Monday, December 15, 2014

The undergraduate seminar paper

For the first time in a long time, I have the opportunity to teach a bona fide seminar. The "seminar paper" is a pretty ubiquitous feature of that experience. But to my surprise, I've never thought very explicitly about what an undergraduate seminar paper is supposed to be. So I'm interested in how all of you have explained this to your students: What's its main rhetorical function? What's the proposed length? What are the main components?

Thanks!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Diagnosing and treating students at risk of doing badly in logic: a request.

My friend Tony Laden, who is chair at University of Illinois, Chicago, requested that I pass on the request below. It's something that I imagine most Philosophy departments have to deal with, and I hope some have useful resources: if so, this would be a good place to provide them. Here's the request:


Our department is looking for ways to help the large number of our students who struggle every term in introductory logic (failing to receive a C or better, and thus failing to satisfy the College’s quantitative reasoning requirement).  We have secured funding for an extra TA line to run extra classes or study sections etc for students who are at risk of not passing. The questions that now face us are (a) how to select the at-risk students, and (b) exactly how best the TA can help them. ACT and scores on the University’s math placement test are rather imperfect predictors of success in logic. Does anyone know of a good diagnostic test we could give students in the first week or so that is predictive of logic success? Similarly, does anyone have tested ideas on what kind of small group interventions are most effective with students struggling with logic and how to get those students to make use of that help? (Obviously we have some ideas based on our individual experiences, but would be particularly grateful for any rigorous or systematic studies or clearly successful past interventions.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Specs grading?

Curious to know if anyone out there has experimented with what Linda Nilson is calling "specs grading"? It seems to be a combination of mastery grading, a pass-fail only system, and grading that reflects accumulated knowledge. I'm intrigued and would be interested to hear directly about instructor experiences with this.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Why undergrad teaching is not a "necessary evil"

Over at Philosophers' Cocoon, Marcus Arvan expounds on how we should see undergraduate teaching as something more than a "necessary evil" we tolerate in order to engage in philosophical research. (How come no one ever says we tolerate undergrad teaching in order to do university service?!)

Marcus observes that teaching demands that we set aside jargon and get back to intellectual basics. This forces us to grasp, in a non-technical and intuitive way, what's appealing and unappealing about a philosophical position or claim: 
when teaching Kant's moral/practical philosophy, it's really easy to get sidetracked by Kant's technical terminology, etc. But, when teaching a first-year undergraduate course, getting mired in that stuff is a recipe for disaster. Students tend to tune out. In order to get them to tune in, the challenge is to explain, in the simplest and most intuitive way possible, what Kant is up to, and how his theory is philosophically motivated. - 
This 'cutting to the chase' makes us better researchers, Marcus notes.

I'm intrigued by a second point Marcus makes in defense of undergrad teaching: Undergrads, not having been heavily immersed in the discipline, don't take a problem or argument seriously simply because those in the discipline do. They have, Marcus points out, good BS detectors, and have to be won over to thinking that a position or argument merits esteem. Undergrads thus serve to keep their instructors 'grounded,' we might say, not taken to flights of intellectual fancy. That said, I'm ambivalent about this point: Sometimes this BS detector is also an immaturity meter: Students may not take an argument seriously due to ignorance (philosophical or otherwise) or philosophical inexperience. Indeed, part of our job is to help them see the force of unfamiliar or obscure points.

Why else is teaching more than a "necessary evil"? I'd add two points here: First, teaching can be a source of challenges no less compelling than those we face as philosophical researchers. As I've argued before, our profession would benefit enormously if our teaching culture were more like our research culture in certain crucial ways.

Second, there's been lots of talk about 'public philosophy', the public face of the humanities, and so on, in recent years. I'm often struck by how those who advocate for a more public role for philosophy overlook their most public role of all — their role as philosophy educators. After all, in teaching, we have a semi-captive audience with at least some willingness to be persuaded of the value of philosophy. Our students are our most important 'public,' and each time we teach, we are doing public relations for our discipline and our profession. Teaching is thus a necessary evil only if showing that philosophy is worthy of study and worthy of respect is a necessary evil too.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014