Monday, October 26, 2009

On teaching "contemporary" philosophy

ISW acolyte Kevin Timpe writes me with the following query about teaching a contemporary philosophy course:

I'm scheduled to teach a Contemporary Philosophy course for the first time in the spring. It is part of the history of philosophy sequence for our major. While none of the courses in the sequence are specifically required, students have to take at least 3 of the 4 courses in the series.

My question is this. I'm a typical analytic philosopher. I had a class on Levinas and one on Habermas in grad school, but I haven't taken studied or read Sartre, Heiddeger, Merleau-Ponty, etc., since my undergraduate days. While I know that I could read these folks' primary works, to teach them I'd largely be relying on secondary sources for my own understanding. I'm wondering what you collectively think of me focusing just on the analytic side of contemporary philosophy, rather than trying to do both? After all, there's no way I can do justice to all of the worthy figures anyway. And I think there is a benefit to be had by teaching both what one knows and what one is passionate about. That said, I also worry that I may be doing the students a disservice if I didn't also include continental figures. What do you think? And regardless of how you answered the above question, what texts would you suggest I cover in this course? Book orders are due in two weeks!
Wakers: Can you help Kevin out?

Saturday, October 24, 2009


This is a continuation of issues raised in the last two threads.

I give three critical papers as assignments throughout a semester. They are a major component of the final grade. These papers have a 1000 word maximum limit (no minimum). For the 1st paper, the assignment is to construct an argument using only two premises defending an assigned conclusion, for example, ‘professions should hold their members accountable for their actions’ or ‘the father should not have killed his child.’ As part of the assignment, after the argument is constructed the student is to take the premise that states what we should do and defend it using either a utilitarian of Kantian perspective. They are instructed not to defend the conclusion of their original argument, but only to present a reason why the normative premise might be true. In class we go over numerous examples of how to construct arguments and how to identify the normative premise. Of course, by the time they are asked to utilize a normative perspective these perspectives have been well-covered in class and through other non-graded writing assignments that they get credit/no credit depending on whether or not they do them. I offer to review their introductions/thesis statement and argument before they turn the paper in and to offer suggestions if there are problems so they can make corrections. I even put an example of how to set up the discussion with a sample introduction/thesis and sample argument on BB for them to refer to when writing their introduction/thesis and argument.

One would think that with all the preparation and guidance that the students would do very well on these papers, but historically the 1st papers are an utter disaster. This semester, of the 106 students who received grades, 43 of them received a D or F. There were only 8 A’s. The main reason for the failure is that they did not do what the assignment asked of them. Now this will change and the 2nd and 3rd papers will be vastly improved. But how do we account for this poor performance. (By the by, I had the same results when I gave exams instead of critical papers and handed out review question from which the exam was to be taken 1-2 weeks before the exam.) It is not that they are stupid because the vast majority of them who got D or F will end up getting C or B on the next paper.

I suggest that the reason why students perform so poorly is that they do not know how to learn! They do know how to take tests (that is what they have learned in middle and high school), but that requires a vastly different set of skills. They do not understand that learning is an on-going process and that one has to practice as part of learning. I am beginning to think that we do our students a disservice by giving them a syllabus that covers every contingency and by given them review questions before exams. I have had students ask me for review questions for all the exams including the final exam at the beginning of the semester. They want to know what they will be tested on so they can focus their studying. But is that learning? I think not, but I do not have the answer. I am perplexed and a bit frustrated, but I do keep searching for the best pedagogical approach.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Whatever you do, don't "study"!

I really loved Christopher Storm's response to learning how superficially his mathematics students "study" for exams:

Storm's situation:
All too frequently, a student will arrive at my office, often quite frustrated and worn down, and say they just don't understand the material on the midterm even though they've studied for countless hours. I usually ask how they have "studied" and receive a blank look followed by some comment about reading over notes again and again.

This is when I inwardly cringe, for the student has taken a completely passive role in preparing and has not done any mathematics, wasting valuable preparation time.

