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With Jen Kling

Carrie Welsh  00:03

You’re listening to Ethics & Education. This piece is the last episode of our spring 2021 teaching series. It’s about teaching philosophy using humor, movement, and multimedia, with Dr. Jen Kling.

Jen Kling  00:20

I’m Jen Kling. I’m an Assistant Professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Carrie Welsh  00:31

And yes, this is a philosophy cover of Adele…

Betty Varland  00:34

[singing] “I’m a Greek philosopher dreaming about what humanity could be”

Carrie Welsh  00:41

…written and performed by Betty Varland, one of Jen’s students

Betty Varland  00:48

[singing] “We’ve forgotten how it felt in the state of nature”

Carrie Welsh  00:51

More on this in a little bit.

Betty Varland  00:54

[singing] “There’s such a difference between us and a million laws”

Carrie Welsh  01:02

I think this is a perfect episode to end our season with. Jen connects all of the themes of the teaching series: philosophy is a skill set and a disposition, finding an entry point for new students, and of course, using games to teach social contract theory. Jen is really into games.

Jen Kling  01:28

So much of what I do is just to make people laugh. I think it’s genuinely important. I think philosophy is very serious, it can be very important, heavy topics. You have to find your way in to these questions. And for me, often humor, amusement is the way to do that. And so I tried to impart that to my students.

Carrie Welsh  01:48

I asked Jen, why games are so useful for teaching social contract theory? She said, not only is it hard to learn, it can be pretty boring to teach.

Jen Kling  01:57

The social contract genuinely is an incredibly important philosophical idea. But it can also be boring to teach. It’s very hard, right? It can be like sort of a slog where you’re just like, and then and then and then and contracts… And it can be I think, for the students, if they’re just sort of sitting there, can be sort of this thing where they’re memorizing, rather than understanding. And so what I was trying to do was create a situation in the classroom where they would really feel the motivations, right? Like, why is getting a social contract up and running so important? Why might it be conducive to things like justice, freedom, equality, fairness, these kinds of things.

Carrie Welsh  02:38

The Rawls game uses a pretty common scenario: dividing up a cake or cookie. You get to cut the slices, but the other person gets to pick the slice they want.

Jen Kling  02:49

And then all of a sudden, the person cutting the cookie becomes a molecular scientist, they’re [cutting] real careful and real clear. So I developed a game actually around that, because that actually gets at Rawls, his motivations for the original decision. Because here’s what he says. He says, you’re more likely to create fair rules, or to be fair, when you don’t know what you’re going to end up with. Because there’s a double motivation here, there’s like the fear of missing out, right? Also sort of motivations of equality and fairness and social cooperation. But also this like fear, like I could end up with nothing. So I it’s better to be fair than to be selfish.

Carrie Welsh  03:24

Jen uses actual candy for this gaming class.

Jen Kling  03:27

So I paired the students up, I give them like five pieces of candy that they can’t divide equally. One of them is the solver and one of them is the citizen. I tell the sovereign, okay, divided anywhere you like, right? And the always suffering is like, well, I’m gonna keep all the candy for myself. And then I say, okay, but there’s a wrinkle, right? The citizen gets to decide which pile they want. And exactly the same thing happens, right? The student, like always, the one who’s the monarch, like, immediately becomes like, oh, how can I parse this out? Like, I’ve had students like, break kitkats in half, so they can make it exactly equal? And it’s a really funny, but then also, it actually creates this really good conversation, because I ask students, why did you do that? And they’re like, Oh, I was worried, I was worried I would end up with nothing. I say, okay, like, this is what Rawls is doing with the veil of ignorance. He says, when you don’t know where you’re gonna end up, you’re more likely to create fair rules, so you don’t lose out. And so I find using the game in that way, it gets them on board with Rawls as motivations in a way that talking about fairness just sort of abstractly, can’t do. And so it really, it gets them to see what he’s after. Right?

Jen Kling  04:39

Plus, like, if I give them candy, they’re much more likely to remember it fondly. Right, like, I mean, it’s always like I’m just using like our biological nature, right is like when you eat sugar, you’re primed to remember what you were doing when you were eating sugar. Sometimes the old tricks are the best.

Carrie Welsh  04:55

Jen really likes using movement in class activities.

