Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Teaching counts for nothing"

Brian Leiter reports the following from a correspondent of his:
“Teaching counts for nothing.”  It was a shock to me how dishonest research schools are about teaching: on the brochures, to parents, in official pronouncements the line is that we care about teaching deeply.  But in private all my colleagues, even at the official orientation, have said teaching counts for virtually nothing for tenure purposes, for merit raises, etc.  (Exception: if your student evaluations are truly awful that might hurt a bit.)  In other words, there is hardly any institutional concern for teaching, i.e. concern that manifests itself in aligning incentive structures with good teaching.  It’s not 50-50 research/teaching, it’s 100-0 or maybe 90-10.  Experiment: try explaining to your non-academic friends, neighbors, legislators that our top universities basically ignore teaching in their evaluation of teachers.  I often wonder whether our actual policies could survive publicity.

The comments that follow contest the correspondent's claim, but also manifest some ambiguity about how exactly 'teaching counts' for tenure and promotion purposes about various institutions.

Just for the sake of data gathering then: How — and how significantly — does teaching count in the tenure and promotion process at the institution with which you are affiliated?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Start with what they know." OK, but what do they know?

I recently skimmed through parts of James Zull's The Art of Changing the Brain, a book that makes use of contemporary neuroscience to investigate issues in teaching and learning. One of its main ideas is that learning is the process of building and enriching neural networks. But doing so must begin from existing neural networks. Hence, effective teaching requires that we build from what students already know.

This seems correct, even obvious, to me. But I think those who teach philosophy are somewhat handicapped in building from what students know.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Step up and help the APA!

The APA's Committee on Teaching Philosophy is seeking nominations for new committee members. For info on how to nominate someone (even yourself!), see here.

Face the PUMA

In my experience, a perennial challenge for students learning to write is selecting an appropriate thesis. Most all have it drilled into their heads that their papers need a thesis, but few have a good sense of what makes a good philosophical thesis. The result of this is low quality papers due to the fact that, without an appropriate thesis, students are delayed in getting the writing process off the ground.

To that end, I'm making available a presentation on thesis selection I've used in a number of classes with (I think) some success. It's based on an acronym:

A successful philosophical thesis is
Modest in its ambitions

>> PUMA, for short.

Students seem to find this acronym memorable and I've noticed that my students' theses are tighter and more substantive. Please feel free to use this presentation yourself, and any feedback you have is welcome.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I am wondering if anyone know anything about something called "Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)," what it is and how it relates or has been related to the teaching of philosophy. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Who says we haven't got soul?

There are a number of contentious moves in Stephen Asma's discussion of teaching about "the soul." Asma basically takes talk of the soul to be discredited by natural science and recommends that we guide students who want to retain "soul talk" to interpret it in normative or non-descriptive terms. It's a sort of irrealism about soul talk, where "I hope her soul is at rest" turns out to be emotive, something like "I think Grandma deserved to live a tranquil life" (or some such).

But I'm not so convinced the pedagogical situation is as Asma depicts it in the first place. He writes:

No self-respecting professor of philosophy wants to discuss the soul in class. It reeks of old-time theology, or, worse, New Age quantum treacle. The soul has been a dead end in philosophy ever since the positivists unmasked its empty referential center. Scientific philosophy has shown us that there's no there there.
As I said, there's both contentious philosophy and contentious history of philosophy in Asma's remarks. The positivists were responsible for "unmasking" the soul? Not Kant or various post-Cartesian philosophers? And never mind that Asma's revisionary proposal that soul talk be treated as non-descriptive or aspirational has a decidedly positivist feel to it!

My point is simply that plenty "self-respecting" professors of philosophy want to, and do, discuss the soul in their classes. For one thing, if you teach history of philosophy, you can't avoid it. I'm teaching ancient Greek philosophy now and can't imagine not discussing the soul.

What Asma misses is that though the word "soul" doesn't have much traction in philosophy these days, we continue to investigate (and teach about) the soul under a different vocabulary. Whether the mind is reducible to the brain remains a central question in the philosophy of mind. Whether there is a self that persists through time, and if so, the relation of that self to the physical body, is a central question in debates about personal identity. This vocabulary, and these debates, are descendants of the somewhat musty, religiously inflected "soul talk" Asma suggests we need to recast. Admittedly, philosophers of mind tend not to talk of the "immortality of the mind," but if one thinks that the mind is not reducible to the brain, then a precondition of the "soul" (i.e., one's consciousness) being immortal may be met. Likewise for personal identity: If one thinks that a person can survive dramatic physical changes, then a precondition of the "soul" being immortal has been met. So "the soul" isn't dead in philosophy. Nor is it dead in philosophical pedagogy. It's simply been retranslated into other philosophical idioms.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Their patience, our fortitude

We do not live in patient times.

I make no pretense of originality with this claim. Our culture is increasingly focused on immediate gratification at the expense of long-term goals and satisfaction. Students are hardly immune to this. And now voices advocating shortening the college experience and speeding time to degree are becoming louder.

And while I certainly think options to bring students closer to the 4-year college ideal should be explored, this piece in Inside Higher Ed reminds us that impatience is not an intellectual virtue. The authors, Nancy Rosenbach and Peter Katopes:

Many psychologists believe that a child’s capacity to delay gratification is an indicator that the child might someday grow to be a reasonably well-adjusted, content, and mature adult. What is it about the ability to delay gratification that makes it vital? It is the necessary precursor to innovation, development, change, and sagacity. The ability to wait for a reward is at the basis of hard work, scientific inquiry, artistic creation, and intellectual achievement. Because we as a society seem in danger of forgetting this fact, many of our young people are not learning to wait: rather, they have come to expect instant results. And that we are abetting their impulse is nowhere more evident than in our ongoing attempts to reform our educational system.

Plans to reform the American system of education have been largely ineffectual for several reasons. Perhaps most important is that the conversation regarding what education ought to be in this country has shifted radically, substantively, and, we believe, wrong-mindedly, from a concern about what our young citizens ought to be learning to how quickly we can rifle them through. Book after book, study after study, monograph after monograph bemoans the fact that not enough students graduate and those that do don’t graduate quickly enough.

As they note, our higher education culture now values product over process, efficiency over depth, credentials over understanding.

Instructors in every discipline must confront (and I would argue, contest) this cultural change. But I suspect that this challenge is especially urgent and daunting for us philosophers. Our discipline does not offer quick rewards. Its insights and wisdom can only be gained and appreciated slowly. Plato thought a few decades was sufficient for philosophical education. He exaggerates, but his views are closer to the truth than we might think. And time and again, I encounter bright, motivated, intellectually capable students who, because of this pervasive impatience, give up on philosophy prematurely.

I hope we will not surrender to what Rosenbach and Katopes call "a youthful notion of impetuosity." Indeed, they are right to note that doing so would mean failing in our "moral responsibility to help [students] grow into people capable of making rational decisions about the world they — and we — inhabit."

But as is often the case, diagnosis is easy and treatment is hard. What can we do in and outside the classroom to rejuvenate patience as an intellectual virtue? To borrow a typical Socratic question: Can we teach patience?