Storytelling in Philosophy Class

One of my regular TAs, Chris McVey, uses a lot of storytelling in his teaching. About once a week, he'll spend ten minutes sharing a personal story from his life, relevant to the class material. He'll talk about a family crisis or about his time in the U.S. Navy, connecting it back to the readings from the class.

At last weekend's meeting of the Minorities And Philosophy group at Princeton, I was thinking about what teaching techniques philosophers might use to appeal to a broader diversity of students, and "storytime with Chris" came to mind. The more I think about it, the more I find to like about it.

Here are some thoughts.

* Students are hungry for stories, and rightly so. Philosophy class is usually abstract and impersonal, or when not abstract focused on toy examples or remote issues of public policy. A good story, especially one that is personally meaningful to the teacher, leaps out and captures attention. People in general love stories and are especially ready for them after long dry abstractions and policy discussions. So why not harness that? But furthermore, storytelling gives shape and flesh to the stick figures of philosophical abstraction. Most abstract principles only get their full meaning when we see how they play out in real cases. Kant might say "act on that maxim that you can will to be a universal law" or Mengzi might say "human nature is good" -- but what do such claims really amount to? Students rightly feel at sea unless they are pulled away from toy examples and into the complexity of real life. Although it's tempting to think that the real philosophical force is in the abstract principles and that storytelling is just needless frill and packaging, I think that the reverse might be closer to the truth: The heart of philosophy is in how we engage our minds when given real, messy examples, and the abstractions we derive from cases always partly miss the point.

* Personal stories vividly display the relevance of philosophy. Many -- maybe most -- students are understandably turned off by philosophy because it seems so remote from anything of practical value. What's the point, they wonder, in discussing Locke's view of primary and secondary qualities, or semi-comical far-fetched problems about runaway trolleys, or under what conditions you "know" something is a barn in Fake Barn Country? It takes a certain kind of beautiful, nerdy, impractical mind to love these questions for their own sake. Too much focus on such issues can mislead students into thinking that philosophy is irrelevant to their lives. However (I hope you'll agree), nothing is more relevant to our lives than philosophy. Every choice we make expresses our values. Every controversial opinion we form depends upon our general worldview and our implicit or explicit sense of what people or institutions or methods deserve our trust. Most students will understandably fail to see the connection between academic philosophy and the philosophy they personally live through their choices and opinions unless we vividly show how these are connected. Through storytelling, you model your struggle with Kant's hard line against lying, or with how far to trust purported scientific experts, or with your fading faith in an immaterial soul -- and students can see that philosophy is not just a Glass Bead Game.

* Personal stories shift the locus of academic capital. We might think of "academic capital" as the resources students bring to class which help them succeed. In philosophy class, important capital includes skill at reading and evaluating abstract arguments and, in class discussion, skill at working up passable pro and con arguments on the spot. Academic capital of this sort also includes knowledge of the philosophical tradition, comfort in a classroom environment, confidence that one knows how this game is played. These are terrific skills to have of course; and some students have more of them than others, or at least believe they do. Those students tend to dominate class discussion. If you tell a personally meaningful story, however, you can make a different set of skills and experiences suddenly important. Students who might have had similar stories from their own lives now have something unique to contribute. Students who are good at storytelling, students who have the social and emotional intelligence to evaluate what might have really happened in your family fight, students with cultural knowledge of the kind of situation you describe -- they now have some of the capital. And they might be a very different group from the ones who are so good at the argumentative pro-and-con. In my experience, good philosophical storytelling engages and draws out discussion from a larger and more diverse group of students than does abstract argument and toy example.

If philosophers were more serious about engaged, personal storytelling in class, we would I think have a different and broader range of students who loved our courses and appreciated the importance and interest of our discipline.

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