His new strategy? Get rid of "studying" in favor of students' planning to learn the material via a set of active learning techniques:

This semester, I decided to be proactive and see if I could fix the problem before my students had spent hours "studying" instead of doing math. Before the midterms in my Calculus II and Ordinary Differential Equations classes, I instituted the Storm Study Challenge.

The challenge is simple: you are not allowed to use the word "study" in the lead up to the exam. Instead, you must phrase your plans in an active, concrete way. Asked what you are planning to do that evening, you might respond "I am going to work ten chain rule problems from the review section of my textbook and then look over some more problems to be sure I can always identify how I should break the functions up." By providing active goals, I hoped that students would be able to structure their time effectively. In addition, with such clear goals, they could better judge where they were in terms of preparedness.

Great technique, if you ask me. And Storm reports some positive results:

The effect was great. I had students coming to my office with specific questions on specific topics. We spent our time much more effectively, and I felt that at last my students were taking control and doing the "right" things to master the content in my courses.

On the midterms, I offered a bonus point for an honest answer to whether a student had accepted the challenge or not. In both courses, over half of the students did accept it or made an effort at it (although some students said yes, but their further comments suggested that they had missed the point of active studying). Out of curiosity, I compared how students who had accepted the challenge measured up to those who had not: there was a ten percent gap in achievement in both classes.

While I cannot claim the Study Challenge really accounted for the difference, I suspect the Challenge provided motivated students with a better understanding of how to "study" for a math exam.
I must admit I rarely think about how students study in philosophy courses, but my own experience echoes Storm's. Students in my philosophy courses report "studying" a lot and not succeeding on exams, etc. But I'm curious to know what "studying" amounts to in their minds and whether this is a good use of their time. My suspicion is that many students approach studying philosophy in the way they might study history or a foreign language, by rote memorization. As a result, just as the typical Storm student "has not done any mathematics" to prepare, so too has my typical student (I'm speculating) "not done any philosophy" to prepare.

I don't give students a lot of counsel about how to study other than to de-emphasize memorization and just sit down and debate the issues and questions with other students. This is clearly closer to "doing" philosophy than memorizing claims, arguments, etc. And since what I evaluate my students on is not memorization (I nearly always allow students to use notes, texts, etc. to do their exams) but comprehension, analysis, reasoning, etc., this is a more prudent technique for them anyway.

But I'd be interested how we tell students to study philosophy and how they actually do it. To the students out there: How do you study philosophy, and what works? Instructors, what do you tell students who ask how to study the material? If you followed Storm's model, what would be your philosophy equivalents of Storm's "work ten chain problems" — the active learning they ought to practice in order to master the material?

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I stole my extension policy from one of my graduate school mentors. My policy is this: on any paper, at any time, the student may ask for and receive a week's extension, no excuses required. The only provisos I have are two: first, the student must ask at least three days in advance. Second, she forfeits her right to a timely return.

I like this policy because it puts the burden of time management on the student. If a student finds herself in the position of asking for an extension repeatedly, this is good evidence for both of us that she is having problems with time management. On the other hand, for the student who manages her time well, it allows her to ask for an extension in cases where it makes sense (e.g. she has two other papers due that day) without making her feel as though she is asking for special treatment or that she is implying that my class has less priority.

It also cuts down on having to hear excuses. Finally, the quality of the papers that are turned in late are rarely better than the ones that are turned in on time - i.e., if there is an advantage to taking the extension I can assure you that it is not one that shows up in the grading. Well, not exactly, I do receive fewer papers that have one page of substance and four pages of filler. So, for those who take the extension, their papers might be better than they otherwise might have been. But those papers are rarely if ever better than the papers represented in the batch turned in on the due date.

The disadvantage is that the student has less time to respond to comments than she would have had, had she turned the paper in when it was due.

Any thoughts? Is this policy fair? Wise? What extension policies do you use?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Unbelievable student answers

Have you ever thought you have heard/read/seen everything? Here's one that I did not expect from a student answering a question on an exam regarding the definition of eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia: an illness similar to diarrhea.

I do not even begin to know how to process this one!!!!

