Teaching with Moral Moments

A Method from my Mentors*

Copyright © 1999 by Joel Marks

Everything I know about teaching I learned in graduate school.

OK, that's an exaggeration, but it was a snappy opening line. As has often been remarked, it is surprising how little we are taught about teaching during our professional education. But as I matured in my own teaching career, I became aware of resources available to me from the examples of my professors. Two in particular are my subject in this essay. By combining them I have come up with an effective way to promote writing and review in introductory philosophy courses.1

The first is a common technique employed in graduate seminars. Each week students are expected to write a short essay on some topic from that week's reading assignment. Then each student reads his or her paper aloud in class, where it is discussed. In this way the material of the course is conveyed via students' analyses of the texts.

I do not suggest simply transferring this practice to a first philosophy course; various factors militate against its use there. For example, lowerclassmen in a typical American college who are also new to philosophy will rarely have the acumen to produce useful exegeses for class discussion, not to mention ones which will carry the whole weight of the course content. Also, there are usually too many students to allow adequate attention to be paid to more than a fraction of their writing.

But there are ways to adapt the practice. For example, I ask my students to write personal essays. I want the main content of their essays to be something about which they can speak with authority, such as a vivid experience in their own life, and which they can connect to (their understanding of) what they have read. Here are some topics I have assigned in my introductory ethics course:

    · What is your ethical bottom line? Relate some incident from your own life where you have done what you considered to be the right thing, despite pressures to do the contrary. What really motivated you?

    · Is it possible to derive pleasure from performing a completely selfless act, or will there always be some ulterior selfish motive? Consider an instance from your own experience.

    · Can you provide a utilitarian justification for your own choice of career?

    · Is it OK for you to cheat in this course?
    · Is deception an integral part of your chosen career? Have you actually been taught how to deceive as part of your professional education at this university?

    · Write a Zen story. Relate some incident from your own life that illustrates the way awareness can solve or dissolve a problem, or transform the mundane into the revelatory ... or whatever you take to be Zen.

I myself also write short essays for my students to read.2 I call these "moral moments" in my ethics courses,3 but I have also written "epistemic episodes" and so forth. They serve both as aids to reading the primary texts and as models for the students' writing. They are frequently narrative in style, focusing on some event in the news or history or my own life, and I have gone so far as to provide imagined accounts of philosophically significant incidents, such as the enlightenment of Siddhartha, and even fictional ones, like a visit by Socrates to my classroom.4

A feature that I definitely retain from graduate seminars is the shortness of the essays -- both those that I write for my students and those they write for me. I know my students appreciate the "bite-sized" length of my essays, which they can easily read in one sitting.5 This is not only an MTV-age accommodation to limited attention spans; a great deal of the tradition of philosophy has been expressed in brief forms, from Epicurus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius to Pascal, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, as well as the stories of Zen, the sutras of Patanjali, and the analects of Confucius. Philosophy, being the ruminative science, is definitely a medium for slow readers.

The shortness of the students' essays serves additional purposes. For one, it enables them to focus more easily on a single topic. The ideal of not a wasted word, and with every paragraph furthering the argument, can be more effectively enforced for novice writers when a paper is short enough to be held in the mind and reviewed in its entirety (both by author and reader/teacher/critic6). Another benefit is that it permits a maximum number of essays to be assigned on a maximum number of topics in a single term.

I have regimented the length I assign my students to write to (approximately) 700 words, which is the average number in a column of newsprint. The reason is that the format employed by many newspaper columnists serves as an excellent model of the kind of writing I am asking my students to do: concise essays in plain language that defend a position on a specific topic.7

There is still to be realized the desideratum of having the students' writing shared with one another. One modification of my own professors' methods I have found helpful is to have students trade their essays and then comment on them. Not everyone gets to see everyone else's essay(s), but, by requiring that each new trade be with a different classmate, I have assured a good sampling and provided students with the opportunity to initiate dialogues among themselves.

However, this still did not allow me the opportunity to provide a critique of individual student essays for the benefit of the whole class. There were so many essays of superior quality, and yet others that made interesting errors, that I felt for many years a hankering to find a practical way to share them. Finally it dawned on me that I could adapt a unique technique of one of my graduate school professors, the late Cal Rollins of the University of Connecticut.

I had often thought back on his seminar on (the later) Wittgenstein as the ideal learning experience. His simple method was to take us through the Philosophical Investigations in the first half of the semester ... and then start all over again! This was one of the very few times in my life when I have been able to indulge the desire one feels after finishing any great book: Oh, if only I had the time to read that over again right now! Having been "primed" by the first run-through, you are really ready to appreciate it the second time: You know what to look for, you have many questions in mind, you are alert to many clues, etc.

One day it struck me that I could combine Rollins's technique with the short-papers technique. Why not let the latter part of the course be a review based on a reading of selected student papers to the class? In this way I could reinforce the content of the course while giving the students' essays their day. And the 700-word, topical style of the essays lends itself perfectly to their being read aloud and discussed.8

I have put this into practice and it works like a charm. During, say, the final third of the term, I make no new assignments. Students are free to re-read or read further in the previously assigned texts, and to revise their essays. I devote each class period to one of the major themes previously addressed in the course, reviewing them in the same order. It is a period of time with nothing other on the agenda than understanding better what has come before. Perhaps it is for many of my students, as it was for me, the best academic learning experience they will ever have.


* Published in American Association of Philosophy Teachers News: 22 (3), p4-5.

1. No doubt it would also work for courses in other disciplines.

2. It occurs to me only now that this too has a precedent in my own, albeit undergraduate, student past, when I was attending the graduate seminar of J.J. Gibson, the late perception psychologist at Cornell University. Every week he would distribute a "purple peril," a mimeographed paper a few pages in length written by himself. Each elicited intense criticism from his graduate students, and I marveled at how enough of his ideas would ever survive for him to complete a book. It is with great fondness that I remember my first exposure to the academic modus operandi.

3. I have collected a number of these in Moral Moments: Very Short Essay on Ethics (University Press of America, 2000).

4. See my "Essays for and by Students: Personalizing the Teaching of Philosophy" (Philosophy in the Contemporary World, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1999) for an extended discussion of the specifically personal narrative form of moral moments et al.

5. Literally. One of my students has noted that they make perfect reading for the john!

6. And by auditor (see the sequel).

7. In fact it is this format that was the immediate stimulus of my own moral moments and the like. A number of years ago Abram Katz, the science editor of the New Haven Register, invited me to contribute a column on astronomy, in which I have an amateur interest. I took him up on it, and thereupon discovered the delight of having my thoughts and enthusiasms made instantly known to a quarter of a million people! This eventually influenced me to submit occasional columns to the editorial page about issues in the news that had ethical significance. I came to appreciate the virtues and possibilities of the form and decided to apply it to the writing of philosophy tout court, including its teaching applications.

8. I am now considering yet another logical extension, namely, compiling the best of the best into a reader of short essays that are by students and for students.

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