Assign public philosophy projects to undergraduate students (guest post)

In some of his recent courses, Daniel Munro, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, has tried to award something different from traditional essays and exams: creative public philosophy projects.

In the following guest post*, he talks about both the pros and cons of missions like this, and solicits suggestions and ideas from others who have (or have thought of) giving similar missions.


Assign public philosophy projects to undergraduate students
by Daniel Munro

In several recent undergraduate courses, I offered students the opportunity to design a creative “public philosophy project” instead of writing a traditional essay. Typically, around 10-15% of students choose this option, and I’m always impressed with the quality and creativity of their work.

I tell students about this option at the very beginning of the semester, and direct them to a blurb about my program with some examples of what their projects might look like, including:

  • Create a YouTube video or podcast.
  • Submit a substantive edit to a Wikipedia article or submit an entirely new Wikipedia article.
  • Write a philosophical op-ed or blog post.
  • Conduct a philosophically substantive interview with someone whose work is related to the course content (philosopher, scholar, artist, journalist, etc.).
  • Use another online medium or social media platform (Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), perhaps devising a way to engage non-course attendees in a philosophical activity.

Given the open nature of this assignment, I work more closely with each student than I would on a traditional paper. I ask them to send in their initial ideas several weeks before the end of term, and I usually meet with each student once or twice (or exchange several emails) to work out their plans. Students often initially come up with projects that simply involve explaining the ideas of other philosophers to a general audience. So we often spend time discussing how to incorporate their own substantive philosophical work into the specific medium they work in, making an original argument or doing some sort of comparative work.

I’ve had students produce everything from YouTube videos and blog posts to recorded songs and computer games (read on to see some examples from my recent Minds and Machines course). After several iterations, I had the chance to reflect on the advantages and limitations of this type of mission.

Educational benefits

Engage students’ diverse core competencies. A diverse student body means that different students are comfortable working in different media and genres. Some are naturally inclined to write academic essays, while others may never become completely comfortable with them. We can make philosophy more accessible and relevant to a diverse set of students by providing opportunities to do philosophy in less traditional ways. A computer science student might feel particularly comfortable coding an interactive computer game, as would my student Alice Zhang. A singer-songwriter can be comfortable expressing themselves through song, as was my student RJ Paz-Viray.

Screenshot of the computer game “DUM Academy” by Alice Zhang

Demonstrate the power of philosophy. Through assignments like this, students can use philosophical tools to analyze topics they are personally passionate about. They learn how philosophy can help them gain a deeper understanding of areas outside of their particular course context. In this vein, my student Chang (Hazel) Gao told me that she undertook her philosophical interview with a visual artist because she “wanted to better understand his works through philosophy”. Likewise, my student Muhammad Abdurrahman produced a philosophical video review of the film Her, while my student Kristal Menguc produced an illustrated essay grappling with the ethics of AI in law enforcement. I hope that practicing using philosophical tools in this way will encourage students to continue doing so once they leave my classes.

Screenshot of Muhammad Abdurrahman’s video review of Her

Screenshot of Kristal Menguc’s Illustrated Essay on AI-Powered Guns

Encourage a deeper understanding of the course material. You must have a good understanding of complex philosophical ideas before you can effectively explain them to non-specialists. Encouraging students to make their work accessible to a general audience encourages them to develop a deeper understanding of the course material. As my student Alice said when describing how she developed her video game: “An important part of the project was that it had to be public, which meant other people outside of class should be able to access it. When developing my game, many of my friends wanted to play it and test it. Helping them understand my game and trying to explain the course content to them made the learning experience so much more rewarding. »

Limits and disadvantages

Student time. Projects like this require more time and effort than writing an article, as students must design their own topic, design the creative aspects of the project, and work on tasks such as video editing or audio recording. It’s important to be upfront with students about this so they can start managing their time and expectations early in the process. I also try to be flexible enough with deadlines to accommodate unforeseen complications or technical difficulties.

Instructor time. Working closely with students on their projects takes more time. For this reason, I’m not sure how well this would fit into a task that is required of all students rather than optional. In a large class, I expect that sacrificing the opportunity for closer mentorship for each student may make it more difficult for students to plan their projects.

Works intended for the public by non-experts. Entrusting non-experts with the task of producing work intended for the public has some limitations:

  • Students often implicitly assume that their audience has shared background knowledge of course material. As a result, their writing usually leaves gaps in the explanation, and as non-experts they are not always able to recognize and fill in those gaps. This is often replicated in their projects, despite their conscious attempt to create works for the public. For many students, producing a work truly suitable for public consumption would require more editing and revision cycles than is possible in a single semester.
  • As with most student work, there are usually inaccuracies in students’ explanations of other philosophers’ ideas. These would also need to be ironed out through more editing and revision before their work could be truly accessible to the public.

I would love to hear from other instructors who have used assignments like this: what have you done that has worked particularly well, and what do you think are the benefits and limitations? Or, if you’ve only thought about using this type of assignment but haven’t, what’s stopping you?