Teaching Political Philosophy in “Coronatijd”

I was recently asked to write a post for the FASoS Teaching and Learning Blog about the shift to on-line teaching. You can read it here, and the text is reproduced below.

By Darian Meacham

The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk, Hegel wrote in Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820). He meant that philosophy, and thinking in general, arrives late on the scene to offer its analysis of events past. Hegel didn’t have twitter.

Teaching political philosophy in inter and multi-disciplinary contexts where students have various areas of interest means making the effort to show the relevance of philosophy to political challenges that the students, whose interest in the dialectic isn’t a given, can see are stimulating. Despite its sometimes-abstract character, political philosophy has always grappled with the contemporary issues. The key is to convey that Hegel’s line doesn’t mean that reflection arrives too late, and is thus obsolete before it appears, but rather that it takes time. There is a reason why Martin Luther King included Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel in his political philosophy course at Morehouse College in the early 1960s, philosophy was arriving late, but still in time to help Dr King reflect and act upon the struggles of his day.

Plus ça change,  students quickly recognize that Hobbes’s discussion of the balance between security and freedom, Wollstonecraft’s polemics on the differences in the ways boys and girls are educated, or Mill’s reflection on the role and limits of free speech in democratic society are still relevant to their own lives. We also address issues – climate change, global justice, migration/ borders – that students are exposed to daily. The challenge in teaching philosophical questions so closely linked to current events is to not let the philosophy get overwhelmed by the events. The particular (event) should shed some light upon the more general (rule, norm or principle) or show the difficulty of translating from the particular to the general and vice versa?

When it comes to the COVID-19 Crisis there has been no shortage of comments from political philosophers offering analysis (see, for a few examples: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here). It seems that digital media has got philosophers waking up a bit earlier these days or staying up past dusk.

As we have moved teaching online and started making increased use of digital resources, there is a temptation to dive into the mud pit of on-line philosophy (reputed for its nastiness) and drag the students with you. The digital confluence of teaching and opinionising media makes this easier. Isn’t it a perfect chance to show the relevance of philosophy? To take it out of the fustiness of a university library that is closed till further notice. Like most things, it’s complicated. There is a risk that by using philosophical responses to the current crisis as teaching materials and a way of making the subject seem relevant to students with whom we can no longer bond in the classroom, we lose sight of the more general and longer picture. Trapped at home and bored, I’m happy to get pulled into debates about the biopolitics of lockdown, arguing on twitter, WhatsApp, etc. from dusk till…. But, the new abnormal normal may not be normative when it comes to teaching practices. We’re only starting to be able to understand basic propositions – factual and normative – about the current situation. To Corona-ise philosophy is perhaps for the owl to leave its perch too soon. The better commentaries that I have read have largely pointed to problems for which we don’t yet have satisfactory responses. This is a productive response.

Obviously, if done with some nuance, it can be incredibly valuable from a pedagogical perspective to link philosophical reflection to our current political debates. This is especially the case when bringing the two together sheds light as much on more general ideas and principles as on the current situation. The COVID-19 crisis offers ample possibilities for this, but in a situation where teaching and learning are occurring in a strictly online environment the teacher must also take on the role of digital curator, making selections that help to accentuate the thematic red threads running through a course.

How to do this – what tools and methods to use – given that we’ve had to quickly adapt and generate ad hoc solutions. In the Political Philosophy course at UCM (COR1004) we’re using the Student Portal as a kind of communication hub and archive. If something’s going on in relation to the course, information about it will be there. The student portal then points students to other resources including a wordpress blog  and YouTube Channel to help spin the red threads of the course.  The blog brings together notes and discussions about the course tasks with resources from across the internet (articles, essays, podcasts, videos). This allows us to weave outside perspectives on current events together with course specific materials in a relatively-focused manner. The YouTube channel functions as a curated repository of available resources. Videos (so far just one, but more planned) made by the course team – which also includes Maud Oostindie, Janosch Prinz, Sergio Calderon Harker and Fleur Damen – are paired with existing content in task-specific playlists. This allows for some quality control. We also aim for repetition/redundancy across platforms to try and ensure that students are receiving content in a situation where we don’t see them in person.

The biggest challenge in teaching online has been finding ways to establish and maintain the sense of community and good habits of mutual learning. Of course Hegel had a word for this also – Sittlichkeit.

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