Saturday, September 27, 2008

Suggestions Needed: Teaching Culture in China

Next semester Christie (my wife) and I will be teaching at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Each of us will be teaching a course called "American Culture." The course content is entirely up to us, and we've been slowly engaged in the task of putting together the material we will eventually be covering (individually, the courses aren't team-taught, but we'll teach the same syllabus). We really need help accumulating suggestions from people regarding what to cover, and how to cover it. Click below the fold and give us a hand! All suggestions welcome!

The folks at Tsinghua would like it if the course covered standard cultural stuff (politics, religion, race, etc) but also a fair amount of "pop" culture as well. In addition, they seem to like the idea of using movies and other artistic media to get out lessons across or our discussions going.

This means that we have a lot of things to consider. First, there's the question of "what to cover?" Second, there's the question of "how to cover what we cover." In the first section, we're looking for subjects to cover. So -- when you think of "American culture" what subjects seem to you to be no-brainers? In the second part, we'd be happy to hear suggestions for (a) movies that could be shown that highlight those themes, (b) artwork, (c) music, (d) literature, etc. In both sections, it's pretty much open. So feel free to add what you can! We need every idea we can get!

Section One: What to Cover?

So far, we're thinking of the following "units" (not in order):

1. The Autonomous Self

2. The American Dream (Economics, Class)

3. Immigrants

4. Gender and Sex

5. Race

6. The (Wild) West

7. The South

8. Religion

9. Politics

10. Culture Wars

11. Education

12. Holidays

13. Consumerism

What else? I have no doubt there are lots of themes we haven't thought of. Please feel free to add more!

Section Two: How to Cover What We Cover

This is totally open ended. We have lots of readings and some films in mind, but I won't list them. Instead I'd rather just leave it open: what would you do? What readings would you use? Films? Literature? Cool and fun class exercises? Really anything here -- the sky is the limit.

Really -- feel free to suggest anything here. For instance, in unit 13 (Consumerism) I'm thinking seriously of showing "Dawn of the Dead," which has an interesting way to present a critique of American consumerism.

We'd appreciate any suggestions you might have. The more the better!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Countdown to 'On Course' reading group ...

A reminder to readers, old and new: The first post in our online reading group for Lang's On Course is scheduled for Wednesday. After being in short supply for a while, most online booksellers appear to have it in stock.

Here are some sources for those still looking for the book:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Guest Gazza: No essay exams?

One of our loyal readers, Gary Bartlett (aka 'Gazza'), wrote me last week about my post on a more retrospective essay exam idea I was tinkering with. Gary confessed to being skeptical about essay exams in general, and his thoughts were provocative enough that I thought we'd post them here (starting below the fold).

GARY: I started to write the following thoughts in response to Michael’s post about exams last week, but I realized they were rather too tangential to his post. So Michael kindly offered me this chance to air them independently. I’d like to hear what others think.

I’m against essay exams in philosophy (and in others disciplines, I think, though I’ll stick to philosophy here). I think exams of any kind have only limited use in philosophy. I use them only in introductory classes, and I ask only short-answer and multiple-choice questions. (Multi-choice questions are an issue on their own, of course. I won’t address that here except to say that I used to think they were inappropriate for philosophy, but I changed my mind. With care and attention put into their construction, and used judiciously, I believe they can be very effective for certain purposes.)

My first kind of reason for thinking that essay exams aren't a good fit for philosophy classes is similar to some of the worries that Michael voiced in his post last week. Even given the revised format he suggests, though, we’re still asking students to produce the essay or essays in a matter of 2-3 hours. And that doesn’t fit well, I think, with the goal we have for our classes. We want to see students engaging with texts and ideas in a thoughtful, reflective way. Asking students to turn out an essay within an hour or two is not very conducive to finding out whether they can be thoughtful or reflective about the material, because such things take time. Essay exams are more conducive to finding out how much of the course material students have memorized. But although memorization of material is perhaps some part of what we want students to get out of our classes, it is only a small part, and it’s only there at all in the service of the more important goal of reflection, thoughtfulness, and so on.

Open-book essay exams would be better, since they would reduce the emphasis that the format places on being able to remember material. But still, in an exam situation it’s not really going to be possible for students to engage in careful and critical reading of and writing about texts.

