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With W. John Koolage 

Carrie Welsh  00:00 

You’re listening to Ethics & Education. 

John Koolage  00:02 

At some point, I think that philosophy is like this idea of like inquiring about everything. 

Carrie Welsh  00:06 

This is the first episode in a series about teaching. 

 John Koolage  00:09 

Don’t treat anything as though it’s not worth examining. Like, everything’s worth examining. Try everything out. And you can even ask, well, is that worth examining? Of course it is. 

 Carrie Welsh  00:25 

This is John Koolage. 

 John Koolage  00:26 

So I’m John Koolage. And I’m a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University. And I’m also the General Education Director, also at Eastern Michigan University. 

 Carrie Welsh  00:36 

Dr. Koolage is a philosopher of education who focuses on questions of teaching and learning. John teaches philosophy in a way that goes beyond teaching the greats and the big questions. His approach is skills-based. 

 John Koolage  00:49 

So philosophy of education. I think, as I think about that, my work is more or less, like teaching and learning. So it’s a subset of educational practices. So I don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about education as an institution. But I do think about delivery. And so I think when I think about philosophy, I’m thinking things like, What kinds of things do students need in order to learn or to think about things in philosophy? So I’ve sort of more of a subset of education. And I think they’re related. So I think that questions about what education is for and how we should conceive it and those things are relevant to teaching and learning questions, but I’ve found myself mostly focused on teaching and learning questions, and thinking about the delivery of philosophy at the intro level, as well as the graduate level. So I guess those are my leanings there. 

 Carrie Welsh  01:42 

He thinks about teaching philosophy in two ways: how to teach people who are new to philosophy, and how to create peer-to-peer teaching within the discipline, using high-impact practices. 

 John Koolage  01:54 

When I think about students who are starting out in philosophy, I start to think, well, what are the things that I could give to students who are not really going to pursue philosophy full time, or it’s like a life sort of project, but really just kind of interested in finding out some of the basic parts of that? I think those students are an interesting mix to start to target. Because I think sometimes when you start teaching philosophy as a philosopher, you think, Oh, well, they’re all going to be majors, or they’re all going to get PhDs, because they’re just gonna be me. And I think that’s obviously misguided, we all come quickly to realize that most of our students will be, you know, general education students, or students who are going to only take one class and sort of think about that. And so I think when you think about what sometimes get called, like, you know, “one shot students,” I get one chance to help them think about philosophy, what do I want to do with them? 

 Carrie Welsh  02:48 

There are three main strategies that philosophy professors tend to use in teaching philosophy to new students. There’s the canonical approach to teaching “The Greats.” 

 John Koolage  02:57 

There’s sort of three ways people engage that. One is like, Oh, I want them to read The Greats, you know, whatever that means to them. And there’s some interesting puzzles about that question. I want them to do the sort of historical thing, right, so what some people teach in that way. So they just start with like, whatever you think the starting point is. So maybe it’s like Chinese philosophers. Maybe it’s ancient philosophers, the ancient Greek philosophers, maybe you think philosophy started yesterday with, I don’t know, some famous figure, I don’t know. But then you sort of think of your courses just like leading them through this history idea. And I can see the value in that from like, kind of like classics perspective, or like, personal journey kind of perspective. That’s not the one I actually favor when I think about that.  

 Carrie Welsh  03:39 

The second one is the “Big Questions” approach. 

 John Koolage  03:41 

The second one people think about [is], well, what are the things philosophers think about? This is called problems-based or big-questions-based versions of philosophy. So people will say, Well, what I care about is personal identity. So I want to teach them about personal identity, then just read stuff related to personal identity, or what I care about is moral theorizing. And so they do some moral theories, whatever. And I think that’s sort of an interesting strategy. 

Carrie Welsh  04:02 

And then there’s the third approach, which John calls skills-basedSo of the three parts to teaching philosophy, teaching content, teaching problems, and teaching skills, it’s the skills piece that often gets missed.  

John Koolage  04:15 

But I think I actually take a third strategy that’s…it falls sort of differently from those two. And I think that’s sort of interesting to think about. And I’ve met some other people who use this too. So I’m not alone. But like a skills-based approach.  

