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With Susan Kennedy

Carrie Welsh 00:01
You’re listening to Ethics & Education. This is the second episode in our series about teaching.

Susan Kennedy 00:07
I don’t want it to be the case that feminist philosophy is just kind of added on the syllabus as an afterthought, or, you know, oh, well, I’ve diversified my syllabus, if I just add one or two feminist philosophers at the end of the course, I want it to be just as integrated. And I want the activities I use in class to facilitate their learning feminist philosophy just as much as it does for the canonical philosophers that we’re going to be studying because I think they are just as deserving of attention. But we’re just in this position now where we’re trying to catch up and make sure that, you know, people are sharing these kinds of activities and things so that people can be using them in their own classes.

Carrie Welsh 00:42
That’s Susan Kennedy.

Susan Kennedy 00:43
So my name is Susan Kennedy.

Carrie Welsh 00:45
Dr. Kennedy is currently a postdoc in philosophy at Harvard, where she works with the Embedded EthiCS team to integrate ethical reasoning into the computer science curriculum. When I talked with her in 2020, she was a graduate student at Boston University, teaching undergrad philosophy classes. Susan wanted to pull in non canonical texts to teach about social contract theory, especially the feminist critiques.

Susan Kennedy 01:14
Right. So when I teach political philosophy classes, naturally, you’re going to go through social contract theory. And so there’s the classic canonical texts like Hobbes and Locke and Rawls. And one of the activities that I learned a lot from when I take in political philosophy was this game on Rawls’s second principle, where you’re supposed to imagine yourself in the original position, and within your group, you’re supposed to choose the best distributive principle for society, for justice. And I always found that activity to be really engaging and interesting to see the ways in which students end up tracking on to a lot of the debates that end up happening in the secondary literature without even having read the secondary literature. So I wanted to create an activity that would similarly do that, but maybe pull in some of these non canonical texts, and especially the feminist critiques of social contract theory.

Carrie Welsh 02:07
So Susan developed a simulation to teach the feminist critiques of social contract theory. In the simulation, the students break out into small groups. The first set of groups imagine themselves in terms of traditional social contract theory. And the second group imagines themselves as a loving family company.

Susan Kennedy 02:25
So for this particular simulation, I have students break into two different sorts of groups, no small groups, depending on the size of the class. And, you know, the first set of groups will be given instructions where they’re supposed to be imagining themselves in terms of traditional social contract theory, where we’re imagining that you’re a rational, self interested person, and you’re really trying to acquire a larger share of the primary goods. And so you’re thinking about how you can maybe bargain or figure out the best policies, but only because it maybe benefits you.

Susan Kennedy 02:58
And then the second group has been primed in a different way. So I asked them to imagine themselves as a loving family composed of parents and small children, right, both groups end up answering the same sets of questions. For the social contract theory activity, I had them break into small groups, and the one that was supposed to be imagining themselves as a loving family, they’re answering questions about should all members of the society be able to enter and exit personal relationships at will? Or suppose one of the members of society is refusing to eat and adamantly sort of expresses a wishes wish to starve to death? Is it permissible for other members of society to intervene and force her to eat? So for the groups that were imagining themselves in terms of traditional social contract theory, they’re really prioritizing things like non interference, right? But then when you’re imagining yourself as a family, all of a sudden non interference isn’t sufficient to fulfill our obligations, right? We would think that parents have an obligation to make sure that their child is fed even if they’re refusing food. Also, this idea of Well, can we enter an exit personal relationships that will? Well, we’re imagining rational adults, then we would think, yes, but all of a sudden, when you’re thinking about things in terms of family, well, those relationships are permanent. They’re irreplaceable, right? And so in a lot of ways, we don’t think that a child can just up and leave their family, if they so choose. So it’s really interesting to see the students come to different conclusions. And before I reveal to them that they’ve been given different instructions, I have them put their answers on the board. And then I have them, try and imagine why the groups came up with different answers. Because they’re usually very shocked to see that they’ve come up with radically different conclusions for these questions. So I want them to try and seek first to understand and maybe see if they could actually figure out that they’ve been given different instructions or that they were somehow primed differently.