A second kind of worry I have is that essay exams foster in students a damaging attitude toward academic writing: the idea that writing an essay is something one does relatively quickly. Students already tend to think that papers get written ‘in one fell swoop’, in some sense: that you start at the start, you write for a while, and then you’re done. I don’t suppose that giving essay exams will make students think that we write papers in an hour or two; but it probably does reinforce their idea that papers don’t involve much in the way of reflection, re-writing, and so on.

What do others think about this? Are there benefits to essay exams that I’m missing? (I do, of course, assign essays for my classes – just not in exams.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"The Thinker"

Here is a nice story in the NY Times about the Auburn University philosophy department, especially its chair, Kelly Jolley.

September 21, 2008
The College Issue
The Thinker

With its roots in agricultural education and its remote location in rural Alabama, Auburn University has long been an easy target for ridicule from its archrival, the University of Alabama, whose students refer to Auburn as “the barn” — or as Alabama’s legendary head football coach, Bear Bryant, once put it, to the enduring delight of his fans, “that cow college on the other side of the state.”

Auburn is a land-grant university: it became one in 1872 under a federal program geared toward helping the working class obtain practical college educations. That mission continues largely to this day. A public university with an annual tuition of less than $6,000 for Alabama residents, it accepts roughly 70 percent of those who apply. Among its 20,000 undergraduates, business and engineering are the most popular majors. When students choose liberal-arts majors, they tend to be the more practical ones — communications, criminology, psychology, prelaw.

So it came as something of a surprise when, in the late ’90s, Auburn’s college of liberal arts undertook an internal ranking of its dozen academic departments and philosophy came out on top. The administration figured that there must have been a problem with the criteria it used, and a new formula was drawn up. Once again, philosophy came in first. This time, the administration decided to give up on the rankings altogether. “As I often put it to the dean, you’ve got a philosophy department that you have no right to have,” Kelly Jolley, the chairman of the department, told me recently. “It’s just way, way out of step with what you would expect to find at a place like Auburn.”

Jolley is almost single-handedly responsible for this state of affairs. When he first arrived at Auburn as a young professor 17 years ago, there were just a handful of philosophy majors, and there wasn’t much interest inside the department or the administration in adding more. Today, however, there are about 50 philosophy majors at Auburn. If recent history is any guide, a handful of them will even pursue Ph.D.’s in philosophy at highly competitive graduate schools and go on to become professional philosophers. “I don’t know of a comparable department at a comparable school,” James Conant, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, where two of Jolley’s former students are now studying, told me.

This summer I spent several days with Jolley, attending his classes and talking, often for hours at a time, about philosophy and his approach to teaching. At 42, he is a bear of a man with a prematurely white beard and blue eyes. He walks with an unsteady gait, the product of a pair of bad knees from his days as a high-school football lineman. You might imagine philosophers as inaccessible and withdrawn, endlessly absorbed in esoteric thoughts. Jolley couldn’t be further from this stereotype. He’s cheerful and engaged, an enthusiast about everything from college football, which he follows rabidly, even by Southern standards, to pit bulls (he owns two, Ahab and Sadie).

This is not to say that Jolley isn’t, above all, a philosopher. It’s just that he sees philosophy less as a profession than as a way of looking at, of being in, the world. “I am convinced that philosophy is not just about theory,” he told me. “It’s about a life well lived and thoughts truly thought.”

In May, when I visited Jolley, the Auburn campus had just cleared out for the summer, but he was teaching a summer class, Introduction to Logic. He was also running two unofficial, noncredited study groups, one on an early Greek theologian named Gregory of Nyssa and another on the 20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell, which met in the philosophy department’s cramped, poorly air-conditioned lounge, known as the Lyceum, after Aristotle’s original school of philosophy in Athens.

Jolley has been running discussion groups like these since he first came to Auburn. They are emblematic of his approach to teaching, which, if it’s working properly, quickly migrates out of the classroom and into more informal settings, whether it’s the Lyceum, a coffee shop or the rambling grounds of a Civil War-era mansion where he likes to go for walks with students.

Being a philosopher requires you to engage in the practice of relentless inquiry about everything, so it’s not surprising that Jolley has spent untold hours puzzling over how to best teach the discipline itself. What he has decided is that philosophy can’t be taught — or learned — like other academic subjects. To begin with, it takes longer. “Plato said that you become a philosopher by spending ‘much time’ in sympathy with other philosophers,” he told me. “Much time. I take that very seriously.” We were sitting in his office, which was dark with academic books and journals; a large paperweight reading “Think” sat amid the clutter on his desk. “Plato,” he went on, “talked about it as a process of ‘sparking forth,’ that as you spend more time with other philosophers, you eventually catch the flame. That’s how I think about teaching philosophy.”

