In this series, I’ve been discussing how we can better make the case for philosophy in order to increase enrollment in philosophy courses and the number of majors. So far, the focus has been on how better to market philosophy and what the benefits of philosophy actually are. For the final entry in the series, I’d like to propose that we consider modifying the nature of the courses we offer to undergraduates to increase interest. 

Let’s consider the names and subjects of common upper-level undergraduate courses: Metaphysics, Social and Political Philosophy, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language, Aesthetics, etc. We carve up philosophy courses based on a common taxonomy of philosophy. This division isn’t surprising since we as professional philosophers specialize in these various topics and are often hired to teach courses in those specializations. I don’t mean to criticize any of these topics or the thinkers discussed in them. What worries me is the picture of philosophy they portray to undergraduates, particularly those thinking about taking an upper-level course or majoring in philosophy. A philosophical neophyte, seeing these course names in the course catalogue, is likely to respond, “What’s that and who cares?” or “Huh? Next!”

What I think we should do some modifying of our course offerings. We should offer more courses based on topics that students either (a) have some idea what it’s about, or (b) already have some interest in. (Some departments are already doing a good job of this or moving in this direction, and to them I say, “Great job!”) My proposed course in Philosophy of Humor is a good example. Just seeing the course title should spark interest in students. It sounds fun (and I intend it to be so). And I wouldn’t have to spend the first day/week/month elaborating what the topic is that we’ll be studying. So, it wouldn’t be surprising to get non-philosophy majors taking the course (especially if it well advertised). Despite the fun and humor suggested in the titled, we’d be doing real philosophy in the course, and that work would cross the boundaries of the standard taxonomy of philosophical topics. Here are some questions to be explored and how they fit in the taxonomy:

  • Metaphysics: What is a joke? What is humor?
  • These are important definitional questions to be answered.
  • Philosophy of Language: What does a joke mean? How do we interpret them? Does a speaker’s (joker’s) intentions matter in determining the meaning of a joke or whether it’s funny?
  • Epistemology: How do we know something is humorous? Is this knowledge?
  • Ethics: Are some jokes morally inappropriate? Are some topics not morally permissible to discuss humorously?
  • Aesthetics: What makes a good joke?
  • Social and Political Philosophy: What role can humor and humorists play as agents of social change?

This class is but one example. There are plenty of others. Courses on Death and Dying aren’t uncommon and work in similar way of crossing inter-philosophical divisions of topics and being of obvious interest to students. Prof. Maria Cimitile, a colleague of mine at Grand Valley State, does something similar with her course Sex Matters: Feminist Philosophy in the Contemporary World. There are plenty of other examples (and I would appreciate if you’d mention any that occur to you in the comments).

Course like this just about always make the required enrollment to run. They’re also gateway courses to bring in more majors. So I think we need more courses like them. I don’t mean to say we should completely abolish traditional courses like Metaphysics, Aesthetics, or Social and Political Philosophy. A more balanced approach is best, I think. Even if we run these courses slightly less often however, we aren’t depriving our students of exposure to those fields. We’re just hitting pieces of them at a time as we situate them in discussions they have interest in.