Monday, June 30, 2008

Help wanted: Undergrad journalistic ethics courses

Over at PEA Soup, Ben Bradley is seeking advice about texts, etc., for an undergraduate journalistic ethics course. I encourage knowledgeable ISW readers to head over there with useful comments or suggestions.

"Team-based learning"

We've struggled here at ISW with the question of group work in the past, so I thought I'd draw everyone's attention to a suite of articles by Larry Michaelsen and Michael Sweet in the NEA Higher Education Advocate. The authors describe a method of group work they call "team-based learning" that strikes me as elegantly simple and potentially useful in the philosophy classroom. There's some jargon-y stuff in the articles, so I'll try to simplify or distill their main points here, and invite discussion about how this could work in more specific contexts.

First, instructors create fixed, heterogeneous groups for the whole course.
Strategically forming teams requires determining what student characteristics will make the course easier or more difficult (for example, previous coursework in the discipline or anxiety about the subject matter) and ensuring that those characteristics are distributed fairly across teams. Further, groups need time to overcome the rocky, early stages of their social history. So, once the teams are formed, keep them together for the entire course.
Second, students are given assigned readings to be completed prior to a given meeting and then given a short multiple-choice test at the beginning of the meeting.

Third, students are then given the same test but this time they complete the same test as a group, seeking to reach a group consensus on the responses. Only after groups have completed the test are students given the correct answers, with instructors providing clarification concerning the questions groups tended to miss. Michaelsen and Sweet suggest allowing teams to appeal in writing any question they get wrong, with instructor decisions on those appeals to come later (by e-mail, e.g.).

Some caveats to this team-based learning method:
  • In all likelihood, all of this needs to be for credit, raising questions about how to evaluate individual students in the context of a group performance
  • One challenge here is how to evaluate these tests quickly during class. Classroom 'clickers' or other technology would probably help here, since you don't want to have students sitting and waiting for the results of their group tests. On the other hand, perhaps they could grade themselves?

But there's clearly a lot to be said for these methods:
  • It makes students accountable for their preparation more to their peers than to the instructor.
  • It will encourage deeper collaboration: A quiet student who encourages a group answer that turns out to be right will gain confidence and be listened to by her peers, whereas a student who's overconfident or pushy will learn to be more circumspect.
  • It also functions as a classroom assessment: After the group tests are discussed, the instructor has a better idea of what material should be addressed in the rest of the class and what material students have already mastered.

Finally, a nice observation: "Effective assignments require groups to produce decisions." I hadn't thought of it, but this makes sense. Many students don't approach group work with much urgency, but the group test ensures that they need to produce a relevant decision.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Happy birthday to ISW!

A heads up to all readers: In Socrates' Wake turns one year old this week!

As many of you doubtless know, starting a blog is easy; maintaining it — much the less developing it into a rich and informative forum — is much harder. So I'd like to thank all of my fellow contributors and all of those who've visited and commented here. I think we did something good !

By any measure, ISW has been a spectacular success. Some numbers to chew over:
  • ISW has had over 2,500 unique visitors since last June.
  • Our visitors have come from 82 countries and 49 of the 50 United States. (What's goin' on, South Dakota philosophers?)
  • There are over 220 readers subscribing to our e-mail or RSS feeds.
  • We've published 153 posts and received about 680 comments overall.
  • We've achieved a Technorati blog rating right around #250,000 (I know that doesn't sound impressive, but it actually is —Technorati ranks at least 112 million blogs, putting ISW in the top 1/4 of 1% of all blogs) and an 'authority' of 27 (that's the number of blogs that link to ISW).
Obviously, I hope future years are as bright as this one.

I leave you with our top ten"greatest hits," our most popular (commented upon) posts from the past. The diversity of topics in these posts is a real tribute to the scope of ISW.
  1. Evaluating teaching credentials
  2. Business and ethics: A disconnect, part one
  3. Does philosophy provide any answers?
  4. Recommending students do what they shouldn't do
  5. The reading brain
  6. Should professors share or advocate their views in the classroom?
  7. Once more into the breach: Getting students to read
  8. To attend or not the attend, that is the question
  9. Managing the classroom
  10. Death to the syllabus?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thesis or Coursework?

