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?'