Thursday, December 22, 2011


Has anyone found any "Apps" of value for teaching philosophy, ethics or logic-related courses? I've seen some apps for other fields that look good, but haven't found any for philosophy that seem interesting. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Learning From Bob

A while ago, Becko wrote a provocative post about the need to learn "from the right students". We all know who the wrong student is, by the way - the one who is hostile, disruptive, outraged - you know the type. We all hope on the first day that we don't spot this student sitting here, glaring at us. As Becko rightly put it:

We will all spend stressful and sleepless nights worrying over this student. Worse, I suggest, we think to change our teaching based on his behavior...Allow me to suggest that we should not learn from this student.

As I noted in the comments to her post, I think Becko is right to point out that we spend way too much time thinking about this student -- I called him "Bob" just to give him a name -- to the detriment of other students who may not only need our help, but who may actually want (and thus be open to) that help. I'm also convinced that focusing on Bob also leads to lousy pedagogical behavior. Still, whereas Becko thinks there's nothing to be learned from Bob, I do think there are some things that we can learn from him, or at least that we can teach ourselves we unfortunately have Bob around every MWF or TuTh for sixteen weeks. I'm not saying that I've mastered the Bob Experience - I haven't, as this would require a sage-like meditative capacity that I don't possess -- but I have some basic ideas. I'll talk a bit about my own experiences with Bob below, and then mention some brief observations about what to do when Bob is (unfortunately) around.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Time to take a stand

Below is the introductory paragraph of a critical paper from a student in one of my intro to philosophy courses.  The assignment was to construct a valid argument for the conclusion; we should not believe anything for which we lack sufficient evidence.  Then using ideas from Plato or Descartes, James, and Clifford, defend or criticize the premises of your argument.  Needless to say, this student lacks the basic writing skills to write a coherent paper.

“Decarte mentioned, Doubt “he said he doubted many things when he was young, but accepted them. He said he was opinionated on many situations, also. So he thought and believed in God, and questioned himself about the belief and existence of God, in which he believes. He stated he did not want to believe in anything false, or false things.  Believing in God is a good thing to believe in , because he is the supreme God as he viewed life.  His simple thought believing things that are not true, are believed falsehoods and evils. Believing God is a good thing and also there is a choice of doubt to which is better. To believe in what is good, rather than what is evil, it is a person choice.””

I no longer blame students for their lack of basic reading and writing skill.  Their lack of skills is a result of a systemic failure. The fault is ours. If we want to change people we need to focus on changing the system.   Even though we are getting our student from a source that we do not have any control over, we continue to accept them.   We should not let students into the college/university environment without a good foundational set of skills.  It is unfair to them.  I should never have a person in my class that can only write at the level indicated by my example. If we refuse to accept students that lack the necessary skills they should have learned at an earlier level then educators in the earlier systems will be forced to change how they educate for success.

 We need take a stand.  It is time to demand that only students that have the necessary basic skills to be successful be allowed into higher educational institutions.  We need to move beyond the business modal currently directing education and replace it with a modal that focuses on the intrinsic value of liberal arts learning, not the instrumental value favored by the economic modal. The arguments for the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education are not new and have been, and will continue to be, discussed on this blog.  But there is a new source of pressure regarding how to measure success in education that can adversely affect the perceived value of a liberal arts education.  Recently, decision makers have begun to question how successful higher education is by investigating the graduation rates.  If graduation rates are only a small percenage of those that originally started the process, how good can this process really be? From a business/economic perspective such a process would be eliminated, or at least radically revamped, so that the numbers of people graduating would (more closely) mirror the number that entered the process.  There are only two ways to accomplish this: 1) lower the academic standards so that more people pass and graduate, or 2) limit the number of students that are allowed into the process by maintaining high standards and admitting only these that have a good chance of succeeding.  I favor the latter  But, the fact that today’s students lack the necessary skills to perform satisfactorily in liberal arts course, not to mention business related courses; and are being admitted into college level courses indicates that the former is becoming the reality.

Learning and education is not supposed to be easy, nor do I think it always needs to be fun.  Sometimes, it is a ‘royal pain in the ass,’ for both the teacher and the student.  But the reality is that more and more students simply do not know how to study; how to manage time, how to read for comprehension, how to write coherent sentences, paragraphs and/or papers, or think critically.  Furthermore they are not motivated to learn.   As teachers we can continue to complain about this or we can do something about it.  We can lower our own expectations of what constitutes academic success and dumb down the material and standards so that more people who start the process will graduate, or we can hold our students to higher standards of excellence and compel them to strive to achieve them.  We need to take a stand and hold on to the belief that one of our primary objectives as educators committed to the importance of a liberal arts education is to develop good citizens.  This can only be accomplished if we get students with the necessary skills to be successful at the college level that we can nurture and send out into the economic sphere as individuals who can manage time, read for comprehension, write coherently, and think critically.

Here are my two suggestions for starting to change the system:

1)      In their first semester of college all students should be required to take a College Success course.  This course will focus on fundamentals such as time management, reading and writing skills, note taking, test taking, critical thinking, communication, and diversity training.  Students must pass this course with at least a 75% grade or be dropped from the institution.  Students can test out of this course with an 80% grade on a comprehensive exam that covers the material of the course.

2)      Give all incoming students a reading and writing skills test that demonstrates that they can read and write at the college level necessary for performing well in liberal arts courses.  If a student fails this test then he or she must take a remedial course in reading and/or writing and pass with at least a 75% grade before they are allowed into any college level courses.  I do not trust SAT’s or ACT’s as an adequate measure of a person’s reading or writing skills.  I have had too many students who have done well on these tests who cannot write a coherent paragraph.

I close with this reminder of who we are allowing to graduate with college degrees.  We all remember the recent commercial that states “without innovation the world would still be flat.”  In all probability, the persons who wrote this and who decided it would make a great commercial have college degrees.  Need I say more!

Assessment and Students' Lack of Self-Knowledge

As part of our departmental assessment, I have conducted a survey among students in advanced philosophy classes regarding how useful they found our entry-level courses in preparing them for the philosophy course they are currently taking. I asked students to rate how well the entry-level course prepared them to read philosophy, write philosophy, reconstruct & debate philosophy (this mirrors our departmental course learning objectives for Intro to Philosophy), as well as how well it prepared them overall. I also asked students what activities they had encountered in their entry-level course (e.g. lecturing, class discussion, writing workshops, etc). Then I asked to name the 3 activities they found the most helpful and the 3 they found the least helpful.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

CFP: Philosophy and High Schools

The journal Teaching Philosophy ( solicits contributions for a special issue devoted to philosophical inquiry at the high school level (including its non-U.S. equivalent, such as Gymnasium, Bachillerato, Sixth Form, etc.), with guest editors Jana Mohr Lone (University of Washington) and Mitchell Green (University of Virginia).  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Using Google for Course Management

I now use a variety of Google platforms for course management: Google Sites, Google Docs, Google Groups and Google Calendar. I have set up a dummy site illustrating how I use these. To view the site, simply send me an email at and I will add you to the site.

I never used Blackboard, so I can't say how doing this compares. I used Moodle for many years, but my students reported that it was cluncky, slow to load, etc. I found it aesthetically difficult and extremely difficult to use in the sense that doing one simple action took several clicks and dialogue boxes.

Alternatively, if you are at least somewhat technically savvy, Google is aesthetically nice, easy to use, and has very simple, clear privacy settings.