Jolley says he thinks of his relationships with his students less as teacher-student than as master-apprentice. His goal, as he sees it, isn’t to teach students about philosophy; it is to show them what it means to think philosophically, to actually be a philosopher. When the approach works, the effect can be significant. Several years ago, a student named Zack Loveless wandered into one of Jolley’s classes and very nearly dropped it after the first day. “I was expecting a survey course, and in walks this big scary guy, using words I’d never heard before, talking about Hume as background for Kant, telling us how hard the class was going to be,” Loveless told me.

Loveless, who grew up in a working-class home in a small town in Alabama, stuck with the course and soon switched his major from psychology to philosophy. He took at least one class with Jolley for each of his remaining semesters at Auburn and did several independent projects with him and is now getting a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Chicago. He describes Jolley as more of a collaborator than a professor; rather than answer his questions, Loveless said, Jolley tried to work through philosophical problems with him.

Jolley is always on the lookout for students with a philosophical bent, and has urged his colleagues to recruit aggressively as well. While I was at Auburn, he introduced me to one of the department’s current top prospects for graduate school, a rising senior named Benjamin Pierce. Jolley told me that Pierce’s gift for reasoning was first identified a couple of years ago in an entry-level logic class. “If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C,” the professor said, introducing the so-called transitive relation.

“Not in rock, paper, scissors,” Pierce volunteered.

Pierce is now majoring in philosophy. “We have high hopes for him,” Jolley told me with the pride of a football coach talking up a strong tackler with great open-field speed. “I would bet that he ends up in a Top 10 graduate program.”

Jolley grew up in Gallipolis, Ohio, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains. He first felt the tug of the philosophical life during his freshman year in high school, when a teacher gave him a copy of Plato’s dialogues. An intellectually unfocused but precocious student, Jolley instantly took to the challenge of wrestling with such a difficult text. “Until then, I’d been clever enough to do whatever I wanted to do, to read with one eye,” he told me. “Then all of a sudden I ran into philosophy, and it was like running into a brick wall.”

But it was the substance of Plato’s meditations — the radical nature of the philosopher’s quest for self-knowledge — that really grabbed hold of Jolley. This was partly a function of his religious upbringing. His parents attended a Church of Christ three times a week. Listening to all those sermons about heaven and hell turned Jolley inward, made him wonder about what kind of person he was. But the church, he felt, hadn’t given him the tools he needed to grapple with that question. Philosophy did. “I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that the old Delphic instruction, know thyself, applied to me,” he said.

At the end of Jolley’s junior year in high school, the College of Wooster offered him a four-year academic scholarship. He skipped his senior year and went straight to college, declaring his intention to major in philosophy on the first day of class. Jolley went on to get his Ph.D. at the University of Rochester and was still finishing his dissertation on Plotinus, the founder of neo-Platonism, when he and his wife packed up their apartment and drove to Auburn in the summer of 1991 with their 15-month-old son.

Jolley’s early efforts to change the culture of the philosophy department at Auburn met with quite a bit of resistance from the university’s administration. Among other things, they rejected his requests for money for more upper-level philosophy classes. Determined to build up Auburn’s philosophy major, Jolley simply taught the courses himself, free of charge.

Many of Jolley’s colleagues were similarly skeptical of what he was trying to do. Several of them urged him to “tone it down,” he recalls, when they noticed the intimidating syllabus for his first class, the history of ancient philosophy, taped to the door of his office. They advised Jolley against wasting his time trying to start a philosophy club at Auburn — the club now has about 30 members — and called his approach to teaching “aristocratic.” In particular, they objected to the fact that he was grading students not on how well they learned philosophical terminology and definitions but on their ability to think philosophically.

Jolley gradually built allies within the department while at the same time looking to bring in like-minded professors. He didn’t expect Auburn to be able to land top candidates, but he was convinced that a lot of talented young philosophers were slipping through the cracks, often because they had the misfortune of specializing in an especially popular area, or because they had been stigmatized for taking too long to finish their degrees. (Jolley’s latest hire, Arata Hamawaki, spent 18 years finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard.) Auburn’s philosophy department is now dominated by graduates of some of the nation’s top philosophy programs.

