Creating A Philosophy Outreach Program

Congratulations! You’ve decided to start a philosophy outreach program. Or at least, you’re curious enough about starting a philosophy outreach program that you’re looking at this website. Either way, you probably believe that a lot of people outside of the academy would enjoy, and benefit from, a philosophical education. So you want to know what it takes to provide one for them.

Of course, there are a variety of ways to do this. For example, you can form a non-profit organization. This would allow you to apply for grants and solicit and accept tax-deductible donations. But it would also require you to put together a board of directors, apply for tax-exempt status, and follow all the other legal requirements for non-profit organizations. This is what the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington in Seattle did.

Alternatively, you can start a philosophy outreach program at your college or university. This allows you to take advantage of the resources in your philosophy department, and also allows you to apply for grants and private donations through your department (since gifts to universities and colleges are usually tax-deductible). This is the route taken by many philosophy outreach programs, including programs at New York University, University of Memphis, and Columbia University. (Be mindful, however, that you will be required to follow college/university protocol for grant applications, which at some colleges and universities can be more complex than applying for grants through a separate 501(c)(3) organization.)

This guide is written by, and primarily for, people interested in starting a philosophy outreach program in a college or university philosophy department. (And in particular, starting a philosophy outreach program in a department with a graduate program.) But a lot of the information here is perfectly general, so you should read on no matter what form you want your organization to take.

Typically, whatever its form, a philosophy outreach program arranges for professors and/or graduate students from a philosophy department to offer free philosophy classes to people outside the university. These programs are terrific for a number of reasons. First, they offer a philosophical education to people who might otherwise not receive one. Second, they demonstrate the value of a philosophical education to public school teachers and administrators (and, at the same time, break down destructive myths about philosophy’s relevance to other academic disciplines, as well as to everyday life). Third, they offer public school teachers and administrators much-needed support, since many public schools have too few teachers, and too few resources, already. Fourth, they give you the opportunity to use your philosophical training to give back to the community. (And how often do you get to do that?) Fifth, and relatedly, they give you the opportunity to teach philosophy to a new kind of audience, which brings its own challenges and rewards. And finally, they give your department, and your university as a whole, an opportunity to pat itself on its back for offering a free public service. In short: this is that rare kind of program that seems to be win-win across the board.

But how do you get started? Fortunately, there are quite a few philosophy outreach programs already in existence. The first few had to do everything by themselves, but the rest have benefited greatly from their experience and advice.

This page is an attempt to write down some of that advice in a publicly accessible document. We hope to continue updating it as we hear from more programs, so that we can make it as comprehensive as possible. (To that end: if you have any questions not addressed here, let us know. Or if you have any advice to add, let us know that too!)

Okay, here we go.

1. Form a Steering Committee

An outreach program can do a lot of terrific work with only one or two dedicated people running the show. Nevertheless, we recommend forming a steering committee right away. The members of this committee can help you with the (very heavy) initial workload. They can also help you out down the road, when you encounter problems or want to brainstorm about ways of expanding the program.

Ideally, your steering committee will have about three professors and three grad students on it. This is crucial for a number of reasons (even if grad students are the main force behind your program). For example, professors can give you good teaching advice, they can help you deal with high school and college administrators, they can make sure that your program complies with all the relevant departmental and university rules (about working outside the university, etc.), they can make sure that your program survives after you graduate (if you are a student), and so on.

2. Create a Mission Statement

Once you get a steering committee together, your first order of business will be to talk about your goals for your program, because there are many different shapes that such a program can take. For example, is your main goal in starting this program to offer a philosophical education to underprivileged students? Then that might lead you, later on, to teach at public schools in lower-class neighborhoods, but not at other public or private schools. Or: is your main goal to offer a philosophical education where it would do the most good? Then that might lead you, later on, to teach not only at high schools and middle schools but also at businesses, churches, prisons, and so on. Or: Is your goal to persuade the public that a philosophical education is important? Then that might lead you, later on, to teach at schools where the parents, teachers, administrators, and so on have political clout.

