to overwhelmingly positive student feedback and the creativity it has inspired in my pedagogical techniques. For example, I have modified the Artist Interview Project assignment for my PHL 275: Introduction to Disability Studies course. With this assignment, students interview friends and family about their experiences with disability. (Note: I offer assistance identifying an appropriate person to interview if students do not already know someone.)
What do you think students gain from doing this civic engagement?
In my introductory classes, I often define philosophy as the art of asking questions. This art is a skill that can be learned, coached, and improved with practice. Incorporating interview assignments into my classes provides direct opportunities for students to practice asking thoughtful, informed, and philosophical questions.
Most of my students report that the hardest component of my interview assignments is formulating the questions. Asking a good philosophical question is, in fact, quite difficult; this task requires synthesizing knowledge of course content with research about the interviewee, translating technical disciplinary terminology, and crafting questions that elicit reflective, detailed responses. Because students frequently struggle with this process, I review interview question drafts, suggest edits, and provide a resource guide (including examples of questions “before” and “after” revision).
What does the civic engagement project offer to wider communities?
Interview assignments bring philosophical dialogue to individuals outside the classroom. The interviews are not unidirectional, fact-finding missions. Rather, they are often engaging philosophical exchanges about course concepts and themes with individuals with relevant experience and/or expertise. In other words, the student and interviewee do philosophy together. I have more direct contact with the interview subjects for my Phish class than other courses, because I organize the artist “lineup” before the term begins. A number of the participants have reported enjoying the interview process and finding it helpful for thinking about their artwork in new ways. Additionally, because I publish the completed blog posts online, my students’ work is evolving into a resource for Phish fans to learn about their favorite artists and the philosophy of art.
Why do you choose to ask students to do civic engagement projects?
My first encounters with philosophy were through competitive debate in high school and college. As a participant and coach, I engaged with ideas concretely through activities for acquiring debating skills and argument analysis in the context of specific, “real world” topics. I fell in love with philosophy the first time I was transformed by a new idea and realized that I—and my world—would never be the same again. In the philosophy classroom, my aim is to catalyze this kind of transformative experience for my students. The privilege of helping students articulate, refine, defend, and even change their own beliefs—both in the classroom and in their everyday lives—drives my course structure and assignment design.
Most students in my classes at OSU are meeting baccalaureate core requirements; my class will be their only course in Philosophy. After leaving my classroom, they will eventually forget most of the content we studied together. It will be the philosophical skills they learn that will stick with them. In this respect, learning to ask a philosophical question is like cultivating any skill, such as riding a bike. While students will probably forget Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative, they will—I hope—retain the skill of philosophical question asking (even if it does get rusty without practice). In short, civic engagement projects are effective, high-impact learning practices.
If someone wanted to do these projects at their own institution, what steps or resources would you recommend?
I have published some advice for developing an interview assignment on my Phish course’s public website. Here, I would like to address two concerns that might be raised about implementing interview assignments:
- “Interview assignments are not respectful of the interviewee’s time.”
Assignment requirements, such as a limit on the number of questions students can ask and instructor review of interview question drafts, can structurally reduce pressures on interviewees’ time. Students can respect the time of their interviewees by providing specific details about the interview process, including its length and format, when requesting interviews.
- “Interview assignments need to be run through my institution’s IRB, because the interviews are used for academic purposes.”
Interview assignments conducted as part of required coursework do not need IRB approval. Because the activities do not contribute to “generalizable knowledge,” they do not constitute research.
How does this work connect to your research?
As an OSU Ecampus Research Fellow, I am running a study that aims to: 1) investigate techniques for engaged, experiential online learning with undergraduate philosophy students and 2) propose discipline-specific criteria for evaluating the impact of these pedagogical interventions. Specifically, I am researching the effectiveness of the “Artist Interview Project” assignment. My white paper, “Evaluating the Impact of Engaged Philosophy in the Online Classroom: Lessons Learned?,” will be published in early 2018. I will also be presenting about this project at the Public Philosophy Network Conference in February 2018.
If you had to pick a “theme song” for your civic engagement work, what would it be? Why?
Phish’s “Chalkdust Torture,” because it’s a reminder of importance of engaging students in and outside the classroom. My goal is to educate, without the torture!