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What kind of society should we aim to have, and why? Are there objectively right answers to these questions, or are there ultimately only answers that are correct relative to a given social/historical framework? These are the questions at the core of David Plunkett and Russell Muirhead’s course, Current Research in Social/Political Philosophy, winner of the 2016 Apgar Award for Innovation in Teaching at Dartmouth.
The award recognizes innovative teaching initiatives that cross traditional academic boundaries, and crossing boundaries is just what this course was designed to do.
Russell Muirhead, Robert Clements Professor of Democracy & Politics and Professor of Government, has approached questions such as these from a social science perspective with Dartmouth undergraduates for the last 25 years.
“Government describes the world as it is,” he says. “It concerns itself with the unavoidable impediments that keep the world from being what it should be.”
It was in conversation with his colleague David Plunkett, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, that he recognized the opportunity to introduce greater complexity to his investigations of these questions with students.
As Plunkett describes, the disciplines of political science and philosophy, among others, address many of the same subjects, but operate within different contexts. Each discipline asks different questions and makes different assumptions of these subjects, and these differences provide fodder for rich discussion.
“Philosophy often takes a more idealistic perspective,” Muirhead explains. “It concerns itself with what we should do if the world was well ordered. These are exciting differences to explore.”
When a call for innovative new courses came from Dean of Faculty Michael Mastanduno last year, a collaboration between Muirhead and Plunkett, and their two disciplines, was a natural fit.
“I had been interested in co-teaching and was looking for opportunities to do so at Dartmouth,” says Plunkett. “It was an opportunity for me and Russ to take conversations we were already having about political philosophy into the classroom and have them with students.”
The result was their co-taught, interdisciplinary, graduate-style seminar course for undergraduates. For both, this course was an introduction to co-teaching and to stretching beyond their well-honed approaches to leading a class independently.
“It was scary, I admit!” says Muirhead. He describes having to reconsider the way he’d always done things, and giving up some aspects of the unique relationship that develops between students and a single teacher.
“To walk into class with a peer upsets the balance for us a bit, and for students,” he says.
But both Muirhead and Plunkett agree that the benefits of upsetting that balance far outweigh the costs.
Plunkett explains how courses with multiple faculty members encourage students to think for themselves rather than relying on one authority figure to provide the answer. In their course, Plunkett and Muirhead explored their different perspectives openly, and demonstrated to students the process of debating, questioning, and sometimes conceding on those differences. Over the term, Plunkett says, students grew more and more confident in joining those debates.
The seminar style also lent itself to combining teaching and learning with research, both for Muirhead and Plunkett and their students.
“I read things I wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Muirhead. “I asked new questions and considered new ideas as a result of our class discussions, and this led to a new publication for me this fall.”
For the students, the research came to them--literally. Throughout the course, students read recent works from contemporary scholars, and then a select few of those scholars joined them in the classroom. Muirhead and Plunkett arranged campus visits with these scholars with the support of the Dean of the Faculty and Dartmouth’s Political Economy Project. The scholars, Muirhead says, recognized the opportunity to push their research ahead by discussing it with Dartmouth students, and welcomed the opportunity to visit.
Meanwhile, students in the course recognized, and seized upon, the opportunity to push themselves in new ways. Students prepared for class by writing weekly papers and preparing to present on their ideas. In class, rather than Plunkett or Muirhead lecturing on course content, students were chosen at random to give a short presentation on the week’s material to spark class discussion.
“We wanted to promote students taking ownership of their own learning,” says Muirhead. Student presentations were not evaluated for a grade, but rather taken as opportunities for the faculty to give students comprehensive and constructive feedback. As Plunkett explains, “Many of our course policies were designed to foster an interest in learning for learning’s sake.”
In addition to their weekly writing assignments, students developed independent research papers over the full course of the term, engaging in peer reviews and revision processes throughout. Paper topics ranged from the epistemic qualities of democracy to the criticisms of public reason to the demands of global justice.
“Our students were searching for intellectual challenge,” says Plunkett. “Having access to visiting scholars from outside of Dartmouth and participating directly in the development of their research is an experience we want more Dartmouth undergraduates to have. We tried to model the collaborative nature of learning and research in this course. We pushed these undergraduates, and they rose to the challenge.”
Both Plunkett and Muirhead express hope for more opportunities at Dartmouth to explore crossovers between academic disciplines, to try new approaches in the classroom, and to blur the boundaries between research and teaching. The Apgar Award for Teaching Innovation recognizes their course, Current Research in Social/Political Philosophy, as a striking success in all three categories.
The Apgar Award at Dartmouth is the latest in the Awards for Excellence program that was begun by Sandy and Anne Apgar in 1982 and is presented annually at 15 leading educational and cultural institutions and professional organizations. The Apgar Award recognizes and supports innovative teaching initiatives that cross traditional academic boundaries. It is aimed at proposals for team-taught, interdisciplinary courses, particularly those offered by faculty at an early stage of their careers and particularly faculty in the Arts and Humanities. A gift from Mahlon Apgar, IV D’62 and Sarah Tipper Apgar, Tu’11 made this award possible.