For several years I taught a class called “Philosophy as Literature.” It was called that because a course with that title had already been approved by the department, and getting a new class approved was a daunting bureaucratic challenge.
So while I used the official course title on the syllabus, I taught the course as if it were called “Mr. Miranda’s Favorite Ideas.” I selected the most compelling essays, book chapters, and academic papers I had ever read, arranged them in a sequence that made sense, and assembled them in three giant course readers.
I assigned reading for homework each night, and students were expected to write a one-page reflection— worth one point each—on what they’d read. Then, we’d spend the class period engaged in intellectual discussion about the text. Every couple months, I’d assign an essay in which students would synthesize their thoughts on what we’d been discussing. These essay exams would be worth a lot of points—so many, in fact, that the one-point daily reflections seemed almost pointless.
That was by design.
I wanted students to read the texts not because they would earn “points.” I wanted them to read because they were curious, because they knew that if they did the reading they would feel a buzz of excitement the next day in class when the discussion happened. They would be ready to participate. If they didn’t do the reading—there are all kinds of legitimate reasons for students not to have completed the reading on a given night—that was OK. They could come to class and eavesdrop on the discussion and get some value for their time.
The goal was to minimize the attention given to grades and points, and maximize the attention given to discussing ideas. On any given day, maybe half the students had done the reading; those students drove the discussion that day. The next day, it was a different half of the class. And so it went, all semester.
When it was over, every student had contributed something. Every student had pondered ideas that, for most of them, were new and interesting.
But the most important thing for me was the process: every student felt respected not only as a learner, but also as a human being. They were able to come to class each day and feel like instead of facing a series of requirements, they were given a series of opportunities.