You probably have some combination of these goals in mind, and as a result, you’re probably at least open to teaching at a variety of places down the road. Nevertheless, we recommend that you start out modestly. Even if you eventually want to teach at middle schools, elementary schools, juvenile detention centers, and so on, you might consider taking a year to work with high school students first. The reason is that high school teaching, while different from college teaching in a number of ways, is still much more continuous with it than the earlier grades are. (However, it can be more challenging to obtain access to high school classrooms, which are divided by subject matter and often adhere to a more rigid curriculum than do, for example, elementary school classes, in which the classroom teacher teaches the same group of students all day and often can make time more easily for an outside program.)

In any event, writing a mission statement has another advantage. It will serve as excellent copy for your website.

3. Pick a Program Coordinator

Once you have a steering committee and a mission statement, your next step is to pick a program coordinator. Usually, this job will be filled by a grad student.

This is a demanding job, especially in the first year or two, when you have to build your program from scratch. For that reason, it might help to have two people share the job. It might also help, if you have the resources, to make this a paid position. Some programs give outreach coordinators teaching relief in exchange for coordinating an outreach program. Others pay them an hourly wage, or a flat rate, or an hourly wage with an annual ceiling. What you decide to do here will depend entirely on the resources your program has – as well as on whether you think the grad students in your program will be willing to do this kind of work without compensation, not only now but years down the line.

This last point is especially important, because you may have several grad students happy to work for free now; but in our experience, interest waxes and wanes over the years. So if you want to build a program that lasts, then you should think very carefully, right now, about what it will take to persuade people to serve year after year. (And we should emphasize that this job is not always fun. You may be able to spend some time in the classroom, but you also have to send out a lot of emails, attend a lot of meetings, and so on.)

Of course, not all departments have the resources to pay outreach coordinators, or to give them teaching or research leave. But you still have options. For example, you can apply for an external grant.

For continuity, each coordinator should be prepared to serve for at least a year. Ideally, he or she would serve for two years. Or two people would share the job, and each year one of them would step down and a new person would step up. That way you can maximize institutional memory.

Finally: How should you go about picking a coordinator? This is up to you. But given how important this job is, we recommend making it a position that graduate students apply for, rather than volunteer for. That way the steering committee can pick the candidate who seems most serious, and can keep after this person throughout the next year (or years).

4. Develop a Website

Once you have a steering committee, a mission statement, and a coordinator, you have an outreach program. But no one knows about it yet. Of course, most schools won’t find out about your outreach program by scouring the Internet. But if and when you make contact with them, you’ll want to persuade them that your program is for real. And having a website helps a lot.

Ideally your website will be on your school’s website, to maximize the appearance of legitimacy.

So what should go on your website? This is up to you, and of course you can look to existing websites for ideas, links to which are provided here. But here are a few standard ideas: A homepage with your mission statement, and perhaps some information about why a philosophical education is valuable. (Philosophy teaches you to think critically! It lets you converse with the great thinkers of human civilization! It will help you succeed at standardized tests! etc.) Then an “activities” page with information about the kind of classes, lectures, etc. that you offer, as well as, eventually, a list of past activities. Then a “people” page with information, and maybe pictures and descriptions, of people in the program. This should include the coordinator, the steering committee, and, down the road, your teaching staff. (Here too it helps to have faculty on the steering committee, because now you can put them on your website too!) Then whatever you want – maybe, for example, a page with links to other outreach programs or philosophy resources. And of course, make it clear how schools can get in touch with your coordinator if they want to work with you.

5. Find Schools to Work With

At first, you may find it difficult to get schools to take you seriously. Many of them are wary of working with people they don’t know. So how do you get your foot in the door?

In our experience, random calls or emails to high school administrators are unlikely to be very effective. So we recommend taking one of two other routes. Actually, we recommend taking both of these other routes at the same time.

First, take the bottom-up approach. Instead of making first contact with administrators, see if anyone in your department happens to know any teachers. Then, if someone does, ask them to talk to their teacher friends about your program, and to ask their teacher friends if they, or someone they know, would be interested in having you come in to give a guest lecture sometime. (Philosophy is more relevant to some classes than others, but with a little creativity, you can find a way to make it relevant to pretty much any class they might be teaching.) If they say yes, then you should have an easy time persuading the administrators to let you come visit, because now you have a teacher from the school on your side. And of course, once you have your foot in the door, then you can work with the administrators directly on future projects.