Some provisos: 1) users must have a Gmail account, 2) you must use privacy settings to be compliant with copyright, FERPA, etc 3) you have to invite folks across all of the platforms you use rather than inviting folks in one simple step for all.

In the coming weeks if folks are interested I will detail exactly how I use the individual platforms, e.g., Google Docs (for syllabi, assignments, quizes, etc.) Google Groups (for discussion fora), and Google Calendar (for scheduling appointments).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 16

"No attitude, interest, or value can be taught except by a teacher who himself or herself believes in, cares for, or cherishes whatever it is that he or she holds out for emulation."

      — Philip Jackson,"The mimetic and the transformative: Alternatve outlooks on teaching"

The Quotable Teacher, installment 15

"It is natural to feel victimized by philosophy, but this particular defensive reaction goes too far. It is like the hatred of childhood and results in a vain effort to grow up too early, before one has gone through the essential formative confusions and exaggerated hopes that have to be experienced on the way to understanding anything. Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up. There is a persistent temptation to turn philosophy into something less difficult and more shallow than it is. It is an extremely difficult subject, and no exception to the general rule that creative efforts are rarely successful."

       — Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere

Monday, December 12, 2011

Advice about using Audio Files of Lectures

This last semester my students voluntarily recorded my lectures in my Modern course. They had a peer overseas who was diligent and who wanted to listen along. I reluctantly agreed and had a few stipulations: 1) I would have to do no work in recording, uploading, disseminating, etc. 2) no no one other than the people in the course (and the student auditing-from-afar) woud have access to the audio files , 3) all files would be erased by all at the end of the course. All of this was easy to do because my course is managed using various Google platforms that encourage sharing and cooperative learning (if anyone wants another post on that, let me know and I'll do one).

I detail my reasons for my stipulations below. For now, I've run into something and I'd love your advice. I'm teaching Philosophy of Language next semester, with many of the same students, and though no one is auditing-from-afar, they want to record the lectures and use them during the semester. They say that they found them helpful in many ways: in not having to transcribe notes, and thus to be able to pay more attention in class, in having group sessions where they would listen to the lectures and study together for papers, blue book essays exams, etc.

I should say that these are students who come to every class, are diligent, committed, excited. These students are not asking for the audio files because they want an excuse not to come to class. What is my worry, then?

My worry is the same worry I have that justifies my not posting my lecture notes: I worry that it is pedagogically bad. I worry that they will adopt parroting rather than conceptual competency. The fact that this is philosophy of language makes this doubly troubling. Philosophy of language is very jargon-rich. As such, it would be very useful for them to have the audio files so that they don't feel they have to transcribe in order to get the jargon. On the other hand, being jargon-rich tends to lead to parroting. I am not worried about whether I can tell on their exams, papers, etc, whether they are parroting. Of course I can (this is always a big mistake students make - they think we can't tell when they are faking it). My worry is that I will encourage parroting and thus impede their learning. What do you think?

My stipulations: teaching is an intimate and organic process that is always developing over semesters, years, etc. I just don't want a stable file of anything I do in the classroom existing for longer than the semester in which I am doing it. In short: I am doing philosophy when I teach. If I want my philosophy to be stable, I publish. The other stipulations are obvious. I really don't want folks sharing the audio files absent contexts that would make them make more sense. I say all kinds of things that taken out of context could be taken in all the wrong ways.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Learning from the Right Students

I have a colleague...and by a colleague I mean me, and you, and you and you...who has a student who is stubbornly and singularly devoted to challenging my colleague (ahem, me, you) on any point not matter how trivial or profound. This student is indiscriminate in his outrage, or confusion, or, or or... This student does this not in the first week, or first weeks of class, but throughout the term and in several classes. We will all spend stressful and sleepless nights worrying over this student. Worse, I suggest, we think to change our teaching based on his behavior.

Everyone who writes on this blog or who reads it is devoted to teaching and to reaching every student they can. In other words, we are devoted to learning from students how to be better teachers.

Allow me to suggest that we should not learn from this student. We take up so much time - emotional, intellectual, etc. - thinking about how we could have prevented the problems we face with this student, about how we could be more clear, more accommodating, more understanding, etc. etc. By default we think that this student represents our own weakness as a teacher and that we could learn so much if only we could satisfy him.

Here is the bottom line: we can't. The student does not want to be satisfied. He does not want to be a student. More importantly: we can learn nothing from him. We can tweak our speeches about the value and importance of philosophy, learning, time-management, intellectual honesty, writing, etc. in a way that we think accommodates that student. But a different flavor of that student will come along the very next semester and present a whole new menu of problems. Why? Because this student is wholly indiscriminate. You cannot anticipate or satisfy him. Do nothing to prepare for him other than reminding yourself constantly that he has made himself, quite literally, not worth your time.

Here is why he is not worth your time: 1) all he wants is to take up as much of your time as possible, for reasons that have nothing to do with your teaching; 2) much, much more importantly, there are all the other students, who are worth your time, who are neglected because you are thinking of how to teach the class, or advise, or have office hours, to satisfy him.

Better then, to think of all the students who are quiet, who are doing well but not spectacularly well, whom you do not normally notice, who are waiting for inspiration. Spend your time learning from them: pick one or two or however many you have the ability to pick and ask them to come to office hours. Get to know them, tell them that you have been very interested in their work or comments or contributions, even if - maybe especially because - they are, as it were 'C' students. Better to spend time on and learn from these students than on the student who keeps us up at 3am for all the wrong reasons.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In-Class "Warm ups" and "Cool downs"?

Like many of my coworkers and probably many of you, I enjoy exercise and outdoor recreation in a minorly competitive "weekend warrior" sort of way. A lesson that I keep having to relearn is that proper warm ups and cool downs are important, both for avoiding injuries and also for basic mental preparation for what's to come. You don't jump right into the activity. And when it's done, you don't cease it abruptly. You have transitions -- however brief they might be. I've been thinking about what a Philosophy class analogue to a warm up or a cool down might be.

There are already ways that I signal that the class period is starting (and that side conversations, texting, etc. need to cease) -- such as closing the door, welcoming everyone, and posing a Question of the Day. The closest things to warmups and cooldowns that come to mind are that I sometimes have students spend 2 - 3 minutes at the beginning of class doing some sort of guided writing (e.g., "Write down three questions you have about today's readings") or, ditto, at the end of class (e.g., "Write down one question that today's discussion has raised for you", or "Write down something you'd like us to discuss in more depth next time"). It's not always clear to me whether the classes in which I do that, feature deeper engagement, by more students, than the ones in which I don't, though I think it has other benefits.

Are there other, better ways of warming up a class before getting into the hard work of the rest of the class period? Does it need to happen in the first place?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gamifying the Classroom

Recently I have learned of 'gamifying' courses. I shouldn't have been too surprised, as gamifying is everywhere these days. Consider fantasy football, frequents flier reward programs, or points credit card for purchases. There is an interesting TED talk on the phenomena that can be found here, and recently a research program designed as a game has help increase our understanding of AIDS. Now it is popping up as an educational strategy, one Penn State seems to be taking seriously. The Chronicle has had at two articles about here and here, and more recently a four part series on games in the classroom. (1 2 3 4)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Assessing Ethics

I've recently taken on a new job/role - the 'coordinator' for the ethics component of the general education curriculum at my university. Part of this role requires figuring out how to assess the ethics courses we teach. Although I have thought about ethics assessment before in the past, it was never my role to formally take it on, so I'm starting from scratch in many ways.

