Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy instructional new year

Seeing as we're approaching the New Year, I thought we could share classroom-related New Year's resolutions for 2008: something we'd like to be more conscientious about, improve upon, etc. I''ll go first:

Return student work in a more timely fashion. I'm usually good about this, getting student papers back to them within a week of the due date. But occasionally it takes longer than it should, and the longer it takes, the less students attend to (or can do much with) the feedback I provide. Sometimes this is just a matter of sheer workload, but (I admit) it's traceable to my dislike of grading. I actually enjoy reading people's work and providing comments, but the need to assign grades tends to kill my motivation for some reason. So let's see if I can be more on the ball in this regard next year.

What's your resolution?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Lecturing is not good for children and other living things"

I am opposed to doing much traditional "lecturing" in most classroom contexts that I find myself in, which are typically classes with less than 35 students. For one, I think lecturing encourages passivity: students just sit back and typically just let ideas wash over them, at best. Second, I think it discourages doing the reading, if a lecture substitutes for that, as it often does: if the lecture will sum up the basic ideas and arguments, why bother reading about them in the readings? (And somewhere I have gotten the idea that there is research to show that most people learn best from reading, although I now retain that belief probably on the basis of wishful thinking!). I prefer spending our time doing learning activities that students could not do on their own.

Fortunately, I am not alone in having these kinds of thoughts about lectures. Here are some recent articles on lecturing:

Lecturing vs. Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Breathing Life Into the Lecture Hall

To Lecture or Not to Lecture, an Age-Old Question

A guru here seems to Eric Mazur from Harvard's physics department.

I wonder if people have any thoughts on this issue, know of other relevant discussion, etc.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Arguments for classroom discussion

In his very influential introductory text on ethics, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels discusses the tragic case of an anencephallic baby named Theresa (BT) whose parents wanted to donate her organs so that otherwise healthy children who need them could survive. One of the issues involving this case is that in order to utilize the organs the doctors would have to kill BT. The ethical question arises, is it morally permissible to kill BT in order to retrieve her organs so that others might live? The argument that he presents in favor of killing BT in order to retrieve her organs is what he labels the ‘benefits argument:’ (It should be noted that Rachels does not address whether or not he agrees with this argument, only that this argument can be made.)
1. If we can benefit someone without harming another then it is permissible to do so.
2. Retrieving the organs from BT will benefit others without harming BT
3. Therefore we should retrieve the organs from BT.
When I discuss this problem in my intro to ethics course most students find this to be a plausible argument. They believe that the premises are true and have a tendency to agree that the doctors should be allowed to kill BT.

Assuming that the benefits argument is a sound argument, I then present an argument that seems to follow from, and be consistent with, the benefits argument, but which most students reject as being implausible and would not sanction doing what this argument requires. The argument is:
1. If we can benefit someone without harming another then it is permissible to do so.
2. There is a shortage of organs needed to save lives.
3. We can reduce this shortage by developing a fetal farm of anencephallic babies from which we can harvest needed organs.
4. We will benefit others and will not harm anyone by developing these fetal farms and harvesting the needed organs.
5. Therefore we should develop fetal farms of anencephallic babies and harvest their organs as needed.

The reason I give these contrasting arguments is to get students to realize that even though we sometimes accept premises as being true we do not always accept the conclusions that seem to follow from them. Anyway, you might find it interesting to discuss this issue with your students. In my experience it has generated a great deal of discussion that has lead to some interesting distinctions; e.g., something simply happening and causing something to happen, and possible theoretical positions regarding the roles of reason and emotions in our ethical lives.

I hope all of you have a happy holiday season and a new year full of adventure and growth.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

In praise of task praise

We've talked a good bit about learning and motivation at In Socrates' Wake, and of the educational psychologists working on such questions, Carol Dweck has the most interesting things to say. This article from Scientific American summarizes her fascinating work on how praise impacts learners' conception of knowledge, and in turn, the motivations that govern their learning efforts. I'd encourage everyone to read it themselves, but here are a few key ideas.

Central to Dweck's work is a distinction between two ways that learners come to understand intelligence:

... I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.

It's easy to imagine how students with a helplessness mindset would struggle academically: The slightest adversity will be taken as evidence of an innate deficiency, and so the helpless learner will figure out to avoid the tasks that manifest this deficiency. As we've discussed a lot here at ISW, studying philosophy can be awfully intimidating and can bring to the surface various insecurities about one's academic abilities. It would not shock me if intro to philosophy classes are places where this difference in how students see learning and intelligence play a huge role in their motivation and subsequent performance.

The practical upshot of Dweck's work is that praise — and in particular, how we praise — shapes whether learners acquire the helpless or mastery learning outlook:

How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided.

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.

So a question for us philosophy instructors: Is it too late in the academic careers of the students we teach (i.e., college leval) to think that the forms of praise (or criticism) would have any impact on their conception of learning? Suppose that it's not too late. Do we praise (or criticize) students in ways that encourage the fixed intelligence view or in ways that encourage the mastery/effort view? It seems like the message from Dweck is that our praise and criticism needs to be very task-specific, referring not to alleged facts about students but facts about their work and the efforts that produce it. I'd be interested to hear about the styles of feedback or feedback mechanisms that people use and whether these provide feedback along the lines recommended by Dweck.

(On a side note: I don't think most of us are given a lot of directions early in our teaching careers about how to provide feedback to students. One bit of advice I've heard is that we should always something positive on a student paper, no matter how awful it is. Is that good advice?)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Assessment: A philosopher speaks

Following up on Adam's post about assessment instruments for philosophy majors, I located this article in the National Education Association publication Thought and Action. In it, Ken Buckman (a philosopher at the University of Texas-Pan American) raises several concerns about assessment, and in particular, about assessment within disciplines such as philosophy. Here I'll try to outline (and invite you to react to) some of Buckman's main concerns.

It's a bit hard to specify exactly what makes Buckman an assessment skeptic, but here seem to be his main concerns:

  1. Assessment reflects a wrongheaded view of the value of education as consisting solely in products, whereas the value of education consists in its being "an engagement between a student and a professor in the transformative process of learning [that] is never reducible to an outcome." (p. 35)
  2. Assessment inevitably values quantitative measures of learning over qualitative ones, which in turn leads to standardized tests, which in turn are difficult to craft for a discipline like philosophy.
  3. (related to 2) Assessment demands 'teaching to the test,' resulting in students who, battered by rote memorization, are 'detached' from learning (p. 33)
  4. Not only does assessment ignore the students' responsibility for their own learning, it rests on a "presumptive distrust that faculty are doing their jobs"; since faculty are experts in their disciplines and are subject to regular reviews of their teaching, the grades that students receive from faculty should render an additional level of assessment unnecessary. (p. 34)

I'm not sure I think that these are damning criticisms of assessment (when done well), nor do they point to insurmountable challenges for implementing assessment effectively within philosophy. I'll hold my electronic tongue for the moment though and ask others for their reactions to Buckman's article.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Learning and Motivation, part II: "Falling without getting hurt"

(This is the second post on Marilia Svinicki's Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Here's part I, on how learners come to question or abandon their existing beliefs.)

