It has been quite some time since my last post so I would like to share with you the changes I have made to the formatting of the grading of my intro to ethics course. I have done away with exams completely and am going to rely on the following: 1) three short critical papers with a 1000 word maximum limit where students will construct an argument and present a defense of one of the normative premises. Each paper will be worth 20% of the final grade. 2) A 10-15 minute presentation on a moral issue of the student’s choosing. They can work with one other student on this project, which will be worth 20% of the final grade. 3) Weekly response papers to the readings. These papers will not be graded but will serve as the focus point for class discussion. Students will discuss their papers in class. The grade for this element will be determined by the percentage of papers turned in and will be worth 10% of the final grade. The total of these three elements is only 90% so in order for a student to have the opportunity to earn an A they must provide a minimum of 8 hours of community service and write a 1000-1200 word essay describing their experience while relating it to a normative perspective discussed in the course.
There are many factors that have led me to make these changes. The number of students who simply occupy space in the classroom and do not get actively engaged with the material being discussed frustrates me. Having them do the response papers, a presentation, and community service are ways that I can have everyone actively engage in a topic. Simply relying on exams (essay exams to be sure) as the major factor in determining grades seems to result in students simply memorizing (often rather poorly) the general features of a theory or principle without taking the time to integrate it into their own framework to see whether or not the idea makes sense to them. Furthermore there is a general reluctance on many students part to follow the argument where it leads. By this I mean that often students will accept the premises of an argument but outright reject the conclusion even if it follows from the premises the accept. This is why I am utilizing the critical papers. It is often difficult for students to see exactly what the argument is that is being made, so by having them construct (or reconstruct) an argument and presenting reason in support of one of the normative premises I am hopeful that they will develop this critical analytical skill. They may still act as if the conclusion does not matter, but at least they will understand that it is unreasonable to do so. Lastly, many people think that the bad things that happen to a person are necessarily that person’s fault. You might be surprised by how often I hear that a homeless person is homeless because they choose to be. By having them engage in community service my hope is that they will start to develop a narrative approach to understanding ethics and begin to see the ethical issues in the context of real people facing real problems that may, or may not, be the outcome of events/actions for which they are responsible. I also hope that this experience will make ethics more real for them and that they can see that normative principles have good practical import on deciding what to do. After all, one of the important moral questions is, what type of life is worth living?
Anyhow, I am excited to see if this all works. I would enjoy hearing from you on what your plans are for teaching intro courses as I find them to be the most challenging to teach.