Since so many people here teach ethics, I'm hoping that some of you have suggestions about where to look to read about best practices in ethics assessment. I'm also hoping to hear some of your thoughts on ethics assessment in general. What do you take to be the greatest current mistake in how it is typically done? If you had your druthers, how would you do it? Of course, these questions all circle around the most central and core question: what should the goal of a general education ethics course be?

Thank in advance, and looking forward to your thoughts.

On complaining and losing faith

Throw a rock on the Interwebs and you're likely to find teachers complaining about their students (here, here, here). I've never wanted ISW to degenerate into a venue for such griping — and for the most part, I'm happy we keep the tone here constructive, even as we recognize how exasperating teaching can be.

Maryellen Weimer suggests that complaining about students is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a recipe for cynicism that undermines the faith we need to continue teaching energetically and effectively:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

David Foster Wallace's Syllabi

I just came upon copies of David Foster Wallace's syllabi thanks to this article in Slate. The level of detail and explicitness is astounding. For example, Wallace gives the statistics of his grade distribution based on every student he has ever had! Of course, there is plenty more to comment on, enjoy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Resisting Interdisciplinarity

First, apologies for not having posted for some time.

One might think that philosophers have an in-built reason to celebrate interdisciplinarity. After all, many of us do philosophy of x, where x is science, or language, or mind or some other object of study to which one more disciplines that is not philosophy is also directed. As a philosopher of mind, for example, what I do counts as part of an interdisciplinary endeavor called cognitive science that includes psychologists, biologists, linguists, computer scientists, etc. In addition, philosophers take themselves to be an a position to ask and consider questions that particular disciplines can't answer, for either principled or practical reasons. For example, neuroscientists take for granted that in studying the brain they are thereby studying the mind. All this is to the good.

However, interdisciplinarity is not an unalloyed good. Indeed, there is a trend towards interdisciplinarity that I will call anti-disciplinarity: a trend towards rejecting the value of expertise, the value of pursuits with a history, the value of collective intellectual pursuits that transcend spatial and temporal boundaries.

My worries about anti-disciplinarity have to do with our larger conversations about the purposes of higher education and the centrality of student learning. I break my worries into two concerns: first, the role of anti-disciplinarity in the deprofessionalization of higher education; second, the effects of anti-disciplinarity on student learning.

Why are administrations so eager about and interested in so-called interdisiplinarity? One explanation may be just that it is a new buzz-word or concept that is required to look like a viable candidate for a position as an Associate Dean, Dean, Provost, President, etc. Another explanation is that some simply view interdisciplinarity as a good thing. Another, compatible, explanation is that it is in the fiscal interest of the higher educational industry to deprofessionalize the workforce. In this latter guise, interdisciplinarity is really just a stand-in for anti-disciplinarity. If there are no disciplines, no experts, no actual set of practices by which scholars and teachers ought to be evaluated, then faculty are simply so many movable pieces, whose credentials stand for nothing other than an antiquated mode of identification. There is no reason to pay faculty as professionals, for they have no profession. There is no reason to hire faculty in permanent positions, for there are no permanent questions, no permanent pursuits, no common projects that require anything other a generic person to teach generic courses.

What about the effects of anti-disciplinarity on student learning? There are the immediate practical effects of an itinerant faculty: student learning is best pursued over time through long-standing mentor-mentee relationships. But there is a less immediate but very real effect that I am beginning to see in my own students: they believe that pursuing a topic, question, issue, puzzle, problem, etc. consists in a very broad, very superficial sense of the territory and does not require expertise. It does not require discipline. In addition, they believe that a topic, question, issue, puzzle, problem, etc, can only be treated at this very generic, superficial level. But part of the joy of being a scholar is that one may contribute to and connect with a much larger field of inquiry by working very diligently on one part of it. I should add that there is here a built-in incentive towards anti-disciplinarity for our students, especially when it is being touted by the institution: diligently working away on a technical and challenging portion of a long-standing problem is more difficult and time-consuming than painting broad, elliptical impressions about impermanent worries. Most importantly, students learn when they are asked to go through the paces of disciplining the mind towards a focused, collective effort. When students are asked to participate in the gestures of anti-disciplinary activity, they are asked to participate in a collective illusion that masquerades as student learning.

Should we resist interdisciplinarity? How may we do so as faculty, as scholars and as teachers? Is there a way to celebrate true interdisciplinarity without being complicit in the deprofessionalization of higher education and the substitution of appealing and illusory forms of entertainment for real student learning?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How to motivate students to seek help

I'm continually baffled as to why students who are clearly in need of help in my courses rarely seek it — or if they do seek it, they seek it so late that I really can't help them. It's easy to see these students as indulging in a kind of magical thinking, hoping that somehow the very patterns of academic behavior that got them into trouble will somehow lift them out of trouble. It's Einstein-insane.

But maybe not. For as the work of Stuart Karabenick and his colleagues suggest, an aversion to seeking help is, unfortunately, normal.

After all, seeking help means you're not adequate. It's a blow to your pride. And in the classroom, it means you don't get it. And what could be worse than acknowledging that you don't get it?

As some of you know, Carol Dweck is one of my favorite educational psychologists. Dweck's core insight is that learners tend to have either a mastery-oriented mindset or a fixed mindset. Those with the mastery mindset believe that learning is both possible and desirable, and hence respond positively to academic adversity. They see such adversity as an opportunity to increase or reconfigure their efforts and put success within their grasp.

Those with the fixed mindset respond to adversity by concluding that the adversity reveals their (in)ability. Since ability is fixed, the only role for adversity is to point out where you're deficient (and perhaps to guide you away from those subjects you struggle with and toward those you learn more readily).

Naturally, the former group is much more likely to seek help than the latter, so perhaps the infrequency with which students seek help is evidence of how regrettably frequent the fixed mindset is.

But Karabenick et al's research indicates that there are pedagogical approaches that can help students who need help help themselves.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Post-Secondary Assessment

Thank you Michael for the introduction, I am excited to be a part of In Socrates Wake. For my first post, I want to discuss an issue I have been thinking quite a bit about since I became in charge of learning assessment for my department this year.

One of the buzzwords in educational circles in the past few years has been accountability. No Child Left Behind cemented standards of accountability into educational policy for K-12, but the drive for accountability is no longer limited to elementary and secondary education (and might even be moving into graduate education). However, in order to be held accountable, student learning has to be assessed and assessing student learning at the post-secondary level is tricky. CCNY, where I teach, belongs to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and as a part of our membership we engage in regular assessment, which is meant to give us the tools to measure our teaching efficiency at the institutional and departmental level. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"A normal student nowadays"?

In an evenhanded review of a number of recent books on higher education, including Academically Adrift, Anthony Grafton identifies a variety of factors that converge to create the current worrisome state of higher ed in the U.S.

This paragraph hit me hard, as a sad truth about the situation of many students:
Imagine what it’s like to be a normal student nowadays. You did well—even very well—in high school. But you arrive at university with little experience in research and writing and little sense of what your classes have to do with your life plans. You start your first year deep in debt, with more in prospect. You work at Target or a fast-food outlet to pay for your living expenses. You live in a vast, shabby dorm or a huge, flimsy off-campus apartment complex, where your single with bath provides both privacy and isolation. And you see professors from a great distance, in space as well as culture: from the back of a vast dark auditorium, full of your peers checking Facebook on their laptops. It’s no wonder, in these circumstances, that many students never really internalize the new demands and standards of university work. Instead they drift from course to course, looking for entertainment and easy grades. Nor is it surprising that many aren’t ready when trouble comes.