One of the more provocative chapters of Svinicki's book concerns how to help students develop skills. One model used to do this is the mimicry of experts: Students observe the techniques and modes of thinking that experts in a field use and attempt to copy them. Svinicki writes:

Another problem with the use of expert models is that learners can get a false sense of their own level of understanding if all they do is watch the model. How often have you heard students say, "but I understood it when you did it in class!" This illusion of understanding is a pitfall of expert modeling. Because so many of the false starts and wrong paths never get articulated during expert modeling, students don't learn what to do when things go wrong. Part of learning any skill is learning how to cope with failure. In learning a dangerous sport, like gymnastics or rock climbing, one of the first things taught is hos to fall without getting hurt. Students are taught how to roll with the punches. We should provide an equivalent education for those learning intellectual skills, how to fall intellectually without getting hurt. (pp. 72-73)

For teachers of philosophy, this is a richly suggestive passage. First, philosophy teaches skills (among other things). The skills will vary from course to course, but certainly careful analytical reading, logical reasoning, critical thinking, intellectual sympathy, argumentative writing, etc. are among the skills philosophers try to instill. I find Svinicki's student comment — "but I understood it when you did it in class!" — to be very familiar. For example, student papers can reproduce arguments discussed in class, but it is often apparent from students' inability to analyze the argument, pose objections, etc., that their level of understanding is not as strong as they had anticipated.

And this is where her remarks about falling "without getting hurt" become relevant: Philosophy is a risky discipline to study, I think. Because it teaches skills, it's cognitively risky, demanding that students step outside their familiar patterns of thought and belief. It's personally risky as well, since philosophy deals with questions about which people sometimes have strong opinions, opinions rooted near the core of their identities. In philosophy, "false starts and wrong paths" are the norm for beginners. (I imagine many of us encounter students coming to philosophy for the first time who know these risks and are not especially engaged with the course because they fear these risks.)

But at the same time, students can't genuinely master philosophy without taking some risks, and I wonder how effective we are at encouraging and rewarding risk taking, and when students fall, how to ensure that it doesn't hurt. In short, how can we make the study of philosophy safe for students?

Here's one example of a common feature of teaching that might discourage intellectual risk taking. Student Y and student Z write papers, and both receive, say, a B on the paper. Y and Z decide to take advantage of your rewrite policies and submitted revised versions of the original paper. Y's paper gets a B+: Y tidied up some of the paragraph structure, fixed the typos, and provided a slightly better reply to an objection to her thesis. Z's paper gets a C: Z undertook a wideranging revision of her paper, revising the thesis in light of criticisms, dealing with new texts (perhaps some of them were even unassigned), etc. But the result is less coherent than her earlier paper: harder to follow, more disjointed, etc. So despite Z's more ambitious efforts to delve more deeply into the issues, her efforts backfire gradewise, whereas Y's more superficial revisions reward her.

Grading is one facet of teaching that makes Svinick's remarks about falling without getting hurt valuable. In order to learn to walk, you have to be willing to fall down. How do we help students fall down?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Philosophy Now and Popular Culture

The current issue of Philosophy Now magazine is devoted to the philosophy and pop culture trend. Some of the articles are available for free online at this link.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Last Day of Class

I would guess that many readers of this blog have put some considerable thought into what to do on the first day of class, apart from administrative details such as explaining the syllabus. But I often wonder what in the world I should do on the last day of class, besides reviewing for the final exam.

Perhaps I just have some sort of psychological need for closure, but it seems to me that in an introductory course in philosophy or ethics, some conclusions should be drawn about the value of philosophy for human existence by highlighting some of its connections with our daily lives. I, however, am usually unsatisfied with how this goes. My usual strategy is to re-emphasize the idea that philosophy grapples with some of life's biggest and most difficult questions, and that this is part of the good life for human beings (not just professional philosophers). There is something to the notion that philosophy begins in wonder, and I want my students to take that aspect of our discipline with them. I would be very interested to hear what types of things others do on the last day of class.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Bowl is more than half full

(Cross-posted at PEA Soup)

I wanted to put in a plug for what is certainly one of the best pedagogical developments in philosophy over the past decade: Ethics Bowl. I'm sure many of our readers are familiar with this competition and its value as a teaching tool. I'll only add my own observations here about the value of Ethics Bowl as a teaching tool and invite others to discuss their experiences with it. (I also have some tips for those interested in getting Ethics Bowl started on their campus, so please contact me if you're interested.)

As I see it, Ethics Bowl provides three things that are very hard to come by in traditional philosophy classroom settings:

: One of the challenges of both teaching and studying philosophy is that its value is sometimes not immediately evident. From the student's point of view, it may not be obvious how studying philosophical questions changes you in terms of your skills and attitudes. From an instructor's point of view, it's often frustrating to think that whatever benefit studying philosophy has for students, that benefit may not be tangible until many years down the road, well after students have graduated (and you've lost all contact with them). Because it's a competitive public event, Ethics Bowl makes the benefit of studying philosophy evident fairly quickly, in a way that is gratifying to students and instructor alike.

Publicity: Ethics Bowl puts the value of philosophy (and other disciplines insofar as they concern themselves with ethical questions) in the public eye. For students, the chance to prove their mettle before experts who aren't their instructors can be a powerful motivator, and when successful, a powerful way of vindicating their efforts. And because Ethics Bowl is a team event, it counteracts the common picture of philosophy as a discipline that progresses thanks to the contributions of solitary geniuses.

Practicality: Ethics Bowl shows that the study of philosophy (and ethics, in particular) is relevant to life outside the classroom. The cases often involve problems in their communities, workplaces, etc. that students may have to confront directly later in life. In this regard, I think it instills a kind of ethical sensibility -- a kind of radar for ethical phenomena -- that is difficult to instill through traditional classroom teaching.

(And on a side note: My Cal Poly Pomona squad won the California Regional Ethics Bowl on Saturday. A hearty congratulations to them!)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Evaluating Values

Usually at the end of the semester in my intro to philosophy and intro to ethics courses, I like to encourage my students to connect the ideas about value that we've been examining to their own lives. I have them complete an exercise in which they think about their values and the level of integration of their daily lives with those values. The questions are somewhat personal, and so I simply give them time in class to complete them and don't read over their answers. This means some won't take it seriously, but many will. This exercise is drawn from Heather Reid, The Philosophical Athlete (Carolina Academic Press, 2002).

Thinking Activity: Evaluating Values
1. Question: Which are your strongest and most important values?
2. Observe: Make a list of things and accomplishments you care about in life. The list can include objects, people, degrees, awards…whatever fits you.
3. Analyze: Go over your list and decide whether the item is intrinsically valuable (worthwhile in itself), instrumentally valuable (worthwhile as a means to something else), or both. Cross out all those things that are only instrumentally valuable and replace with the intrinsic value toward which they aim until your list only has intrinsic values or intrinsic/instrumental values.
4. Question again: Do these values actually guide your actions in life? Do concerns about money or acceptance sometimes get in the way of your ultimate intrinsic goals, such as happiness? How so? What, if anything, can you do to change this?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

'Fails to consider'

Tim Burke has a nice, short post at Easily Distracted about students using phrases like 'fail to consider' in their writing. As Tim points out, such phrases indicate a tentativeness on the writer's part — a kind of hedge against saying something more assertive. I was also intrigued by this comment from Rob MacD:

Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe observes that student writing rarely uses any of the vast inventory of verbs to describe mental actions: he argues, she assumes, they challenge, I infer, he claims… Instead students return again and again to variations of “discusses,” “considers,” or “talks about.” Graff relates this to a broader difficulty with familiarizing students to argument culture, where our students often understand the process of “choosing topics” but not of “forming arguments.”

That certainly reflects my experience with students attempting to write philosophy. They often have an impoverished vocabulary to describe argumentative moves and strategies. Any tips out there as to how to help students develop the habit of thinking about their own thinking —and the thinking of those whose work they study — in more richly argumentative terms?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Evolution vs. Intelligent Design(ers?)

Google apparently thinks that this movie -- "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" -- is right up a philosophers' alley. Perhaps this would be useful to integrate into next semesters' philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, intro to philosophy, etc. courses. It looks like a provocative film, at least.

