Teaching with Moral Moments

Stories for and by Students: Personalizing the Teaching of Philosophy*

Copyright © 1999 by Joel Marks

Once upon a time ...

That's not quite the way I begin the stories I tell to my students. I want to wake them up, not put them to sleep. Yet it is remarkable how mundane a matter can pique their interest when narrated.

For instance, there was the incident with the mechanic:

    I had my car towed to a garage after it would not start in a parking lot. Alas, the mechanic said the work that would need to be done was not worth my expense. He made me an offer for the remains, which, minus the price of his labor at diagnosis plus the towing fee, still left me about a hundred dollars in the hole. I was not too pleased about that: having to pay, even though a relative pittance, on top of losing my car.

    Seeing my displeasure, what did he do? "Here, I'll put down a higher fee for the towing on the invoice; your insurance company will probably reimburse you for that."

    This completely took me by surprise: that the mechanic was casually entering on a deception to help me recoup my losses. It was all I could do to contain my disgust. I calmly told him just to make it out for the actual amount. But even so he fudged a little, rounding it to the next ten dollars; evidently total honesty was difficult for this man.

    I ended up not submitting the receipt to the insurance company.

When I told this story to my students, they jumped on me. How could I be so naive (to be surprised by the mechanic's offer to alter the bill)? Nor could they believe my disdain (dismissing the mechanic's offer out of hand) or my scrupulous honesty (not submitting the invoice because it still contained an inaccuracy).

There ensued a lively debate, wherein I made my pitch in theoretical terms, as follows:

    On egoistic or consequentialist grounds, the mechanic certainly did the wrong thing. No doubt he thought he was currying my favor (for possible future business) by demonstrating to what lengths he would go for my sake. But the actual message conveyed to me was: If he would be dishonest "for" me, he could be dishonest "against" me. In fact, he wasn't concerned about me at all, except insofar as my welfare affected his own; hence, if he were ever to perceive a conflict, it would be too bad for my interests. (Now I really had to wonder whether his terminal diagnosis of my car was truthful, or the value he had placed on the hulk, fair.) I will never give him my business again and will discourage anyone I know from giving him theirs.

    On utilitarian (and again consequentialist) grounds, this kind of behavior -- both his and the customer's acquiescence -- is wrong because it must account for a large portion of high insurance rates. It also contributes to the general breakdown of trust in our society, which in turn inhibits much that is good.

    And on Kantian or nonconsequentialist grounds, the mechanic's behavior was surely wrong because it demonstrated a complete disregard of the dignity of those people in the insurance company who would be deceived, as well as of me whose integrity would be compromised were I to become complicit, and even of himself, who was willing to exchange his own honor for a chance to win my business.

Had I begun the discussion with this theoretical exposition, it would not have received nearly so much attention. But by starting off with a story1 I was able to engage my students. It probably also helped that it was a true story about me, and represented my actual convictions.2 Now my students were motivated to argue with me, but they had to do it on my terms, that is, using logic and moral theory. Personal narrative had led to dialogue. By relating a story to my students I could relate to my students in a new way, thereby also furthering the educational goals of an introductory ethics course.

Teaching by personal narrative is also more interesting for me, the teacher. To be a storyteller is akin to being an actor, and I do love to ham it up. Indeed, at times my storytelling does become outright playacting, as when I go to the door of the classroom early in the term and let in ... Socrates! Back he/I comes into the room (wearing a hat to differentiate "us") and proceeds to relate his experiences and ideas. It is not long before the students are drawn into the discussion.

Notice that I continue to engage in personal narrative, even though the narrative is not true (I am not Socrates) and it is not I who am narrating it (it is "Socrates"). No matter: I become Socrates. This can be as much of a revelation for me as for my "audience." The exercise obliges me to know my character, to think his arguments out for myself.