By any measure, Jolley has accomplished a great deal. But in the service of what, exactly? During my stay at Auburn — and in our e-mail exchanges afterward — Jolley and I returned again and again to that very question. Why does philosophy matter?

Jolley could never seem to come up with a clear, settled explanation, and since clarity is a philosophical virtue, on one level this obviously bothered him. Yet his failure to give a simple answer was, in a way, the best answer he could have given. Philosophy is so much a part of how Jolley thinks, talks and writes that his attempts at an answer were themselves invariably philosophical, which is to say, aimed as much at exploring the assumptions behind the question as at answering it. “One reason it can seem so hard to see how philosophy relates to life is that we have often already decided that philosophy is thinking, not living,” he once wrote me. Explaining why philosophy matters, in other words, requires doing philosophy — the very thing the questioner wants explained.

While I was in Auburn, I attended a few of Jolley’s logic classes. All students at Auburn are required to take at least one entry-level philosophy course like logic. Traditionally, these “core” classes are designed to ease students into a particular subject. This is not Jolley’s approach. As he argues, core curriculums should aspire to do more than merely give students a taste of something. “Look, if the core is really going to matter for a student’s education, they need genuine exposure to that discipline,” he told me a few minutes before class. “You’re not giving them ‘the core’ if what you’re giving them is some sugarcoated simulacrum of philosophy that you’ve decided they can swallow.”

Jolley’s classes are famously demanding. Instead of assigning relatively accessible books on philosophers, he loads up his syllabuses with primary texts and asks his students to record in a notebook their thoughts on what they’re reading. “For the student merely interested in getting a degree, Kelly has nothing to offer,” says a colleague, Michael Watkins. “But for those who are interested in more, Kelly provides an example of what it means to be educated, to take one’s education seriously.”

Logic met at 9:45 a.m. in the Haley Center, a dreary-looking, 10-story building that would have been right at home in Communist East Berlin. Jolley had assigned a short essay by Lewis Carroll, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” an imagined dialogue in which the Tortoise flummoxes Achilles by repeatedly refusing to accept what at first appears to be an easily justified deductive argument. Looking a lot like a forest ranger in his army green shirt, khaki pants and heavy brown boots, Jolley recapped the essay and ran through several opposing interpretations of it. At every turn, he was greeted with an uncomfortable silence.

“Not a very talkative group,” Jolley observed after the procession of flip-flops, orange Auburn T-shirts and backward baseball caps filed out of the room. “I can usually tell if students are getting it from the looks on their faces, but some of these kids were positively Sphinx-like.”

For all of the success Jolley has had creating a thriving philosophy program at Auburn, the core classes still represent the bulk of the teaching load and the biggest challenge to the department’s professors. “There’s a battle at the core level here to convince students that there’s even a possibility that philosophy might have something interesting to offer them,” one Auburn philosophy professor, Guy Rohrbaugh, told me.

It seems fair to wonder whether Jolley’s approach is the best way to win that battle. It’s been years since he has taught, say, a student on a football scholarship, and the size of his classes tends to shrink substantially after the first meeting. Jolley’s goal, as he describes it, is to produce students who are “capable of genuine creative philosophical thought.” That’s a high bar to set for students in an entry-level logic class.

After class, Jolley and I walked across Auburn’s mostly deserted campus and into town for lunch. It was oppressively hot and humid; Jolley wore a fraying straw boater to keep the sun off his face. Over pizza and iced tea, I asked him if he ever wondered whether his style of teaching might be inappropriate for a large state school like Auburn — if the cost of his approach is that he’s teaching to the few rather than the many. “My view is that you really fall into a trap when you start allowing what you believe about your students to dictate how you teach your discipline,” he answered. “Too often these days we end up setting up our courses in light of what we believe about our students and we end up not teaching them. At best, we end up housebreaking them.”

In a sense, what Jolley is engaged in at Auburn is nothing less than a defense of the liberal-arts education. As he points out, the opening stanza of Auburn University’s creed — “I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count only on what I earn” — conveys a certain kind of hostility to the world of ideas in which philosophy and for that matter the rest of the humanities plainly reside. “The creed is a fine document in many ways,” he told me, “but it reinforces a certain picture of what you’re here for, and it can be very hard to break the grip of that with students.”

