by Seth Robertson
In a wonderful keynote address at the Harvard East Asia Society Graduate Conference this year, Professor Michael Puett warned against the dangers of ideological insularity in the American academy, and argued that a more genuinely cosmopolitan approach to research and teaching was not only valuable for its tremendous intellectual and scholarly rewards, but necessary for the long-term health of academic departments and programs, as our students come from increasingly diverse backgrounds and are more and more curious about ideas from different traditions. This sentiment has been expressed by many in our discipline, but there are two main levels of barriers to incorporating more non-canonical philosophy into our courses:
- Some philosophers remain skeptical of the value of philosophical work outside the canon – either they think it is good philosophy but not good enough, or it is philosophy but not good philosophy, or they think it is not philosophy at all.
- A much larger group of philosophers do appreciate the value of philosophical work outside the canon, but don’t know where to fit it in already crowded syllabi, don’t feel comfortable teaching it because they haven’t received any formal training in it, or worry (legitimately) that teaching it poorly does as much or more harm than not teaching it at all.
It is not at all clear how to best address this first obstacle. One major dialectical concern is that it is currently improbable that this debate can even be had in good faith: arguing against the value of areas of non-canonical philosophy requires dismissing or at least questioning the expertise of a significant number of our colleagues who are serious philosophers and specialists trained in these areas. But more on this first obstacle later.
Amy Olberding, Wayne Riggs, Kelly Epley and I have recently launched a resource for philosophy instructors that is aimed (most directly) at addressing the second obstacle by helping people who want to have more inclusive courses do so in ways that are meaningful for students, representative of and respectful towards the material, and pedagogically sound. The Deviant Philosopher provides structured instructional guides, written by people who are teaching and doing research in non-canonical areas of philosophy, as well as a community space for philosophers to learn about and grow into new philosophical areas. Our use of the word “deviant” here is partially playful, but also points to problematic exclusionary practices that we should do our best to avoid in our discipline. Further, as we describe on our page, “we think that philosophy itself, at its best, is a rather deviant endeavor, one that can entail heady intellectual exploration into the unknown and unfamiliar. Our site is an effort to plot out some of the less well-traveled directions this sort of exploration might take.”
Our content aims to have two main features: (a) it is ready-to-use: an instructor can read through a lesson plan or activity guide and incorporate it in her class straightforwardly, and (b) it is designed for non-experts: our resources include extra readings for instructors and tips for successfully incorporating the content in the class to help prepare the instructor. To help achieve these goals, we have five main types of content:
- Primers – When learning about an entirely new area of philosophy, it is difficult to know where to start. Primers serve as introductions to introductions – helping instructors set off on the right path by pointing to great learning resources and pointing out potential pitfalls to avoid.
- Units – Units are often, but not always, aimed at upper-level courses and provide instructions for how to include a multi-week survey of an area.
- Lessons – Lessons provide a plan for a single day of class, and often tie into topics, issues, and readings that are commonly discussed in typical and familiar philosophy courses.
- Activities – Activities include in-class and out-of-class assignments that can help prime students’ interest in a topic, help them develop their understanding of it, or help them develop important skills for the course.
- Blog – Our blog will contain series of interviews, discussions, conversations, and pointers to valuable external resources that will help instructors to immerse themselves more fully into the project of learning about new areas of philosophy.
These various resources, we believe, will help instructors learn about new topics, from the ground up, in directed ways in a supportive community atmosphere. And thus we return to our first obstacle: responding to those who hold a general skepticism about the value of non-canonical philosophy. Our approach at The Deviant Philosopher follows that famous writing rule: Show, don’t tell. As instructors begin to incorporate these resources into their own classes, they and their students will make meaningful connections between the materials and other philosophical work, and come to a deeper and more informed appreciation of both canonical and non-canonical philosophers and philosophies.
The Deviant Philosopher is only possible with the support of the philosophical community. As we grow the project into more and more new areas of philosophy, we’ll need the help of many in our discipline. Currently we have over 40 unique instructional resources written by over a dozen philosophers, ranging in areas from Buddhism, Confucian ethics, theism and atheism in Indian philosophy, women philosophers of the Early Modern and Ancient Greek period, and Islamic philosophy, to name just a few. But we hope this is just the beginning, and are working to expand the project to include (as a start) more resources in these areas and resources in indigenous people’s philosophies, African philosophies, the philosophy and ethics of disability, philosophy of race, philosophy of gender, and the philosophy and ethics of education. If you would like to submit some of your own instructional resources, please visit our Submission Guidelines. If you have any questions about or suggestions for the project, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seth Robertson is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and a 2017-18 Dissertation Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing. His research interests are primarily in the moral psychology and metaethics of moral judgment, with forays into virtue epistemology and early Confucian ethics.