Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shaking things up in history of philosophy courses

A reader asks:
Just yesterday I started teaching a summer course on early modern. We read Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant (with a few others mixed in here and there). The problem is, there are only six students. And we meet for two hours and fifteen minutes each day, five days a week. My experience with modern has been that the default class is the lecture, with an active back and forth mixed in throughout. I don't think this is ideal generally, but more importantly, I think it could lead to a very dull next four weeks. Do you have any advice on how to make a small history course (designed for first-timers) more interesting? Any help would be appreciated.

Anyone have any ideas here? My experience echoes the writer's. In history of philosophy courses, the central goals (textual exposition, grasping the main doctrines and arguments, etc.) are challenging on their own, so students have to lean heavily on instructor expertise. As a result, the 'punctuated lecture' tends to emerge as the default format. What might be some techniques to shake things up and keep the classroom experience fresh and lively?

Employing a student to criticize my teaching

Whenever I describe the following experience to colleagues they tell me I should write it up. So. Here it is:

In Fall 2007 I taught a freshman seminar for the first time. The topic was Children, Marriage, and the Family, and students also took two, thematically-linked, classes in other departments together. The design is there are 20 students (in fact I've had 21 each time); it might be worth knowing in what follows that nearly all of those students have been women which, I am told, is a result of the subject matter. I had, up till then, very little contact with first or second year undergraduates. My regular large service class, although perfectly suitable for freshmen and sophomores, is under-supplied, so upper-class students nearly fill it up before the others get to register. And I usually teach upper level courses for majors otherwise, which, again, mostly contain juniors and seniors.

So teaching first years was a big challenge. Lecturing them is absurd. But I had no discussion-prompting skills, and no knowledge of what the students would know. I was uneasy all semester long for lots of reasons, and never felt entirely on top of things. And I felt particularly inadequate because I had just read Our Underachieving Colleges. It certainly got better, and I had a (then) graduate student who is a much more skilled teacher than I am visit a few times, partly for recommendation-writing purposes, but mainly to get her help.

I taught the same seminar again in Fall 2010. That summer I had one of my semi-regular meetings over tea/coffee with Emma, a 2007 student, who by then was a Nursing major, and with whom I had talked a lot about the classes she was taking during the intervening time. She, knowing I was going to teach the class again in the Fall, asked whether there was anything she could do to help.

I knew immediately what I wanted her to do.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

American Association of Philosophy Teachers workshop Saturday, June 1 in Atlanta

Saturday, June 1, the summer workshop of the American Association of Philosophy teachers is meeting at Morehouse College, Atlanta. Below and here ( SummerAAPT.com  ) is a tentative schedule of events. All are welcome! Please pass the word on about this event to your networks. Thanks!  The schedule is below.

Correction: an earlier version of this post mistakenly said 'this' Saturday, which was incorrect at the time of the initial post. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Fostering Community in the Classroom

Last week I had one of those teaching days that puts a spring back in your step and reminds you that teaching is a wonderful part of the job. The funny thing is that this moment had very little to do with anything I did, though I want to understand the conditions that facilitated it so I can nudge my other classes in this direction.

My philosophy of education course has been a bit of a struggle this term. There are a wide range of students in that class in terms of philosophical background, writing ability, and general engagement with the topic. Discussion at the beginning of the term was often sluggish and superficial. However, last week my students had a frank and open conversation about higher education, its aims, what they were actually getting out of it, how it might be reformed, and about the history of our institution in general (the reading for the day was a journalist’s take on the history of City College). What was remarkable about the discussion wasn’t only the breadth of ideas and the depth with which students approached them, but the genuine appreciation students demonstrated for each other’s contributions. I find that students are often reluctant to really listen and engage with each other, and want the professor to take charge of the classroom and tell them what to think. But this class was markedly different. Students talked about how City’s admissions policy was critical to bringing more students like themselves to college and why being exposed to students from such different backgrounds was an important part of their education. It was interesting hearing students really bring to light how they saw themselves fitting into the college’s diverse community and genuinely acknowledge what other students in the classroom contributed to their education. Intellectually, this class was remarkable because students were building on each other’s ideas, asking good questions, and thinking critically about their own education. I was merely an astounded facilitator.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

When is copying not plagiarism?

Sometime ago (just after the 2001 general election), I was listening to a senior adviser to Tony Blair at a non-academic public policy conference. He started saying some things that were quite critical of the promises New Labour had made, and implemented, in education, and I found myself, at first, thinking how sensible and well-thought out the criticisms were. Then, I started thinking that I recognized the language in which they were couched, and, eventually, realised that the reason it all sounded so good was that it had been taken, more or less verbatim, from something I had written. My first, momentary, response was to be irritated by this—but, once I remembered where I had written it (the cover story of a magazine that was distributed widely at the previous Labour Party conference) I was, simply, pleased. Of course, he is not going to cite me in a speech, and if you write in that sort of venue you should be hoping that somebody like him will take your words and ideas and make them their own.

If an academic had done that, I would have remained irritated (for about 20 minutes, I imagine, I really don’t care that much), and I think that it would have counted as plagiarism. If a student did the same thing I would regard it as serious academic misconduct. But in the context it seemed just fine.

I remembered this during a discussion with a grad student recently.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Grading anonymously

The folks at NewAPPS are having a worthwhile discussion of the merits of anonymous grading: its capacity to counteract the halo effect, how to deal with work that you can associate with a student anyway, etc. I've used our university's LMS for anonymous grading and found it to be a welcome reform. Do check the New APPS discussion.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Organizing in-class debates

Students often request that I organize formal in-class debates. I usually demur, largely because my past experiences have been fairly negative. Most students do not participate, and those that do are those who tend to participate in in-class discussion anyway. The result is simply an in-class discussion with the chairs rearranged.

However, last week, I organized a formal debate in my moral philosophy course and it went well. I'm trying to diagnose why it went well so that I can replicate the experience — but I'm also interested in what techniques others have found helpful in organizing such debates.