Six Degrees of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

One of the new strategies I adopted this semester was allowing the students to take charge of one class period a week. I divided the sophomore honors section into three groups and assigned each some days on which students would lead class discussion over the material. They could use any method they wanted, but they would be evaluated on the basis of engagement with the material, creativity and presentation.

For the most part, they’ve been dependent on me for coming up with teaching approaches, and I’ve been generous with suggestions and evaluations. I gave them the text messaging gimmick (If you can’t beat ‘em), and I have had them do variations on the pair/share exercise. Yesterday, however, one of the students proposed an interesting idea. We’re currently reading Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, but this particular cohort of honors students has been together since freshmen year reading a long list of authors: Plato, Milton, Freud, Woolf, Descartes, Marx, Swift, Whitman, Buber, Shakespeare, Darwin, Aristotle, Mary Shelley…

So they designed a game called “Six Degrees of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” On a checkerboard they labeled every other square with the name an author they’ve read in the past year and a half. The object of the game is to start with any author and make a connection or distinction to one of the four adjacent authors (this link or distinction is to be written in the intervening empty square). Then you continue the process six times until you arrive at an idea in Rousseau’s essay. Here’s an example:

Ralph Ellison’s invisible man sees himself at war with the “Power Company,” a social force that shapes his identity. (1) This connects to Freud who argued that the superego originates externally and powerfully shapes our identity. Freud also argued that the id contained irrational, destructive urges that needed to be contained. (2) This connects to Sophocles whose character Creon argues society needs to be on guard against chaos and destruction. (3) Creon’s leadership philosophy connects to Hobbes, who also argued that a powerful authority needs to contain human brutishness in the state of nature. (4) This in turn contrasts with Locke, who disagreed with Hobbes that the state of nature was entirely savage because in it one at least possessed natural rights to freedom, just retribution for injury and private property. (5) This connects to Margaret Atwood, whose eco-feminist novel Surfacing recognized the value of the pre-civilized state of nature, which, in turn, (6) echoes Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea that modern civilization is the source of inequality and prejudice.


I love this idea. Not only is it a good intellectual workout, but it actually promotes the kind of fluid, schematic thinking the honors program seeks to promote. I’ve never swiped an idea from students before, but I will now. Educators are quite shameless when it comes to this kind of thievery.


Professor Quest said…
I haven't gotten a comment on this old blog in so long that I thought I'd leave one for myself: congrats on your 200th post.

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