Jen Kling  04:59

And it’s really fun. And I think importantly, they’re moving their bodies. Right? I’m a big believer that we’re not just brains on sticks. It’s how I talk about it, right? There’s some kinds of temptation in philosophy to be like, oh, we’re just a brain on the stick, right? The brain is what matters here. But that’s not true, right? We’re embodied our bodies matter. And they make a difference to how we learn and how we think. And so I find, when I get my students to get up to walk around to play a game, they engage much more holistically with the material. And so that’s really like, that’s a lot of my like pedagogy behind using games to teach. Also, it’s just functionally true that I get bored in the classroom. If I’m just up there, like lecturing or writing on the board. I think those are amazing pedagogical tools. But for me, I need more holistic engagement.

Carrie Welsh  05:44

One example of how Jen uses movement in class, is how she teaches about the social construction of gender. She has her students walk.

Jen Kling  05:53

And we go into the hallway. And I say, you know, and we at this point, we’ve talked about social construction of gender. And so I asked them, okay, what is your socially constructed gender? Because at this point, they know. And so everybody tells me, and I say, Okay, here’s what you need to do. You’ve got to walk up and down the hallway as the gender that you are not. Because at this point, it’s a couple weeks into the semester, we’ve had the social construction of gender. They all say all these good things, like I never stereotype anybody, I treat everybody as an individual. I think that’s so important. And the minute you ask them to walk as the gender that they are not. It’s astonishing, like it is, again, genuinely hysterical, but also amazing, right? Because immediately, the men like get up on their tippy toes, and they’re swaying, and they’re like, mincing side to side and like, the women are like doing swag, and like hiccuping their hips, right? And it’s hilarious. And it’s just amazing. But what’s so funny is like, they’re annoyed at me, because I’ve made them get up, but they start laughing at each other. And they start exaggerating, more and more, because they’re making each other laugh. But also, like, they do all start out with this exaggerated stereotype.

And so then they’re chuckling, and we’re all laughing, and we walked down as the gender that we are not. And then at the other end of the hallway, I haven’t say, Okay, okay, that was you all did amazing. That was great. Now walk back normally, like walk back as you are. And they just walk. And what’s fascinating is like, because they’ve been primed to look at each other, because they were all looking at each other and making each other laugh. When they walk back. They’re still looking at each other. And they’re like, wait, we all walk the same. Like, I was just totally stereotyping an entire group. And they’re like, Oh, no, what just happened?? And I’m like, Yeah, right, like turns out gender stereotyping is a hell of a drug. Like, right, you can do it even when you don’t mean to. But it’s really fun. Because they, they come to it on their own, right? They they realize they’re like, wait, we all have roughly the same physical structure. So we all actually walk the same. So why did I do that? And I’m like, I don’t know. Why did you do that? Now like, Oh, no. And it’s, it’s this great discussion of the way in which like stereotypes get into our brains. And we don’t even know, right? You’d never do it on purpose. And yet, I love doing physical activities like that. Oh, so it’s really just genuinely fun and engaging. So much of what I do is just to make people laugh. I really like I think it’s, I think it’s genuinely important. I think philosophy is very serious it can be it’s very important, heavy topics. But I think you have to find you have to find your way in to these questions. And for me, often humor, and movement is the way to do that. And so I tried to impart that to my students. And so I love doing that kind of thing.

Carrie Welsh  08:54

Jen had a professor in undergrad who made it seem like philosophy was only for certain types of people, people with “logic brains.”

Jen Kling  09:03

So there’s this common stereotype or conception of philosophy, right? where it’s like, it’s for the smart people. And you can either do it, or you can’t, I had a logic professor actually say this, unlike my first day of undergraduate logic, like he came in, and he was like, some of you are gonna get this. And some of you are not because some people have logic brains, and some people don’t and like you can’t get it. Like, I’ll try to help you, but there’s just not much to be done. And it was just like, what, like, that has to be wrong. Like genuinely, like, I was like, that genuinely can’t be true. And of course, I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. Because I was an undergrad like, I wasn’t really like ‘that pedagogically seems incorrect.’ Like I wasn’t doing that. But looking back on it, it actually has informed a lot of my pedagogy, right? Because I firmly believe there’s no such thing as people who are like good at philosophy and then people are bad at philosophy naturally. I think that’s connected to really outmoded ideas of intelligence and cognitive capacity.

Carrie Welsh  10:06

And Jen–who now has a PhD in philosophy, and is a professor–struggled with philosophy at first. Eventually, she came to see it as a skill set. Something you develop over time, not something that only some people are just naturally good at.