Philosophers on Facebook

Late last summer, between finishing my summer courses and gearing up for the fall, I set up a Facebook page. Facebook is a social networking site that a lot of college students use. I tend to initially resist technology such as this, and then use it after my resistance is overcome by my curiosity. Facebook ended up being a good way to connect with old friends, but it also was a way to communicate with students, and I thought this would be a good thing. However, last week, I deleted my account.

One benefit I found with respect to my role as a teacher was that those students who were interested were able to get to know me a little bit better (my interests, what I'm reading and writing, and so on). I think this was good because it opened up some common ground between us, and this was part of my motivation. I was even able to engage in some philosophical discussions with students. On the negative side, Facebook is a time sink, and I found myself wasting precious time messing around with the various applications available on the site. Also, while I enjoyed the ability to connect with students in a way that was fun for them, being on Facebook had some negative consequences. Some seemed to think we were "real life" friends, rather than just "Facebook friends". Also, there was access to parts of my student's lives that I'd really rather not have access to! In the end, I'd rather communicate with students and friends face to face, when possible, rather than on Facebook.

I'd be interested to hear others experiences on Facebook or Myspace, both positive and negative.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Consolation of Philosophy

At this point in the semester (or quarter) it is useful to think about what sorts of things one can do that will help one remain engaged and enthused in the classroom. Just when our energy is running low, so is our student's. Here is something I do to revitalize.

I pick some philosophy to read - just for myself - that has nothing whatsoever to do with my own research or with what I'm currently doing in the classroom. It feels like a guilty pleasure. But it really helps me in the classroom. It reminds me of what I love about philosophy and teaching philosophy. Recently I've been reading up on the Absurd, and I also purchased a book on Epictetus by Long. Neither of these topics has anything to do with 18th century philosophy of mind, or with the courses I'm teaching. But being as worn out as one gets at this point in the year, I don't expect I can do much research now anyway. Might as well indulge my philosophical curiosity.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Better to be a burger-flipper satisfied...

More philosophy in the news! As posted on Brian Leiter's blog (via Thom Brooks' blog), the Guardian says philosophy majors are increasingly in demand. The article hits a lot of good points, but I especially like that people are finally starting to recognize the tremendous practical value of philosophical thinking. It's not just about thinking outside the box or questioning assumptions, employers. Philosophers are also much better at working within certain sets of assumptions, precisely because they realize that they are working within sets of assumptions.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Academic Employment News

"Adjuncts outnumber tenured professors on U.S. campuses"

By Alan Finder
International Herald Tribune, Tuesday, November 20, 2007

DEARBORN, Michigan: Professors with tenure or who are on a tenure track are now a distinct minority on U.S. campuses, as the ranks of part-time instructors and professors hired on a contract have swelled, according to federal figures analyzed by the American Association of University Professors.

Elaine Zendlovitz, a former retail store manager who began teaching college courses six years ago, is representative of the change.

Technically, Zendlovitz is a part-time Spanish professor although, in fact, she teaches nearly all the time.

Her days begin at the University of Michigan in Dearborn with introductory classes. Some days end at 10 p.m. at Oakland Community College, in the suburbs north of Detroit, as she teaches six courses at four institutions.

"I think we part-timers can be everything a full-timer can be," Zendlovitz said during a break in a 10-hour teaching day. But she acknowledged: "It's harder to spend time with students. I don't have the prep time, and I know how to prepare a fabulous class."

The shift from a tenured faculty results from financial pressures, administrators' desire for more flexibility in hiring, firing and changing course offerings, and the growth of community colleges and regional public universities focused on teaching basics and preparing students for jobs.

But it has become so extreme that some universities are pulling back, concerned about the effect on educational quality. Rutgers University in New Jersey agreed in a labor settlement in August to add 100 tenure or tenure-track positions. Across the country, faculty unions are organizing part-timers. And the American Federation of Teachers is pushing legislation in 11 states to mandate that 75 percent of classes be taught by tenured or tenure-track teachers.

Three decades ago, adjuncts - both part-timers and full-timers not on a tenure track - represented only 43 percent of professors, according to the professors' association, which has studied data reported to the federal Education Department. Currently, the association says, they account for nearly 70 percent of professors at colleges and universities, both public and private.

John Curtis, the union's director of research and public policy, said that while the number of tenured and tenure-track professors has increased by about 25 percent over the past 30 years, they have been swamped by the growth in adjunct faculty. Over all, the number of people teaching at colleges and universities has doubled since 1975.

University officials agree that the use of nontraditional faculty is soaring. But some contest the professors' association's calculation, saying definitions of part-time and full-time professors vary, and that it is not possible to determine how many courses, on average, each category of professor actually teaches.

Many state university presidents say tight budgets have made it inevitable that they turn to adjuncts to save money.

"We have to contend with increasing public demands for accountability, increased financial scrutiny and declining state support," said Charles Harrington, provost of the University of North Carolina in Pembroke. "One of the easiest, most convenient ways of dealing with these pressures is using part-time faculty," he said, though he cautioned that colleges that rely too heavily on such faculty "are playing a really dangerous game."

Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, said part-timers could provide real-world experience to students and fill gaps in nursing, math, accounting and other disciplines with a shortage of qualified faculty, though he, too, said that the shift could come with costs.

Adjuncts are less likely to have doctoral degrees, educators say.

They also have less time to meet with students, and research suggests that students who take many courses with them are somewhat less likely to graduate.

"Really, we are offering less educational quality to the students who need it most," said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, noting that the soaring number of adjunct faculty is most pronounced in community colleges and the less select public universities. The elite universities, both public and private, have the fewest adjuncts.

"It's not that some of these adjuncts aren't great teachers," Ehrenberg said. "Many don't have the support that the tenure-track faculty have, in terms of offices, secretarial help and time. Their teaching loads are higher, and they have less time to focus on students."

Ehrenberg and a colleague analyzed 15 years of national data and found that graduation rates declined when public universities hired large numbers of contingent faculty.

Several studies of individual universities have determined that freshmen taught by many part-timers were more likely to drop out.

"Having an adjunct in a course is not necessarily bad for you, but having too many adjuncts might be," said Eric Bettinger, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Teaching Ethics and Animals?

The past few days in my intro to ethics class we have been discussing ethics and animals. In defense of animals, we read Singer's widely reprinted essay "All Animals Are Equal" and a short paper called "Reasonable Humans and Animals". We first think about the fur industry, and then think about animal agriculture and then I have them think about the relations between the two in a paper.

In response, and in some defense of common views about animals, we read a page by Kant on why we have no obligations to animals (and non-"self-conscious" beings in general, apparently) and something by Tibor Machan on why animals don't have "rights," as well as a sheet of at least 50 objections or responses to arguments in defense of animals that I have compiled. If I had more time, I would try to find more things in defense of the status quo and/or or critical of arguments in defense of animals.

While some of my students enjoy this topic and find it important and meaningful, typically, however, at least some students are not so happy about this discussion. This is, I suspect, because I try to get them to really see what's going on with the Singer and Simmons' arguments and force them to carefully examine the various critical objections and responses, i.e., think them through with care to figure out if they really hold up to a bit of critical thinking.

So my questions are these:
  • What, if anything, can be done to avoid or lessen these of (negative, unengaging) responses? Perhaps there are people who teach these topics but don't have, or rarely have, these kinds of reactions, i..e, they typically have better responses than what I often get, at least with some groups of students. If there are such people, how do they do it?
  • What sort of methods, approaches, and attitudes are best for trying to get students to productively engage these issues?
  • What are the best readings or resources to present in defense of the status quo, common views, etc.?
I can add that I think many of my students' ability to engage with the issue improve over the few class meetings we use for these issues. Hopefully they are spending some time to process the issue on their own and their quality of thinking improves as a result.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Philosophers get out of the cave, into the pod(casting)?

