Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Modelling Behaviour: Teaching Broadly and Essay Setting

Thanks to Michael for inviting me on board, it is a pleasure to be here.

This post really follows up on one of the points made by Michael in this post: The teacher and the researcher.

It is common for introductory philosophy classes to be broad survey style classes. There are good reasons for this; we want our students to be broadly grounded, to have a chance to taste different aspects of philosophy and so on. However a consequence of this, as Michael pointed out, is that introductory and indeed other undergraduate courses in philosophy rarely go into any great depth. This often carries over to the specific lectures, so one week in a philosophy of religion class you may cover the argument from evil, the next the ontological argument. The upshot of this is that a lecture can often look something like this:

Proposition X
Argument 1 for proposition X
Why Argument 1 fails
Argument 2 for proposition X
Why Argument 2 fails
Argument 3 for proposition X
Why Argument 3 fails
Argument 4 for proposition X
Why Argument 4 fails
Conclusion: None of these arguments for proposition X work

Yet when we set essays we often, although not exclusively, ask students to concentrate on just one argument. Even if we do not specifically ask them to focus in the question, we usually argue that there is little point them giving just an overview of the area instead they should focus on a small part of that area since that is all they can cover well. The essay that gives 101 arguments for a proposition with little depth or critical analysis, philosophy by bullet point, will usually not do well.ral point is illustrated by this quote from the excellent The gene How to Plan a Philosophy Paper by Jeff McLaughlin, Thompson Rivers University.

“Choose a topic that is ‘do-able’.

Essay topics like "The philosophy of Aristotle", "What is Truth?", or "Science versus Religion", are far too broad. When thinking about your topic it is better that the "pool be small and deep, rather than wide and shallow". That’s a murky metaphor but basically it means don’t bite off more than you can chew. You don’t want to touch on fifty different and disjointed points and say nothing substantial about any of them (or you run the risk of writing a ‘too-long paper’). Instead, you want to pick a manageable topic that allows you some room for an in depth exploration of the particular issue. Are you keen on the topic of euthanasia? What aspect? Voluntary vs. Non-voluntary? Active vs. Passive? The role of non-family members as decision makers? Consideration of potential negative utilitarian consequences of a newborn euthanasia policy? Narrow your focus and develop your exploration of it.”

But there is an obvious disconnect here, while we insist to our students that good philosophy is focused and in depth, we model precisely the opposite when we get up in front of them and teach. It doesn’t seem too far a stretch to think that some of our students knowing that we are philosophers who are teaching philosophy, will probably get the impression that this is how philosophy ought to be done. Then they are likely to get a rude and disheartening awakening when, following the pattern of what is done in class they do badly in their assignments.

I’m curious to hear whether people broadly agree with this analysis, and what if anything they do about it.

I personally try and make it clear to my students that when I am covering huge swathes of material in a short time in a class that I am not doing philosophy, I am teaching them about others who did philosophy. I try and make this clear by occasionally doing philosophy in class, although I usually keep this for the tutorials, trying to make them focused on one or two aspects of the lecture not the whole. Likewise in the talk I give them about essay writing I make the point that lectures and course books perform a very different function than an academic paper. And what we are usually looking for in an essay is much more like an academic paper (not to the same standard of course) than it is to a course book or a lecture.


  1. Thank you David for a very interesting post.

    A large part of the problem that I have with teaching intro courses is that the students are there for reasons not often associated with a desire to learn philosophy. It satisfies a Gen Ed requirement, or it fits their schedule, but by and large most do not have any strong desire or interest coming into the course to learn to do philosophy. So I challenge them in a variety of ways to actually do philosophy and to start to understand what they think about various topics.

    For the past few years I have moved away from longer papers because, quite honestly, they were not very good and I became convinced that they were a waste of time and trees. What I substituted in place of long papers were weekly 2-3 page papers where I asked students to investigate and evaluate an aspect of the topic we were discussing. For example if we were discussing arguments for/agaiinst the existence of God I have them go on-line (or to the library) and find an argument, read the argument, and report their reaction to what they had read; what is it about the arguent they like, or do not like, and why. I them use these papers as the focal point of class discussion. As the students do more and more of these papers and analyse teir work in class with other students and me they become better at analysing the arguments being discussed and actually start doing some philosophy.

    I seldom lecture. I may do a lecture to introduce a general topic, but the majority of time it is utilizng these short papers, along with some required readings, that gets the students involved in trying to understand what is going on in specific arguments.

    I focus on 3 main topics in my intro course; skepticism and knowledge, the existence of God (theism in particular), and what type of life is worth living. These topics seem to hit home with the majority of my students.

    This coming semester I am going to add a requiremt: Students must come to class prepared with at least one question they would like to discuss that day regarding what they read. I will select students at random to present their question so everyone knows they might be called upon.