Steppin' up to the mic, parts 10 and 11

ISW is happy to welcome two new contributors to our roster:

First, we're happy to welcome Jennifer Morton. Jennifer is assistant professor of philosophy at City College of New York and a graduate of Stanford's Ph.D. program. Jennifer writes on action theory, moral philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy of education. She also regularly teaches the intriguingly titled course 'The Rational Animal.'

She'll be joined by Jim Spence, assistant professor of philosophy at Adrian College. Jim received his graduate degree from Bowling Green and writes on both theoretical and applied ethics.

We're looking forward to Jennifer's and Jim's contributions.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Replacing participation points with preparation points?

We've talked a lot about participation and points for participation on this blog in the past (see herehereherehere, and here).

I had an idea come out of nowhere today when I was driving home. I'm not sure if I've read it somewhere before (Teaching Philosophy, maybe?) or not. I can't imagine it's original, but it's very simple: replace "participation" points with "preparation" points in my syllabus. Four distinct advantages came immediately to mind:

  1. It distinguishes nicely between "good" and "bad" types of participation in the classroom. Idle banter doesn't show preparation, so it doesn't count. Socially adept students don't get points just for joining the discussion.
  2. It's a bit more of an incentive for actually preparing by doing the reading than just rewarding participation. And really, the whole point of rewarding participation in the first place was to encourage preparation. In fact, it might be worth ramping up participation points to 15 or 20 percent of points available in the class if the incentive turns out to work well enough.
  3. Students who are shy or uncomfortable talking in class can prove preparation in other ways: one-on-one, perhaps. Conversations with me in office hours would count for preparation. One could even count students who show you notes over the reading (imagine: people might take notes on the reading to get points!). 
  4. You don't have to prove preparation in every class -- just like you wouldn't have to participate in every class -- in order to get preparation points. But if it looks like someone hasn't done the reading for quite some time, his or her grade would suffer.

So this sounds like a great change to make. What does everyone else think? Are there downsides to this I'm  not thinking of?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

From twice per week to once per week?

A longtime ISW reader writes seeking counsel about how to move from more frequent, but shorter class meetings to a single long weekly class meeting:
I am a graduate student who has only taught courses that meet twice a week for an hour and a half. I am getting ready to teach my first course that meets once a week for three hours, and it is not an advanced seminar but an introductory class for first-year undergraduates. I am unsure how to think about changing my approach to course design in this context. How much reading should I assign for each class meeting? How do I keep things moving along and change up the class activities during the three hours so that I don't lose everyone and don't get caught in the quagmire of directionless discussion for hours on end? I'm particularly lost on reading assignments -- it's much more intuitive to me to assign bite-sized articles or chapters for classes that meet twice a week, and much less intuitive how to cover roughly the same amount of material when meeting once a week, without worrying that my students will not pace themselves and will find the workload to seem like it has doubled. I could go on, but I hope this indicates some of the questions that are floating around in my mind.
 Advice for our correspondent?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teaching students how to stand up for their values

Last semester was the first time I used Mary Gentile's excellent Giving Voice to Values in the classroom. While I'd been teaching business ethics pretty successfully for five years, I still had one set of comments in student evaluations that kept coming up: all of this talk about ethics from the commanding heights of a business was all well and good, but they wanted to know what they should do when an ethical problem comes up at work. How does one deal with a co-worker who wants to lie to regulators about a product defect, or a manager who is using her position to give perks to friends and family?

An R1 faculty member spills some beans on teaching and learning

Michael O'Hare, a professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley, shares some intriguing observations about how his colleagues perceive teaching. Since Berkeley is the sort of Research 1 place where you get brownie points almost exclusively for research rather than for teaching, it's gratifying to see O'Hare being candid about the issue and why his R1 colleagues are wary of calls for accountability or improved teaching quality at the university level. Curious to know reader reaction to his observations ...

Like many, O'Hare laments the lack of serious, formal training for faculty about how to teach, as well as "the complete absence of a quality assurance program for teaching that anyone from industry (service or manufacturing) would recognize":

Monday, October 31, 2011

Reverse engineering gender equal participation

Sometimes you notice a teaching outcome that you didn't intend but is welcome nevertheless. Then the challenge is to figure out what you (the teacher) might have done to make the outcome happen.

Here's such an outcome: In my two intro to ethics classes, 44% of the students are women. I sat down and wrote down the names of the students who, in the two sections, participate most frequently in class. I wrote down names until I reached 25% of the total enrollment. Then I looked at the gender division: Of the top quartile of students in terms of frequency of participation, 53% were women.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Help with Thought Experiments

In my experience, it is initially difficult to get students to see the validity of using thought experiments in philosophy. For example, in my ethics courses we discuss the argument from analogy Peter Singer uses to help make the case that we are obligated to donate to famine relief, comparing the costs and benefits of saving a drowning child with those of saving the starving child. Usually some student will try to change the parameters of the experiment. For example, after saving the child a student stated that he would simply ask the child's parents to reimburse him for the cost of his clothes that were ruined by going into the shallow pond to save the child.

One thing I now do to motivate thought experiments and get students to "follow the rules" is compare them to the type of experiments a physicist or chemist might do in the lab. A scientist sets up certain conditions in order to explore reality, test a hypothesis, and so on. In order to get the right data and draw sound conclusions, she will set certain boundaries and engage in particular procedures. Similarly, when we engage in thought experiments we limit options available to agents in the experiment and set up certain rules in order to clarify a concept or test a philosophical theory, even if in so doing we are not talking about something that is likely to happen in "real life".

I'm curious if others have found additional ways to deal with problems in using thought experiments in the philosophy classroom. If you have some helpful tips, please share them in the comments.

Finally, for help on teaching the content of some thought experiments, see these 60 second videos from the Open University. Perhaps a video representation will also help students respect the parameters set up by the experiment.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pedagogical prankersterism at Smith

Jay Garfield at Smith College got his logic students to convince the campus it was going all-vegetarian:

Smith College students held protests and counter-protests, wrote chalk slogans pro and con on campus walkways, and heaped personal criticism on the manager of dining services over rumors that the school was going vegetarian and would start buying only local produce.

No meat? No coffee?
It turns out it was all a hoax.
Two professors at the prestigious women's college in Northampton cooked up the prank as part of their introductory class in logic.

Nice hoax, of course.

But as reader Matt Pianalto points out, it's not obvious what the pedagogical value of a hoax like this is.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teaching Writing

I am wondering if anyone has found any books that are useful for teaching writing beyond, say, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. I think that improving writing skills requires highly reflective practice with critical, constructive feedback from others, so I wonder if anyone has found any books very helpful (since, to improve writing, you have to just do it -- i.e., write, reflect and revise -- and not so much just read *a lot* about writing) or if, for most people, briefer, free online materials like Jim Pryor's guidelines and Jonathan Bennett's "Improving Academic Writing" are sufficient. Thanks.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Finkish FIDeLity feedback

Last week, I attended a very informative seminar on course design given by Dee Fink, one of the most prominent experts on designing courses to enhance student learning.

The seminar offered me a number of ideas I'd like to pursue in designing my courses (though I was pleased to note I'm already following some of Fink's suggestions). But I thought I might share some of the seminar content with the readership, parceled out over the next few weeks.