Thus it was completely natural that I would take the personal and narrative turn in my writing as well. There was the same evolution, beginning with simple examples from my own experience to make my philosophical points. Over time the "examples" began to move to the fore. Eventually my writing became downright literary, by which I mean that (1) the use of language had become a primary concern, (2) the literal truth of every detail, or even of the entire story, concerned me less and less, and (3) the theoretical or philosophical element sometimes ceased to be explicit. None of this bothers me because my use of the stories is to prompt reflection or discussion, so the philosophical and theoretical aspects will still get their day. The stories become "blank slates" to be filled in by readers' reflections (as in class they become an invitation to students to enter into a dialogue) rather than substitutes for the thinking they should be doing. And there is, as always, the sheer pleasure of telling a story: luxuriating in images, explanations, and finding the right words to describe and express them.

For example, on an occasion when I happened to be writing about Buddhism, I saw no reason to stick to a dry exposition but instead did what the literature of Buddhism itself does: Tell the story of Prince Siddhartha's enlightenment. Just as immediately I lost any inhibition about using the first person. I wanted to really "get into" Buddhism, so I told my story: of living within the confines of my doting father's palace, experiencing every pleasure of life, but one day encountering a seeker who suggested that there lay more to life outside the walls of what now came to seem, to my youthful boyish mind, a prison; then of my adventure abroad, leading to shocking discoveries about the misfortunes of existence; next, of my frustrating search for a way around them; and finally, of the reasoning that led to my enlightenment.

I, the writer, made up the details as I went along, according to my imaginative reconstruction of the logic of the situation (e.g., did Siddhartha have a doting father? Why not: That would make sense of his restriction to the palace grounds), and from my personal need to understand, and be able to benefit from that understanding of, Buddhism (exactly what did Siddhartha finally learn that liberated him from the inevitable woes of life? I wanted to relate this in a way that was convincing to me). Thus the account became dramatic: I was now the seeker. And this is infectious for the reader, who is filled with philosophical yearning by a narrative.

Of course it was only a matter of time before the obvious occurred to me: This kind of storytelling is probably just as good for my students to do as for me. My stories had begun with my students in mind,3 but only with me as the storyteller, to help them to understand the apparently "foreign" material of philosophy in a more familiar way. But here was I myself benefiting in various ways from the activity -- and not just as a teacher who could have more enthusiastic students, but also as a philosopher, i.e., as a student myself. So why not teach this as another philosophical technique, another way of doing philosophy?4 Among other advantages, it almost guarantees that students will enjoy their work for the course, because I am asking them to write about themselves or what interests or concerns them most.5

In this way my philosophy courses, mainly introductory ethics, have become workshops in writing personal narrative. My use of my own essays nicely complements this project; I have packaged a set of them into a book called Moral Moments6, which serves both as a supplementary text helping to explain the primary ones, and as a model of the sort of essays I am asking my students to write.7 I also have my students trade papers with one another, so that they can share their experiences and perspectives on the issues of the course and cultivate dialogues among themselves. The ages-old pastime of swapping stories has thus become the modus operandi of my courses.

This venture has been quite successful. So successful, in fact, that what I am inspired to do next is bring out a volume (or volumes) of my students' essays. Wouldn't that make for a good "reader," where students discover that their peers do such fine work (and not just the professor with the Ph.D.), on topics that interest them, thereby spurring them on to do their own?8

It might be thought that personal narrative lends itself best to an ethics course, but I am certain that the technique applies just as well to the other areas of philosophy. For example, I have written about a number of epistemic episodes (I also call this "real epistemology"), such as a discussion with my doctor, just before I was to undergo an operation, about the efficacy of a sedative he wanted to administer: He explained that, although from his point of view, I might still appear to be in pain, I would not remember anything afterward, and "If you don't remember it, it didn't happen." Needless to say, his "assurance" gave me pause! The question of what I should do, and what then happens to me, makes for a good page-turning yarn, while raising a host of intriguing issues.9

It has been an interesting journey. In the beginning I was the typical academic philosophy professor and teacher, whose stock in trade was argumentative essays about abstract issues. It puzzled, or bemused, even distressed me, therefore, when I would sometimes hear my students refer to the assigned readings in my courses as "stories." I attributed this inappropriate nomenclature to their inexperience with anything other than fiction and literature prior to their first philosophy course.

