Friday, January 30, 2009

Online Intro To Philosophy Course?

I am wondering if any readers know of any fairly self-contained online Introduction to Philosophy courses. Ideally it would have online readings, perhaps some notes, and is the kind of thing that you could base a real "live" course on that would not require that students buy any books. I have Googled around and checked but have not found what I am hoping for. Thanks.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The end of grading (Let the revolution begin?)

This article and discussion over at Inside Higher Ed of course reminds me of my earlier complaints about the failure of grading to stimulate learning. It's intriguing to see how much consensus there is across the academic community about the shortcomings of grading. At the same time, the discussion raises excellent points about the challenges of implementing alternative forms of student evaluation (narratives, for instance). Definitely worth a look!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On Course: Session 7: Assignments and Grading

Lang contends that many teachers would like to teach in an environment that did not require us to evaluate and grade our students. But as he points out, this is an unrealistic expectation. We should understand and accept the fact that evaluating and grading is a complicated process as well as an anxiety producing experience that all of us have to squarely face. This concern has been discussed many times on this blog and many of the ideas in chapter 6 have already been discussed here in detail. I must admit that even after 20+ years of teaching I still spend more time and effort worrying about what evaluation tools to use and how to factor them into a final grade then I do selecting the readings or outlining the course objectives and content. This concern does not stop once the new semester begins, but continues on throughout the term. Have I developed evaluation tools (e.g., papers, tests, class presentations, etc.) that will help students learn the material and have I developed a grading mechanism that fairly sets forth the criteria that will be used to determine the grade?

In the chapter on “Assignments and Grading,” Lang offers practical suggestions on how to develop and implement evaluation tools that will be fair and effective in helping students obtain the objectives that are set forth in the syllabus. He once again emphasizes the importance of constructing a good syllabus that clearly sets forth the learning objectives of the course. He emphasizes the role that assignments we develop will play in our students being successful in obtaining these objectives. He makes the following key points:
1) Just as we should utilize a wide variety to teaching techniques so that students have the best opportunity to learn the material, we should develop various types of assignments to create learning opportunities and evaluate the level of learning that is taking place.
2) If we use exams as one of the evaluation tools we should include writing wherever possible. This will encourage students to think more deeply about what they are learning.
3) Be creative in the type of assignments given. The types of assignments that can be effective are somewhat dependent on the discipline being taught. I have used (not all in one course) short response papers, short critical papers, class presentations, keeping a journal, debates, small group work, research papers, and exams as assignments and evaluation tools.
4) Give adequate and clear instructions regarding what is expected in the work that is assigned. On a personal note, one should never assume that if no one raises their hand when asked if there are any questions that this means that everyone understands what is expected. I often think I have done a good job of explaining what is required only to find out after the 1st paper or essay exam that some students did not understand what was expected. It is important to remember that there are only two reasons why someone fails; 1) they cannot do the work, or 2) they will not do the work. When a student cannot do the work it is often a result of a failure on my part to give adequate and effective instruction and not a lack of effort or desire on the part of the student to be successful. How many people do you know that set out to fail?

The remainder of the chapter deals with issues associated with how to collect assignments, evaluating assignments, assigning numbers and letters, returning assignments, and commenting on the assignment. Most of what he says is pretty straightforward and in line with the four points raised above. He does give some nice examples on how to set up a grading rubric and how to assign percentages to various assignment as well as numbers and corresponding letter grades. The underlying message is to be clear and consistent in everything we say and do. For example, if you say you will not accept late work unless prior arrangements were made or unless there is third party verification that explains and justifies why the work is late then do not accept late work unless these criteria are meet.

Lang spends time discussing grading rubrics so I want to say something about the importance of having a grading rubric for papers and presentations that clearly sets forth the criteria that is going to be used to evaluate the work and the point factor for each element. It is my opinion that if you use a rubric students are more confident that their work is being fairly assessed and that the number/letter grade is accurate as well as fair. As part of my syllabus, I give a definition for each letter grade and assign a point value for each letter (I presently use the 4 point scale). I also include the grading rubric to be used with each type of assignment where a rubric is usable with each element factored regarding the percent that it will affect the grade for that assignment. For example, I use this very simple rubric for critical essays:

1. Introduction 15%
2. Thesis statement 10%
3. Formal argument 25%
4. Defense of premise 40%
5. Mechanics 10%


1. Introduction 4 3 2 1 0

2. Thesis 4 3 2 1 0

3. Formal argument 4 3 2 1 0

4. Defense of premise 4 3 2 1 0

5. Mechanics 4 3 2 1 0

Total points_______________________ Letter Grade_______________________

You can construct your own example and do the math, but the student clearly sees how the grade is determined. The student knows what the numbers (0-4) and corresponding letter grade (A-F) mean because I have defined them in my syllabus. I attach a completed rubric to each paper and return it to my students. I do not put written comments on papers other then to indicate various mechanical issues. (e.g., fragment, sentence structure, awkward phrasing, word choice, etc.) I have found it more beneficial from a learning perspective to meet with students one on one and review their papers if they have any questions regarding their grades. As Lang points out (and I suspect most of us already knew), effectively communicating with students about the quality of their work is crucial for successful learning outcomes. Remember that when a student fails, it is often the result of our teaching not be effective in meeting the objectives we stated in or syllabus.

