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 open-ended essay in which students could 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 to see what would happen if I designed a classroom environment in which there was no significant penalty for not reading. That meant not just minimizing the threat of a bad grade; it also meant refraining from nagging students or judging them for their choices. Maybe they had soccer practice that went long, maybe they got into a fight with their parents, maybe they had procrastinated on a huge chemistry lab report and had to stay up late finishing it. Whatever the reason, I refused to lecture them or scold them.
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.
Students who hadn’t read could eavesdrop on the discussion and get some value for their time. Sometimes, those students would contribute to the conversation but do so with a transparent acknowledgement that they hadn’t read the text, and their opinions were merely an outgrowth of the discussion. They had permission to share their voice, but there was a clear expectation that they were not allowed to hijack the dialogue.
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 offered a series of opportunities to learn and grow.
Starting with idea that education can be something that’s for you—rather than something that’s being done to you—made all the difference.