Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Weekly Flip

To the first class meeting of each week (normally Tuesday), each student will bring a brief, thoughtful Flip, printed (in manuscript format) on one side of a single page. We will often use these in class discussion, after which I will collect them to review. A thoughtful, good-faith effort will receive a check, and a check every week earns an A for that segment of the course. A check-minus indicates some significant problem, such as imprecise citation, inadequate editing, or uncareful reading, whereas a (rare) check-plus suggests exceptional perceptivity about the reading, or skill in discovering possible value in unfamiliar ideas.

I.                    Identify an idea (a claim, a practice, a background assumption, or an ideal) in the text that strikes you as unfamiliar, and seems somehow mistaken (based on a misdescription of things; unlikely to foster human thriving; or in some other sense just plain wrong). Explain what you take it to mean. You need only explain very briefly, perhaps in a single sentence, your reasons for thinking it mistaken -- we can discuss that in person.

II.                 Give a full, detailed citation of the particular text and commentary in which you find the errant idea, one that will enable any reader to locate it and identify its source in context directly.

III.               Now set aside your strong intuition about the error, and construct a credible defense of the idea to which you object in part I. The aim here is to explore, at least provisionally, an interpretation of or wider perspective on the offending text, in light of which it is at least worthy of serious consideration.

Example (note that this is not in manuscript format):
Flip #1, September 13, 2016
Somaphilus K. Estudiante

I.  Mengzi argues that “Humans all have hearts that are not unfeeling toward others,” suggesting that the capacity for empathy is a defining feature of our humanity, and thus that we are all equipped by our nature, with the proper education, to live compassionate lives in harmony with others. But perhaps one person in a thousand, by one popular estimate, apparently lacks the emotional capacity to understand or care how others feel. Perhaps Mengzi is mistaken, at least with respect to sociopaths, about human nature and the potential for harmonious society.

II.  Mengzi argues for the essential similarity of human sensibilities at 2A6, appearing in Joel J. Kupperman, Ed., Human Nature; A Reader (Hackett, 2012), pp. 77-8.

III.  Mengzi need not claim that everyone is equally empathetic by nature, and our tendency to respond to others’ pain or need certainly comes in degrees. Indeed, his developmental program for a harmonious community proposes to identify precisely the degree of fellow-feeling we have and build on it, widening our sphere of concern (as in the example of King Xuan in 1A3). It is difficult to imagine a harmonious or effective human community that does not rely on a basic emotional potential for benevolence, so if there really were sociopaths who had zero sense of others’ feelings, and were unable to learn, perhaps he would be correct to say they are not human in the relevant sense.


In accordance with official college policy, I expect students to attend all scheduled classes. By enrolling in the course, you make a very strong commitment to do so, and it is especially important in light of the nature of this course. Since our process is conversational rather than didactic, our relations and discussions as a group are key to the learning experience – absence affects not merely your individual work in the course, but the classroom dynamic itself and thus the other students as well.

I have a principled objection to the rest of the official attendance policy, which sets out in detail what constitutes an excusable absence. As legal and moral adults, neither the college nor I have any business adjudicating your life choices. So as far as this course is concerned, should you ever decide to absent yourself, your reasons are entirely your own concern. What is a legitimate concern is the effect that an absence, whatever its reason, has on your educational experience, and on that of your classmates. I thus respectfully request that:
a) You never absent yourself from a scheduled class meeting for any but a very compelling reason, according you your own judgment.
b) If you must be absent, remain in close communication with your classmates, so that when you return you will be completely up to speed with everything that we did and said in your absence.
c) Proactively consult with me, and with your other professors, if a personal circumstance will affect your completion of the course as a full participant.