The simplest takeaway from Fink's seminar was the FIDeLity mnemonic concerning feedback to students. The feedback we give should be:

The Quotable Teacher, installment 14

Every act of teaching is also an act of teaching epistemology. For in trying to foster knowledge, the teacher inevitably teaches about knowledge: its nature, its value, and the pathways to its acquisition.

-- Me (OK, so I cheated. Blogger's privilege!)

Wakey wakey! The Wake seeks new contributors

The esteemed contributors at ISW wish to add to their ranks.

No, we can't pay you. But ISW would be interested in hearing from interested parties willing to join the esteemed list of contributors (scroll down, look right). Poking around the blog should give you a good idea of what's expected from contributors, but the minimal requirements are:
  • a decent amount of experience teaching this discipline we call philosophy
  • a thoughtful and conscientious approach to said teaching
  • the ability to write cogently and provocatively about teaching
  • a desire to share your ideas about teaching with others and participate in a collaborative community

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Class activities to illustrate theories of justice

A correspondent writes:
I'm currently TAing for intro to moral and political philosophy and Rawls is only two or three weeks away. I was curious if you had any good class activities that put students in somewhat of an original position. I'm never done class activities, but I think one where they end up committing themselves to what Rawls says they would would be very helpful. I haven't thought too hard about it yet, but giving them random envelopes detailing their positions in society and various abilities--but not letting them open them until after they decide on how to distribute goods--would seem to be in the right direction. Any help would be appreciated.
Anyone have any ideas here — not only about activities to motivate Rawls' theory of justice, but other theories as well? Harry of course has this classic exercise about justice and gender. Does anyone have other techniques to motivate theories of justice they could share?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Op-Ed Response to Kathleen Parker

Hi ISWers - Sorry for my absence lately, I'm in the midst of a crazy time period, and I'm a bit overextended. I wanted to share the op-ed I wrote below in response to Kathleen Parker's national column last week, in which she used findings from ACTA and from _Academically Adrift_ to wag a heavy handed finger at colleges for failing students. The op-ed appears in my local paper today - I figured I'd just cut and paste it here.


Kathleen Parker argues that colleges are failing to teach basic skills (critical/complex reasoning, writing and communication). I agree that that these skills are essential, and share her concern that college students are not learning those skills at an acceptable level. Parker's analysis of the problem (drawing on misleading studies by ACTA) is that schools lack quality general education curricula, and so should create them.

Parker is wrong - in many universities quality curricula already exist. She's also wrong to think of a curriculum as a conveyor belt that transports students through appropriate subjects until basic skills have been passively assembled. In fact, this passive understanding of education actually helps to create the very problem she is so worried about.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Let Us Not Shoot The Messenger

It is time for my bi-annual rant.  As readers familiar with this blog know, about this time each semester I have a mental meltdown – my first student critical papers and/or exams have been completed and I have finished grading them.  The students do a miserable job.  This semester is no different, but this time I do not want to belabor what I have said in the past, or maybe belabor it in a different light .  I maintain, based on my observations and confirmed by many of my colleagues, that the ability of students is decreasing by the semester – it used to be by the year - but I have noticed that the students I have this semester are not as capable, as a group, as those I had last year.  I was discussing this with some colleagues who agreed that this was their experience also and a couple of them suggested that maybe they, the students were just lazy or too busy.  I thought about this and I have come to this conclusion, not original, but I think important: the students are giving us a message and that message is that the educational system is enabling failure.  So, we should not shoot the 'messenger.' So, aka Marx, if we want to change our students then we need to change the system. Let me try to outline an explanation (I am thinking of working this up into a larger project)

There are only two reasons why people fail, the either can’t do it or they won’t do it.  The former is an educational/training problem; the second is a motivation/discipline problem.  I do not think that students fail because they are too lazy or busy, I think that the reasons are associated with, but not limited too, the following and that they are systemic in nature::
1) Not knowing how to study.  They do not know how to read for comprehension, outline material, and/or take notes. They do not know how to study for exams, even if we give them review questions. 
2) Not knowing how to manage time.  Supposedly we tell students to spend 2-3 hours on the material outside of class for every hour they are in-class.  If a student is taking only four 3 credit courses that would mean, at a minimum, 36 hours of work.  That means that they are ‘working’ full time, but they treat their education as if it can be fit into another full-time schedule. 
3) Having unrealistic expectations regarding what is expected of them at the college level.  ‘My teachers did not expect much from me in HS so they will not in college.’  ‘I can get by with a minimum effort – a D equals a degree.’ ‘I could turn in work late and still get credit and if it was done poorly I could get a ‘do-over.’
4) Not knowing the basics of how to write a sentence/paragraph.  Enough said about that elsewhere.
5) Thinking that because they paid for the course that they will pass the course.  I have had students tell me that they deserve a good grade for simply taking the course and showing up on a regular basis and that papers/exams should not count that much towards a grade.

I tell my students that I spent thirty-five years in business and that the economic world is not a forgiving one.  I did not start teaching until I was 40 and had twenty years ‘real-world’ experience under my belt.  I have downsized organizations and been downsized.  I have hired and fired people and been hired and fired myself.  Been there, done that.  I tell them that as their teacher, I am not their friend, their counselor, or their 'spiritual' adviser.  My job is not to make them feel good about themselves (I may look like Santa Claus, but I am not
J.  If they want a hug – get a teddy bear.  If they want someone to love them – get a dog.)  I tell them that my job is to challenge them to push themselves beyond their comfort level and to learn to think critically and to explore possibilities.  I tell them that they may end up, at times, hating my guts, but that is OK – they will survive.  My job is to help them to develop into people who can be successful at living and meeting the challenges outside the ‘safety’ of the academic world.  Doing this constructively well result in them learning to value themselves without relying on others (peers and 'authorities') to give them a sense of self or purpose.  Autonomy is the goal, but it should also be part of the journey.  

But, starting this process in college is far to late.  We need to start in grade school.  What ever happened to 'philosophy for children?'

Thursday, September 29, 2011

According to him...according to her

Here is a common experience in introductory-level courses. There you are, teaching Mill or Aristotle, or Nagel, or Anscombe...what have you. You are working hard to motivate and make clear the positions under scrutiny. But you have one, or two, or three students who will inevitably follow your description of the position with "...according to him..." or "according to her..."

So, you say something like: "Involving another person in a scheme or a plan that she couldn't or wouldn't rationally consent to if she knew the whole story is to use her will in a way that disrespects her autonomy." And then from the corner of the room, you hear a student mutter, "...according to him," (referring here to Kant, of course).

I pride myself on being an empathetic and patient teacher, especially of beginning students. But I have to say that this particular piece of classroom behavior drives me to fits of catastrophic irrationality. Catastrophic because I find it so unrelentingly annoying that I can't even articulate why it drives me so nutty.

So, fellow teachers: 1) help me by speculating about why I find this behavior so distracting and unproductive; 2) do you have a particular strategy for this particular phenomenon? Is it successful or not? Why or why not...I mean, that is, according to you...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Some simple tips to improve student participation

Our good friends at the Faculty Focus blog share some easy tips for broadening the number of students who participate in class:
  1. "Recognize that the norms that establish who speaks in a course are set early in the course and that the teacher plays an important role in setting these norms. Politely refuse to call on students who have already spoken two or three times. 'Thank you, but we need to hear from others.” Walk to a different part of the room and speak directly to those students. “I haven’t heard from any of you folks. Please share your thoughts.'"
  2. "Wait. Research is very clear: Teachers frequently overestimate how long they wait after asking a question before doing something else. Let there be silence. Students who are not as articulate or self-confident often need more time to frame an answer."
This next one is one I hadn't heard of, but I like the idea very much. Has anyone tried it?
      3."Use the three-hand rule and don’t call on anyone until there are three hands raised."

