Dallin Robinson and Dennis Packard, Philosophy
The purpose of this project was to write a textbook for the class we taught: Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. During the Fall 2013 and Winter 2014 semesters, Professor Packard used art history texts, philosophical encyclopedias, and filmmaking texts to supplant his lectures with. The downside to this strategy was twofold: generally, the texts were at a reading level above what could reasonably be expected of the average college freshman or sophomore, and the unique nature of the course meant that Professor Packard had to reinterpret the source material in his lectures so that our students would learn what we wanted them to learn. So after that winter semester, I met with Professor Packard and he proposed to me an idea which at first seemed absolutely inconceivable: none of the texts we were using were any good. So why not write our own? After months of planning, that first crazy idea had actually taken shape, and the rough outline of a textbook was born. We used it in our class that following fall, which came with its difficulties, as we ended up finishing each chapter of the text about a week before we taught it. This ORCA Grant was instrumental in allowing that rough, misshapen first attempt at a textbook to become polished, professional, and effective, as we spent the next several months engaged in a complete overhaul. I can confidently say that I am proud of the work we did and equally proud to have my name on it alongside my mentor’s. We constructed a course which was rated incredibly highly by our students, primarily because of the structure which our textbook afforded.
We set out to create a text unlike other introductory philosophical texts, because one of the quickest ways to turn off a freshman to philosophy is to require them to read primary or even secondary sources with no context or purpose, as if the studying itself, sans application, is the desired result. I should know, I was a freshman not too long ago. Perhaps I’m a pragmatist, but I believe that philosophy should be applied to be useful. Thus, we designed the text – and the course – so that our students would be able to see the true value that a philosophy degree can produce. Philosophy gets at the root of things. It allows for discussion on a meta level. It allows for true understanding. To that end, we chose what we believe to be twelve of the most influential philosophers of art, from Plato to Gadamer, and paired each with traditional aspects of filmmaking: theme, plot, character development, production design, blocking, cinematography, sound design, acting, and editing. We relate some philosophers, namely, Hume, Kant, and Gadamer, to film criticism itself. Each chapter of the text is structured thusly: we begin with a quick survey of common views of an aspect of film. Then, we switch gears entirely and give an overview of its philosopher, which includes a brief biological sketch and his core teachings. We conclude each chapter by marrying the philosopher with his filmmaking concept, e.g., “What would Aristotle say about the plot development in Shawshank Redemption?” or “What can we gain from appraising the acting in There Will Be Blood from a Heideggerian perspective?” We also include detailed examples and assignments for readers about applying what they have learned in the chapter to filmmaking. Screenshots and comments are included as well, because what kind of film textbook doesn’t include pictures? Each chapter is written as a dialogue between two characters, Ellen, a philosophy professor, and her brother Joe, a film consultant. Each brings knowledge from their field of expertise to the discussion and both are able to teach and learn from each other. The idea of discussing philosophy and film criticism in the medium of dialogues carries with it a pedagogical tradition in both the philosophical and dramatic worlds. Plato, for example, always wrote in dialogue form, while Hume and Berkeley did so on occasion. Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian actor and theatre director responsible for what is often termed “method acting,”” wrote in dialogues, as did Sanford Meisner, one of his students and a significant acting teacher in his own right.
It is safe to say that the results of our project were most satisfactory. Although our text is as yet not accepted by any major publisher, we were very happy with what we were able to accomplish. Student ratings in our course were the highest in the department immediately after we published the text and they remained that way every semester in which we taught it. I have personally received unsolicited remarks of approval from my peers, who became philosophy majors solely because they took our course as a general education course and fell in love with it.
We structured our text in the way that we did because it allows for the submission of frequently asked questions within, which one or the other character will be able to answer. Furthermore, we have found that humanities students in particular do not like to be lectured at. Philosophy is and always will be a conversation, which is why almost every philosophy class at BYU takes the form of a seminar rather than a lecture. By allowing our students to insert themselves in the text, to identify with one character or the other, we make the studying experience far more enjoyable and effective.
We deem this project a success and wish to once again express our deepest thanks to the ORCA Grant we received, which we credited in the acknowledgements of our text, for making it possible.