Thursday, December 25, 2008

Getting Students Involved in Research

Happy holidays!

Some schools are interested in getting students involved in research, e.g., working with professors and getting involved in their projects (if not much more independent research). This would be easier in some fields (e.g., some sciences), but this seems like it would be more challenging with philosophy for a variety of reasons. I wonder if anyone has had much success in getting students involved in their research and, if so, what they did and how they did it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Teaching philosophy: The discipline or the problems?

Bruce Fleming is worried that teaching literature is now less about literature and the worlds literature represents than about teaching the discipline of literary studies. Is there a parallel problem for philosophy — that we sometimes teach the discipline instead of teaching the problems that inspired the discipline in the first place?

Fleming on literature's pedagogical woes:
We're not teaching literature, we're teaching the professional study of literature: What we do is its own subject. Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarified a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays isn't, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes, and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives. It's, well, academic, about syllabi and hiring decisions, how works relate to each other, and how the author is oppressing whomever through the work. The literary critic Gerald Graff famously told us to "teach the conflicts": We and our squabbles are what it's all about. That's how we made a discipline, after all.

Nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who've just touched down on Earth. We professional storekeepers explain the vegetable section, the dairy section, the meat section, note similarities and differences among our wares, variations of texture and color, the fact that there's no milk where the applesauce is, and perhaps the fact (which we bemoan) that there are no papayas. We're teaching the store, not what's in it. We don't presuppose visitors know anything about where the things on display came from; if they do, it's because we told them — that can be our work too, speaking of the world before it ended up in the grocery store. But we're the ones who decide whether or not to include that world outside, and how much. We just want to rack up sales. All this fixation by the storekeepers on the store misses the point: People grow food in order to eat it. Similarly, books are meant to be read. Reading is the point of a book, not integrating it into a discipline.

Thus, Fleming worries that the academic study of literature has distanced itself from the human concerns that lead people to write and read, with the result that students may learn a great deal about how to study literature but miss out on the insights into the human condition that literature may offer.

I'm in no position to say whether Fleming's views on how literature is taught are accurate. But I'm curious whether the critique applies at all to teaching philosophy in academic contexts. I expect that there is such a problem in graduate philosophical education, but I'm thinking in particular of the introductory level philosophy course, where oftentimes the course objectives are both 'disciplinary' (help students learn to reason, read critically, etc.) and 'humanistic' (help students understand their own ethical or philosophical views, appreciate timeless intellectual problems). Can these objectives be pursued simultaneously? The very best philosophy instructors succeed on both scores, but my own experience is that this is quite a challenge. To the extent students come to such courses with any expectations at all, those expectations are largely humanistic (they want to know what to think about God's existence, immortality, human nature, ethics, etc.) and students find the emphasis on disciplinary objectives off putting. Logic and close analytical reading are hard, after all, and suggest that answers to these humanistic queries are more elusive than students might have expected. Being turned off by philosophy's being a discipline is of course a sign of intellectual immaturity but understandable all the same. Students reasonably think that what we have to offer them is not a set of techniques but answers (or at least sketches of answers).

Conversely, students who gravitate to the disciplinary dimensions of philosophy are often uninterested in its problems qua human problems. I've taught a number of students who I would describe as good philosophy students: quick, with agile minds. But many of these students seem to have a relationship to the problems of philosophy that's actually very arid. There seems to be little at stake in their minds with respect to such problems.

Is this a challenge in the philosophy classroom? And if so, how do we meet it?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Back on course with 'On course' January 7

We're giving our On Course online reading group a holiday break, but we'll be back January 7, with Mike Austin helping us with the chapter on teaching with small groups. See you ... here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Brighouse on grade inflation

At Crooked Timber, the well-known philosopher of education Harry Brighouse has a wide-ranging post on grade inflation and the functions of grading -- well worth checking out. Brighouse reaches several intriguing conclusions about grading and grade inflation:

  1. Grades have increased over time -- but so too has the quality of student performance. Brighouse notes that the ethnic and gender integration of higher education, along with a decline in legacy admissions, has increased the quality of the pool of students from which colleges and universities draw. An interesting point: I don't know of too many students these days who are content with the "Gentleman's C". In fact, at my institution, lots of those Gentleman's C gets you put on academic probation!
  2. Grading's function is at best imperfectly calibrated to recognize merit. A tidbit:
    it is not really true that high achievers are, by virtue of that, meritorious. To the extent that achievement is the product of natural talent, or fortuitious environment, which in most cases is considerable, it is not meritorious, but a matter of brute luck on the part of the achiever. I agree with political theorist Michael Sandel that one of the deep flaws of our social environment is that it sends lots of signals to high achievers that they are somehow meritorious in virtue of their achievement and need not feel humble or an obligation to turn their talents to the service of others less fortunate. Universities already participate in that culture, there is no need for the grading system to further mislead. Anyway, high achievement in a particular class is not always the result of effort in that class. The best predictor of achievement in a class is prior achievement in the subject that class teaches; some students routinely achieve at a lower level than other students because they are more intellectually ambitious, and thus (in my opinion) more academically meritorious.
  3. The legitimate functions of grading are to inform students and their future employers or their future institutions of their academic quality and to motivate improved student performance.

