American idol

Sat 09 Dec 2006 09:05 AM

I had the last meeting of my American Philosophy class yesterday. On the last day of a class, I ask students to pick on one reading that they would recommend leaving out next time I teach the course and one reading that they would recommend definitely keeping. After they write down their picks, I tally votes by a show of hands. This allows me to do a post mortem on the course. I will teach American again eventually, and I try never to teach exactly the same course twice. More importantly, the questions force students to think back on the course as a whole.*

In nominating readings to drop, students ended up deprecating authors rather than specific articles. The tally:

  9 Emerson

7 Santayana

6 Lovejoy

1 James

Santayana's 'The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy' did not add much to the class, so I probably won't teach it again. Lovejoy's 'Thirteen Pragmatisms' is dense and has a lot of philosophy in it; I am apt to include it next time. More on Emerson in a moment.

In voting for authors to keep, several students could not make up their minds and so voted for two. As a result, the total is larger:

 13 Peirce

13 James

9 Emerson

3 Parker

2 Dewey

As usually happens, there was a reading that polarized the class. There were as many trying to vote Emerson off the island as there were favoring his apotheosis. Most of the anti-Emersonians understood his position; they just didn't like it. This seems like a reason to keep leave him in.**

I was surprised that there was so much pro-Peirce sentiment and no anti-Peirce militancy at all. When questioned, students described Peirce as being clear and easy to understand. Several of them added that it was only easy to understand after we had covered it in class. Chalk that up as a success.

* They also direct them to think about the philosophy rather than about structural or incidental features of the course, unlike the more open-ended 'What did you like about this course?'

** One of the pro-Emerson students said that he liked 'Self-reliance' but that he thinks that 'The Oversoul' should be nixed. Having taught the first essay without the second before, I think that Emerson's doctrine of the Oversoul is required to understand why the call to self-reliance isn't just optimistic craziness. Other students suggested that 'The Oversoul' should be read first. So I may shuffle around the Emerson next time.