Wonder

Part 1 in a series discussing the meaning of Wonder

Plato would be mad at me. So would be Alice, for that matter.

I didn’t try to define my subject (which would have upset Plato), and (against the King’s only good bit of advice to Alice) I didn’t begin at the beginning.

I’ve had the nerve to subtitle my blog, “Looking for Wonder in All Things,” and to name it after one of the most famous expressions from (you probably knew this) Alice in Wonderland. Yet at no point, in the year or so it’s been up, did I even try to explain what this Wonder thing is!

LCarroll 10

I’ve had my reasons, of course; the first being that it is a very difficult thing to do. I have a very narrow comfort zone; doing something difficult is already stepping out of it…

Secondly, Wonder and Philosophy go a long way back. Plato makes Socrates say (in Theaetetus) that “this sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher,” no less, and that philosophy, indeed, has no other origin than wonder. After Plato, many great philosophers – and hundreds of minor ones – have written magnificent things about it. So the task is reasonably daunting. Especially since I plan to do it blog style.

What got me started, then? Well, this: I teach Philosophy. I brought my students to the library to do some hunting. Among the questions I posed was, how do you define ‘wonder’?

Easy, I thought. Just go into one of the many encyclopedias of philosophy we’ve pulled out for you and look into the index. Well, here’s what they found.

Nothing.

In fact, I think I should center it for emphasis. Here’s what they found:

Nothing.

Yep. They looked in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 10 volumes, and the word wasn’t even in the index. They looked in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and got just a few inconsequential hits, of people, well, wondering about something, but never about wonder itself. Somehow we’ve gone from “the mark of the philosopher” to “not worth writing an article about,” and this is certainly puzzling. A screaming silence, if you will.

I’m talking, of course, of the peer-reviewed heavyweights. Wikipedia, which is awesome (another word for “wonderful”), but so far unquotable in the academic world, has a somewhat discombobulated article that amounts to, let’s see, 700 words. Fewer, probably, than any minor supervillain from Marvel (yet another word for “Wonder”). Certainly less than Wikipedia’s entry on Wonder Woman (which, come to think about it, is such a silly name for a character: it applies to about half the population on Earth!)

Wwoman

Yet wonder is very, very important. Not just for philosophers, but for human life.

Without wonder, it’s like the light has died inside you.

* * *

Just bring these two images to your mind: two traditional high school classrooms. In one students are slumped, their eyes glassy, their whole body language lazily screaming, “when is this class going to end?” In another, students are not just sitting upright but a bit forward, itching to speak, nearly falling from their desks in their efforts to catch the teacher’s attention so they can share what is buzzing through their minds…

The difference? Easy. Wonder. Call it curiosity or interest, if you want; that’s wonder at its lowest intensity. Bring it up all the way to mind-blowing (or sometimes mind-numbing) puzzlement, disbelief, the impossibility to reconcile what they think they know with what is being proposed, and you have something closer to what Plato meant by it.

Do you begin to see why wonder is important? Maybe you’ve been present at a class, or a meeting, where “nobody cares.” It feels like people are breathing, but not really alive. We can lose our capacity for wonder – that interior light. It is rather common, actually.

But why?

If you’ve read this far, it means you haven’t lost your capacity for wonder – at least it’s a very good sign. But maybe you are considering – wondering, yes – how to recover it, wake it up when someone has lost it. If you teach, or if giving presentations is one of your career hazards, you may be asking yourself how to wake up this wonder in your students, in your audience.

I’ll put down a few thoughts in my following posts. I can’t claim them as mine, since some of my favorite philosophers have been working on this for a very long time; but the least I can say is that they are “time-tested” – for at least twenty three hundred years or so.

In the meantime, I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter!

<To be continued…>

Tools for Philosophers: Fun with Ethical Dilemmas!

…Or how to make your students create their own dilemmas to use in the classroom.

Real ethical dilemmas, of course, are never fun. You have to choose between conflicting values–sometimes the lesser of two evils–and it is always a tough decision that leaves you somewhat dissatisfied, when not thoroughly depressed…

Bring them to the classroom, though, and things lighten up! Even the most disaffected student cannot resist voicing their opinion when one of these turns up.