John Koolage  04:27 

So if you think about philosophy is having sort of three parts like any other thing, there’s sort of the stuff you’ve come to add to your knowledge, right? So call that content right, I have to sort of add things. And then there are skills, there’s clearly philosophical skills that students can deploy not only on philosophic content, but on other things. And then lastly, there’s this kind of dispositional component where you come to be oriented to seeing things as philosophic questions and, and I’m not sure you can, you can sort of lead people to thinking that way, but disposition will change that. So that takes longer than a class in a lot of cases. So you’re really just introducing him to and letting them have that as a thing they could do if they wanted to.  

 John Koolage  05:02 

But the skills piece in the middle, I think, is the one that gets missed. And the other two strategies I was talking about, right, the others are content-based delivery, I’m going to tell them about the history of philosophy, and they’re gonna think about these great thinkers and go on their way. And then in the problem-based, when you’re like, well we’ll think about these topics and then hopefully, they’ll think about those topics for the rest of their life. But in the skills one, you really focus on philosophical skill development. And when I think about that, I start to think about this idea of well, what are the sort of threshold concepts in philosophy? What are the kinds of skills, the kinds of things you would need to know in order to have the skills? And so the content and skill one sort of… I can understand that distinction, but it’s sort of overlapping, right? Sometimes you’re just telling them about the skills and other times you’re learning to practice the skills, but it’s the practicing the skills that matters. 

 Carrie Welsh  05:45 

That’s true. Practicing the skills is what matters. One philosophic skill is argument. If you’ve taken a philosophy class, you probably learned argumentative skills. And obviously, you’re not simply learning to be argumentative. You’re learning to argue for a purpose, to find out what’s true. The way John thinks about this is to teach an attitude toward argument. 

 John Koolage  06:06 

Here are the two sort of threshold ideas that I think you need to start thinking about to be a good philosopher. So the first one is, I think, and this will be no surprise to anybody, you have to teach them about argument, because that’s our fundamental building block. So regardless of how you think about argument, that idea is sort of the bottom line to being philosophically oriented. So I think we try to teach people about argument, and then you’ve let them use it, right. So that’s where you tell them what it is, and then [laughs] ‘tell them,’ you help them learn what it is. And then they deploy it over time.  

 John Koolage  06:37 

And so argumentative skills, that needs to be framed in a bunch of ways. And so you’re not merely teaching them to argue, because that’s not really how philosophy works. You’re not just arguing, we’re arguing for purpose. And so then you have to orient them toward the, to the purpose of philosophy as opposed to something else. And so I have a particular view on that which people will share. There’s something about truth that matters, and you’re sort of using arguments to find out what’s true. And then there’s some attitudinal things that go with that, right. So you also want to not deploy your arguments just to simply make somebody else consider whether what they think is true, because that’s kind of mean; you don’t just walk up people and you’re like, ‘I think what you said is false.’ That’s not super helpful. So one way to think about that piece is, what you try to do is treat things as though they’re arguments, then help them help other people, build them up or consider them. And then you do that for yourself. And that sort of attitude toward argument is also a part of philosophy that I think would be lost otherwise. So it’s, it’s not directly the skill of arguing, but it’s the sort of like right attitude to have towards it. And so I think those go together, and so I spend some time on that in intro, and I think that’s fairly important idea. 

 Carrie Welsh  07:40 

And maybe the most important skill is not skepticism, but curiosity. Curiosity as both a disposition and a skill. 

 John Koolage  07:48 

You want to direct a kind of skepticism toward not like, what you might call “product skeptcisim,” right. Like, you don’t want people to end up being a skeptic about things unless that’s really totally appropriate. But you want them to be kind of like skeptical. You want them to hear things and be like, I wonder if that’s right. Because–this will be controversial, I guess–but like, at some point, I think that philosophy is like this idea of like inquiring about everything. And so you want to have that sort of like, I heard that thing. And now I’m sort of interested or curious, as opposed to like, the usual line, which is like, ‘be skeptcial,’ meaning, like, don’t take everything at face value.  