At the same time, however, you should continue to pursue the top-down approach. But not by yourself. See if you can find another department in your college or university, like the education department or the social work department, that might have existing ties with schools in the area. And then see if they can arrange meetings with the administrators for you. Also see if they have any general advice for you about how to talk to/work with administrators, teachers, and students, because they almost certainly will, and the more you learn now, the fewer mistakes you make later.

Then, once you have set a meeting with the administrators:

6. Meet With The Administrators

Your contacts will have good advice for you about what to say and how to act. But let us just emphasize two things, at least one of which should be obvious.

First, be professional. Dress well, show up early, and act like an adult. The administrators’ main concern, after all, will be whether or not they can trust you (and the people you represent) in a room with their students.

Second, be deferential. You know a lot about philosophy, and you might also know a lot about teaching philosophy to college students. But you don’t know much about teaching philosophy to high school students yet. Nor do you know what this school’s particular needs or interests are. So instead of saying, “Here’s what you need, and here’s how we’re going to provide it for you,” say that you’re interested in teaching philosophy at their school, and you have some ideas about how you might do that. But you’re also open to new ideas, and you’re eager to work with them to develop a program that makes sense for their particular school. If you approach them this way, you’re much likelier to have a successful meeting – and, happily, you’re also much likelier to develop a program that makes sense for this particular school.

What kind of programs should you consider running? This depends entirely on what you think you can pull off. Some outreach programs do everything from one-off guest lectures to full classes, with grades. Nevertheless, we recommend starting off small. It’s better to give guest lectures, lead after school discussions, and so on at first, so that you can get a feel for teaching to high school students, and also so you can get a feel for what kind of time commitment this involves on your end.

This is especially important, because once a school decides to trust you, they may ask you to do much more than you can realistically do. Of course, you should keep an open mind and consider every idea. But you should also be prepared to say no if you have to. It’s better to reject an idea than to accept it and then discover, later on, that you’re not able to follow through.

7. Find Teachers

Once you have a program set up, your next step is to find someone to teach it. Hopefully you have enough grad students and/or professors interested in doing some extra teaching (and giving back to the community, etc.) that this should be as easy as sending out an email saying: “We have a new outreach opportunity. Here’s what it involves. Who wants to do it?”

Once you have someone, introduce them to the relevant teacher or administrator, and let them work out the details. But also make sure that you stay in touch with them throughout the semester, so you know how things are going.

One general question you have to answer is: should you compensate grad students for teaching? As with your coordinator, it depends. On one hand, you might think, paying people to teach outreach classes violates the “public service” spirit of your program. On the other hand, you might think that having a lot of outreach classes with compensated instructors is better than having only a few outreach classes with volunteers. And in our experience, people are much likelier to participate with compensation. Basically, a lot of grad students like the idea of helping out, and many of them will express tentative interest in particular projects. But once the semester gets going and people get busy, they start to prioritize, and you might discover that you have way fewer volunteers than you thought. However: if you offer people some kind of compensation for participating, then this might be enough to supplement their interest and make them commit. So at the very least, we recommend that either: you offer grad students some kind of compensation for participating in the outreach program (which, again, may require you to apply for grant money), or: you keep your ambitions in check, and remember that an expression of tentative interest is not the same as a firm commitment.

8. Get Ready to Teach!

One of your biggest challenges, at first, will be learning how to teach philosophy to high school students. Remember, most high school teachers earn an education degree and go through extensive classroom training before they ever get a class of their own. You, on the other hand, took some college philosophy classes with people who may or may not have been good teachers, then worked as a TA for these people, and then taught some college classes of your own. This is not the same level of preparation for high school teaching. So you should brace yourself for a lot of on-the-job training.

You can look here for lesson plans, teaching advice, and so on. So in this space, let us just say a few things.

First, many high school students have short attention spans, and they get bored easily. And when they get bored, they let you know about it. This is both good and bad. Good because you always know exactly where you stand with your students. If they seem to be with you, then they really are. Good job! And if they don’t seem to be with you – for example, if they start talking to each other or throwing things at each other or getting up and walking out of the classroom – then you know you should try something new. Good to know!