My university has a program that assists faculty in creating audiofiles that can then be used to create podcasts students can subscribe to, download, etc. I've not yet explored this in detail, but I'm interested and would be curious to know if anyone has any experience or insights into this.

The first issue is the content of the podcasts themselves. The obvious benefit of podcasts would be that students could listen while in their cars, on the bus, walking to class, etc. I don't think I want to encourage their use as a substitute for in-class activities, so I don't think I'll put lecture-like content on them. My idea was to use them as ways of refreshing student's recollections about the content of previous meetings, perhaps highlighting a few key points, suggesting a few questions to ruminate over in preparation for the next meeting, and so on. I thought I could also ask students to e-mail me questions related to a given meeting's content, and I could offer responses to the questions on the podcast. I could also remind students of upcoming tasks and deadlines.

Anyone have any suggestions here?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Teaching Intro to High School Students

Hi All,

Tis' the season for email requests. I received another email from Jenny Hudson, who teaches in an international school in Hong Kong (living in Hong Kong! I'm jealous!). She asks for some advice about teaching introduction to philosophy to students of that age, and also in that setting. I'll reproduce her email request below for all of you to read.

Advice needed for a new teacher of Philosophy

I have just started to teach Philosophy to 17 and 18 yr olds in an international school in Hong Kong. The course is designed to fulfill the requirements of the IB syllabus. The school has chosen 3 units of study; What is a Human Being (mind body question, manifestations of personhood, knowledge of self and others), Philosophy of Religion (concepts of a higher being,religious experience and behavior and religion around the world) and Theories of Ethics.

Currently the students are studying the first 2 themes and, while I have the philosophical knowledge to teach them, I am uncertain of any 'good' teaching methods. I am a qualified teacher but have not taught this age group before and I find their maturity a little daunting!

I am interested in ensuring this course is taught in the most engaging way possible but need some ideas to kick start me.

Does anyone have a tried and tested techniques for teaching philosophy, for making the lessons engaging, to ensure the lessons are not just me reading notes to the kids, and explaining them?

I would really appreciate any activities, methods, websites, ideas - anything that can help me to make the course as interesting as possible.

Thanks in advance

Building a Havrutot in the Classroom

I received this by email from Vance Ricks at Guilford College. A colleague of his, Jonathan Malino, had an idea about a possible classroom tool for group work/understanding learning through a group experience, and Vance suggested that he try to get it up here for some comments on how to develop the idea. So I'm functioning as the messenger here. I think the idea is an interesting one, and because I'm such a dreadful failure at getting this kind of collaborative learning to happen in my own classrooms, I'm curious to hear what people have to say about it too. Here's the original email, with a few changes to translate from email to blog-ese:

In Introduction to Philosophy, I broke the class into groups of two. Generally when I break the class up, the groups have 3-4, but I wanted to be sure no one could be passive. I also picked the groups, so that students who don't sit near each other or appear to know each other well would work together.

As I watched them, before I started to float, I recalled that the typical format for Jewish text study in a yeshiva is called "havrutot," or study partners/partnerships. I've always found this format a terrific experience when we do it my Israeli philosophy conference, although there groups tend to be more than two. But in a yeshiva setting, each partner has a palpable responsibility for the learning the pair accomplishes. Plato is aware of one aspect of this kind of study, when he quotes the
Illiad in the Protagoras (and in the Symposium) "When two walk together, one sees before the other" (rough quote). In the Protagoras, Socrates also talks about how, when we discover something, we are eager to share it and check it with others. In short, there is a social aspect to learning and discovery that includes, but goes beyond, the inherent social character of the elenchos.

I mention all this because as I watched the students on Friday, I thought that it would be interesting to find a way to build havrutot into my Intro. class in a systematic way. I don't know how to do this, but I'm going to give it some thought.

Any suggestions here for our colleague at Guilford?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Learning and Motivation, pt I: Abandoning existing beliefs

I have recently been reading (with colleagues from various disciplines) Marilla Svinicki's book Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. This will be the first of what I intend as a series of posts sharing provocative tidbits from the book that I hope prove relevant to the teaching of philosophy.

Svinicki devotes an early chapter to the topic of what theories of learning tell us what will assist students to master new content. One of the main barriers is that "prior knowledge and experience affect current behavior and learning," and not necessarily in salutary ways. For example, learners may have existing beliefs that are sufficiently ingrained that attempts to dislodge these beliefs by presenting counterevidence to them will often fail. Svinicki, citing a paper by Posner et al. (1982), states that four conditions must be met in order for learners to abandon an existing belief (pp. 28-29):
  1. Dissatisfaction: learners have to be confronted with information that makes them dissatisfied with the existing belief
  2. Intelligibility: the belief proposed as a substitute must be intelligible to the learner
  3. Plausibility: the belief proposed as a substitute must be plausible to the learner
  4. Fruitfulness: the proposed new belief must be able to "predict new ideas as well as explain old ones"
Svinikci's four criteria fit somewhat awkwardly with much of what we teach in philosophy: For instance, philosophical beliefs have logical implications, but often don't "predict" anything. Nevertheless, her description resonates strongly with me inasmuch as much of philosophical learning is unlearning: unearthing and querying unrecognized assumptions, noting that our commitments have surprising — even implausible — implications, etc. This is much of what we sometimes think of as 'critical thinking.' And on the whole, I think philosophers are reasonably successful in using our analytical and logical skills to help students meet the first criterion.

Yet I wonder how often we succeed in meeting criteria 2-4. I suspect many students new to philosophy are thrilled by philosophy's capacity for intellectual destruction but become disillusioned when they feel that the relentless criticism of views endemic to philosophical practice results in many views being toppled but not much being offered in their stead. In philosophical research, being 'purely destructive' has its place. (If I recall correctly, Gilbert Ryle had several papers whose purpose, he said, was wholly destructive.) But in the classroom, being purely destructive is itself destructive -- and I wonder how often we help students destroy without helping them 'move on' to an ostensibly better view of the phenomena in question. This relates to some of our earlier discussions: Mike's on philosophical progress and mine on 'easy' moral skepticism. But I'd be curious to hear people's thoughts about how well we philosophy teachers do beyond instilling a sense of dissatisfaction in students concerning their philosophical convictions, and if we're not doing as well as we should, what techniques or approaches might help us steer students toward convictions that are intelligible, plausible, and fruitful.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Teaching the History of Philosophy

When teaching the history of philosophy I encourage students to approach the history of philosophy as they would contemporary philosophy. It is as important to identify, outline and reconstruct Locke’s arguments as it is to identify, outline and reconstruct Peter Singer’s arguments. For each, one must use the principle of charity and considerations of overall coherence. Originality does not primarily consist in arriving at some completely novel idea but in providing explanations, arguments and interpretations of ways that philosophical problems can be or have been treated.

I emphasize that when one identifies, outlines, reconstructs and explains an argument, one is providing an interpretation for which one is responsible, i.e. one that is open to criticism.

Students often ask: “When do I get to do philosophy?” This is a difficult question to answer because when we ask them to explain, for example, Reid’s criticism of Locke’s theory of personal identity, we are asking them to do philosophy. But they often take us to be asking for a book report and they wonder why we’re not “letting them” do philosophy.

Any advice about how to make clear to students that when we ask them to provide interpretations and explanations of various positions in philosophy as exemplified by particular figures – from Socrates to Singer – we are asking them to “do” philosophy?