One of my former students is moving on next fall to Comprehensive Research University, having been admitted to their Ph.D program in philosophy. He was asking me for advice on a dual track they have at CRU for fulfilling the requirements for getting your M.A. degree.

The first option is extra coursework. Instead of taking 6 courses (18 credits), you have to take 10 (30 credits). Basically, this means almost four semesters of coursework compared to two.

The second option is 6 courses, but in addition an 80 page master's thesis.

I already told the student my own opinion here, but given that I'm not looking to argue or defend them, but rather garner extra perspectives, I'll leave off posting them here (for now). Instead, as I said, I'm curious what other people think about this. If there are opinions that differ from my own, I'll pass them along to my student so that he has a full range of opinions.

Some other information that may or may not be helpful:

1. The student is planning on staying at CRU, so he isn't planning on leaving after his M.A. to go to a different school for his Ph.D. But if he did want to leave -- would it make a difference?

2. The student is leaning towards a desire to teach at a four-year college as opposed to a research university.

Thanks in advance -- if there are other questions that would help you to answer the question, feel free to ask!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In Search Of: Asian Films

In my usual Values Analysis course (core curriculum ethics course), I have students watch two films — one after reading Confucius, and one after reading Mill/Bentham. Students are expected to write a paper that answers a question about the film using the material just studied. So, for instance, we watch Groundhog Day and students are expected to use the Analects to answer the question: Is Phil a junzi at the end of the film? Similarly, students are expected to use consequentialism and answer the question “is (Ramon’s plea for) euthanasia acceptable?” after watching Mar Adentro (an excellent foreign film, by the way). In the fall, I’ll be teaching Asian Ethics, a course meant to fulfill the core requirement of Values Analysis but from an Asian perspective. So I need some Asian films!

As I develop this course, I’m trying to “mirror” the structure of my Values course as much as possible. I’d like to use two films as well (good breaks in a course that tends to be very difficult for non-philosophy students), but I don’t want to use Western films in a course meant to represent the Asian (cultural and ethical) perspective. So I’d really like to find two Asian films to use that fulfills the same function as the two mentioned above. Since the course attempts to present an Asian “representative” for virtue ethics, consequentialism and duty-based ethics, what I need are two Asian films around which a question can be asked that could be answered by two of those three traditions.

Does anyone out there know of any good ones? Basically, any film that deals in a central way with a central component or question that would seem appropriately addressed by any of the three ethical traditions will do. There are no restrictions on the type of film — comedy, drama, science fiction, it doesn’t matter. As long as they can be used for this purpose, and are actually decent films to watch (my students tend to be real critics).

Thanks in advance to anyone who has some suggestions.

By the way, I’m getting old — the post title refers to an old TV series with Leonard Nimoy that I loved as a little kid, and I’ll bet no one knows it but me.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Perfect Philosophy Exam

It's not what you might think, and it is just for fun, but check it out here.

Teaching Multicultural Philosphy of Religion

A reposted "bleg" (blog+beg) from The Prosblogion: A Philosophy of Religion Blog:
Because I am teaching philosophy of religion in the fall and teach at a historically black college, I am looking for writings on what might be called African-American philosophy of religion or African-American perspectives on philosophy of religion (or even African philosophy of religion). I have not had much luck finding things. If anyone knows of anything relevant and can pass on the info or post it, I would appreciate that greatly.

Here are some of the replies so far:

Nicholas Rhodes said:

I wrote a long post that was accidentally deleted. It's simply too much to rewrite. I suggested some of the following texts to get started:

African American Philosophy of Religion

Yancy, African American Philosophy: Seventeen Conversations
West, Prosphesy Deliverance
West, Keeping Faith
West, African American Religious Thought
Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
Cone, God and the Oppressed
Pinn, African American Humanist Principles
Pinn, The African American Religious Experience in America

African Philosophy of Religion

Masolo, African Philosophy in Search of Identity
Hallen, African Philosophy: The Analytic Approach
Griaule, Conversations with Ogotomelli
Brown, African Philosophy

If you want to chat more about this topic leave a note here so that we might get in touch.

Let me know if you would like to chat further.

