Thursday, May 29, 2008

To Annotate, or not to Annotate

I’ve developed a new course in the fall that is meant to serve as an alternative ‘path’ for students at my college to fulfill their “values inquiry’ gen-ed requirement (ethics is a requirement for all students). The course is called Asian Ethics and allows students who are interested in Asian Studies (or just Asian-oriented themes) to opt-in to gen-ed courses more suited to their individual interests. My question here isn’t about the course itself, or even Asian Studies, but rather is about which translations I should use for the various Asian classics. And even here it’s not really about which translations read best (though I’d welcome suggestions there too). For me, it real thorny question is “to annotate, or not to annotate.”

Type the rest of your post here.

There are some very good annotated versions of the classics (we’re reading the Analects, Tao Te Ching, Dhammapada, and the Bhagavad Gita ) out there. Straight up let’s face it — these books are written in a difficult way that, say, Plato’s Republic is not. Call it “obliqueness” (to use Francois Jullien’s term) or the “indirect method” (to follow Kierkegaard), it’s all the same — interpreting these texts isn’t just a matter of learning to penetrate dense argumentation — it’s a matter of learning to creatively interact with a series of koan-like poetic aphorisms. Philosophy through poetry (highly ambiguous poetry at that) is enough to drive the Western student totally nuts.

Using annotated texts that provide “running commentary” through the text can, of course, help. Slingerland’s annotated translation of the Analects is a notable example, and perhaps Ames’ new annotated translation of the Tao Te Ching is another. Annotations certain “take the edge off” for the student, providing a life preserver when the student feels most lost in the text. So the question is: should we, as instructors, use them? Take Slingerland — I have his copy of the Analects, I’ve learned quite a bit from it and find it helpful (his notes on the history of commentary on given passages are very useful). But I bought the book years after trying to figure out the content of the Analects on my own, without the help of any outside commentary. So basically, when I came to Slingerland’s text I already had an interpretation of my own to work with, and the confidence to resist specific readings that he advanced for certain passages.

If Slingerland had been my first text of the Analects (it was Lau, actually), this may not have happened. My way of interacting with the text may have been seriously altered — it would have been tempting to read such a difficult book with a “Spark Notes” sitting right there, tempting you to read it and provide “easy answers” (and you know students will reach for those). I would have likely been pulled into the world of the translator, taking his/her interpretation as the gold standard for the text. As a result, the hard (but necessary) work of putting together passages and trying out interpretations may not have happened and I may well have failed to interact with the book in the way it is supposed to be encountered. Perhaps starting with an annotated text would have made the encounter passive, where it is supposed to be active.

Yet, at the same time, I’ll say it again. These texts are hard for students, and I understand that. Sometimes I wonder whether using annotated translations is the right way to go, to allow the student at least a life-preserver when they feel really lost in the text. It’s risky, though, for the reason I outlined above. So what should an instructor do?

Are there any opinions out there? Should students be forced to “tough it out” through non-annotated translations? Or should we use annotated versions to help them along?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Working without deadlines?

Doubtless my previous posts have made clear my general antipathy toward what I think of as the grading beast: the unstoppable need to have students do tasks that we professors then evaluate. The main reasons for said antipathy is that the grading beast is mostly about pronouncing judgments (with all the potential for animosity that carries) rather than the collaboration and inquiry that actually help students learn.

With that in mind, I came across this 'no deadlines' idea recently and have thought about trying it on a very limited basis. I'd be curious to know other people's reactions to this experiment:

In a class with three short papers and a longer writing project, a professor crafted a “no deadlines” policy. He provided some suggested early deadlines, but students could turn in any of the papers at any time, up to the final exam date.

The catch was this:

  • Papers that were turned in by the suggested early dates received extensive commentary and could be rewritten without penalty. Students could essentially work for any grade they wanted if they got on the job and handed things in.
  • Papers that were turned in before the final week of the term were not eligible for rewrites and re-grading, but the professor would comment on them and make suggestions for future work.
  • Papers received during or after the last week of the term received only a grade – no comments, no suggestions, no rewrites. Grades could not be appealed.

The professor found that his grading load during the term was better distributed; he received a few papers at a time that he could easily attend to. He did receive a load of papers at the end of term, but because he was merely grading without commentary, the workload was significantly lower at that time as well.

After a few terms of doing this, he found that about half the students took the rewrite option on at least one paper. Only about 10% of the students completed all their work in time to rewrite, and of course these were students who did not need much reworking anyway. A few “trait,” or habitual, procrastinators turned everything in at the last minute and took their chances.

Student feedback, he discovered, was mostly positive. Students appreciated the flexibility to plan their own work and the implied trust that he placed in them to manage their own schedules and lives. A few students, though, really wanted deadlines.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Are they just lapping it up?