 John Koolage  08:20 

But I think actually, like, a better way to think about that is like be curious or be interested and like don’t treat anything as though it’s not worth examining. Like, everything’s worth examining, try everything out. And you can even ask, well, is that worth examining? Of course it is. My students ask me all the time, like, well, what’s the limit of this curiosity? Like, am I really supposed to be curious about everything? I’m like, well, there’s only so much curiosity in the day. You’re not going to be curious about everything. But… try that out, see how it goes. And then be curious about things that you find unexpected, right. But also be curious about things you think are totally obvious. And that so that is kind of like it’s a bit of a disposition, but it’s it’s also a skill, right? So like, what you’re doing is like, as you hear things during your day, practice this idea of being like, ‘I wonder if that’s right,’ and then see what you can find out. And so don’t ever like sort of limit yourself from a conversation or like an argument that might help you reveal something new about our world. Those are the best skills that the students can learn. And then what you teach them in the course, whether you use problem-based or historical or whatever, whatever content you give them, you’re just helping them practice those things. And so instead of asking, Well, what do I need my students to read? That’s not really my question like, well, how am I going to help them think about developing these two things, I think is really the right, the right sort of idea. 

 Carrie Welsh  09:41 

Let’s zoom out a bit from the classroom level of how philosophy can be taught. What about the role of philosophy in the big picture of education? Well, John has thought a lot about this question. 

 John Koolage  09:53 

So I’m also the Director of General Education and so I think about philosophy’s role in like the larger picture about liberal arts education. And I think a fair amount about that, because when you become the director and you’re a philosopher people are like, “oh, well, that’s why philosophy is in [the curriculum].” Okay, so I don’t really think anyone actually thinks that [laughs]. But sometimes they say it. So I think philosophy has got some interesting tools that I think are part of a liberal arts education. 

 Carrie Welsh  10:16 

Philosophy is an interesting field to think about, because it is inherently questioning. There are plenty of natural opportunities to practice being curious about everything. 

 John Koolage  10:24 

So when I think about the two concepts I was talking about earlier, sort of this, like, be curious about everything. And I think you could probably learn that from any discipline. But philosophy is uniquely oriented, like questioning its own assumptions in a way that I think other disciplines aren’t always. That’s not to say they aren’t. But the sort of big, heavy hitters become heavy hitters by changing the paradigm or challenging the basic assumptions. But in philosophy, like you just start there. Like, ‘here, I just said this thing, is that right?’ So I think that’s a uniquely valuable skill to that, to being a member of a society where you might worry about what you’re being told all the time. That’s a really negative view…[I mean] in a society where you might want to think about what you want to believe, and what’s reasonable to believe, and I think we should, we should probably do that. And so I think philosophy’s got sort of a, it’s not that it’s like the only place where you find that, but it’s a place where you’re going to be introduced to that. And it’s going to be offered number of times to practice. And I think that’s a nice thing about it. 

 Carrie Welsh  11:23 

In addition to the skill of curiosity, there’s the skill of argument, which philosophy also naturally lends itself to teaching. 

 John Koolage  11:31 

And then second thing, I think, is the argument skills, which I think you can learn in lots of different disciplines. But philosophy is like one place where that’s a focus. So again, I don’t think that’s unique to philosophy. But it’s certainly like one of the things we spend a lot of time with, and this idea of building up arguments in order to evaluate them and think about them is a skill you get to practice many times in philosophy. And so the nice thing about philosophy, when I think about the grander goal of liberal arts education, is the integration point. You want students to use these things they learn in their general education programs inside their major and inside their lives. So those two skills–this sort of like, “be curious about everything,” and then like, “treat everything as though it could be a really rich argument that might be worth exploring and finding out if it’s right,”–those two skills can actually fit in anything you do. They might make you a better parent, they might make you a better manager, they might make you better chemist, that’s the sort of idea that you really want in your general education program so that these things can infuse it. 

 Carrie Welsh  12:23 

John has developed a way of assessing how students use arguments in their real lives. He has them tell narratives about how they’ve used something they learned in class. 

 John Koolage  12:32 

I changed a lot of my assessments to help students think about how they do use them in their lives, right? And so there’s not a question like, what’s this philosophy thing, it’s like, tell me about something you learned in my class that you’ve then used in your real life, and they tell these narratives about it. And then just get them to tell these narratives over and over again, in a bunch of different ways. And you can just watch them grow. And like, I’m sure some of them have fabricated these stories. But like, a lot of them are just so genuine.  