Jen Kling  10:23

What is true, is that it’s just like riding a bike. It’s a skill. Nobody starts out good at it, I got a C minus in my first philosophy class, I’m like, look at me, right? Yeah, I genuinely, I genuinely got to see mine as my first philosophy class. And I was like, No, I hate this. But I liked the professor. And I was like, I’ll give it one more go. And then just it turned into my life’s work. But that’s because nobody starts out good at this, you learn over time. Because what it is, is the ability to look at an argument to look at a position and figure out how to critique it, right and say, what’s reasonable about this? What’s unreasonable? Should I believe it? What reasons? Do I have to believe it? What reasons do I not have to believe it? And those kinds of skills are things that we can teach. But you get better added over time. And so what I try and do in all of my teaching, is not only teach the content, right, so I teach a lot of philosophical content. But I also try to always spend time with my students saying, Now look, look at what the philosopher was doing here. One of the most important things I think we can teach our students is that philosophy is a skill set. I’m always trying to help them manage that skill set and figure out what philosophical tools they’ve got. Because then everything else sort of comes to the table. Right? But part of what I’m trying to always do is break down this stereotype about philosophy as like, No, I’m bad at this, right? Because I will have students who come into my class and I say, you know, why are you here? Right? Not the big why, but the little why. And then they’ll say, you know, I had to take it for requirement. I know, I’m bad at this, but like, I’m stuck, right. And that is actually the tone that they use. For some reason. They have this feeling that they cannot do it. And so almost everything I do in my classroom is designed to get them to see that, of course, you can do this, anybody can do this. It just takes time. It just you have to learn how the exact same way you couldn’t write when you first tried. You couldn’t ride a bike when you first tried, like nobody can cook a souffle the first time around, like you just can’t collapse. The first time you tried to do philosophy, you will not go well. And so just over time you get better.

Carrie Welsh  12:46

Jen has developed a way of facilitating good discussion in her classroom, by making it a place where students feel like they can speak up and not be afraid they’ll be wrong,

Jen Kling  12:55

It involves having faith in your students, I think. And that’s what I try and do. Right, I try and assume that they’ve got really good things to say. We just got to get them there. Right? Because many in many ways, like our educational institutions, train them to not speak up. And so a lot of what I do in my classroom is like, Wait them out, right? So I will ask questions and be like, okay, talk to me. Like, I’m like, I can wait all day, like I don’t mind. And they figure it out. And we get into this really good space where they’re willing to just throw stuff out. Right, because I’m almost never gonna critique them. Right, which was a that’s really interesting, who wants to respond right and, and encourages them to get into these debates in fun ways.

Carrie Welsh  13:36

Setting up a classroom so the students are comfortable with discussion makes space for them to also be comfortable getting creative. In addition to using movement and humor and games in the classroom, Jen uses multimedia podcasts, YouTube videos, social media. This is a way she trains her students to encounter ideas in the wild, not just ideas in their theoretical form.

Jen Kling  13:59

People glom on to ideas in all different kinds of ways. So one thing that philosophers like professional philosophers like to do is we like to read write and talk. Right? That’s what we like to do. But that is a very small subset of how you have like, I sometimes call this like encountering ideas in the wild, which is, because I’m a ridiculous human. I’m a ridiculous person. I like to give things ridiculous names. But as professional philosophers, we’re so used to encountering ideas in their theoretical form, not in the wild, in a philosophy journal or a book, right or an article. And, but that’s not how our students encounter the world. Our students encounter the world through memes, through social media, through chatting with their friends through having dinner at home, and like their parents saying something right or their caregivers saying something to them. They’re encountering these ideas in the wild. And so a large part of what I try and do is demonstrate to them that the ideas that they’re encountering in the wild are this same ideas that professional philosophers are working with. It’s just that the form might look different, right? So it might confuse you. And so what you need to do is be paying attention. And you can see that.