Share your example of unbelievable student answers - this might be fun.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making teaching a reward

Over at the The Philosophy Smoker, there's a bit of discussion (in the context of the job market, of course) about what makes for a desirable position in academic philosophy, especially with regard to teaching load. I agree with the sentiment, expressed several times over at TPS, that graduate school subtly encourages us to value research over teaching. We budding philosophers naturally absorb the values and priorities of those who teach us, and numerous exceptions aside, we were taught by faculty at Research 1 universities who naturally come to value research more than teaching. This isn't a surprise, really. R1 faculty don't teach as much as those at other institutions and don't get tenure or promotion on the basis of their teaching. Hence, as grad students, our conceptions of the professional lives that are desirable are likely to be those of our graduate instructors.

But here's the naked facts: The overwhelming majority of academic philosophers aren't at R1's teaching grad students. For them, teaching is what pays the bills and absorbs the majority of their time. And even those at R1's must teach. Given this, you can't expect to avoid teaching entirely. I therefore subscribe to the following hypothesis: You will not have a satisfying academic career unless you enjoy teaching, and you should not consider an academic career unless you can imagine yourself enjoying teaching.

Easier said than done of course: Most anyone who is even a smidgen serious about teaching knows it's hard work. Time consuming, yes, but also intellectually more challenging than one expects. And of course, it's complicated by the fact that whether or not you succeed at it is only half dependent on your own efforts. There's those pesky students after all. And I often wonder if the aforementioned bias in favor of research over teaching, acquired in grad school, is something that graduate schools need to counteract. In other words, not only do grad schools need to educate people to be good teachers, they also need to educate them to enjoy the tasks that will almost certainly dominate the remainder of their students' professional lives.

But all is not lost even if grad schools fail on this score. For you can learn how to enjoy teaching while on the job. Here are some things that have helped me, but I'd really like to hear from others what they do to make teaching a more rewarding experience.

How to enjoy teaching
Don't be afraid to cede some control. Sometimes we need to let our students have a more prominent role in our classrooms. Let them guide discussion, develop the exam questions, or critique each others' work
Share your research. We talked about this recently, but I think sharing your research humanizes you in the eyes of your students and creates a more authentic and engaged environment for discussion.
Vary your preparations. I've learned a lot of philosophy that I wouldn't have learned otherwise because I've had to teach outside the usual intro's and courses in my specialization. This is a way to ensure that teaching helps you learn.
Find a teaching community. Find some people to talk about teaching with. Or, you know, go looking for a blog or something.
Realize you're a freak. One of the most important things I've learned about teaching is that those of us who are attracted to university-level teaching are freaks. Usually, we were very skilled as students and could probably have learned effectively from most any instructor. But most of our students find the material we teach challenging, even off putting. They need effective teaching. I try to remind myself of this so as to sustain my empathy for students and their learning situation.
Once in a while, start from scratch. It can be highly gratifying to see a course all the way from its origins in a course proposal, through the syllabus, to the end of the first time you teach it.
Watch someone else teach. Everyone in higher ed teaches, yet for the most part, we rarely see anyone else do it.

So Wakers: How do you make teaching more rewarding for yourself?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"No grades, no tests, no papers."

I get word that the revolution to end grading continues. A pair of faculty members at the University of Tulsa are running a grade-free course in political philosophy. (OK, OK, I'm fudging. It's a reading group rather than a for-credit course, but still... And how do you get external funding
for a reading group?)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sandel's online Justice course

I just came across this website (via Everyday Philosophy at the Purple Bike Café) that is gradually releasing videos from what appears to be a comprehensive introductory ethics course by Michael Sandel at Harvard. I've read Sandel, but I had no idea he was such a gifted lecturer.

The aesthetic is a little weird -- the production qualities suggest daytime talk show meets Sunday preaching meets professional comedy. But the intellectual content is excellent and it's great to see a high profile philosophy professor grappling with highly motivated undergrads and using the discussion to help teach a course -- and a very large course at that. Lots of great ideas for how to teach certain issues. It's also a little eerie to get a peek inside someone else's intro classroom and see how he interacts with his students. I highly recommend it.