Prof. Anonymous at Pajamas Media has a short piece about students using laptops in class. A couple of quotes to suggest the tone:

I’m in the midst of a brilliant lecture. I’m very well prepared for this class. I have thirty or forty Powerpoint slides that boil down the textbook chapter into handy outlines. I have included outside material that I spent hours finding and scanning. I have even inserted a two minute clip from a news show that someone had uploaded to YouTube. I also genuinely find this topic fascinating, so I’m able to talk passionately about it. I’m pacing and making wild arm movements.But about half the class isn’t staring at the wonder that is me. Their eyes are glued to their computer monitors. There is a background sound of clacked-clack as they transcribe my lecture. At least, that’s what they tell me what they’re doing. I can’t see their monitor screens. It’s more likely that they’re IM-ing their girlfriends and flirting with boys on MySpace and downloading songs. ...

Some universities have no laptop policies, because of the temptation to check Perez Hilton and the latest YouTube sensation while in class.

I let it go. If they miss two weeks of school and show up for the final with a hangover, I say “your funeral, dude.” To me, in-class internet surfing falls under the “your funeral” policy. If students want to bomb my final because they weren’t paying attention to the lecture, then go for it.

I'd be interested to know how people feel about laptop use by students. I guess I hadn't really noticed the ubiquity of laptops until recently, say, the past year or so. (And for reasons I can't figure out, they're more common in my general education courses than my courses for philosophy majors.) I don't have a 'no laptop' policy, and I'm not in general opposed to their use for taking notes, etc.

But please folks: If you are going to sit in class and IM and search YouTube, please don't come to my class. It's an insult to me and to those around you.

How technology has changed academia

Laura at 11D has a short post enumerating ten ways technology has changed academia. I'd be curious to know which of these technological developments has had the greatest impact on our teaching, particularly in the discipline of philosophy. (You may remember we've explored PowerPoint before.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Downhill grading

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Bob Sommer pretty nearly captures my own antipathy to grading:
I enjoy teaching but dislike giving examinations and grading. Is there something wrong with this picture? I became a college teacher to educate students, not to spend time deciding whether an essay answer is worth a B or a B- or whether average exam grades of 87.3 are B+ or A-. For me personally, grades are a secondary and derivative issue at best, an anguished responsibility at worst.

Why is grading often such a drag? For me, I point to three factors.
  1. Grading too often ends an inquiry rather than keeping it alive. Grading is verdictive. More often than not, to give a student a grade is to put the period on the end of a sentence. With the term ending, the students probably won't continue investigating the content I've taught them, or with the paper on X written, they probably won't think much about X again in their lives. And since the inquiry is what excites me, grading usually represents a terminus of something good, rather than its continuation. Yes, there are the exceptional students who take grades as ways of continuing to learn, but they are not the norm in my experience.
  2. Grading invites antagonism rather than collaboration. At its best, teaching and learning is a partnership, instructor and student investigating a subject together. Grading is by necessity not collaborative. (I'm aware that many people have students do self-assessments, which I support, but conscientious instructors still recognize their role as 'the decider' when it comes to grades.) And when students complain about grades, they're not arguing with Aristotle or Mill. They're arguing with me.
  3. The time spent rarely justifies the meager contribution to learning. The previous two points can be summed up as follows: Grading doesn't usually contribute much to student learning. Add to this that many of us teach large numbers of students, and it strikes me that grading is probably a wildly inefficient way to stimulate student learning: big investment, low payoff.

Do others share my sentiments about grading? Anyone have innovative approaches to grading they'd like to share?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Psychology of Resistance?

Fred Feldman notes that, "It sometimes appears that the quality of our thought on a topic is inversely proportional to the intensity of our emotions concerning that topic." This observation is surely relevant to some philosophy courses, since they often involve trying to get people to think about topics and questions that they would rather not think about (this can especially be the case with topics in ethics and philosophy of religion) and get them try to understand and carefully, patiently and responsibly evaluate arguments in favor of conclusions they might think are false, bad, wrong, reprehensible, awful, etc. A "natural" response to all this, sometimes, is resistance, manifested in a variety of different ways.

I am wondering if anyone knows of any psychological research on this kind of phenomenon, which I think relates to cognitive dissonance. I suspect there must be something out there, even something that directly relates to teaching philosophy or other "controversial issues," but I have yet to find it. But a deeper understanding of this phenomena would surely be helpful in addressing it and helping students develop the cognitive skills and attitudes (and virtues?) that philosophy can teach.

Here's a few things from philosophy that I've found relevant here. First, Richard Feldman on "argument stoppers."

Second, there are a number of articles in Teaching Philosophy on a phenomena called "student relativism," starting with this excellent article by Stephen Satris:





Teaching-Philosophy. S 86; 9: 193-205