  2. You've put your finger on at least part of an issue that I've found a bit troublesome in teaching - we don't do much philosophy in the classroom.

    What your post made me think was: the standard line that I get (and give!), especially when discussing folks taking a course to fulfill some non-Philosophy-relatedneed, is that the point is not so much to teach the history of the discipline as to develop good thinking skills, etc. So why do we so often teach survey courses?

    The general assumption seems to be that teaching, e.g., Kant and Mill and their cross-arguments somehow models a good philosophical debate. But you're right that while the back-and-forth between the Kantians and Utilitarians may be Philosophy, the way that that gets taught isn't, necessarily. Maybe one could do just as well teaching an ethics course as, e.g., twenty weeks on Mill, letting the students really get into the issue, only mentioning other folks in passing ("that's a good argument, similar to one from this guy named Rawls, check your local library for more"), and letting students "do" Philosophy (or at least critical discussion and debate).

    So, essentially, bringing the lecture more into line with papers, rather than trying to separate them clearly.

    I do like John Alexander's ideas, btw, and plan to steal some in the Fall.

    (Incidentally, there must be something in the water, as I started up a teaching-philosophy discussion list with several colleagues, also with a Socrates-related name, about a week before seeing the post about this blog on PEA Soup...)

  3. David and John give some good suggestions. My comment is related to parts of what they suggest. Though it is often hard to 'do philosophy' while lecturing, the way that I try to model the nature of the discipline isn't so much in the lectures, but in the writing assignments, feedback on them, conversations during office hours, etc....

    I require students to write numerous (usually 3 in a GE course) papers of only 3-4 pages. I give extensive comments on these papers, and try to have subsequent papers build off the earlier assignments in a way that traces a threat or argument. I am also willing to look at rough drafts during office hours, which helps students see the process in a more intensive setting. Of course, not all students take advantage of this (thankfully), but those that do tend to be the interested and motivated students, and seem to really benefit from it.


    I've tried the 'bring a reading question' approach before, and couldn't get it to work very well. I hope you have better success. What I instead found to be more helpful is posting a question on each reading on the course WebCT page. (Students have to do any 15 of the approximately 30 for the term.) The reading question would get students to think about a central issue for that day's materials; I also try and have the question show how the issue we'll be talking about isn't an esoteric issue. I collect these at the beginning of class and return them the next class period. This way, at least a good portion of the class has already started to think about an issue that we'll talk about, and I can incorporate the question itself into the class--it tends to be a good way of getting a discussion going. Though this comment is already running long, I'll paste in a copy of a question for a reading on Aquinas account of justice that I use in a virtue ethics class:

    Consider in particular the section on ‘preferential treatment of persons’ which begins on page 62. I want you to think about what Aquinas says here as it relates to Affirmative Action. As you may know, in the US employers often adopt policies favoring racial minorities and/or female applications for jobs. In fact, in the states of California and New York (and perhaps others), Affirmative Action benefits also extend to immigrants, whether or not those immigrants are legal immigrants.

    In light of Aquinas’ discussion of justice, do you think that Affirmative Action is just? Why or why not?

  4. In the intro course I took we started with a reading of The Republic and in the second semester a reading of Discourse on Method. We were expected to read various extracted passages of other works but the lectures were mainly a tracing of ideas as it was a "history of western philosophy" course. There is another intro course, "introduction to philosophical problems" where there is more of a focus on argumentation but many of the topics are similar. In any case I think the former strikes a good balance between getting students familiar with exegesis and interpretation and digesting a large volume of details about a wide variety of topics. There is less rigour in what's demanded in essays but in comparison to the latter, to me it doesn't necessarily make it worse. If I wasn't already familiar with philosophy I could have learned most of those skills by taking a modes of reasoning course also offered, or let it come naturally through reading or later courses about more specific topics. I suppose it depends on the resources you have because we'd also have tutorials two times a week discussing specific readings.

    The prof teaching the course I took (Mark Kingwell) would summarize the topic at hand but also made it entertaining and relevant with stories and context (sometimes he would go off on tangents about The Simpsons or personal experiences but I don't think anyone was annoyed because it makes him a wonderful performer qua teacher). It takes a lot of skill and preparation to cover as many topics as we did. I think I was spoiled a little bit because in later classes profs would often drone about a topic as it came to mind or waste twenty minutes discussing irrelevant details.

  5. Hmmm ... looking at David's post, he was worried about how lectures, in particular those devoted to summarizing material, may inadvertently give students a misleading model for essay writing. I guess I'm not sure I understand the broader worry that lecture doesn't amount to 'doing philosophy,' so I'm interested in hearing more about the substance of that worry.