Lang once again has offered some sage advice as well as practical examples in this chapter. Developing creative assignments and effective evaluation tools can be time consuming, but the payoff is worth the effort. Students do learn more effectively when the assignments are interesting as well as challenging and they think that their work is appreciated and fairly graded. I look forward to hearing how you handle this crucial element in your teaching.

Potentially Interesting CFP

Annual Meeting of the Society for Values in Higher Education
Elmhurst College (Illinois)
July 22-26, 2009

The Academy and the Marketplace

The university is an institution that functions within a marketplace yet often finds itself in tension with the values of the marketplace. This tension has existed for centuries. In the 19th century, John Henry Newman famously grappled with this tension in The Idea of a University, a work that has shaped greatly the conversation about higher education in Europe and the United States. Newman juxtaposed university education to education in professional skills, claiming that faculty should teach universal knowledge not simply vocational skills. This juxtaposition remains at the heart of American colleges and universities, manifesting itself in tensions between the humanities and professional education, between aesthetic values and instrumental rationality, and between the liberal arts education (often represented through the General Education program) and specialized majors.

For 2009, the Society for Values in Higher Education (an interdisciplinary organization committed to the role of higher education in promoting citizenship and the common good) is organizing two afternoon working groups for scholars, educators, and civic and business leaders to present work that both discerns the nature of these tensions in higher education and constructively poses solutions to them. Working groups will meet for 1.5 hours each afternoon for three days and will deal with one of two sets of questions:

· What are the practical consequences of thinking of higher education in market terms? Are there any viable alternatives or will some form of instrumental rationality always determine decision making in higher education? Do consumer culture and its associated values threaten liberal education? If not, why not? If so, can anything be done to preserve liberal education within the predominant consumer culture?
· What are the successes and failures of revolutionary or radical pedagogy in the 20th century? What are the prospects for alternative pedagogies for the future, and how do they challenge traditional ideas about educational experience and its assessment?

Proposals for papers should be sent to Eric Bain-Selbo, Department Head, Philosophy and Religion, Western Kentucky University, 1906 College Heights Blvd., Bowling Green, KY 42101. Inquiries may be made to Proposals should not exceed 1000 words in length. Proposals are due by December 15, 2008 NOW FEBRUARY 1, 2009. In keeping with the mission of the SVHE, interdisciplinary and/or practice-oriented proposals are especially encouraged.

Each participant in a working group will have the $200 registration fee waived for the 2009 Fellows Meeting. In addition, the program committee of the SVHE will select three papers for special recognition at the meeting. To be eligible for an award, completed drafts of the papers must be submitted by June 1, 2009 and authors must attend the SVHE meeting to present their papers. Each winning author will receive $500.

Distribution and Publications
Participants will have the option to post their completed work on the SVHE website. They also will be encouraged to submit their manuscripts for possible publication in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

For more information about the Society, visit us at

Friday, January 9, 2009

Should students expect proofs of God?

Alex Byrne has a very nice article in the Boston Review appraising the main philosophical arguments for God's existence. It's an evenhanded discussion on the whole, but I was struck (pedagogically, that is) by Byrne's conclusion that "the funny thing about arguments for the existence of God is that, if they succeed, they were never needed in the first place." I take Byrne to be suggesting that only those who already have faith in God are likely to be persuaded by such arguments, which amounts to saying that proofs of God are not rationally persuasive since they presuppose the prior acceptance of their conclusions.

This resonates with something in my own teaching experience: I'm sure most of us teach proofs of God's existence, in our introductory classes for instance. But one challenge I've had in teaching this material is that many students (many of them religiously inclined, but not all of them) already share Byrne's conclusion God's existence is unprovable (especiallyto skeptics). Religious belief, on this view, can only be a matter of pure faith. Obviously, if that is the student's view, then the fact that so many of the arguments for God's existence seem shaky comes as no surprise to them at all. As a result, students feel little interest in engaging the proofs, since for them, it can only be an idle intellectual exercise. Fideism is thus a barrier to serious rational engagement with these arguments.

I'm curious to know if others have had the same experience in trying to teach these arguments, and if so, the approaches you've tried. One thing that's worked for me is to draw upon students' awareness of religious pluralism. Even students with strong religious convictions know that others don't share those convictions. I've had some success persuading students that reason has a role to play in discussions of theism if for no other reason that the various religions make competing claims about God that cannot all be true. This seems to get them in the right frame of mind to think about the question of theism more generally.

Anyone have similiar thoughts or experiences?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

'On Course,' Part 6: Teaching with Small Groups

I consistently use small groups in my classes, but share some of the skepticism about their value alluded to by Lang at the beginning of the chapter. I have wondered whether there is much value in such work, and have seen the discomfort it produces for some students. In this chapter, Lang offers an argument in favor of the value of small groups, as well as some very useful practical advice related to this form of collaborative learning.