In Jolley’s ideal world, every student would catch the philosophy flame, but he knows this will never happen. He says that philosophy requires a certain rare and innate ability — the ability to step outside yourself and observe your own mind in the act of thinking. In this respect, Jolley recognizes that his detractors have a point when they criticize his approach to teaching. “It’s aristocratic in the sense that any selection based on talent is aristocratic,” he told me. “I know it offends everyone’s sense of democracy, this idea that everyone’s equal, but we all know that’s just not true.”

Perhaps the dispute between Jolley and his critics boils down to how you define great teachers. You typically think about them as being devoted, above all, to their students. Jolley says his first priority is to philosophy itself. “I care about the discipline of philosophy more than the academic fate of any individual student — and I think I should,” he said. “Otherwise I’m just a baby sitter who occasionally breaks into syllogism.”

Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Challenge: Hamden v. Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power.“

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tolerance and Intellectual Diversity

As teachers in the philosophy classroom, we raise controversial issues and encourage discussions of those issues. Many outside of academia are suspicious of those of us who teach at colleges and universities in the United States because they think we are using our influence or platform as professors in unethical ways to push some political agenda.

But is this suspicion warranted? From my own experiences as a student, usually not. I do recall a couple of professors from my undergraduate days who used the classroom as a soapbox. However, most were generally fair and tolerant enough of those who disagreed with them. Last month, an article at discussed this issue in the context of the charges of David Horowitz and others, who seem to want affirmative action for intellectual perspectives. However, according to the study cited by the article, students believe that other students are more of a problem than professors. Less than half of those surveyed said that they believed other students were tolerant of the political views of all students. By contrast,
Asked about what professors do in the classroom, only 13 percent of students said that they believed professors had presented their own political views in an inappropriate way. A larger percentage — 23 percent — said they had felt that they had to agree with a professor to get a good grade — although the majority of those students felt this had only happened once in their time in college. Even with these findings, there is evidence that suggests classroom expression isn’t necessarily squelched. For example, of those who believed that professors had inappropriately presented their views, 62 percent said that they felt free to argue with the professor. And of those who said they had felt they needed to agree with a professor to get a good grade, only 42 percent said it was because of something the professor said.

Ideally, if we can foster tolerance by modeling it in the classroom, perhaps over time it will become more prevalent in many of our students both during and after college. My question, then is this: What have you done or seen done in the classroom that seemed effective at fostering tolerance in the classroom?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fortnight's reminder: 'On Course' reading group

Just a reminder: We're about two weeks away from the first ever ISW reading group, on James Lang's book On Course. Hope everyone's gearing up! Here's our schedule of chapters, with the planned post date and responsible ISW contributor listed after:

  • Before The Beginning: The Syllabus [October 1, Michael Cholbi]
  • Week 1: First Days of Class [October 15, Adam Potthast]
  • Week 2: Teaching with Technology [October 29]
  • Week 3: In the Classroom: Lectures [November 12, Michael Cholbi]
  • Week 4: In the Classroom: Discussions [November 24, Nathan Nobis]
  • Week 5: In the Classroom: Teaching with Small Groups [January 7, Mike Austin]
  • Week 6: Assignments and Grading [January 21, John Alexander]
  • Week 7: Students as Learners [February 4, Chris Panza]
  • Week 8: Students as People [February 18, John Alexander]
  • Week 9: Academic Honesty [March 4, David Hunter]
  • Week 10: Finding a Balance Outside the Classroom [March 18, David Hunter]
  • Week 11: Re-Energizing the Classroom [April 1, John Alexander]
  • Week 12: Common Problems [April 15, Adam Potthast]
  • Week 13: Student Ratings and Evaluations [April 29, Michael Cholbi]
  • Week 14: Last Days of Class [May 13, Nathan Nobis]
  • Week 15: Teachers as People [May 27, Mike Austin]
If you've not been able to track the book down and would like to participate, here's a link to the first chapter on syllabus building. Thanks in advance to all those who participate!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Please. Do go on!

One mark of whether a person has learned much about a set of philosophical questions is their ability to continue their inquiry into those questions. Those of us who teach general education courses are likely to be especially concerned with instilling this ability and to make this an important objective of our teaching. After all, most students will only study philosophy once in their lives. But (we hope) they will continue to have chances to tackle philosophical questions later in life, and we'd like to think that they'll be able to do this with at least some success well after their formal encounters with philosophy are over.

I have lots of thoughts about how instill the ability to continue philosophical inquiry in students. But here I'll describe an idea I have for a final exam in a practical ethics course, intended to evaluate if students are ready to 'go on' with further inquiry.