    But on David's more particular question, I think he's right that students may well get the wrong impression about the course tasks from how we present the material to them. In particular, I think students have enormous problems fashioning an essay topic of suitable scope, in part because much of what we ask them to read is Big Philosophers using Big Words to talk about Big Ideas. A student essay, on the other hand, is a new philosopher taking on a small problem (admittedly linked to big ideas) hopefully in small-ish words.

    In practical terms, I think we have create assignments with crystal clear expectations in this regard. I've also good reactions when I showed students successful essays written by students past (with their permission, of course). They notice that the successful essays have some features in common (a direct style, an easy-to-follow logic, etc.) but some differences (conflicting theses, differences in organization, etc.) I don't think you can overboard in showing students what it is we're asking for.

    This is also a situation where you may need to explain to students the roles that different tasks or activities play in their learning: lectures and class meetings summarize main points and arguments, whereas (emphasize the positive here!) writing is a chance to them to investigate philosophical issues (and their own thoughts about those issues) in greater depth. Students often don't appreciate how the different elements of a course are supposed to mutually reinforcing in this way..

  6. I appreciate both David's original post and the responses to it. What is pushed to the front of my mind is a related question I have about my own teaching methods, which I wonder if anybody else shares. My dirty little teaching secret is that I rarely teach arguments, even in intro classes — in the sense of breaking down primary readings into deductively valid arguments for analysis. This is the way I was taught, but I can't get myself to do the same except on rare occasions. It seems to me a tool that is sometimes helpful, sometimes not, in my own reading and thinking about the work of other philosophers, and I bring that same occasional approach to the classroom.

    I do wonder if I am doing students a disservice in doing so, but it seems to me that in getting them to think about e.g. the difference between Mill and Kant on the moral significance of outcomes or consequences, the technique of argument construction is largely useless. If done right it can help to highlight the crucial premises in an argument, perhaps, but it seems to me that Kant's writing does that pretty well itself. I think I'd rather have them read with the idea of seeing the questions as Kant did (as best they can) with the aim of understanding how and why he hoped to answer them as he did.

    Methodologically, that puts teaching and research more on the same page, though obviously there are still differences in content. But, like David, I have also found my research really benefiting from ideas generated in teaching. This is in part because, after a few years of teaching, I have some idea of what readings are going to be most interesting and fruitful to think about myself!

  7. I am sympathetic to Mark's concern about focusing on evaluating arguments. While I do try to get students to understand what the general arguments are within a given work, I stress the importance of trying to understand why the philosophers argue as they do. What is the 'world picture' that they are trying to create and justify? Why did Descartes develop the arguments in the 1st meditation? What role to they play? Why does Socrates tell Crito not to worry about what others think? These are the types of questins that I think that Kevin employs in his writing assignments.

    Because I know that the vast majority of my students will not take any other philsophy courses, I want them to have the opportunity to gain something of importance that can impact their lives (a lofty goal to be sure). We study Plato's Allegory of the Cave, Euthyphro, and Crito; Epictetus' The Enchiridion; and Descartes' Meditations because I think that these philosophers can come to grow on a person as the years pass. Reading these philosphers at 60 is a different experience then when I 1st read them as a teenager. I tell my students to save these works (I utilize the internet so they can download the texts for free and not be motivated to sell them back to the bookstore) and put them into a drawer. Maybe they do not mean much to you now, but reread them (particularly Plato and Epistetus)in a few years and see if they now have an impact, or if they had an impact on your life that you were not aware of.

    I would be interestd to hear what others think thier objective is in teaching intro course. Perrsonally, the best course I had as an undergrad was my intro to philosophy course. It changed my life!

  8. Wow, that is a lot of responses with some very thoughtful points being made. I'll try to respond to each in turn.

    John, I see your point, this particularly the case for me at the moment since I am teaching ethics to students who are studying to be professionals and to be frank some of them are not just an indifferent, but hostile crowd.

    I have also moved away from longer papers, in part because of this environment (science students do not like the word "essay"). I haven't tried incorporating these short assignments into the class discussion though, I may have to cherry pick that notion.

    Daniel, I think as I said above that survey courses are in some ways necessary despite having some vices. In my first lecturing position I inherited a first year ethics course that was focused on Peter Singer's text Practical Ethics. So the course functioned as an overview of applied ethics, but on the other hand it was a very utilitarian overview. I felt it left the students a bit too specialised for an initial ethics course. They at the end of the course knew that they either really liked or disliked utilitarianism, and could discuss various applied issues, but they didn't know much about the competing theories or perhaps where they should head in the future.

    I'd give two main pragmatic arguments for survey courses:
    1. These are fishing trips, if we want to hook people into philosophy, then using lots of different bait is likely to be good.
    2. To decide how you want to specialise you first need to have a broad view of the discipline.

