Teaching Teaching Outside the Classroom: Dena Shottenkirk on Think Olio

Teaching Outside the Classroom: Dena Shottenkirk on Think Olio

Think Olio is a New York-based interdisciplinary lecture series founded by CUNY students Chris Zumtobel and David Kurfirst in March 2015, who started with a class in their living room.  They have now held around 400 Olios at 30 locations including at the Strand Bookstore.  Dena Shottenkirk, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College, teaches at Think Olio and here she talks about this experience. 

A former student of mine from a Communication Ethics (Brooklyn College) class recommended my name to them. Chris Zumtobel, one of the founders of Olio, contacted me, and he and I talked about what I was working on and what I’d be interested in teaching. As I also have a non-profit called Philosophers’ Ontological Party club (POPc) that combines my philosophy with my art practice, we thought I could tie in that project with the Olio class. In POPc, we stage one-to-one conversations on particular topics. The particular topic we at POPc were doing at the time was on free speech and censorship. So, the first class I taught for Olio was on that.

I decided to do that class for two reasons. First of all, I gave the talk because I wanted to bring as many people into that particular conversation on censorship as I could. I think it is vital that people think through the issues related to the first amendment as well as through the reasons why some people are calling for hate speech laws. Talking about these issues, instead of merely posting one’s fevered opinion, is the only way we as a society will work it out. This lecture added to that process of political, social consensus and so I wanted to do it for that reason.

Secondly, it is a way to put learning into the everyday lives of people, and thus positively contribute to the good of those particular individuals. People’s lives are often lived according to the schedule of childhood schooling followed by adult employment. That means there is a sharp bifurcation in a person’s life when they leave college – where they were being exposed to new ideas and facts – and enter the job market, where they are often expected to merely follow procedures and not query when queries are not asked for. I think that sharp divide is sometimes experienced as a loss. I have heard so many people – so many students – complain about a job that doesn’t encourage curiosity and that instead stifles their learning. Olio reaches out to them.

This latter reason was also the motivating force for the second time I taught. The suggestion for this one came from Olio – that I expand on a book I published on Nelson Goodman. I did that in a lovely outdoor bar setting with a small audience positioned with beers and dogs on leashes. I walked them through why it matters how we define art, and why it is that the definition provided by Goodman is something we should reject. They had each thought about why they cared about art, and what they thought it meant, so this was an opportunity to have them bring forth their own independent thoughts. Some amazingly interesting things were said by the members of the audience and several stayed afterwards telling me how much it had meant to them. People have a natural need to articulate their views, but rarely the chance to work out those views. A public teaching experience like this, which encourages the audience as active thinkers, helps with that.

This brings me to how this kind of teaching might differ from the classroom teaching. Different professors of course do this differently. Personally, on many occasions, I have had faculty in the room next to mine ask me what was going on in my class that made everyone be so loud. Laughing, shrieking, mild arguments, etc., are not uncommon. I don’t think of my duties as passing over data as much as I think of it as stimulating conversation. So, in that way, I think Olio is doing something of what I imagine myself as doing as a day-to-day faculty member. The difference is that Olio is encouraging people to do it not for the grade but for the life. And I’m behind that.

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Dena Shottenkirk is an analytic philosopher specializing in aesthetics and epistemology. She teaches at Brooklyn College and her doctoral dissertation, “Nominalism and Its Aftermath: The Philosophy of Nelson Goodman,” was published by Springer in 2009. Shottenkirk is also a practicing artist who has a background in art criticism with former staff positions at both Artforum and Art in America.

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