News

Inclusive philosophy unit wins international prize


11 July 2017

Associate Professor Lefebvre's unit explores the philosophy of human rights through a focus on two major events in history: the French Revolution with the classical debates it inspired over the meaning and value of universal rights, and the Second World War which resulted in the creation of a contemporary human rights system.
Associate Professor Lefebvre's unit explores the philosophy of human rights through a focus on two major events in history: the French Revolution with the classical debates it inspired over the meaning and value of universal rights, and the Second World War which resulted in the creation of a contemporary human rights system.

A philosophy unit led by Associate Professor Alexandre Lefebvre has won an international prize for inclusive curricula - a win for both education and culture at the University.

Associate Professor Alexandre Lefebvre, from the Department of Philosophy and Department of Government and International Relations, in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, has won the 2017 Australasian Association of Philosophy Prize for Innovation in Inclusive Curricula for his undergraduate unit of study PHIL2616: The Philosophy of Human Rights.

The annual prize recognises innovative approaches to teaching undergraduate philosophy, and celebrates academics who explore ways that their units can build understanding and practice of an inclusive discipline, with the aim of fostering equal participation in the profession, for instance along race and gender lines.

“This Australasian Association of Philosophy Prize was a very nice and gratifying prize to win," said Associate Professor Lefebvre. "The idea behind the prize is to explore ways in which undergraduate courses in philosophy can help to build a more inclusive discipline, as philosophy struggles in this respect, with many more men, and overwhelmingly white men and women, at all levels: undergraduate, postgraduate, and professional.”

“My unit, The Philosophy of Human Rights, is offered in both the Department of Philosophy and Department of Government and International Relations, and is a highly interdisciplinary unit of study drawing on the fields of philosophy, law, political theory and history.”

The unit explores the philosophy of human rights through a focus on two major events in history: the French Revolution with the classical debates it inspired over the meaning and value of universal rights, and the Second World War which resulted in the creation of a contemporary human rights system.

“In designing this unit of study, I’ve tried my best to better include two groups of students: female students, and also non-philosophy majors. That last one might seem a bit strange: non-philosophy majors are by no means a ‘minority group’ - and thank goodness for that! But many students tend to come to philosophy with a sense of it as an abstract and semi-technical discipline,” explained Associate Professor Lefebvre.

"By making the unit as interdisciplinary as possible, and by tying the meaning and emergence of human rights ideas and practices to concrete historical events, I try to show the relevance and urgency of concepts and debates in political philosophy for students’ own disciplines, and hopefully also for their way of looking at contemporary political and ethical issues.

“Indeed, the praise I'm proudest of in my student evaluations is when students say something like, ‘I thought I would hate philosophy, but…’.”

To address the gender imbalance in political philosophy, Associate Professor Lefebvre has made female authors 40 per cent of the assigned readings, including greats such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Arendt, Judith Shklar, Wendy Brown, and Martha Nussbaum.

“Having this focus on female writers is a significant departure from the standard political philosophy or philosophy of human rights syllabus, dominated as they usually are by male authors, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, J.S. Mill, John Rawls, and others, and which typically include female authors only in a section on ‘The Rights of Women’,” said Associate Professor Lefebvre.

Another tactic he has used in his unit to promote greater participation by women is to use different styles of assessment, especially in the tutorial space.

“I’ve taught in many departments, including politics, law, history, and philosophy, but only in philosophy have I led tutorials where men - most often young men - so regularly attempt to dominate and crowd the discussions in class,” said Associate Professor Lefebvre.

“So with this unit, I changed the participation requirement. Rather than grade students on spoken participation in tutorial - the typical ‘participation mark’ - I require all students to submit questions each week prior to the tutorial based on their engagement with the reading.

“This simple change has transformed the tutorial environment. I use the questions to guide discussion and conversations flow much more naturally. It also makes the speaking space less competitive, in that students do not feel compelled to voice opinions for marks. In short, this change has made tutorials much more convivial and inclusive.”

The Australasian Association of Philosophy judging panel said they “found the course to be a high quality example of how to improve inclusiveness in the teaching of philosophy”.