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?