But this is also bad, of course, because it means that high school students can be much more disruptive than college students, who typically sit still and pretend to like you no matter how bored they get.

So we recommend that you do at least two things. First, think much more about pacing than you normally do. Plan activities other than lecture and discussion, like debates or presentations or small group discussions or projects. If you can keep things active and unpredictable, then your students will be less likely to get bored. And second, be prepared to discipline your students if you have to. You may be able to shut down an annoying college student with a glance or a subtle joke. But an annoying high school student usually requires direct intervention. “Sit down and stop talking,” that sort of thing. This might seem very strange, even rude, to you at first, but trust us, it works, and the other students will really appreciate it.

Our second piece of advice is this: Obviously, you have to pitch the material at a lower level than you normally do. But you should avoid the temptation to dumb it down too much. A lot of high school students are really smart and talented and eager for people to take them seriously. So you should take them seriously. You should push them to think for themselves and express themselves, but you should also hold them to the same standards that you hold all your other students to. So, yes, you have to present the material clearly, and you have to repeat yourself, and you have to be patient, and you have to be especially encouraging. But you can do all of this without sacrificing rigor. Remember: the most empowering thing that you can do for your students, by far, is to treat them with respect and hold them to a high standard.

Finally, here are four very practical things you can do, to get yourself (and others) ready to teach at the high school level. First, arrange to sit in on some classes before you teach any. Most high schools should have no problem with this. Second, if you have a teacher observing your class (and you probably will), ask them for advice and feedback. Third, have your students fill out course evaluations at the end. Finally, start an in-house blog, or google document. After each class people teach, they can write a short entry in the document about what they taught, how they taught it, how it went, and how they might do it differently next time. They can also add notes gleaned from their course evaluations. If everyone does this, then eventually it will become a wonderful resource that people can use to teach at the high school level without having to reinvent the wheel every time. (This guide was written in the same spirit, and look how helpful it is!)

However, as with teaching outreach classes generally, even the most conscientious grad student might not be motivated to contribute to this document without some kind of incentive. So instead of pitching it as an option available to them, we recommend pitching it as part of what teaching an outreach class involves.

9. Update Your Website

This is easy. Update your website. Whenever you teach a new course, put it up there. The more schools you have listed on your “past activities” page, the more impressive and legitimate your program will appear. And this will make it much easier for you to branch out in the future. Speaking of which:

10. Branch Out in the Future

Even after your program is up and running, you should keep meeting with your steering committee at least once a semester to check in and talk about how things are going. This will also be a good opportunity to discuss your plans for the future and make sure everyone is still on the same page.

Of course, you should expect your long-term aims for the program to change over time, as you get more experience in the classroom. But whatever you decide to do eventually, we recommend starting out by running several programs at the same school (or schools), so that you can develop a strong and lasting relationship with them. This helps in two ways. First, it helps you logistically at first, because you can plan new programs without having to find new schools, and develop new relationships, each time. And second, it helps you logistically down the road, because if you have a strong relationship with certain schools, then they might be more willing to recommend you to others.

As we said, depending on your goals, it might make sense to start out with high schools, since high school instruction is most continuous with college instruction. But once you get your feet wet, you might consider expanding to other schools, or institutions, too. For example, you might choose to work with middle schools, elementary schools, churches, prisons, businesses, and so on.

Of course, you might not be very excited about the idea of providing free philosophy classes to private institutions like businesses. But one idea is: you can ask them for a small donation to your program in exchange for each session you teach. For example, many businesses spend thousands of dollars on employee training. So from that perspective, they might be more than happy to spend a few hundred dollars – say, enough to pay for that session plus a separate high school session – for a great philosophy discussion (which they can call training in ethics or logic or critical thinking or whatever else might appeal to their managers).

But again, this all depends on what your main aims are, and how many volunteers you have.

Okay, that about does it. But as we said, if you have any questions at all, or if you have any advice to offer, then feel free to email us at . And thanks so much for considering starting an outreach program. They really are terrific for everyone involved. We hope it works out for you!