There's perhaps much to contest in Brighouse's views, but I admire its willingness to take on some of the bromides one often hears in discussions of academic grading.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Teaching Feminist and Race Theory: problematic assumptions and positive transformations

I teach feminist and race theory to five students, four of whom are white, none of whom are female. Yet, for all their lack of diversity, they understand the philosophical relevance of gender and race. Critical theory for them, however, was remarkably new when they began. While they began their studies with me in order to broaden their perspective in social and political philosophy, none of them had ever reflected on some of the contemporary social structures and implicit patterns of thought that are implicitly sexist and/or racist. None of the students were sexist or racist when they entered the course, and they would have been quite defensive about being labeled as such. Yet, on campus, and in other classes, this was the challenge they faced.

Two of my students were called out by a group of women in a class as being sexist for trying to discuss gender! My question then became, how does a group of well-meaning white guys sincerely trying to understand gender and race theory get called sexist (or racist)? Which then led me to the question, how does a group of well-meaning white, male students of critical theory not see the structural patterns of oppression that are implicitly sexist and/or racist? That is when I finally realized the difficulty of teaching feminist or race theory. There is a quasi-principle of inverse proportions at work affecting our students’ investigation of the structural patterns of oppression (and this seems true regardless of their race, or gender): the more perceptive the student is to the marginalization and exploitation of one group, the more likely he or she neglects to see the structural patterns of exploitation and marginalization at work in their own thinking.

Let me proffer an example. In the context of explaining Iris Marion Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression”, one of my students attempted to draw out the implications of Young’s work by exploring the exploitation of migrant workers by large corporations. During his explanation, someone made a quip regarding a previous night’s episode of a new television show called “My Big Redneck Wedding”, where couples from the rural United States get married in non-traditional ways on television, such as in the woods wearing hunting camouflage. The students burst into laughter at the ridiculousness of the couples on the show. I was shocked. Could these students not see that the couples on the show were themselves being exploited for the wealth of the television network and the entertainment of a few? In fact, no! The obvious had not occurred to the students, that their own thinking had been unintentionally inculcated by patterns of thought that, in fact, had given rise to both the marginalization and exploitation of some unfamiliar social group.

Our students come to us with a wide array of hidden assumptions. They also find philosophy liberating as they begin to see patterns and structures of thought in a new way. Watching their fledgling philosophical experience grow into a real passion for philosophy is probably the best part of teaching, but it also has its down-side. Like any passion, the more intense it grows, the more myopic it makes us; and, hence, the less likely it is that our most passionate students will reflect upon their own hidden assumptions. When teaching critical theory, it seems important to draw the students’ attention back to their own patterns of social thinking, and not let them just critique the obvious patterns of social injustice. We should not only reveal the implicit patterns of thought and social structures on a macro level, but also guide each student individually to help her see her own hidden layers of oppression that might (and probably do) exist. (For an interesting and fun look at our students’ hidden assumptions, take a look at Beloit College’s 2012 Mind Set list. How many implicit patterns of social structure can you find hidden within?)

Exposing the hidden patterns of oppression and marginalization within ourselves and our students is uncomfortable, and I have not yet discovered an easy, simple way of doing this. Any suggestions here would be greatly welcomed! One method I have used, however, is to find a “safe” social group that I can generally assume all (or most) students will find humorous and “different”, such as “Renaissance Fair Devotees”, “GenCon Goers” or (like myself) “Buffy the vampire Slayer fans”. Then I try to explore the ways in which the students’ humor is systematically structured. So far, I have found that the students begin to see that their humor depends upon certain hidden structures of thought underlying the concepts they have about that particular social group. They, then, begin to recognize how patterns of oppression might be hidden and unintentional, yet structural and systematic, just like the patterns necessary for their humor. From here, I have been able to introduce them to the main topics of critical theory regarding structurally derived social injustices. I have found through this process that while my well-meaning, white, male students are not sexist, they have begun to understand the complaint of those feminists who complained that they are.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Steppin' up to the mic, part 7

ISW is pleased to welcome its newest contributor: Jason Nicholson. Jason specializes in social and political philosophy, but his pedagogical duties also include history of philosophy, logic, and ethics. And perhaps most intriguingly: He teaches philosophy to (!) high schoolers at a private boarding school. I'm sure we're all interested to hear about that experience.

Welcome aboard Jason!