They work greatly when you need to “change the air” in  the class; that is, if you’ve been lecturing for too long and feel that if you don’t do something else your students will die in their desks. It’s good to keep a couple of these handy.

Selecting dilemmas to use in class

Where can you get a good ethical dilemma? Most textbooks will have a good selection, but you should always read them in advance and look for such things as these, and possibly modify the case:

  • A case that provides a lot of detail is more fun to analyze than a very vague one (and thus, dilemmas based on real cases are usually more interesting)
  • A case that makes you decide from the point of view of one of the characters is more engaging than the general question, “what should be done”?
  • Some cases end up telling you what was done, and ask you to judge on those actions. If that is the case, it is better to cut the last paragraph out, and let the students develop their own solutions to the problem

There are many ways of using cases in a class discussion. I’ll discuss them in a future post. Stay tuned! (I.e., press the “Follow” button! 😉

A classroom activity: Dilemma “skits”

Download this activity

While I normally bring to class (that is, to Ethics class) some handouts with good “standalone” cases, I’ve recently had the opportunity of showing my students some flash presentations onscreen presenting short, everyday ethical dilemmas. These immediately capture the full attention of the most tired and distracted students, and are excellent for bite-sized discussions. Even if the acting is crummy, this adds an element of fun to the presentation!

The problem, however, is that there aren’t that many available. I quickly ran out of them.

So I thought: Why don’t I make my students come up with some?

That is how I came up with this activity, which you can download here. In a class with 22 students, we got five skits ready in just 45 minutes! You should allow about an hour for performing & discussing.

 This is how it works:

  • The activity guides students in creating “skits,” 2-3 minutes-long
  • The creation process is broken down so that it is very easy to keep students on track. The time assigned for each step worked perfectly in a 20+ students class…
  • …but you should walk around the groups and nudge them in the right direction if they are having trouble deciding on a topic
  • Groups can be of 3-5 students each, and every student should choose a speaking role. (One role can be the Narrator, introducing the characters and the situation)
  • The skit should not end with a decision, but instead should stop at the point in which a decision needs to be made.
  • When a skit ends, congratulate the students, and then use the opportunity to discuss the case with the whole class. In this way you pace them, and give each one the attention they deserve

* For a nice “extra credit” project, you can challenge your students to make a video of their skit. Eventually you may end with a small collection that you can use in future classes! (If you happen to do this and decide to make them public, let me know!)

Tools for Philosophy Teachers: A Guide for Student Presentations

How do I get my students to read the material before class?

This is perhaps the greatest challenge college teachers face today! (Ideas? Post a comment!)

This will have to wait, though. What I have here [Download!] is a very simple way of getting at least ONE student to read the material before class. It is as simple as assigning them a presentation on the readings for the day.

The basic format of the presentation:

  • The student introduces him/herself and the topic
  • The student summarizes each unit assigned (a section, a paragraph, etc.) in two to three sentences, written beforehand.
  • The student provides a “reaction” to the reading (likes, dislikes, things that left him/her thinking…)
  • The student proposes one or two questions to the class. These are not rhetorical: Only after the questions have generated a few minutes of discussion is the student allowed to go back to their seat.
The format itself is not my creation (though this guide is). I think it’s pretty standard. I picked it up from Prof. William George, at Dominican University.
It’s a great way of reviewing the material too; and the most rudimentary feelings of empathy for the presenting student will have the others paying attention and trying to participate!
How to use it:
  • Write in the header the name of the student and the assignment. In this way, there’ll be no excuses.
  • It is better to assign short sections to many students. In that way, you get more students to actually focus on the reading!
  • A good presentation will take 10-15 mins. of class. Of course, I am counting on reasonably smart, motivated students. Results may vary.
  • Don’t let a student get away with a question that doesn’t elicit a good follow-up discussion. If they made the mistake of asking a question that can be simply answered with a “yes,” let them suffer the *uncomfortable silence* that follows for a few minutes. This will motivate the following students to prepare better questions!
Download A Guide for Student Presentations [in old Word format. Document will open in a new window.]