Course Refreshers

We've hit the shorter days of November and we've all seen it in our classes: attendance drop-offs, falling behind in the reading that turns to not doing the reading, and even our better students becoming a little complacent. It's time for a little pick-me-up that provides a bit of a reminder that we haven't been just doing the same thing for weeks on end. A little bright memory that carries the course into Thanksgiving break in a couple of weeks and after that the rush to finals. So does anyone have anything special they do at this point to reinvigorate a course?

One of the things I've done in the past is a quick midterm evaluation (though usually earlier in the semester and I completely spaced on doing them this semester). I have a midterm evaluation form which is probably too comprehensive, but part of the form asks students to distribute 10 points into what kinds of different activities we should do in class (so half lecture, half discussion would put 5 points in the "lecture" box and 5 points in "discussion" box) and that part is easily done even without a form. I usually average it out across all the forms and change course if necessary. Another thing I've tried in past logic courses is "fallacy jeopardy", made possible with a couple of Powerpoint presentations that really do work like the Jeopardy board. Finally, in my more applied courses, I try to go a little more into theory and some of the deeper questions to remind students that there's a lot under the surface. In my less applied courses, I try to take a break from the official narrative of the course and spend a course applying old, dead philosophers to recent events. (I try to do this anyway, but these are more sustained lessons that can take all or half of the class period.)

Anybody else have anything they do to perk up a November classroom?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Steppin' up to the mic: part 6

I'm happy to tell our readers that Rebecca Copenhaver has joined us as a contributor. Becko teaches at Lewis and Clark College, and she is an early modernist, a specialist in Reid in fact. So we're hoping she can enlighten us on the mysteries of teaching the history of philosophy. Welcome Becko -- and we look forward to your posts.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Homosexuality and Moral Arguments

In my introduction to ethics course, we spend some time discussing homosexuality. I don't know how common it is for philosophy instructors to discuss this topic, but I have found it to be very worthwhile, for many reasons. After our discussion, I have them write a paper. The papers I receive, for them most part, fall into two categories. I wonder if this is a problem and, if it is, how it can be avoided.

The format of our discussion is fairly standard (at least for me). I make a few distinctions (in this case, that by 'homosexuality' one might be referring to, at least, certain kinds of (1) actions, (2) feelings or desires, (3) relationships and/or (4) stereotypical "lifestyles." I observe that these are all different and none needn't entail any of the others.

With these distinctions in mind, I then ask them if they know of anyone -- or have ever heard of anyone -- who would say that homosexuality is wrong, i.e., morally impermissible, or bad. Of course they all say yes.

I then ask them to break up into groups and try to come up with as many reasons as they have ever heard or could imagine anyone giving in defense of that conclusion. I note that perhaps reasons might better apply to actions and not to desires, etc.

We then wind up with a fairly massive list, especially since I add a few that they might not have thought of, that I sum up in this handout. We then work through many of these arguments, first stating them in valid form (i.e., usually adding a missing universal generalization or conditional) and then evaluating whether there are any reasons to think that any of the premises are false (e.g., in particular, whether there are any obvious counterexamples to the universal generalization).

The papers are then pretty predictable. Many argue either that there are no sound arguments against homosexuality (or none that they have seen), so we should think that homosexuality is permissible. These papers, it seems to me, are often quite good: the arguments are carefully explained, counterexamples given to the premises, and there's often a bit of good reflection at the end about why there is controversy in many circles about this issue, given their estimate of the quality of the arguments.

The other kind of paper is like this: the arguments against homosexuality are presented, but in a very uncareful manner: e.g., various interesting claims, about what's 'natural' or what something's 'function' is, etc., are made but not explained or defended. And objections are typically totally ignored: they are not even raised, despite that being part of the assignment.

So my question is whether this is a problem and, if so, what can be done about it.

(I should also add that I never assert any "final" view about the morality of homosexuality or the arguments. If anyone asks what I think I simply report here that my role is a guide (or game show host) and that I'm just trying to get people to think about these arguments.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Handout How-To?

Guest blogger, Rebecca (Becko) Copenhaver, ask this question for feedback:

I'm teaching a course called Philosophical Methods, which focuses on issues of writing, presentation and basic philosophical skills and concepts. My students requested that I teach them how to make handouts for their presentations. While this is a great idea, I don't quite know how to start (it's tacit knowledge for me by now). Does anyone know of any existing resources I might use?

(Note: if anyone would like to guest blog and/or has a question or issue to post about, just email it one of the full-time bloggers.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Philosophy Writing Handbooks?

I've decided that since my upper division classes are small, I want to turn them into writing seminars. I think this would do more good, all things considered, then other formats. So, fewer topics but more depth, more papers -- and especially "workshopping" papers, peer-reviewing, consultations with instructor, drafts, revisions, presentations, etc. -- and a final paper that requires some independent research, with the goal that interested students could do something with this paper, e.g., undergrad. conference, writing sample, etc.

There are a number of guides to writing philosophy out there -- e.g., Philosophical Writing, Writing Philosophy, Writing to Reason, and many, many more.

Anyone have any experience with these kinds of books? Anyone have anything to recommend (or not)? Thanks!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Do dedicated teachers have an easier time on the job market?

Since it is job market season in the academic world and particularly the philosophy world, I thought it would be good to bring this question to the floor here at ISW. Many new PhDs are justifiably concerned about finding gainful employment in philosophy, especially in a job market that includes not just new PhDs but people wanting to make lateral moves or "climb the ladder" in the discipline. The task can be daunting, and even haunting with the amount of uncertainty involved. First, some assumptions: I'm assuming there is a model of a good philosopher who doesn't want to devote all of his or her time to research. This is, of course, someone who does not hold research in disdain, but is comfortable with, say, 60%-90% of his or her time each week being devoted to preparing classes, teaching classes, and helping students. Second assumption: graduate students have a finite amount of time after completing coursework that they can spend writing their dissertations, publishing papers, or preparing courses and studying teaching. Third assumption: there are a good deal more jobs available that make teaching a priority in one's career over research (call these teaching-primary positions) and, with the first assumption, these positions can be fulfilling for good philosophers. Finally, fourth assumption: many teaching-primary positions are looking for good teachers first with supporting evidence of promising research.

Now I think it goes without saying that the best possible preparation one could have for the job market is to be as good of a teacher and as good of a researcher as one possibly can. But with the assumption of finite time, I think things get more interesting. One can choose to spend one's time eeking out another publication in a more research-oriented journal or polishing an article about one's teaching, compiling video, compiling other evidence, interacting with students, and so on in preparation for making the case on the job market. Given that many good philosophers could be happy in a teaching-primary job and there are more of them out there, and these departments are looking for people who have worked on honing their teaching, it seems that occasionally in the hectic life of a grad student in the later years, it can be more advantageous to work on one's teaching than reinforcing one's research. Perhaps it's even right to claim that the upper bound for how much good research can do for you on the job market as a whole is lower than the upper bound for how much work on your teaching can do for you. Dedicated teachers looking for a teaching-primary position would seem to have an easier time on the job market than dedicated researchers trying to hedge their bets by applying to teaching-primary positions as fallbacks. I wish I had facts and figures to support my hunches here, but I only have anecdotal evidence from my own graduate studies where the people who made teaching a primary focus rarely spent more than a year on the job market, compared to others who had more mixed success.

Some practical fallout after the break.

I think this kind of thing is important to start noticing more forthrightly because there is a certain kind of bias that must inevitably creep into graduate programs. After all, graduate programs are staffed by philosophers who are usually not in teaching-primary positions. So their natural inclination (and what they know) will be to train philosophers in a research-primary fashion to compete for research-primary jobs. But it's important to keep this bias in mind because one may be pushing students towards a path where they have less of a chance to compete for teaching-primary jobs, and thus less of a chance of having a potentially fulfilling career in philosophy. I've heard tell of graduate students who couldn't get letters for any school their advisor deemed "beneath" him/her.