Carrie Welsh 04:52
Initially, the groups don’t actually know why they’ve responded so differently. They don’t know that they’ve each been assigned a different role.

Susan Kennedy 04:58
And then after I have them imagine that and maybe suggest some reasons why they think the groups came to a different result. Then as a class, we go through the answers, and I reveal to them that I’ve sort of tricked them. And we have a nice discussion where we, you know, get to talk about these issues of non interference or non contractual relationships or replace ability and things like that.

Carrie Welsh 05:21
How does it go over with the students?

Susan Kennedy 05:25
So I think maybe sometimes they feel bad that I’ve tricked them or manipulated them. So there was one time where the students had put on radically different answers on the board, and one of the girls from from one of the groups saw the different answers, and she goes, What How could you possibly say no to this question, this is America. And so I had to step in and intervene in that case, before I gave them an opportunity to imagine why they came up with different answers, because I really didn’t want them to sort of like, be starting a brawl in the middle of the classroom. But it does keep things exciting, I would say.

Susan Kennedy 05:59
Susan found plenty of resources for teaching the canonical texts. But there just aren’t many resources for teaching the non canonical texts. Often, these are the texts that get pinned on the syllabus as an afterthought. Susan found that she had to design activities from scratch.

Susan Kennedy 06:14
I think one benefit of teaching canonical texts is there are a lot of resources, people often put those things on their syllabi, I mean, that’s what makes them the sort of canonical texts. And so you’ll end up finding lots of sort of simulations and games that have already been designed. And it’s very easy to incorporate those into your own classes then.

Susan Kennedy 06:32
But one disadvantage of that is that the non canonical texts, there’s just not yours like not those kinds of resources available. So in that case, I really did have to just design this activity to meet those needs. And I think one reason I thought that was really important was, I don’t want it to be the case that feminist philosophy is just kind of added on the syllabus as an afterthought, or, you know, oh, well, I’ve diversified my syllabus, if I just add one or two feminist philosophers at the end of the course, I want it to be just as integrated. And I want the activities I use in class to facilitate their learning feminist philosophy just as much as it does for the canonical philosophers that we’re going to be studying because I think they are just as deserving of attention. But we’re just in this position now where we’re trying to catch up and make sure that, you know, people are sharing these kinds of activities and things so that people can be using them in their own classes.

Carrie Welsh 07:22
Simulations are really engaging way to teach philosophy. Why should the greats get all the attention?

Susan Kennedy 07:29
Absolutely. And I think the students really engage with the material more when you do things like simulations. And so, you know, I would feel remiss if I did a simulation for roles, for instance, but then failed to do a simulation when it comes to the feminist critiques that I think are just as if not more important than the original text. So it’s a really nice starting point, because after that class where we do that activity can follow up and give them resources so they can start digging into some of that literature. And I think their interest just goes through the roof when you can present that material in that kind of interactive and engaging way as opposed to just having a lesson plan, where I’m, you know, lecturing about feminist critiques or something like that. When they discover them on their own, I think they’re more motivated to like follow up on it.

Carrie Welsh 08:11
The social contract activity is based on a game she learned as an undergrad, and it’s stuck with her.

Susan Kennedy 08:16
So Harry Brighouse’s activity on Rawls’s second principle was one that I had done when I was an undergraduate student. And six years later, I found that it was still a really memorable experience that I continuously would reflect back upon. And so when I was in the position to be creating my own political philosophy class, I wanted to create an activity that was very similar in that respect, that it simulates the experience of maybe being in the original position. But the activity I design sort of looked at different ways to prime the students and maybe question what, how we’re abstracting things away when we do something like the original position in the veil of ignorance. So it was a really good starting point for designing that activity. And I still use the game on Rawls’s second principle, because I think it’s fantastic. And now it’s nice to have this sort of supplement to address the feminist critiques of social contract theory.

Carrie Welsh 09:17
Simulations don’t have to only be about imagining you’re in different social groups. Susan has also used simulations to teach things like how to conference.

