Cara O’Connor – work-in-progress

I will be aiming to create a poverty and humanities focus for three courses over the next few semesters, starting with this fall’s Intro to Philosophy (PHI 100 at BMCC), then with my spring 2022 Ethics course, and finally with a 200-level course I have been trying to design that focuses on food and philosophy. 

For this blog I will focus on the immediate concern, which is my fall course. Here is the syllabus for that course from last Spring

In truth, I really want to design an entirely new Intro to Philosophy. When I can do so, it will employ things I’m learning in this Institute in a different way. For now I am constrained to working with my course in its current form and making meaningful adjustments to that course.

There are two levels of change I think I can make in time for fall:

1(a) Reduce anything that might be experienced a busy work and (b) limit the tools online students are asked to use.

The reason for (1a) is because by keeping things simple, students might have more time to focus on the content of the course, and it might reduce anxiety in students who have insecure access to the internet and to devices with cameras.  1b) seems easy enough. Require Blackboard discussion boards but nothing extra, such as journals, online quizzes, blogs, or use of flipgrid. Luckily, the hybrid course I’ll be teaching is asynchronous + in person (on campus) so I can dispense with zoom for now (though I know I will need a backup plan in case in-person classes are delayed or cancelled this fall). 1a) is more tricky. The reason our students get so many assignments is in order to help them learn and get feedback throughout the semester, rather than cramming everything in at the end. If an assignment is optional it will not get done. I will be thinking about how to reduce the number of assignments without undoing the success I’ve had with scaffolding and with having many opportunities for assessment. (Advice is welcome!) 

The reason this relates to poverty is that a simpler course structure takes into account the fragmenting full-time work many of our students are doing, their care-giving responsibilities, and the many stresses of economic precarity. As someone (jean?) said in our meeting, this might follow what we call universal design. What helps students facing poverty can help any student. Right?

(2) Alter the guided reading questions and assignments, as well as some of the pacing of material, to bring in a chance for students to think philosophically about poverty.

My current idea is as follows (this will make sense if you look at the course calendar/syllabus but might be hard to make sense of just from the blog):

After students read West, Russell, Logic, and Socrates’ Apology I often have them watch a performance of Laches (on courage). I do this to give them a good example of the “socratic” method in action, since Apology is not a typical text. 

The change I’m considering is this:

For the readings by West, Russell, and for the Apology, I will alter some of my reading questions to bring more attention to ideas of the good life, class position, and the importance or unimportance of material goods, all subtopics and themes that are legible in these works. Then, once presented with Laches, students will be asked to do their first writing assignment, a “socratic” dialogue about poverty. 

Here’s a possible prompt for that assignment:

This assignment invites you to jump right in to the practice of philosophy-as-dialogue– not only with others, but dialogue with yourself.

We might say that we want ourselves or our children to be able to “escape” poverty or to be able to grow up in a world where they don’t face poverty. What is this condition of “poverty” that we find so troubling, unjust, bad, or frightening? Is poverty one kind of thing or many? Is wealth the opposite of poverty? What do we mean by wealth? Keeping in mind some of the conversations we’ve had about the good life and limiting our desires, as well as the conversations we’ve had about justice and fairness, write a dialogue in which you test out different ideas and concepts of poverty. Remember how Socrates does not arrive at a final answer about the meaning of Courage in Laches, but instead (Plato) uses dialogue in order to show how important it is to question the obvious. For this first assignment, you are not expected to arrive at a clear final answer (like Plato’s answer about what justice is in the Republic).

Socrates/Plato wanted to examine the concept of “manly” courage because that concept had a lot of sway in choices people made in ancient Athens. By opening up courage to questioning Socrates was able to create some potentially productive discomfort about military choices and the goals of elite education. Even though Socrates made his interlocutor confused, the point is not just to confuse oneself or others, it’s to reveal what needs clearing up. By using examples of things we apply a concept to, and ways we treat it as good or bad or neutral, we can hone in on what it is that our society is trying to DO with that concept, and what might be both the benefits and dangers of that process of making meaning. 

Having made that initial philosophical effort toward the beginning of the semester, we will proceed with many of the readings as-is, but with a difference in which parts of the readings I focus on and require. 

This is a *very* rough draft about how that might go (again, to be looked at alongside my Spring 2021 syllabus attached here). 

15-Week semester — rough draft

  1. Introduction, what is philosophy? West, Russell
  2. Philosophy as/and the good life, The Apology of Socrates and questioning our/their values
  3. Socratic Method — What is Courage? — and a Little Bit of Logic 
  4. Branches of Philosophy  (and work on essay 1) 
  5. Essay 1  — dialogue about poverty (and wealth) due, share papers and discuss
  6. Metaphysical beliefs/assumptions and the values they support – Plato and Truth; Epicurus and Pleasure/Happiness; Idealism and Materialism
  7. The Metaphysical problem of Time
  8. Time and Climate Change (and work on Essay 2) Scranton or another author
  9. Essay 2 – “Is time something we Have”? Students are asked to relate their own experience of time to philosophical problems not just in metaphysics but in ethics. 
  10. What are we trying to know, what kind of knowledge does Society need? What gets in the way of knowledge? (Plato’s theory of knowledge; Epicurus’ theory of knowledge as examples related to rationalism and empiricism) 
  11. Descartes, Hume, and Elisabeth (lecture with short excerpts assigned)
  12. Alison Jaggar and emotions as part of knowledge
  13. Patricia Hill Collins (make time to discuss ideas about welfare/race myths how they are perpetrated in the nexus of social science and popular media). Give students supplementary material on this (maybe this is a discussion board assignment) 
  14. Daniel Wildcat, Indigenous Knowledge 
  15. Final project – interview two people about their beliefs when it comes to poverty and time or poverty and knowledge and then to write a response paper about what they think of the two different sets of answers. 

Thank you for looking at this work-in-progress. Your feedback will be much appreciated!


  • Mahatapa Palit

    Hi Cara, I like how you are trying to simplify your course and reduce the many different technologies that students need to use, making it accessible to students whose lives are fragmented by the many different roles they have to perform. Like you, I have had to wrestle with the question of how to reduce the number of assignments that are so beautifully scaffolded together, by imposing on myself the poverty of time. I found that when I had to teach the 15-weeks course in 5 weeks, I had no choice but to keep only the essential assignments. And now I am taking those essential assignments to my 15 weeks course. What a relief for me and my students. Poverty can sometimes be liberating!

  • Adele Kudish

    Hi Cara,
    I love your assignment that asks students to interview people. I was wondering how the interview questions would be generated, whether you will come up with one set of questions for the class (either you or as a group), or whether students would be writing their own questions individually. It sounds like a very promising assignment!


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