Monday, September 14, 2015

Future Philosophers

Editor's note: Vadim Keyser was first up this semester for our Future Philosopher's series, currently at Rio Americano High School. He offers these reflections on the experience.

Parking is surprisingly simple at Rio Americano. There are plenty of spaces and the cars have a healthy layer of dust. It’s the first indicator of the time put in by the good folks at this place. While you’re walking from the lot you’ll see: a couple of pals kicking a soccer ball, adjacent to the gym; some classmates holding a long string, an old ruler that’s too short, and throwing some paper plates, quickly running to replicate the results of the experiment; everything else is empty. There’s a giant mural on the music building. The “Abbey Road” cover is included. The shading is well placed. 

While signing in at the front office you may develop an uneasy feeling. The classical conditioning associations are still strong. You’re not in trouble, though, but you are out of place (in a good way). While walking to class, the bell rings and the students burst forth, following the laws of fluid mechanics. There is a lot of energy. It’s Friday morning, and no one’s tired. You have a name tag on, and that doesn’t matter to anyone. You find room A6. The windows are blocked by posters. Walking in, everything is very small. There’s no Smartroom setup. There’s a small projector, and a matted screen. Around the room you see artifacts from the ancient world, historical and cultural posters covered in a decade of photon exposure, calls for voter responsibility, white boards heavily structured with exact future material, no podium, and Linda Reed—greeting you with the exact smile you needed to see when you were a kid, trying to think about your thinking. 

Welcome to Linda Reed’s classroom. I guarantee you've never been to a place like this.

Linda Reed structures her class by setting a framework for process. Her focus is on student autonomy. They are expected to participate, but not in the sense that we think when we hear “participation”. Students explore, structure, and thoroughly defend worldviews in the intellectual space of philosophy. They know science, international relations, and seminar-level specifics from Descartes’s argument. You are presenting for a very different kind of youth than you had inferred from the generalized results in pop-tech-science studies. They’re not distracted, they treat technology like mayonnaise—in fair servings, they don’t talk about the world unless their words are careful, and they have a strong sense of classroom order without Linda saying a word. I emphasize this point: They know their facts. If you drop a science study reference, they will know it. It’s inspirational. But be warned, these smart, gentle folks are information-grapplers. And, if you don’t come warmed up, they’ll get ahold of that ankle. More on that in a bit.

I can’t give you a complete impression of teaching in that classroom. So, instead here are some tangible things that I appreciate about Linda’s educational space. My intention here is to get you to want to open the door to A6.

1. Note-taking: When a powerpoint slide goes up, the students don’t speed through, writing every word. In fact they will only take notes on peripheral, interesting points. But they will navigate through your argument with care. They will pause you for clarification, rewind, and then internalize. I attribute it to Linda building a strong foundation for cognitive maps. The students understand how to structure information without cues from the slides. This also means that the students will look directly at you, which brings me to the second point. 
2. Critical Engagement: You will know within the first 10 seconds of the class and every second thereafter if you have lost their attention. And if you do, there is no academic need for the information that is being presented. They are not writing it down for a test. They are internalizing it precisely because it is intrinsically or relationally interesting. Think of it as presenting philosophy to appreciators of philosophy. If you’re not absorbed in the topic or if you come in with glazed attention and highly saturated slides, they will let you know. But if you bring it, they will give you large-hadron energy. The room will buzz. 
 3. Stories: One of the things I had convinced myself is that students are losing an appreciation for storytelling. In the university classroom, students enjoy the story for its entertainment. But the implicit question is always, “What’s that supposed to show us?” So, you prep a slide with the point of the story. Here, it’s a bit different. Storytelling prompts more storytelling. The students don’t yet have this pseudo-distinction between facts and figments of the imagination, where the former is more important in understanding something. They’re glad to use the figments as tools to point to some aspect of reality. I attribute this to the classroom ethic of exploring the material rather than hoarding facts/theories, which is sometimes the unfortunate trend produced by mis-calibrated accountability measures. 
4.  Handshakes: The students will stick around after, shake your hand, and will share a perspective with you. It’s beautiful. 
This is a solid collaborative group, composed of individuals who are really sharp. It’s a good thing to see firsthand. It’s a good measurement apparatus for your adaptive engagement. It’s a strong experience. 

Come on over to A6, y’all.

Vadim Keyser
Department of Philosophy 
Sacramento State


  1. Vadim, thanks this is great. You've captured my experience with the Rio students perfectly. Virtually all of the full-time lecturers do this gig, and I hope your impressions will encourage some more lecturers to give it a shot as well.

    1. Thanks, Randy. I think it's safe to say that this is an intrinsic property of Linda's classroom as well as the Future Phil program.

  2. Vadim, I agree with Randy here. These students are fun and inquisitive. I like the fact that they are often in desk-islands of 4 or 6, but they listen and look at you rather than each other fairly consistently. They follow you while you walk around the room (with their attention) rather than getting lost in a text-messenger or iPhone. And they typically are right on-point with questions or comments, too.

    1. Russell, exactly. I couldn't have put it better. It's a hawk-eye focus that is extremely rare in daily human existence.

  3. Thanks, Vadim, I agree it is exciting to bring philosophy to pre-college students. You should see this crowd when you have them do some roll play. I teach Social Contract Theory and start them off with a Hobbesian state of nature roll play exercise. Sometimes that's as far as we get...

    1. Thanks for the comment, Chris. That sounds intense! Clay project idea: A giant Leviathan (technically, they're 300 miles long).