Who Majors in Philosophy and Why (Or Why Not)?

(with Sara Aronowitz) Presented at the 2016 Eastern APA, panel on “Rethinking the Philosophy Major in Changing Times” by the APA Committee on Teaching Philosophy.

In 2013, the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan undertook an informal survey of undergraduates enrolled in Philosophy classes (n=444), which was analyzed by a team of graduate students participating in a Learning Analytics Fellows Seminar. Among our preliminary results were findings that:

  • Over half (55%) of students who did not plan on majoring in philosophy reported that they did not do so because they worried the major would not help them achieve their post-graduate goals, including 17% who reported this as their only reason for not majoring,
  • While a small percentage of students planning to major in philosophy (16%) reported interest in the subject as their only reason for doing, many more reported doing so because they thought additionally that it would help them acquire needed skills (32%), they liked the accessibility of professors in the department (19%), or both (21%).
  • Women were more likely than men to report that they did not major in philosophy because they were not able to do as well as they wished in the subject, and they were more likely than men to report that they did not major in philosophy because they found other subjects more interesting.
  • In open-ended responses to questions concerning the philosophy curriculum, the most common requests were for: non-Western philosophy [e.g. Indian, Islamic], courses with relevance to concrete, real-world issues [e.g. current events, popular culture], advanced logic, and philosophy of religion/theology.

Our analysis of survey data contributes to a growing body of empirical literature on philosophy undergraduates by examining students’ explicit self-reports of reasons for and against choosing to major in philosophy, and it suggests a number of possibilities for empirically-informed strategies to recruit and retain philosophy majors, especially those from underrepresented groups who are most vulnerable to leaving the profession.

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Syllabus: Philosophy of Human Nature

Course Description

What is human nature? In what ways are we limited or liberated by being human? This course will examine a number of philosophical theories about morality and rationality. In particular, we will focus on the question of what sorts of beings we would have to be in order for those theories to be true. What kind of psychologies, individual and social, are required for us to act morally or rationally? To achieve justice or knowledge? In exploring answers to these questions, we will draw on works by philosophers, economists, and social psychologists.

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Syllabus: Collective Responsibility and Social Justice

Collective Responsibility and Social Justice

Many of the most pressing moral issues in the contemporary world–whether they are economic, political, social, or environmental–cannot be solved by the actions of a single individual. Yet in many cases, these problems persist precisely because of the accumulation of actions by many individuals. How can we be responsible for solving such problems? What would it take to solve these problems? What are my obligations to those in need, or those less well-off? How can I be an “ethical consumer,” an “ethical eater,” or a good citizen? When is it morally wrong for me to do things that contribute to environmental degradation, or to global and social inequality?  In this course, we will explore issues such as poverty, exploitation, stereotyping and prejudice, and climate change with an eye to understanding what is required by the demands of social, distributive, and global justice.

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Handout: Writing a Philosophy Paper

Writing a good philosophy paper is in many ways just like writing any other good paper, but is in some ways very different from the kinds of papers you may be asked to write in other disciplines. Certain elements common to all papers—for example, structure and organization—are particularly important in philosophy papers, and certain practices forbidden or required in other disciplines will not be here. Above all, what you should aim to produce is a reasoned defense of a thesis. The thesis is what you are trying to get your reader to accept, and the reasoned defense is the argument or arguments that justify the acceptance of your thesis. Of course, “argument” here means a philosophical argument consisting of premises and a conclusion.

This handout explains the three main criteria by which your philosophy paper will be graded, along with more specific expectations and guidelines.

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Activity: Understanding the Other Side

This classroom activity was designed to be used in conjunction with the repository of resources at CivilPolitics.org. For this class, students were asked to read one piece on “Understanding the Other Side,” by choosing a piece from the side (liberal or conservative) opposed to the one they identify with. The site is maintained by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who is known for his work on the moral foundations underlying liberal and conservative views.

The first part of the exercise is an approximation of a “self-affirmation” task, as used by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in their (2013) “Blank Slates or Closed Minds? The Role of Information Deficits and Identity Threat in the Prevalence of Misperceptions”. Nyhan and Reifler discovered a “backfire effect,” in which people who hold false political beliefs actually hold their beliefs more strongly after receiving the correct factual information. The backfire effect was reduced, however, when subjects first engaged in “self-affirmation” exercises where they recalled times in which they had successfully lived up to their values.

The reference to “construals” comes from Lee Ross and Andrew Ward’s (1995) “Naive Realism: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding.” Ross and Ward illustrate the importance of subjective construal by describing a study in which the exact same game led to strikingly different patterns of behavior, depending on whether it was called the “Wall Street Game” or the “Community Game.” They argue that the inability to make sufficient allowance for differences in subjective construal is a major factor in the persistence of social conflict.

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