Susan Kennedy 09:27
So one thing that I focus on in teaching these philosophy classes in the writing program at BU is there’s a strong emphasis on writing skills, but also being able to remediate or translate that research and communicate at different levels. So we’re not just trying to communicate with an academic audience. We also want students to learn how to communicate to a general audience or, you know, a wider one. So sometimes I assign op-ed assignments, and for this bioethics class, they’re doing poster presentations.

Susan Kennedy 09:56
Although one thing that I think they struggle with is the oral presentation component. So being able to translate the research in that kind of format, and then have the confidence to get up in front of the class and share their their work with their peers. And I really do try and simulate it as a conference style presentation. So, you know, they have time limits, we do a q&a following every student’s presentation. And I could tell that my students were very hesitant and nervous to do this kind of presentation, especially the q&a portion of it, because they’re like, well, I feel like I’m so new to this material. And I’m really nervous that someone’s gonna ask me a question, and I’m just not gonna know how to answer it. So I ended up creating this worksheet about tips for how to handle q&a sessions. Because once you do conferences enough, and you get a feel for this sort of thing, you realize that there really are some sort of strategies for what kinds of questions you can ask during a talk, and what kinds of responses are appropriate. And you also get some glimpses into maybe some problematic behavior that are particular to the discipline.

Carrie Welsh 10:53
Susan designed a worksheet that outlines the kinds of questions that may get asked during a q&a session at an academic conference.

Susan Kennedy 11:00
So I gave them this worksheet that sort of outlined, you know, questions that you might ask is the curious question, you know, oh, well, I hadn’t really thought about this before, I guess I had a different intuition. Could you maybe tell me why you came to this conclusion instead? Or maybe the clarificatory question like, Is this what you were really trying to say? And then giving them the format? And how to answer those questions. One of them that I include in there as the bait and switch, right. So if it’s really the case that you don’t know how to answer that question, you might say something like, well, I hadn’t, you know, thought about it quite in those terms before, but I have thought about this, you know, very similar related issue. And here’s what I have to say about this. And I think giving them those tools and realizing that they don’t have to have the answer for all these questions. And if there is an objection that they don’t have a good answer for, that’s okay. Like, that’s part of the learning process. And I think conferences and presentations can be really constructive experience, even though it is also maybe a vulnerable experience for students.

Susan Kennedy 11:56
And I think after I started using that worksheet in class, I found students were having an easier time, you know, handling these presentations, and I was just blown away with the way they were engaging with each other after each student’s presentation. So you know, I instructed them, it’s like, well, it’s always polite to thank the speaker after their talk. And, you know, these are the appropriate ways to sort of frame your question. And maybe even if you have a challenge, you want to pose there’s pleasant and nice ways of doing that. And I just, I couldn’t believe how quickly they responded to that. And it was really amazing to watch the way they were, they were interacting with one another student, like the students presentations, they were so encouraging of one another. And it was a really supportive classroom environment. And it really felt like we built a community in that classroom by the end of the class. And I mean, that’s something that I really always strive for is building a community within the class, but also making them feel like they’re a part of the community of philosophy in general, or even just whatever interdisciplinary field they might be interested in, or majoring in.

Susan Kennedy 12:56
And since then, I’ve had a lot of students that I’ve been following up with and advising. And, you know, they’re now applying for conferences themselves, or asking for letters of recommendation. And so it’s really nice to see that with just a little push. Yeah, they’re able to, like really set themselves and, and try and strive for some of these things.

Carrie Welsh 13:19
Imposter syndrome, that feeling like everyone else has it figured out except for you, is incredibly common. Susan gives students a kind of map to navigate and demystify all the different confusing pieces of academia.