The practical fallout is twofold. First, philosophy graduate programs should have at least some kind of real teacher training program, if not a whole teaching-track for graduate students (that, again, isn't treated with derision by people who view research-primary jobs as the sole destination for good philosophers). There are grad programs that do this (Syracuse is one I know of for sure, I'd be very happy to collect stories of others). Graduate programs should also hire with an eye towards finding at least some people who can meaningfully contribute to such a program. Second, prospective graduate students need to be better informed about which programs do and don't do a good job of supporting teaching development (perhaps we even need a separate kind of Gourmet Report; it would already be handy to have a ranking solely by placement given how many prospectives use the Report). Third, students who find themselves in a program without such an emphasis need to understand how to develop their teaching and "sell" their teaching on the job market. It can be the gateway to not only an easier time on the job market, but also a fulfilling position.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Does Philosophy Provide Any Answers?

This question came up last week in one of my classes. In the context of discussing arguments for and against God's existence, a student claimed that after all of the arguments, objections, and rejoinders, no real progress has been made in determining whether or not God exists. This same response occurs when talking about morality (as discussed in a previous post on this blog about moral skepticism), human nature, the meaning of life, the nature of knowledge, and just about every major philosophical question. How should we deal with this?

It seems to me that we can point out the progress philosophers have made on these issues, even if it is slow and sometimes painful. In class last week I noted that the majority of philosophers agree that the logical problem of evil has been solved by Plantinga, which is a counterexample to the claim that philosophy makes no progress in providing answers to questions. Of course, I then pointed out that the discussion has shifted to the evidential problem of evil. I have some other ways of responding to this student's question, but I'd like to here what others think about this issue, and how they deal with it when it arises in both introductory and advanced courses.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Degrading on the curve

Since I believe that transparency and collaboration are values that promote student learning, I sometimes provide my students an opportunity at the beginning of the quarter to have a say about grading policies and standards. And I'm always amazed at how enthusiastic students are about curving grades. I'm opposed to curving for various reasons, but what really puzzles me is why students are enthusiastic about curves in the first place.

First off, I'm against the message about learning and achievement sent by a curve: that grades measure students against one another rather than against a defined set of benchmarks for learning. Life is competitive enough without my having to implicitly pit the students against one another. And notice that a curve gives students a rather perverse incentive not to work together on papers and assignments -- something that should be encouraged rather than penalized.

Second, I have an obligation to others that the grades I assign reflect student learning as measured against defined benchmarks. If I give a student an A in, say, a critical thinking course, a future employer has the right to infer that the student is likely to be a good critical thinker. (Yes, I realize that conclusion must be qualified in a hundred different ways, but bear with me.) But if I've used a curve that inference may not be warranted. That would be true if the student got an A by virtue of being in the top 10% of students in the course but the students in the course were extremely low achieving. In that case, the employer could infer that the student is a better critical thinker than most students, but I think the employer is entitled to make a judgment about the student's fitness for a position not just in a relative or comparative sense but in a more absolute sense — does the student have the critical thinking skills necessary for this position, period? And of course, if the employer doesn't know if I've used a curve or not, then any inferences become murkier. So given my obligations to employers, grad schools, etc., I should assign grades that don't carry a risk that students will be inadequate for the tasks or duties that employers, grad schools, etc. ask them to undertake. (And what holds for me, a mere philosopher, holds a fortiori for instructors in other disciplines: I'm pretty sure I don't want future structural engineers or surgeons graded on a curve!)

Third, I suspect that curves contribute to grade inflation, which I gather most of us think is problematic. I have no specific evidence of this, however, and would be interested to know if I'm wrong about that.

But finally, it's hard to understand the student mentality that favors curves. My guess is that students think curves are somehow less risky for their GPA's, but that's only partially true. Yes, curves ensure that some students get A's. But they also ensure that some students get F's and they cap the number of students who can get A's at all. So no matter how hard a student might work or how much she might learn, so long as a predetermined percentage of students works harder or learns more, she can't earn an A. Perhaps students accustomed to A's think that a curve will preserve their high GPA's even in the face of difficult courses. But I've found enthusiasm for curves at all levels of preparation and ability. Yet it's hard to see how curves are inherently better for students from the standpoint of their self-interest.

All this being said, I'm not averse to adjusting my grading standards on a given assignment, which could be called a mild form of curving. Sometimes an assignment proves more difficult than I anticipated, a result that might well be due to my own unrealistic expectations or my own failures as a teacher. Still, in my estimation, the benefits of curves pale next to their clear pedagogical and professional shortcomings.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Homer redux

A nice follow-up to our earlier discussion about the use of popular culture to teach philosophy: This article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Stephen Asma. Asma says very much what I was thinking about in connection with Mike's earlier post. Here are a couple of choice quotes to whet the appetite.

On how recent philosophical work on popular culture differs from 'cultural studies':
Unlike the cultural-studies explorations of popular culture, these new philosophy titles have little interest in decoding the semiotics of the pop narratives. They do not play in the arena of associations and connotations to suggest possible readings of sitcoms or tunes, some "preferential" and some "engaging the margins." In general, these pop-culture philosophers don't "negotiate boundaries" or "problematize discourses." They do something much more refreshing and radical: They give arguments. They use TV, music, and movies to begin a discussion, but very quickly they start to generate premises, draw conclusions, check inductions against evidence, venture deductions, consider counter-instances, and so on.

And on the limitations of pop culture in promoting philosophical understanding:
In the end, I suspect that, despite these excellent new efforts, philosophy will remain intractable and estranged from popular culture. It will remain so not because it is biased or willfully elite, but because it is in an extremely self-reflexive relationship with its own history, and it requires highly disciplined, systematic, abstract conceptualization, a skill that does not come easily to most people.
One can barely make a move within the oldest academic discipline without understanding its past. People who don't know its vast literature feel excluded from the import of any particular philosopher or problem. That kind of exclusion can be remedied by doing the requisite study — by catching up, so to speak, on a body of knowledge.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Expecting the Old Guys

For me, one of the hardest courses to design is the Introduction to Philosophy course. First of all, it has an impossible premise. There's simply too much philosophy. But that's not what I wanted to write about here. In addition to the topics one chooses, there is also the method of presenting those topics. Since I do a very problem-based type of philosophy, I tend to emphasize the same in my Introduction course. We cover several topics, including free will, personal identity, the mind-body problem, the problem of evil, and the problem of relativism. The last time I taught it, I actually hunted down five dialogues (all from Hackett, it was a cheap course) and used them to lay out the problems. It went pretty well, but I could definitely improve it.

However, the whole time, I was convinced that a good number of students were thinking to themselves, "I signed up for philosophy. Why aren't we reading Plato, Aristotle, or Nietzsche?" That of course leads to the other way of teaching Intro: a more historical approach. Below, I discuss some pros and cons of each approach, with a plea for similar thoughts and experiences from our audience.

The Problem Approach:

  • Pros: For me one of the primary benefits of studying philosophy was the liberating method of thought. In fact, I wish that I had learned how to think critically and philosophically before I'd been let anywhere near Descartes, Anselm, and the rest. This method can be easily shown to be applicable in places other than philosophy, allowing the course to make the learning curve shorter on all of his or her other courses. The problems approach can emphasize argumentation, clarity, and precision with slightly more ease than the historical approach. Also, I think the problems approach better prepares students to read papers in contemporary philosophy. If they plan on going on in philosophy, this is an important asset. Finally, because the extra step of interpretation can be minimized in most cases, anybody can jump in and play. You're at most intimidated by tough arguments, rather than towering historical figures.