Most academic exams are largely retrospective with respect to content, testing whether you've learned enough about what you studied. I'm trying to fashion a final exam that's at least to some degree prospective. Here's what I've settled on for now:

I'm teaching a practical ethics course (the usual suspects: abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc.). Prior to the final exam, I announce that students will only have to answer questions about one of the topics we've studied in the class and that students will choose the topic they address on the final exam. I then administer a final exam along the following lines: The final will take place on a Wednesday, but one day prior, I will distribute via our CMS one article on each of the course topics. I intend for the articles to be a little more challenging than the syllabus readings, perhaps a little harder to categorize than the syllabus readings. Students are allowed to print out one of these articles and bring it to the exam, at which time they will receive one or more essay questions on that topic, with specific requirements concerning how they are to integrate the new article, etc. into their responses.

There are several things I like about this idea: First, it gives students a choice as to which topics they are evaluated on. On the whole, I tend to think that comprehensiveness is overrated, at least at the introductory level in philosophy. I'd rather see them think carefully about a problem they do care about instead of thinking superficially about several problems they don't care about. Second, it lets students engage in a bit of intentional learning: They'll have to determine which topic(s) to study most carefully and which article-topic combination based on their interests and understanding. This should motivate some thought on their part about what they have mastered and what they haven't. But lastly, it'll tell me whether students can actually tackle new philosophical ideas and arguments. They won't be entirely new, obviously, since they are linked to the course topics, and it would be unfair, I think, for it to be otherwise.

In any event, I'd appreciate any feedback on this exam format, whether you've tried such a format, what the likely student reaction will be, and so on.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One thing at a time

We already know that multitasking — trying to listen to music, reply to e-mail, and read Wittgenstein's Tractatus all at once — is dangerous and unproductive. But it appears likely that it's a bad academic habit too. This isn't surprising really: Fully comprehending anything complex, be it philosophy, biology, or Shakespeare, takes time and attention, a fact that seems to be lost on younger people, who are very confident that their multitasking helps them learn!

The question then: How should we philosophy teachers respond to our students' multitasking habits?

Obviously, there's a "classroom management" issue here. Not being one for lots of rules and punishments, I'm thinking of addressing this on the first day of class and on my syllabus, with a statement along these lines:
The current vogue for 'multitasking' notwithstanding, I believe that I would not be upholding my part of the educational partnership if I attempted to check my e-mail, call home, or text my friends while overseeing our class meetings. I hope that you will do your part to uphold this partnership as well.
But the issues here extend beyond the classroom proper. They are larger cultural issues, intersecting with concerns about literacy, attentiveness, and delayed gratification. Like it or not, these are crucial "academic" values or habits. Any ideas about how to help instill them?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What's Philosophy For, Anywho?

One of my students in my Being and Knowledge seminar (basic Metaphysics and Epistemology course) posted a thread on the course forum (I use electronic forums for many classes to supplement in class discussion). I thought the questions he raised in the thread were valid ones, and also very typical ones that both philosophy and non-philosophy students ask frequently about our courses. Although many issues come up, the overriding question is straightforward: "what's philosophy for, anyway?" or "when is philosophy useful?" I am reprinting the student's post below the fold (with his permission). I'd be very interested (he would too) to hear replies from any of the students and teachers who read this blog.

I want to preface this with the statement that I'm really excited to take this class and engage in all sorts of great discussion.

That said, I'm not such a big fan of analytic philosophy. Without being too stereotypical, I think analytic philosophers don't deal in the real world. What I mean by this is that your stereotypical analytic philosopher could sit in a room all day and think about [insert analytic philosophy topic here], and when they settle down to sleep, it doesn't seem that they've really interacted with the world at all. Sure, this philosopher may have figured out whether or not we exist, but how much does that really affect your average world citizen?

In my opinion, philosophy is useless when it doesn't relate to everyday experience. I guess one way of putting it would be that if a business major "bro" couldn't understand something I'm learning about, then it seems a little too far removed to be of much use (or even application) in today's world. In real life, I like to talk to people, to learn about their experiences and to share with them my own experiences. Obviously, as a philosophy major I have to play with language for people to be able to understand what I'm talking about.

So how can I do this with epistemology and metaphysics? I'd like to hear everyone's opinions (Dr. Panza included) about how epistemology and metaphysics can be reconciled with the world today. On the premise that philosophy ought to be related to/ active in the real world, what justifications or drawbacks can anyone find? Maybe we can update this every time we come to a new reading?

