Friday, September 12, 2008

In Praise of "Very Short Introductions"

This semester, I've decided to use a few of the texts from the Very Short Introductions Series published by Oxford University Press in my courses. These very small, very cute, and very inexpensive little books, according to OUP, offer "concise and original introductions to a wide range of subjects." There are almost 200 titles in the series now, ranging from very broad topics like "Ideology," "Globalization" and "Sexuality," to more specific topics like "Medical Ethics" and "Chance Theory," to topics that focus on a single figure like "Mandela" or "Foucault" or "Darwin." My experience with this series so far has been that the "very short introductions" (hereafter, VSI's) that address topics about which I am already familiar seem like fair, even if cursory, treatments of their subject matter. And the VSI's that address topics about which I am not familiar have, in fact, fulfilled the promise of their title, providing very useful bibliographies as well as a broad conceptual map to help in navigating the new material.

One of the challenges of teaching "intro to philosophy" courses, which tend to be organized as historical "survey" courses, is that they can often feel self-defeating. That is, many students come to intro courses without much (or any) experience with what it means to read or write or think "philosophy," and they are then bombarded with the details of Descartes' Meditations, or Kant's Groundwork, or Plato's Republic without any sort of meta-structure in which to situate these figures and arguments and assign them real importance. For many students, in my experience, intro "survey" courses end up requiring them to memorize material-- what are the three formulations of the Categorical Imperative? What is the ontological proof for the existence of God?-- that doesn't have any meaningful "uptake" (to use Austen's term). So, predictably, they forget the details of philosophy as soon as the course is over and, what's worse, they don't get much sense of what "philosophy" is apart from those details.

The VSI's are helpful in getting students to the thinkers by way of the ideas, instead of the other way around. So, I'm peppering them in with the regular, orthodox tomes as an experiment this year. I'll let you know how it goes.

1 comment:

Farhang said...

The one on Machiavelli by Skinner is actually the best book on Machiavelli I have read. I have used a dozen or so in classes, only the one on democracy was subpar.