Lang offers three reasons in support of teaching with small groups. First, it helps prepare our students for their future careers. It is very likely that they will need the type of communication and interaction skills that are potentially developed in small group work. I think this is an important point. Given that the vast majority of our students (or at least my students) will not go to graduate school in philosophy or another discipline, it seems that we are obligated to help prepare them for what they will do after graduation. Second, Lang claims that there is research which shows that collaborative learning is an effective teaching method and fosters student retention better than other instructional methods, especially for those students at the lower end of the grade range. Third, Lang argues that by engaging in small group work, students gain a better understanding of the nature of knowledge. On p. 109, he states that "Collaborative learning...models for students the idea that we construct knowledge together, and thus that they can construct knowledge together in their small groups."

Some philosophers would object to the third point above, if they are anti-constructivists about knowledge (as I am). For someone who holds to a version of the correspondence theory of truth and some sort of fallibilistic foundationalism (as I do), there is value in small groups. Students can come to see that collaborative learning is conducive to discovering truth, or at least getting closer to discovering it. Knowledge is best pursued in community, so to speak.

With respect to the practical advice offered in the chapter, I will highlight a few points that seem particularly relevant:
-Some small group work should be designed that requires students to practice the skills that they will need on other assignments and tests. In the philosophy classroom, this could involve students evaluating an argument in groups, or constructing an argument for or against some position. I often emphasize this to my students, in order to provide motivation for being an active participant. If they believe it will help them on their papers and exams, they are more likely to actually work in their groups.
-The instructor should provide supervision, but it should be minimal in order to prevent the groups from feeling inhibited by the presence of the instructor (pp. 114-115 provide specific advice on the types of situations that may arise and how to deal with them).
-Instructors need to provide some type of feedback, or engage in some sort of processing of the results of group work. I find that this is important, so that students feel that small group work is not mere "busy work".
-It is important to give formal groups, such as a group working together over a period of time on a presentation for the class, time to work together in class. I did this once when I required a group presentation of all of my students in an environmental ethics class, and students were appreciative of the in-class time.

Finally, I'd like to suggest a couple of resources that many may already be familiar with, but which I've found useful. I occasionally set aside 15-20 minutes of class time for case studies in small groups, and have found the book Morality Play, and this section of Ethics Updates to be useful.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Difficulties of Teaching Ancient Philosophy: taking the “Ancient” out of Ancient Philosophy

I am curious if anyone has experimented with alternative and effective methods for teaching Ancient (Greek) Philosophy. I have found it a difficult subject to teach, but over the past few semesters, I have been experimenting with something that has worked surprisingly effectively.

On the first day of my Ancient Greek philosophy class, while most of my students are beginning to realize that the rumors surrounding the course work-load are true, and after I have begun developing some useful terminology, such as “logos” and “nous”, I am typically, but unsurprisingly, met with at least one student in class who simply does not believe that anything I am saying will ever make sense to her. Then, as I begin to develop something of a systematic explanation of Greek Philosophy in the next few days of class, I find that I quickly lose even my best students’ interest. Why does Ancient Greek philosophy feel so…well, ancient? “Because it is!” my students tell me.

My students often remind me that while I see the relevance of these ancient ideas, they barely see the relevance of philosophy itself. So, when I come to class overly eager to tackle Plato’s solution to the Parmenidean/Heraclitean problem of the one and the many, my students quite rightfully want to tackle each other on the way out of the door.

In order to combat this diluvial dysphoria, I have experimented with a method that not only keeps the students engaged, but also prepares them to think and work in philosophy (and its fun for me too). It is something rather intuitively dissonant: I simply take the "ancient" arguments and put them into modern symbolic notation. Since very few of my students have ever studied anything resembling philosophy before, they move from paralysis to curiosity while I translate Parmenides’ argument for the One, or one of Zeno's paradoxes, into modern symbolic notation.

What I have come to realize, at least for my students, is that they are fascinated by philosophy, particularly how philosophy can take something very seemingly simple (like free will or immortality or the existence of God) and make it entirely baffling, only to put it back together again. Ancient arguments are fun…for me, but my students simply do not immediately see the philosophy behind these antique articulations. When I draw up the arguments in symbolic notation, and walk my students through each argument to show how the arguments work, my students not only begin to reinvigorate their fascination with philosophy, but they also, strangely, begin to take ancient philosophy seriously. It is as if they had found something entirely new that few else have noticed.

I find teaching ancient philosophy to be difficult, and my students may think I am nuts for studying it; so I try to win them over by proving them right. After all, they already think I am crazy for being a philosopher. Prove them right and win them over! This idea was confirmed for me after reading Mark Edmudson’s insights in his NYT article on "good teachers", which Michael Cholbi formerly posted on. Here is an excerpt.

“Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest. Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar. The philosophy professor steps in the window the first day of class and asks her students to write down the definition of the word ‘door.’”

I would be very grateful to read your thoughts on such teaching methods and/or alternative ways of teaching Ancient Philosophy.