    I think specialised courses are fine at an upper level, but I'm not that keen on them in first year.

    You did prompt me to remember one thing though, which was that in one of the papers that I tutored for called Community, Society and Rights, for 3 weeks Jeremy Waldron guest lectured. How they ran it was as a debate, Waldron would present his view (on historic injustice) and the usual lecturer would criticise it and then they would argue backwards and forwards. I thought it was fascinating and worked quite well, although it did become clear in the tutorials that sometimes the subtleties of the arguments were being missed by the students.

    Kevin, I like the idea of using WebCT to support this, do you find there is much interaction between the students on WebCT? I find that difficult to foster sometimes.

    Michael, I guess for me Daniel has put his finger on it, survey style courses can sometimes be describing some others doing philosophy rather than doing it yourself.

    You are absolutely right that students have huge issues with scope. They usually think and aim to settle a debate in just one essay. I try and address this in part with a practical example. At the end of the tutorial before my essay writing tut, I ask them to go home and look up using the Philosophers index how many philosophy papers there are on abortion. From memory it is over 2000. In the next tut when talking about scope I ask them to report back their results and then ask them whether they believe the abortion debate to be settled? I then, to avoid disheartening them to much, point out that many excellent philosophy articles advance a debate slightly, rather than settling a question forever.

    I am also a big fan of explicitly identifying the skills I am expecting them to pick up/develop while doing different tasks. I build into my lesson plans particular critical thinking skills that the lecture, tutorial or assignment is intended to foster.

    Mark, I am not sure on evaluating arguments. I tend to explicitly build argumentation theory in at some point if only because without it the essays seem to get worse. But I would spend no more than 15 minutes on it in a three hour session, and as above would integrate it into the material rather than specifically teaching just on argumentation theory.

    I think you are right, it is not that useful as a means of assessing the great dead philosophers (except on some occasions). But I think it is good for them for assessing their own arguments, which is why I tend to teach it.

    John (again :))
    I agree contextualising why the great dead philosopher thought X is very important especially if their claim seems crazy from a modern viewpoint.

  9. I also second John's comments. I sometimes console myself that, no matter how badly I screw up teaching the Intro to Ethics course I often teach, the students are getting to meet Plato, Mill, and Kant on their own terms, in their own words. I suppose harm can be done, but I think it is much more likely that great good can be done, perhaps not immediately, but over time. We read those texts today in no small part simply because they get a grip on thoughtful minds that does not let up easily.

    Also, I think there is more to the enterprise of "getting inside the heads" of the dead philosophers for the sake of as it were antiquarian interests. The vast majority of my students will not be philosophers. All of them, however, will have to live in a world with people with whom they have deep disagreements. If we have any hope of resolving such disagreements except by force, a necessary condition (it seems to me) is coming to appreciate the arguments of those who disagree with us as they are compelling to those who hold them. That means seeing those arguments as they do — seeing how they fit into a comprehensive picture of the world (as John put it). Practically, that experience seems invaluable, and that is something we philosophers really can offer as part of our stock in trade.

    Finally, David, I agree with you that thinking about their own writing as a matter of presenting an argument which (if executed well) can be represented in deductively-valid form, would be a great improvement in their writing. But I haven't yet figured out a way to get those connections to form in their heads. (Of course, I'm not likely to if I don't teach the argument forms in the first place, so I guess I've got myself backed into a corner here!)

  10. David asked:

    >> I like the idea of using WebCT to support this, do you find there is much interaction between the students on WebCT? I find that difficult to foster sometimes.

    No, I do not find the students interact with each other much via WebCT. Like you, when I tried to get this kind of interaction, I found it difficult to do and not worth the effort. Now, I primarily use WebCT as a way of dispersing information to the students:

    ~the up-to-date reading schedule (I give them a rough outline in the syllabus, but find I really like the flexibility of adding a day here or there as needed)

    ~all handouts that I pass out in class, in case students were absent or lost their copies

    ~paper assignments and test review guides

    ~links to anything that we're reading online

  11. Mark you said "Finally, David, I agree with you that thinking about their own writing as a matter of presenting an argument which (if executed well) can be represented in deductively-valid form, would be a great improvement in their writing. But I haven't yet figured out a way to get those connections to form in their heads. (Of course, I'm not likely to if I don't teach the argument forms in the first place, so I guess I've got myself backed into a corner here!)"

    Well I don't want to state my case too strongly... Though I only have my own observations to rely upon the net result of teaching argumentation as a means to improving essays seems to me to be that it is strongly beneficial for already good students occasionally beneficial for the medium students and little help for the bad students... I try and make it explicit that I expect them to do just this when preparing their essays. I am not sure though that it increases the conversion rate.


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