 John Koolage  12:54 

There’s this sort of horrible idea that you teach students argument, and they go home, and they yell at Uncle Joe or whatever, it all becomes horrible. But like, that’s not really what happens. They actually take the tools and they’re like, I had this really interesting discussion with like, my new partner; and, I had this really interesting talk with my mom about this thing that really went differently than it used to go. Or, you know, my little sister’s all about arguing all the time and I really got a chance to be like, well, you keep doing this, but like, what about this, and she really had a moment where she reflected on what she was doing. And these really endearing stories that you get out of this stuff. And like, you know, there’s some questions like, well, is that gradable content? Well, I suppose. How rich is the story? What kinds of things are you doing? And like, have you really understood the skill that you’re telling other people? And what can I do to teach that better if you’re using this a lot. And so it’s a kind of nice interesting way of thinking about the continuous improvement in your intro level classes. 

Carrie Welsh  13:41 

Dr. Koolage also coordinates the Eastern Michigan University Undergraduate Conference in Philosophy. This is where the peer-to-peer learning happens. It’s a high-impact practice with lots of collateral learning. 

 John Koolage  13:53 

So at Eastern Michigan University, I also run an undergraduate conference, which we’ve been doing for kind of long time, and it’s got a kind of fun history. 

 Carrie Welsh  14:00 

The conference was developed from the undergraduate philosophy club. At first, the club was basically another philosophy class. Then the students said, What do philosophy clubs do if they don’t just sit around and talk to other philosophy majors and professors? The conference grew from there and now has an international attendance. The nice 

 John Koolage  14:18 

thing about the undergraduate conferences, it offers opportunities for a ton of what you might just call collateral learning. So you have all these philosophy students who’ve never thought one bit about whether their philosophy work is of any value for their like business life or something like that. So now I have this committee of students who help build the conference. There’s this like small army of Eastern Michigan philosophy students who, you know, build all these like interpersonal skills and like they work in these teams. They work with the university services, so they work with event planning, and they work with the department head, mostly, mostly mediated–Laura McMahon, who’s my colleague, and I are the faculty people. And so they work with us [and we say] ‘think about this’ And then the conference is modeled after, as well as it can, after professional conferences, so then there’s like official commenters and so the students are coordinating, commenting and helping people understand what that means. And I built these documents that help people sort of think about how to give a presentation, how to give comments, and what it means to be a collaborator. But it seemed like a really nice opportunity for students to rethink how we think about philosophy as not adversarial, but rather collaborative. 

 Carrie Welsh  15:22 

The conference is an opportunity for a philosophy experience outside of the classroom. John and a colleague even analyze the conference to see what kind of effect it was having. And they found out that it was really good. 

 John Koolage  15:35 

So Dani Clevenger and I wrote a paper on this, where we actually looked at the conference very closely and made some adjustments in line with some of the feminist literature. And so we think we’ve really built something that’s like, this is how it ought to be. And so–and I think the professional conferences are going this way, too. So this is not like we did this miraculous thing, but like, it turned out really well. It was really great data that shows that students who come feel a sense of…they’re not feeling some of the adversarial stuff they had before. And there’s a lot of group building, and students leave the conference, I think–and we have data for this, I don’t just think it–feeling like that was a really rewarding experience. So I presented this thing, it was really hard. But the group was really collaborative, and like I didn’t feel threatened. And the whole time, I was just sort of enjoying all the stuff was going on. And so that’s an opportunity philosophy outside of the classroom. That’s what any of my papers actually into join us as time pack practice. And what that means is it has certain set of properties, right? So it’s a sufficiently rigorous, there’s enough opportunity for students present, there’s faculty engagement, peer engagement, about things that they think matters and stuff like that. And so the actual conference itself are not just the building of it has like this nice property of helping students like become better off. And the high impact practices we know from like George Kuh, and other people that those are best. Those, those have the highest impact on underserved populations. So none of this is really surprising in the end, but we showed them, right, so super cool.  

 John Koolage  16:56 

The high impact practice idea is not unique to conferences, right. So like, what are some other things we could build? There’s lots of different ways to build philosophy experiences that are just not courses. And I think that’s a super cool idea. 

 Carrie Welsh  17:13 

We’d love to hear from you. How do you engage your students? Send us your comments, or leave us a voicemail. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the rest of the series on teaching. This episode was produced by Carrie Welsh.