I'd be interested in hearing from others some successful ideas for improving student participation. Here are a few of my own:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 13

Their pupils and their little charges are not nourished and fed by what they learn: the learning is passed from hand to hand with only one end in view: to show it off, to put into our accounts to entertain others with it, as though it were merely counters, useful for totting up and producing statements, but having no other use or currency. ‘Apud alios loqui didicerunt, non ipsi secum’ [They have learned how to talk with others, not with themselves]

 -- Michel de Montaigne

Revisiting in-class technology use policies

We've reflected often here at ISW about the challenges of technology and pedagogy, both for we instructors and for our students. One of the stickiest issues, of course, is students using their 'devices' in class. I'd be interested to hear an update on what your policy is on cell phones, laptops, etc.

My policy statement from my syllabus is below the fold. You'll note it's not really a policy — more of a statement of principle and an indication of the issue's seriousness. Feedback welcome!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Evaluating student learning without student evaluations

Even though I'm less skeptical than others about the validity of standardized student evaluations, I share many of the common reservations about them: that they are often poorly designed, asking students what they are in no position to evaluate; that they reflect, to some extent, students' grade expectations; that small differences in instructor evaluations probably do not measure significant differences in instructors' effectiveness; that they are influenced by irrelevant factors like instructor gender; that students are actually not honest when they complete them; that their usual timing (at the end of the term) influences the results.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 12

Education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play—work you do so easily that it restores you as you go.

— Mark Edmundson

An Instant Classic?

I don't know what else to say about Mark Edmundson's essay on the purpose of college in the Oxford American — except that I love it. It's moving, heartfelt, and true. Its main claims are (1) the true value of college is in confronting texts and traditions that know you better than you know yourself, and in so doing, bring about self-understanding, and (2)  the disengagement compact is an obstacle to realizing this value, compelling those who seek this value to go looking for it during their college years by "making trouble".

Some tidbits I particularly liked:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

'Interaction,' experts, and learners

One of my reservations about group work (and many other techniques that turn on students interacting with students) is that there's a fair amount of evidence that when non-experts interact with other non-experts, learning suffers. Faculty Focus reports on a study of interaction in online courses:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

CFP: AAPT workshop

The American Association of Philosophy Teachers

St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas
July 25 - July 29, 2012

Proposals for interactive workshops and panels related to teaching and learning philosophy at any educational level are welcome.  We especially encourage workshops and panels on the following topics:

The Quotable Teacher, installment 11

Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theatre. — Gail Goldwin

Monday, August 29, 2011

More skepticism about learning styles

A while back I expressed skepticism about the idea that we should tailor our teaching to students' learning styles. There I cited a study that concluded that to whatever extent we exhibit differences in learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.), teaching to a particular learning style doesn't seem to get better results than does teaching in the style that suits the material taught.

Now it looks like skepticism about learning styles is accelerating. NPR reports on a study that draws a more dramatic conclusion:

Students' prior knowledge and the teaching of philosophy

I've recently been reading Ambrose et al's How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. It's a very fine introduction to the research on learning that I expect any teacher, regardless of subject matter or age of student, could put to good use.

I wanted to invite discussion about the first principle in the book, and specifically, how we who teach philosophy might make use of it: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.

A great deal of research on learning indicates that students do not learn ex nihilo. Instead, learning necessarily builds on existing knowledge. As Ambrose et al emphasize, a student's prior knowledge will actually hinder learning if it's inaccurate or inaccessible, or if the student doesn't link the new content to her existing knowledge base:

Friday, August 26, 2011

A new direction for Teaching Philosophy

As some of you may know, I'm about to embark on a five-year term as the new editor of Teaching Philosophy. The previous editors (Patrick Boelyn-Fitzgerald, Michael Goldman, and the founding editor, Arnold Wilson) have left the journal in excellent shape. Teaching Philosophy has been published continuously since 1975, and is indisputably the most important journal in the world with respect to publishing research on teaching in our discipline. Obviously, I'm honored, though slightly daunted, to be taking over these responsibilities.

Let me share some tidbits with you about the journal:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What are your goals? What will you do differently?

The school year is beginning over here in Portland! It's a good time to reflect and make some goals. What goals do you have for this year? Do you have any resolutions? Will you be trying anything new?

My goals are to be more patient and calm - to get less rattled. My resolution is to never grade more than four papers in one sitting. I'm trying a new course management method: I'm using a bunch of different Google tools (Google sites, Google groups, Google docs, etc.). I am going to try more short, low-stakes assignments.

What about you?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

CFP: SoTL at Pacific Division meeting

I hope folks will consider answering this call for proposals. Philosophy lags behind other disciplines in awareness and implementation of SoTL.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Discussion of grade inflation and the disengagement compact at New APPS

New APPS has a nice discussion going of the incentives for, and explanations of, grade inflation. Our own Becko moved the discussion along nicely with her invocation of the disengagement compact. Do go read!

AAPT nominations for 2012-2014 Teaching Fellows

This notice is available at the American Association of Philosophy Teachers website.

(Contact: Prof. David W. ConcepcĂ­on at

American Association Of Philosophy Teachers


The American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT) seeks devoted, excellent philosophy teachers to serve as 2012-2014 AAPT Teaching Fellows. Teaching Fellows will receive a small stipend ($500) and serve a two-year term August 15, 2012-August 14, 2014. Fellows will advance the teaching of philosophy. This may include mentoring newer teachers, blogging on the AAPT website, facilitating teaching and learning workshops, or other activities.

Initial Review
By Jan. 1, 2012 nominators should submit a short (no more than 500 word) letter of nomination discussing the candidate’s especially meritorious ability to enhance student learning and faculty peer teaching.

Detailed Review
If selected for further review a nominee shall provide by March 1, 2011:
(1) One reflective essay of no more than 2,000 words addressing these four questions:
(i) Describing your particular teaching context, what are your aspirations for your students/learning objectives?
(ii) How are your pedagogies (your structuring of both students' in- and out-of-class time), course content, assessment, and learning objectives aligned?
(iii) Citing evidence, what is the most significant student learning or lasting impact on students inspired by your teaching?
(iv) How and why might you change your classes in the future?
In answering these questions, please be explicit about the sources of the information (e.g. scholarship of teaching and learning, classroom practice, student feedback, etc.) that have influenced your pedagogical choices.

(2) At least four and no more than six letters of support. At least one letter must be from a former or current student. At least one letter must be from a philosophy colleague familiar with the applicant's classroom practice.

(3) While voluminous detail of minor matters will not be viewed favorably, additional supporting material may also be provided. Examples of such materials are:
- Brief course portfolio
- Teaching journal
- Evidence of student learning, with an accompanying explanation
- Student satisfaction ratings (aka course evaluations), with an accompanying explanation
- Samples of student work
- Video of class session(s)
- Course materials, particularly assignment guidelines and assessment rubrics
- A brief CV focused on teaching and learning

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What are you teaching this Fall?

I'm stealing this great post idea from John Protevi over at New APPS.

What are you teaching this Fall? What are your course loads? Do you have a link to a course website or course material you'd like to share?