Patrick Todd said:

The Blackwell Companion to Phil. Religion has an entry, "African religions from a philosophical point of view." Seems like a good place to start.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Cold callin' and dealin' cards

I don't know how most of you feel about 'cold calling' on students (calling on students who don't raise their hands). On the one hand, I want to respect students' desire to learn in their own ways and to engage the material in a fashion that's comfortable to them. I also don't want to students to feel intimidated or put on the spot, or worse yet, avoid coming to class for fear of having to speak. But on the other hand, cold calling creates the expectation that students need to be prepared for class, and in my experience, many reticent students actually have a great deal to contribute and can help their peers learn. Furthermore, students who don't speak in class aren't likely to get the help they need (they won't ask questions seeking clarification, for instance). And if you accept that the essence of philosophy is dialogue and shared inquiry, then isn't it reasonable to expect students to speak in class at least occasionally?

I've generally not cold called in the past, in large part because I didn't see a way to do it without seeming aggressive or making students feel cornered. The costs, I surmised, outweighed the benefits.

But here's a neat idea I came across that might diminish the anxiety associated with cold calling. Bring a pack of ordinary playing cards to class and deal each student one card. At appropriate moments, think of a card at random and ask for input from whoever holds the three of spades, the jack of diamonds, whatever you think of.

I like this because it makes it so that I'm not picking on a student (especially that I'm not picking on a student because the student tends not to speak in class). Since who gets selected is random, I might select a student who almost never speaks, but I might selective Mr. or Ms. Talkative. It also seems kind of fun and whimsical, so that the pressure is deflated a little bit. You could also make it a little 'safer' for those who are less likely to talk by taking their card once they've talked, so that they need not speak more than once.

I'd be interested to know people's reaction to this idea. My hope is that this would create an atmosphere where everyone feels more comfortable speaking and the expectation that speaking in class in normal, regardless of who you are.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Teaching Life and the Lecture

On the Chronicle of Higher Ed's website, there is a brief review by James Lang of a teaching memoir entitled Teaching Life, by Dale Salwak (University of Iowa Press, 2008). There are two points I'd like to raise related to this article.

First, I thought I'd solicit suggested readings from anyone who has read a teaching memoir, as described by Lang. This past semester I read Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, and found it to be inspirational and thought provoking. If anyone has books in this genre that they'd like to suggest, please do so in the comments section.

Second, Salwak raises an interesting point about the lecture, when he says "Conclude with a question toward which the lecture has been building, and then say that you'll answer it next time." I've done this at times in my teaching, though I wonder if it is really all that effective. Students are so inundated with advertising pitches, and I'm not sure that this sort of thing will work in the philosophy classroom. Anyone had success (or not) with this technique?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

What's in a name badge

So here's a technique I'd like to try in the fall, especially in my larger courses. Let me first describe the technique then explain why I'm interested in trying it.

The plan is that on the first day of class, I'll distribute name badges to each student and have them write their names on the badges (I'm thinking of semi-permanent name badges rather than simply stickers). I'd collect the badges at the end of each class. When the next class meets, I then randomly place the badges on desks in the classroom, thus gently suggesting where students should sit. I'd plan to do this before each class meeting.

So why go to this trouble?
  1. I'll learn students' names more quickly. Always a problem for me, I confess!
  2. This moves the students around so as to break up chatty groups. We all know how disruptive a few talkative students can be.
  3. This discourages those with, ahem, not-so-learning-conducive behaviors from congregating in the back of the class. We've been discussing these folks lately: the laptop-using, cellphone-abusing crowd.
  4. It mixes up the group work mix. When I ask students to work in groups, this will ensure that they don't always form the same groups.
I can think of some downsides, but does this seem like a good idea?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Is College Really for Everyone?

This recent piece from The Atlantic is a must-read. Many issues are raised that are central to what we do as educators. Among other things, the piece highlights a difficult question: Is college really for everyone? Are we really doing people a service by making college necessary? It's probably best to just ask people to read it and give their impressions on the major points made. Lots to talk about in this piece.

The money quote:

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Update: There are a lot of people out there talking about ol' Professor X (some not so kindly). Click for Matt Yglesias, Sherman Dorn, Michael Ayers, EdPolicyThoughts, Armed Liberal, Flypaper, Ross Douthat.