But the shoe is now on the other foot. I myself have become the purveyor of stories: I write them, I assign them as reading, and I ask my students to write their own.10 I knew I had really "arrived" when I received a publisher's rejection letter for my prospectus of Moral Moments. The reason given was that my essays were "too personal and too local." "Ah, you mean like the dialogues of Socrates? the stories of Zen11? the essais of Montaigne?" I reflected, content to have returned to the roots of a field that has since become routinized.12


* Published in Philosophy in the Contemporary World: 6 (2), p5-8.

1. As I have also done in this essay, that is, with a story about telling a story.

2. This therefore seems to be consistent with the authentic teaching of ethics about which Doorley (1996) has written.

3. Some of my stories have also been written with my colleagues in mind -- both the teaching and "research" types. For example, in much of my recent writing I consider: Just what makes me tick qua philosopher? Am I manifesting an essential human responsiveness to pure reason? Or, on the contrary, do the particulars of my personality and experience predetermine my ethical and methodological predilections, even my penchant for philosophizing? The personal medium seems eminently suitable to ponder such questions about the philosophical enterprise itself.

4. And yet another way that my stories involve my students is that they are often about episodes that took place in class.

5. Thus, it is the answer to the perennial student complaint about writer's block: Tell a story.

6. Marks (2000). All royalties are earmarked for student scholarships.

7. Another feature of my own narrative essays, which also lends itself well to student essays, is their length, or I should say, shortness, modeled on newspaper columns. I write about the virtues of this form at, er, length in Marks (1999).

8. As an "added bonus," my students' papers are a pleasure for me, the teacher, to read: for their "human interest" as well as for their philosophical pregnancy.

9. Kaplan (1998b) deals explicitly with the use of personal narrative in teaching epistemology. Kaplan (1998a) has also written a wonderful text on the metaphysics of self, although ostensibly about family life. I even use stories to teach logic.

10. It was Laura Duhan Kaplan who crystallized my reorientation when, in a personal communication (1998), she observed:

    In Moral Moments you give students some suggestions for writing a personal philosophical essay. [By a happy convergence, Kaplan and I had independently coined the term "personal philosophical essay."] In there, you suggest that they choose a philosophical point and then choose an example to illustrate it. That's not really my approach to writing personal philosophical essays anymore (and it may not really be yours either) -- I kind of go the other way around. Some experience strikes me as significant, and then I try to unravel it using philosophical thinking.

Interestingly, my editor, Charles Kochakian, at the New Haven Register, where my writing sometimes appears in the form of opinion columns, brought out an analogous distinction of emphasis when he tried to explain to me why some of my submissions were accepted and others rejected: A newspaper wants material that focuses on timely, not timeless issues. Insofar as I made use of philosophical theory to support my view about a current event, that was fine; but if some item in the news was only being used to make a theoretical point, my commentary would probably not be what he was looking for. I needed to focus on the event. This pressure to conform to journalistic requirements was, then, another contribution to my becoming a teller of tales.

Finally, I would like to credit Matt Ruff's (1988) delightful fantasy about Cornell University (our alma mater) for introducing me to the idea that every moment of life can be turned into a story.

11. Reps (no date) is a particularly fine collection.

12. I would like to thank the Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World for inviting my participation in the panel on "Philosophy Through Personal Narrative" at the APA meetings in New Orleans (April '99), the Conference of Philosophical Societies for sponsoring the session, and the University of New Haven for its financial support.

Works Cited

Doorley, Mark J. (1996) "The Teaching of Ethics." Philosophy in the Contemporary World: 3 (1), p8-13.

Kaplan, Laura Duhan (1998a). Family Pictures: A Philosopher Explores the Familiar. Chicago: Open Court.

Kaplan, Laura Duhan (1998b). "Personal Narrative in Philosophical Writing Assignments: Engaging with Descartes' Meditations." American Association of Philosophy Teachers News: 21 (2), p4-6.

Marks, Joel (2000). Moral Moments: Very Short Essays on Ethics. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Marks, Joel (1999). "A Method from my Mentors to Encourage Writing and Review in Introductory Philosophy Courses." American Association of Philosophy Teachers News: 22 (3), p4-5.

Reps, Paul (Ed.) Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Plato. Euthyphro. In Five Dialogues, tr. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.

Ruff, Matt (1988). Fool on the Hill. New York: Grove Press.

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