  • Cons: It certainly won't be what most people have expected as a philosophy course at first, and this can turn some students off completely. Also, while it prepares students for contemporary reading, they may be left behind somewhat in a future curriculum that emphasizes historical figures and interpretation. Furthermore, because most contemporary philosophers like to emphasize technical points, it can give students perhaps too narrow a version of all the skills that philosophers employ -- especially interpretation. Also, while it can be very beneficial to learn to think critically, it can be hard to emphasize the kind of imagination that students tend to be able to employ in a more historical introduction. At least if one doesn't like a historical introduction, one can say that one has read some Plato. If you're not into argumentation despite the professor's best efforts, you may report that all you did was "run in circles" all semester.

The historical approach:

  • Pros: It's how philosophy has been introduced for hundreds and hundreds of years and they'll be prepared when they hear the names in the future. Students are reading not just this century's mediocre minds, but minds that have stood the test of time and have inspired thousands who never even took a philosophy course. Plenty of people feel the need to pick up Plato at some time in life, but many fewer remember with fondness the day they first read John Perry's dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. Also, students studying the great philosophers encounter several issues at once, and are able to mine the text for more without a bad chance of success. The great philosophers inspire readings that draw connections between different topics rather than lasering in on one. Finally, argumentation can be introduced alongside the issues as the great philosophers are offering good arguments. It takes a little more work to explain to students how it works because the arguments are sometimes less explicitly stated, but that difficulty allows students to develop better interpretational skills. Also, from the professorial perspective, it can be considerably more rewarding to gradually become familiar with the older texts than it is to come back to a simple, clear argument every semester.

  • Cons: It can be intimidating to study the great, old, white, dead guys, and even more so if you're not old, white, or a guy. Contemporary philosophy has a much more diverse array of voices. Because the philosophies are so developed, it can be harder to play along in the way one can after one has learned simple argumentation. The old guys can certainly leave students in admiration, thinking it would be hard to improve on things rather than sharp and critical of new ideas. Teaching historically also underlines the the idea that a "philosopher" is someone like Plato or Kant rather than the person standing in front of the room teaching them Plato or Kant. It can be much harder to imagine yourself as a philosopher when you're reading Kant than when you're trying to emulate your professor's skill at coming up with counter-examples to numbered arguments. Finally, students can get "stuck" in the history rather than really interacting and coming up with their own ideas and arguments. I've seen more than one person who decided that Spinoza or Marx had it all right, and never felt the need to do any more philosophy, let alone going beyond to the great new frontiers that are being explored today in academic journals.

Ok, so that was way too much. But I'm eager to hear what others have to say about their favorite way of teaching Intro and/or the alternative. And, of course, there has to be something to be said for a mix, or ways that I'm not even entertaining here.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Bioethics Recommendations?

Does anyone have any recommendations for good texts and/or anthologies for a "bioethics" course largely for non-major undergraduates?

I realize that "bioethics" is a big tent field (see NYU's new program in bioethics, which looks really cool for many reasons), so a wide variety of topics could be covered in such a course with that title. While I suppose I'll have to cover some bioethical issues that arise from recent technological developments, I hope to do more on low-tech bioethical issues that arise when you look at things from the position of those worst off.

The standard text problem is that many anthologies are geared more toward advanced students and beyond, and I suspect are beyond the current reach of many undergraduates.

Any suggestions, anyone? Thanks in advance.

I'll add a plug for Bernard Rollin's recent Ethics and Science, which I read recently and enjoyed very much.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Getting past multiple guess

Philosophy is probably a discipline for which multiple choice tests are not the best method to evaluate student performance or knowledge. Since I assume most of us recognize that multiple choice has some fairly obvious limitations, I'd be interested to hear about how people use multiple choice effectively so that it evaluates something meaningful about student knowledge.

Obviously the great virtue of multiple choice from the instructor's point of view is that it speeds up the process of grading tests dramatically — not something to be shrugged off if you're teaching students in large numbers. But it can be difficult to fashion multiple choice exams that test higher level skills or knowledge that we typically care about a lot in philosophy: the ability to craft or appraise arguments, the understanding of logical relations, etc. So I'd be interested to hear if you use multiple choice tests and how you do it. What makes for a good multiple choice question (in the context of teaching philosophy at least)? Are there things that these tests can accurately measure in your experience, or conversely, things they definitely can't measure? Do you see other advantages or disadvantages of multiple choice?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Please God, No Group Work!

The title of this post comes from a response to one of my midterm evaluations in which I ask students to allocate 10 points to three different activities that I do in most courses: lecture, discussion, and group work (I also sometimes include "other"). The allocation is supposed to correspond to how they would like to spend the class time. The particular response, "Please God, no group work!" actually came in a course in which we had not done any group work, so I don't believe it was in reaction to something in my course. In fact, I find that I receive many such comments and those who are most opposed to group work are usually my most motivated and brightest students. So the questions I want to throw out to others here at ISW are these: (1) What is the place of group work in the philosophy classroom? (2) In encouraging modern pedagogical values of teamwork and collaboration are we holding back or harming our brightest students to some degree? (3) If group work works well in your courses, what kinds of activities do you use (other than ice-breakers at the beginning of the course)? And finally (4) if there are undergraduate or graduate students reading this blog, what are your thoughts?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Stimulating discussion in seminar courses

Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram has a post on stimulating discussion in smaller seminar-style courses that's provoked many comments. It's worth checking out. I won't add to the comments except to say that I think we greatly underestimate how unfamiliar the discussion-driven seminar is to many students, especially lower-level undergraduates. Much of the challenge for instructors is due to the fact that in such seminars, students are being initiated into a mode of learning that has a set of expectations, both in terms of preparation and participation, foreign to many students. Indeed, I would propose that successful seminars require students to sign on to and practice a distinctive epistemology.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Evaluating teaching credentials

My department has the good fortune of conducting a search for a tenure track faculty member this year, and with that in mind, I'd like to hear ideas about how departments do — and how they should — evaluate candidates' teaching credentials.

The usual sources of information that constitute a job candidate's teaching credentials are:
  1. The candidate's own statements about teaching, either in a cover letter or in a separate statement of teaching philosophy
  2. Statements about the candidate's teaching in letters of recommendation
  3. Information provided by students, such as numeric course evaluations or letters by students
  4. Course materials, such as syllabi or assignments, etc.
  5. Discussions of teaching during job interviews
  6. (in some cases) A teaching demonstration or presentation during a campus interview
Of these sources, which do search committees rely on most in evaluating a candidate's teaching abilities — and which of them actually are reliable?

I'd be very interested in hearing about experiences both from those who've been on the job market recently and those who've been on the other side of the desk, the faculty members conducting the searches. But just to get the ball rolling, I'll share a few thoughts of my own: I'm not likely to place a lot of weight on 2 (statements about the candidate's teaching in letters of recommendation) for two reasons. First, I don't think many of those who write letters for junior job candidates (e.g., candidates' dissertation advisors) have enough exposure to the candidates' teaching to evaluate it thoroughly or adequately. A handful of classroom observations aren't enough to have a grasp of candidates' strengths and weaknesses as teachers. Second, exaggeration is the norm in letters of recommendation, so unless a letter actually said something negative about a candidates' teaching abilities, I'm likely to see even positive statements as suspect. On the other hand, 5 (discussions of teaching during interviews) could be very illuminating. But even here, I'd want to avoid canned questions ("Could you describe your teaching philosophy?") that will likely elicit canned answers. I'd find questions that probe how critical and self-reflective the candidate is about her teaching to tell me more about the candidate as a teacher, things like "Could you describe a teaching challenge you've recently faced as a teacher and how you've tried to address it?" or "What are some of your long-term goals as a teacher?"