This Fall I'm teaching:

Exploration and Discovery. (LC's first year core program course) capped at 19. My section is titled "Wisdom and Folly." We read White Noise by Don Delillo, portions of the Hebrew Bible, Matthew from the New Testament, the trial and death of Socrates dialogues, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Freud's Civilization and its Discontents and the graphic novel Watchmen.

Early Modern Philosophy. This is a 300 level course capped at 35 (17 enrolled). It's so impossible to put two centuries of philosophy into a single semester. I have to leave out so much. Instead I focus on teaching students how to do the history of philosophy by focusing on fewer figures for longer stretches of time. My focus in this class is mainly on mind and metaphysics.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Word limits, or concision vs. precision

L. Kimberly Epting's IHE article on the importance of precision in student writing got me thinking about a question I've struggled with in developing writing assignments: word limits.

Epting, a psychologist, notes that students who write concisely — tersely, compactly — don't always write precisely — exactly, unambiguously. Epting offers this anecdote:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I'll teach, you grade?

Ye olde Chronicle reports that a few instructors, and a few institutions, are divorcing the responsibilities of teaching from the responsibilities of grading. In some cases, the grading is done by a robot, in others, by a paid 'evaluator'. Here's how the latter works at Western Governors, an online university:

Monday, August 1, 2011

The potential of humble ol' e-mail to improve student writing

ISW reader James Somers has published a piece for, advancing the notion that e-mail has underutilized potential for teaching writing. James' basic insight is not radical: Like any expertise, expertise in writing requires practice (10,000 hours of deliberate, feedback-intensive practice, according to Malcolm Gladwell). E-mail is a medium where students can get rapid feedback from professors on their writing.

As James sees it, e-mail feedback is the antidote to many of the practices typically associated with teaching writing, practices that do little to provide students the feedback-intensive practice they need in order to improve:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 10

"The teacher's prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him throughout life. Education is for behavior, and habits are the stuff of which behavior consists." 
-William James

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sharing paper assignment rubrics

An ISW loyalist writes:
I am a philosophy professor and have long followed and profited from In Socrates Wake - thanks for sharing your wisdom!  I use rubrics for paper assignments; I've found them very useful - both pedagogically, and for grading - and I am constantly tweaking them from semester to semester.  I wonder what other peoples' rubrics look like - it would be nice to have a collection of them with comments from their creators about what they like and don't like about them.
Certainly- grading rubrics are a great topic. The writer sent along this rubric to get the discussion going. Please share the rubrics you use, and let's hear feedback about the merits of different rubrics. Thanks!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Panagiotis G. Ipeirotis's Experience with Plagiarism

Many of you will by now have heard the controversy stirred by Panagiotis G. Ipeirotis's post Why I Will Never Pursue Cheating Again. The original post has been removed. Inside Higher Ed describes the post, why it was removed and some of the reactions it garnered.

But something seems to have been lost in the mix. According to IHE, Professor Ipeirotis intended to generate a discussion about how to best deal with cheating. His experience called into question what he calls the "arms race," response in which we devise cheating detection mechanisms and students (or those who sell to students) devise cheating mechanisms. His suggested alternative? Using pedagogical techniques that are relatively immune to cheating (e.g., alternative assessment techniques, group work, public work, etc.).

So let's talk about that. Do any of you design your assignments, grading schemes, etc. with an eye towards a classroom in which cheating is either difficult or impossible? Should we do so? Are there pedagogical goods independent of avoiding cheating that these alternative techniques and assignments offer? Can designing a cheating-immune assignment work against good pedagogy? Can doing so be yet another instance of the "arms race" approach to combatting plagiarism?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dealing with students that test your patience

Here's a nice exchange between Brian van Brunt and Perry Francis about dealing with those students who test your patience with behaviors like texting, lateness, general inattention, etc. It addresses a number of student behaviors we've discussed at ISW in the past.

Shall we challenge false beliefs with facts?

Philosopher Peter Boghossian recounts a recent experience in which he challenged a student's belief in Creationism only to find that his colleagues thought that such challenges were pedagogically out of bounds:

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Value of the Delivery

I've been thinking some lately about the importance of the quality of public speaking as it relates to teaching. While teaching is not like delivering a speech at a political rally or pumping up a team before a big game, I take it that how we deliver material is obviously an important component of good teaching. I have one thought to offer here, and some questions to raise.

First, my thought. I know of some professors who play loud music right before class to get themselves pumped up and ready for "the show". I am not the kind of professor or speaker who puts on a show for the class or audience. One reason for this is that this is simply not my personality. When we try to be something we are not, the lack of authenticity may be apparent and serve to hinder good teaching. At least this is so in my own case. Another reason I don't try to put on a show is that I think the centerpiece of the classroom should be the ideas we are discussing, rather than the professor or the students. I still try to deliver my material with clarity, and to avoid being boring as a speaker, but I'm not a coach on Friday night getting his players pumped up, and I don't try to be.

Now, for my questions:
1. What constitutes a good delivery, and how can we develop this skill as philosophy teachers?
2. Is there a set of speaking virtues that the ideal philosophy professor instantiates, apart from clarity?

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 9

Few teachers effectively prepare students to learn on their own. Students are seldom given choices regarding academic tasks to pursue, methods for carrying out complex assignments or study partners. Few teachers encourage students to establish specific goals for their academic work or teach explicit study strategies. Also, students are rarely asked to self-evaluate their work or estimate their competence on new tasks.
— Barry Zimmerman, "Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview." Theory Into Practice, 41 (2), 64-70

Friday, July 8, 2011

Responding to knee jerk student skepticism in ethics courses

An anonymous correspondent writes with the following query:
I am entering my second year in a 'Leiterific' program and as a second year I will be teaching my first section in an intro to ethics course.  Since I have no background in teaching I am a bit anxious about it.  One source of my anxiety is the specter of student moral skepticism! I worry that until I'm pedagogically acclimated that the first few weeks of teaching might be prone to derailment from such conversation stoppers as "Well, that might be true for you..." and "Nothing matters."  I was wondering whether you might consider soliciting ISW readers for advice on how to effectively address relativist, subjectivist, and nihilist student comments.  I stress 'effectively' because while I've received tips regarding general strategies, I'm more interested in hearing about what kind of arguments philosophers 'on the ground', as it were, often employ successfully.  As a new teacher, it will take some time to distinguish arguments that I and my colleagues find convincing from those that 18 year olds will.  My skill in conversational philosophy are still very much in development, and I don't want to lose my students as they wait for me to get my chops.  
Any tips on how to answer the student skeptics?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 8

'Education' is not a concept that marks out any particular type of process such as training, or activity such as lecturing; rather it suggests criteria to which processes such as training must conform. One of these is that something of value must be passed on. Thus we may be educating someone while we are training him; but we need not be. For we may be training him in the art of torture. The demand, however, that there should be something of value in what is being transmitted cannot be construed as meaning that education itself should lead on to or produce something of value. This is like saying that ... reform must lead up to a man being better. The point is that making a man better is not extrinsic to reform; it is a criterion which anything must satisfy which is to be called 'reform'. People thus think that education must be for the sake of something extrinsic that is worthwhile, where as the truth is that being worthwhile is part of what is mean by calling it 'education'. 
R.S. Peters, "Education as initiation" (1965)

Note taking in discussion

We had a discussion a while back about note taking methods and the general merits of note taking. And we've sometimes lamented that students struggle to learn via discussion.