Susan Kennedy 13:33
Yes, so I think they get very overwhelmed when they think it’s just this open range of possibilities. And that’s not to say that when you give them this kind of structure, that they fail to see the places and room to be creative. It just helps it, you know, limit things enough that they feel like it’s manageable. And you know, they still obviously find ways to be very creative and come up with different sorts of questions and answers in that way. But the format, and the framework definitely helps. Yeah, I think it’s, it’s really important to me, just because I realized that, you know, something I struggled with was going through grad school definitely felt like, there was some sort of insider knowledge that everyone was privy to that maybe I wasn’t, and I sort of started feeling like, well, what am I missing out on? It seems like everyone else has the answer. And why didn’t I get the memo? You know, and I see my students feel that as well, because they’re looking up to the people and just like, well, how could I ever accomplish this? And so I think, ways in which you can bring them into the community and make those connections more clear. Yeah, I think all the ways that you can maybe make the discipline more transparent, and the norms that are part of that discipline more transparent, because it can seem very foreign or alien at first. I mean, philosophers have a very sort of particular way of engaging with one another. And it can maybe be overwhelming when you haven’t been in a philosophy for a while. But I don’t want that to be one of the things that stops my students from taking another philosophy classes feeling like, oh, people are having these kinds of conversations. And this is very intimidating. So I try and you know, in all the ways that I can bring in some of that what would otherwise seem like insider knowledge and make that available to them.

Susan Kennedy 15:10
Susan has sound advice for anyone who teaches philosophy to non majors.

Susan Kennedy 15:14
One thing that might be a sort of obstacle when you’re teaching philosophy or you’re an instructor of philosophy is, you’re not always going to be guaranteed that your students are coming into the classroom with an interest in philosophy or any background in philosophy, right? It’s uncommon to see it in high schools. And so usually that undergraduate class you’re teaching that will be their first interaction with philosophy. And especially when you’re teaching something like medical ethics, or bioethics, it’s almost usually the case or always the case that your students are coming from biomedical engineering, or they want to be a pre med major or something like this. Right? And so you have to ask yourself, Well, how can I motivate this for students? or How can I engage students? And I think one thing that I learned and, you know, I would hope to share is, I guess I realized I made a mistake and assumption about where my students were coming from and what their interests were, you know, coming into the classroom. So I thought, well, oh, STEM students, they’re really not going to be interested in these sort of ethical issues. They just want to know, what’s the cool science that’s coming out? What’s the hottest research coming out? What’s the innovative technology? And I guess I was really just sort of amazed at the sort of humane aspirations that my students had. So yes, I had a lot of pre med majors.

Susan Kennedy 16:26
But you know, there was this one class in particular, where we were talking about care robots. So these robots that are designed to help assist patients out of bed. And a few students came up to me after that class, and we were talking about value sensitive design for technology. And one of the students said, you know, this was an amazing lesson, my mom works in nursing homes, and she threw out her bag, lifting patients out of bed. So like, this was a really cool technology for me to learn about. Another student was telling me about one of her grandparents with dementia, we were talking about how we could structure environments differently to be more amenable to providing better dementia care. And so I guess in that moment, I sort of realized that all of my STEM students who I thought might have very different sort of motivations than I did for being interested in this topic, it actually seemed like there was more convergence than I had initially expected, because a lot of them it was because a family member had been sick. And now they’re very interested to pursue medicine, because they want to give back to the world and maybe make a difference that way.

Susan Kennedy 17:24
And so that would be my advice, I guess, for anyone who’s maybe teaching medical ethics or bioethics is don’t underestimate your students interest in philosophy, just because they’re not majoring in philosophy or ethics for that matter. Too often, in academia, we make the sort of fruit characterizations that don’t quite map onto the reality of it. So I mean, it was in the case of my family, my brother’s a surgeon now. And, you know, he’ll joke with me that, oh, you’re not a real doctor, because I’m doing a PhD in philosophy, right? And he doesn’t have high regard for the Humanities. And so there’s always you know, in some funny ways, we might play up the differences between STEM fields in medicine and ethics or something in this case, but I think we would do better if we would maybe break down some of those bridges, because there’s all sorts of surprising ways I find my STEM students being creative or interested in the humanities, even if their main interest or their career aspiration is to do something in medicine. That doesn’t mean that you know, they won’t track on and really find a deep interest in philosophy.

Susan Kennedy 18:39
We’d love to hear from you. How do you engage your students? Send us a message or leave us a voicemail using the link in the episode description. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the rest of the series on teaching. This episode was produced by Carrie Welsh.