So this is why like, I bring all this multimedia into the classroom, so that I can say, like, Look, you can have a perfectly good rigorous philosophical discussion through memes. Because you can’t actually do a good meme unless you completely understand what’s going on, you’ve got to really know the content. You know, that’s a perfect, that’s a perfectly valid way of having a discussion. It’s not necessarily like old school, academic. But it is totally valid. And I think when we deny that validity, we do our students a disservice. Right? Because we say to them, there are some ways of talking about ideas that are better than others. And I think that’s incorrect. Because again, my goal is to get them the skill set, so that they can just talk about the ideas. That’s what I want them to do, how they’re doing it. Do what works for you, friend, right. So I use a lot of multimedia and I also assign a lot of multimedia. And what I mean by that is that I do assign papers, like they have to write for me, I’m old school in that way. Like I think writing is important. And structuring an argument is important. But they can also turn in podcasts for me, they can turn in short videos, they can turn in like a Tumblr, a Tumblr link with memes, right? They can turn in a game, right? For a final project. And it’s I mean, it’s amazing. Sometimes people say like, by opening up in this way, aren’t you just gonna get sort of bad content? And I’m like, oh, contraire, like the content I get is amazing. The content I get is so much better than I would get. I think genuinely, if I were just assigning sort of written work and exam at the end.

Carrie Welsh  16:40

One multimedia project Jen developed is an assignment called blog post.

Jen Kling  16:44

I have an assignment called blog post, where they can write a blog post, but then they can do any kind of media they want.

Carrie Welsh  16:50

I put the assignment prompt in the notes for this episode. The goal of this assignment is to get students to think about how the philosophical concepts they’re discussing in class, fit into or make sense of, or add meaning to their lives. Jen assigns six of these a semester.

Jen Kling  17:07

So it’s called a blog post. But it can be text, it can be video, it can be podcasts, it can be memes, it can be whatever.

Carrie Welsh  17:13

And one semester, a student wrote a song.

Betty Varland  17:17

[singing] “So hello from the civilized side”

Carrie Welsh  17:23

This is Betty Varland.

Betty Varland  17:24

[singing] I must have called a thousand times”

Carrie Welsh  17:26

She took Jen’s class in the fall of 2019.

Betty Varland  17:28

[singing] “You’ve got to have a state. When I call Alexander…”

Carrie Welsh  17:35

Betty was a music major, and she rewrote the lyrics of “Hello” by Adele to be a depiction of Aristotle’s argument in support of having a state. I think it’s incredibly creative. And like Jen said, to create something mimetic like this, you have to really understand the content.

Betty Varland  17:52

[singing] “…to tell you of your telos, the purpose of your life”

Carrie Welsh  17:59

Can you imagine if she had simply assigned an essay on Aristotle?

Betty Varland  18:02

[singing] “‘cuz it matters, it clearly sets us apart from the beasts”

Jen Kling  18:07

It was amazing. And I never would have gotten that from her, right, if I’d said, you have to write something down. I won’t accept it if it’s not written down.

Betty Varland  18:24

[singing] “oh the state….”

Carrie Welsh  18:35

Jen hopes her students take away the skills of philosophy, even if they never end up as academic philosophers. Especially if they never end up as academic philosophers.

Jen Kling  18:46

We’re worried about them developing the skill set, because that’s what they’re going to use, right? Like many of many of my students are not going to go to grad school. They’re not going to be professional philosophers. I work in a working class University. But what I can do is encourage them to be a little more thoughtful, and a little more careful in their everyday lives. Right. And that’s usually how I pitch it to them, right? I say like, we live in a world where everybody’s trying to sell you something. Like, wouldn’t it be good if you had the ability to carefully evaluate that before buy it. That’s what philosophy can teach you. It can teach you careful evaluation. So if you stick with me, I can help you learn how to do that. And then my end goal is I’m not trying to create more philosophers, except that I am, right, because I think philosophers, anybody who’s able to carefully think through stuff and make a reasonable decision before doing something in the world. And if I do that, like, I’ve done my job, right, it seems it doesn’t matter if they remember who Plato is. It matters that they’re able to be thoughtful about a proposed law, right or thoughtful about a proposed policy. That’s what I want them to get out of it. So that’s what I’m going for.

Carrie Welsh  20:01

Thanks for listening. This is the last episode of our first season of the podcast. We’ll be back in the fall. We love hearing from you. So please get in touch and let us know what you’d like to hear about next season. There’s also a link to a survey in the episode description. We would love your feedback. And in the meantime, as you put together your syllabi and plan for next semester, we invite you to check out the study guides we’ve made about the podcast for you to use in your classes. They have suggested readings in class activities, and discussion questions.

Betty Varland  20:39

[singing] “Hello from the civilized side…At least I can say that I’ve tried…to tell you of your telos, and how you need a state, ‘cuz it matters, it clearly fulfills man’s potential…oh, the state…”