An observation: Many students, once 'discussion' starts, stop taking notes. Their approach to note taking is informational — not analytic. That might work in other disciplines, but in philosophy, where one of our goals is for students to engage in critical inquiry, not taking notes during discussion amounts to not creating a record of the most substantial part of the learning experience.

But here's a description of a study that suggests the problem may be that students are not 'cued up' to take quality notes in response to discussion:

Monday, July 4, 2011

giving students audio feedback

My coworkers believe, and I agree, and it's often more beneficial to sit down with a student and their paper and to talk about their writing, face to face, than it is just to "talk" in the form of comments in the margins of their paper. (Yes, that's assuming that you cannot do both things.) So, I'd like to do a better job of regularly holding individual or very-small-group writing conferences with my students. These conferences might happen when there's a draft to discuss, after a completed version of a paper has been graded, and/or at any point in between.

This summer, I've learned about some software/services -- they're made by various companies, so I won't single any of them out here -- that combine screen capture and audio recording abilities. They'd be useful for instructors: if I had a student's paper in electronic form, then I could put it on the screen, record myself making comments about various parts of the paper (while using the cursor to highlight those parts), and save all of that into a file that that student could access. The lower-tech version is simply to record comments and send those to the student -- I know some instructors who used to do this with cassette recorders.

What are some of the possible benefits and/or pitfalls with this method of giving students feedback? What are your experiences, and your students' experiences? Does it, as some have claimed, make grading faster than the "write or type your comments onto the paper" method? Does it lead to students who take more of your feedback more seriously?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What students think makes for effective teaching

(From Delaney et al., Student Perceptions of Effective Teaching in Higher Education)

Comments invited. Are the students right? Are these the traits that make for effective teaching? Are any ranked too high? Too low? Any traits missing?
  1. Respectful
  2. Knowledgeable
  3. Approachable
  4. Engaging
  5. Communicative
  6. Organized
  7. Responsive
  8. Professional
  9. Humorous

Philosophy of Sexuality

I am supposed to develop a philosophy course on "sex, sexualities, masculinities and sexual expression." I teach at a historically black college for men, so most of the students are African-American males, and they would likely appreciate any materials especially relevant to their life experiences. Does anyone have an suggestions for what to do in such a course, including readings? Thanks!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A great resource on test composition and design

Texas Tech has a very helpful page outlining some principles concerning test composition and design. It offers a good overview of Bloom's taxonomy, as well as a basic description of test reliability and validity. There's also a chart comparing the merits of various test formats (multiple choice, essay, true-false, etc.). A good place to start when thinking about assessing students!

The perils of being maverick-y

While I don't consider my teaching style or methods particularly radical, some features of my teaching are a bit maverick-y. I don't grade all my students' work. I require them to review one another's work. I let them develop questions for the final exam. I let them choose (some) course content.

But one of the perennial challenges of teaching in a conscientious and open-minded way is that students come to us with very fixed expectations about what college (or high school) are about, what learning is, and what the roles of instructor and student are supposed to be. And these expectations can be very tough to dislodge.

I was reminded of this by Maryellen Weimer's post about a sociology instructor who tried some unorthodox methods that students resisted. The methods themselves are only a little outside the box, but certainly not unheard of. The general idea was to have the course be more student directed,“a classroom environment focused on knowledge creation rather than the transmission of information where students felt part of an intellectual community that balanced support and control."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Developing Question Asking Skills

A top goal, in all my General Education / Introductory Philosophy courses, and many of my Faculty Development / Professional Development workshops (those that include "Introduction to Philosophy" components), is helping students / workshop participants further develop their open ended question asking skills. Here are the main tools, and the basic techniques, that I use to achieve that goal...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In praise of in-class writing

The last two quarters, I've been experimenting with in-class writing a fair bit — the sort of writing students don't turn in. For the most part, my approach has been simple: I've put a question on the board or on PowerPoint, usually a question designed to evoke a reaction to an assigned reading. I give the students 3-6 minutes to write a response in their notes (though if after the alloted time, I observe that students are still writing, I tend not to interrupt.) Sometimes I've kicked off the class meeting with this, but sometimes I've done it in the middle of a class session to add variety.

On the whole, I'm pleased with this strategy and wonder why I've not often observed in-class writing used in college or university classrooms. My guess is that it seems too baby-ish, a bit like high school math class with students sitting quietly solving equations. But I see a lot of advantages to in-class writing, and I'd be interested to know how others use in-class writing and why.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

10-minute puzzle podcasts

Federico Luzzi and Aidan McGlynn at the Northern Institute of Philosophy have created a series of 10-minute podcasts on basic philosophical issues. The orientation is contemporary and analytic. I listened to the podcast on the trolley problem and found it clear and compelling. This might be a nice supplementary resource for intro to philosophy courses. They might also help students who have trouble identifying term paper topics. Definitely worth checking out!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Liberal arts and the narrowness of 'business education'

I've always been skeptical about the notion of a business major: As I've joked with a colleague of mine, business programs could easily be renamed 'White Collar Studies'. It's long struck me as a generic major, what students choose when they want a college degree, but not in anything particular. As this NYT article puts it, it's now the default major for those who see their education in purely instrumental terms, as a long stint of internship or networking that positions them for their first post-college job. Nowadays 1 in 5 students is a business major, and another concern is just how seriously universities take business education. From the NYT article:
...with large student-faculty ratios and no lab equipment, business has historically been cheaper to operate than most departments. Cynics say many colleges are content.  “At the big public universities, the administrations need us to be credible, but I’m not sure that they need us to be very good,” says J. David Hunger, a scholar-in-residence in the management program at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, in Collegeville, Minn. “They need us to be cash cows.” 
And lastly, as our Academically Adrift series highlighted, academic rigor is a definite issue. This graphic says it all.

But thankfully, the trend in undergrad business education seems to be in the direction of integrating more liberal arts into the business curriculum. IHE reports today on a Carnegie study that concludes
that a more concerted focus on teaching students a set of modes of thinking commonly associated with a liberal arts education – analytical thinking, exploration of issues from different perspectives, reflective exploration of meaning, and practical reasoning -- can greatly improve business education.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Defining 'Philosophy'

I wonder if anyone out there has a good definition or characterization of philosophy that is ideal for teaching and/or public-relations (such as interactions with non-philosophy faculty) purposes. It's easy to characterize philosophy in the negative ("it's not science or social science, but empirical results can be relevant..") and by "pointing" ("philosophy addresses these topics... all of which are philosophical topics.." [thanks!], as well as by mentioning a few common methods or activities (conceptual analysis, identifying and evaluating arguments, etc.), but I wonder if anyone out there has something worked out that they think is a very good definition or characterization. Thanks!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Putting the brakes on extra credit

Since my spring quarter is winding down, I thought we might revisit an issue Nathan raised a few years ago: extra credit.

With a few weeks left in the term, I'm getting lots of requests from students for extra credit assignments. Typically, this is motivated either by their having done poorly on previous tests and assignments, or in some cases, not having done them at all. Students are hoping I'll provide an assignment or task to help them augment their grades in my courses.

I have a simple policy concerning such requests: No (for reasons outlined below the break).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 7

"A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary."  (Thomas Carruthers)

'Faculty Focus' blog

Just wanted to key people in to a blog that I think is really excellent: Faculty Focus. One of its organizers and contributors is Maryellen Weimer, one of the very people working on teaching and learning. The blog addresses more than teaching and learning, but a lot of the topics it addresses have been topics of interest here at ISW. Some representative posts:

Anyway, there's a wealth of valuable material there, so do check it out!