Type the rest of your post here.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Philosophy via Web-based courses: A NetGener speaks

We've talked a fair bit here at ISW about teaching with technology and teaching the technology-infatuated Millennial generation. Carie Windham's piece about her own learning experiences as a Net Generation student (air warning: it's a PDF) is a pleasant burst of fresh air: A self-aware student thinking about the challenges of teaching and learning in a technological environment. At one point, Windham describes her experience with a Web-based Introduction to Philosophy course:

Philosophy was my nemesis. For five semesters, I cleverly evaded its call—pointedly skipping over the requirement in the dim hope that a registration glitch might fill the spot. But as graduation grew closer, the empty spot hadn’t budged. With a feeling of dread, I decided to budge instead.

As I dutifully joined the roll for Philosophy 205, my only consolation was that Introduction to Philosophy was finally being offered as a Web-based course. I had never tried an entirely “virtual” class before, thinking such endeavors were better suited to distance education students or those with full-time jobs. But philosophy? That could be an exception.

The class was set up with trust in the student. Reading assignments from the text were listed on the course Web site. For grading, we were asked to periodically turn in homework questions from the text and to take occasional quizzes and exams. Every exam was open notes and open book, with a three-hour window of time. The homework was loosely graded.

For the first exam, I read every chapter and highlighted the notes from the study guide. I finished the test in less than thirty minutes. For the second, with the full weight of a sixteen-hour semester upon me, I did the reading but skipped the highlighting. I finished in an hour. For the next exam, with two test experiences under my fingertips, I skipped the reading altogether and simply searched for the answers in the text. The test took nearly two hours. Each time, the grade was the same. By the end of the semester, I couldn’t tell the theory of relativity from utilitarianism. But speed-reading? I was a master.

The professor had assumed, while crafting his course, that putting the content on the Web would give his students more flexibility to shape their own learning experience. We could read at our own pace. We could respond to message threads at our leisure. We could even take tests with the full support of our text and our notes. What he hadn’t expected, perhaps, is that the advent of the Internet and the opportunity of the online classroom had not diminished the need for traditional educational principles such as discipline, engagement, and interaction. Instead, my online course had turned “learning” into exactly what I despised: a one-dimensional exercise in regurgitating facts.

A counterexample was a Web-based course in Latin American history. As in my philosophy course, we were asked to read from an assigned text. But instead of taking quizzes and tests, we were asked to periodically turn in essays and papers. The main difference was that each week we were required to participate in online discussions relevant to our text or to readings found on the Web. Some weeks, we were required to simply post our responses. Some weeks, we were to counter the arguments made by others. Some weeks, we were to evaluate and critique our classmates’ arguments. Though completing the exercises seemed effortless at the time, they held us accountable for the reading and engaged us in the material.

As technology improves and the “virtual classroom” becomes more popular, there is a tendency on the part of institutions and students to turn to online courses. Web-based classes save institutional resources and can accommodate more students. They are more flexible for students who have busy schedules or who commute. But as these examples demonstrate, the online class must be crafted with the same care and expectations as are used in the traditional class.

Students crave interaction with others in the class. The professor must find a way for the students to interact. Discussion forums are a natural solution and can be facilitated by posing questions for students’ response and discussion. The professor must be an active participant and facilitator, however, or students will diminish the importance of the exercises. Another solution is virtual group work. Asking students to collaborate on projects or assignments forces them to meet and exchange ideas with their peers and fulfills their need for group interaction without actually meeting in a classroom.

It’s a common misconception that students take online courses to avoid the rigor and workload of a traditional class. When students choose an online classroom, they still want to be challenged. They still want exploration. And they still want creativity. Net Gen learners are not likely to excel in an environment in which we are simply handed material and expected to recite it back. Most of us log on to online courses because we despise this traditional format of lecture and regurgitate. We feel we learn better in an environment in which we can teach ourselves. The online professor should therefore find ways to offer students a method of exploration and research within the curriculum. ... The simple rule is to engage the students, to move them beyond being mere participants in the class to becoming active learners and discoverers.
I admire how Windham sees that the advantages of Web-based teaching have to balanced with traditional teaching values and techniques: flexibility and discipline, challenge and convenience, rigor and creativity, trust and engagement. I'd be interested to hear reactions from those who've done Web-based teaching — or who are considering moving their teaching in that direction.