In any event, it seems to me that as hard as it is to evaluate someone's potential as a researcher, it may be just as difficult to evaluate their potential as a teacher, so I'd be appreciative for any insights.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An Assignment for Fighting Student Isolation

I'm using a new type of assignment in one of my courses this fall and it seems to be working out pretty well, so I thought I would write up a post about it. I'm teaching an upper level course on Social Ethics and my students come from many different disciplines with varying levels of philosophical experience. In the past, I've used electronic discussion forums to bring students together outside the classroom, but I don't have that much time this semester and the students here seem a little more reluctant to use them. In college, I once had a seminar where the professor had us write up questions about the reading to submit to her. I saw the wisdom in it, but it was a little frustrating because I hadn't had enough experience to know what kind of questions to ask.

This semester I'm trying the same thing with a twist to alleviate the frustration. Students have to submit three (we started with four, but three turns out to suffice) questions on the reading for the week. However, once they've submitted them over email, I take all of the emails, concatenate the questions, delete any identifying details, and resubmit all of the questions to the students in the course. Then, in class on Thursday (it's a Tuesday/Thursday course), I spend a considerable amount of time reading and trying to answer the questions and discussion seems to naturally arise about the questions. I'll say a little more about why I think this will work well after the jump.

I don't really have data yet to say that this will work well for the entire semester, but it seems that the assignment has real potential for the following reasons:

  • One has to at least attempt the reading to ask some meaningful questions and it's fairly easy to see if someone didn't do much of the reading. This serves the function of a reading quiz without all the messy grading and time-suckage of doing a quiz in class.

  • It taps directly into the questions that students themselves have while reading rather than having to guess about what their interests might be or what the instructor has typically assumed questions would be. The questions do occasionally surprise me and open up really interesting possibilities I hadn't thought of.

  • It generates better quality questions than one gets in class because students have more time to think about their their questions.

  • In answering the questions in class, I thought I was boring my students to tears, but they didn't see it that way at all. I think this is because they anticipated their questions being answered and enjoyed seeing what others were thinking about.

  • When my professor did the assignment in college, I got frustrated because I didn't know what to be asking questions about. But I anticipate that everyone's questions will get better as the semester goes along because they actually get to see other people's questions and can measure their subjective level of understanding by trying to ask questions that generate more discussion and really clarify the reading. Thus, I hope the assignment actually makes people into better readers.

  • It decreases the anxiety of asking tough questions by anonymizing the questions on the document they get. I'm the only one who actually knows who asked which question and honestly I don't often remember when I start answering questions from the whole list.

  • For a few questions I have to do a little research, but for the most part it's student-centered learning and very little preparation is necessary for the Thursday sessions.

  • If someone has a question, often everyone has the same question. When you get multiple people asking the same question that you hadn't even thought of, there's a lot more opportunity to clear up confusion.

That's just off the top of my head. I imagine the assignment would work much better for smaller classes than for bigger ones. But hey, I think it works and it's much more fun than grading quizzes (which aren't really appropriate for upper-level courses anyway). Feel free to steal, implement, and improve.

Monday, September 17, 2007

When did we give up on the meaning of life?

We all get defensive about criticism of our own disciplines, but Yale Law Professor Anthony Kronman rubs me the wrong way when he claims that the humanities have given up teaching about the meaning of life. He writes:

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life's meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

Hmmm. Really? Has philosophy given up the task of stimulating students to consider the meaning of life? I find much to admire in Kronman's article, but both the claim that we've given up the meaning of life as a pedagogical subject and his explanationsfor why this is so, namely, the research culture of the modern university, are open to doubt. Students may have to look a little harder to find the meaning of life investigated in philosophy than they might once have. It's probably not on the agenda in courses in philosophy of science or epistemology, say, but it's still on philosophy's agenda. A simple Google search yields dozens of course syllabi devoted exclusively to the meaning of life. Later he writes:

A tenure-minded junior professor studying Shakespeare or Freud or Spinoza might re-inspect every scrap of his subject's work with the hope of making some small but novel discovery - but would be either very brave or very foolish to write a book about Spinoza's suggestion that a free man thinks only of life, never of death; or about Freud's appealing, if enigmatic, statement that the meaning of life is to be found in work and love.

Granted, Kronman is not a philosopher, but this claim is false. Colin McGinn recently published a philosophical exploration of Shakespeare that investigates ethical aspects of the Bard's work. And don't tell Thomas Nagel, John Kekes, Thad Metz, John Cottingham, John Fischer, Robert Nozick, Charles Taylor, Susan Wolf, Martha Nussbaum, or Harry Frankfurt that contemporary philosophers aren't interested in the meaning of life. (And of course, there's people like me who find that 'the meaning of life' a slightly confused avenue of inquiry, but that's another issue altogether.) I won't speak for the other humanities disciplines, but it would just be nice if Kronman's criticisms were supported by some sense of the pedagogical and scholarly climate within philosophy.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Esoteric examples in ethics?

Over on Ethics Etc, there is an ongoing discussion of F. Kamm’s Intricate Ethics. Recently I posted a comment regarding some of her claims and ended with a criticism of her utilizing certain types of thought experiments or cases that were so esoteric that they seem to me to be irrelevant. I thought that the issues I raised might be of interest to people who read this blog so I am posting my concluding remarks here for your consideration and comments. This issues deal with methodological and pedagogical concerns that I have with the role of philosophy and philosophers in contemporary society. I do want to make it clear that although I am focusing on examples taken solely from Kamm, that I think that the issues are systemic in contemporary philosophy.

I want to conclude by commenting on some of the examples that Kamm raises in order to make distinctions/points. Many of examples used by Kamm seem to me to be problematically esoteric—that is, they deviate too much from our common ethical experiences. In fact, I think that provided that they deviate so much from our more garden-variety ethical scenarios that some justification for utilizing them needs to be presented. For example, in chapter 11 she gives the example of putting $500.00 into a machine the will mechanically save a child. This example, and others, are so far fetched that it does not have any normative value for me—I simply don’t have the relevant intuitions at this stage because I cannot relate to these types of examples. I can relate to ruining a suit or sending some money to save a life. Many of Kamm’s examples are like so many thought experiments that philosophers find interesting, but the important question is how will the general public react to them. It seems to me that if the study of ethics is to be of value it ought to help us to live better lives from a defensible moral point of view. If this is correct then the examples used should reflect the lives that people are actually living and the options/ choices that are really available to us. The problem with more esoteric thought-experiments is that they serve only to make philosophers and philosophy seem to be ‘in the clouds’ to borrow a famous metaphor. This type of doing philosophy seems to me to create a serious disconnect between philosophy/philosophers and the actual lives people are living which we should be serving. If we are engaged in doing ethics then I think we need to be able to demonstrate how what we are doing is applicable and relevant to the average reasonably intelligent person’s ethical deliberations. How can what we are doing positively impact lives actually being lived? We should all remember that as we are reading this people are dying of preventable diseases and starvation, women and children are being raped and abused, and people are dying in wars that seem to be unjust, etc. The type of doing philosophy exhibited by Kamm (and others) may play well in professional academic circles, but please explain to me how you think it will play to the reasonably intelligent prson trying to find out what it means to live a moral life? Here is my challenge: how can we make our ideas clear so that they resonate with people of average intelligence and understanding? Do we not have an obligation, as philosophers, to try and make our theories and arguments accessible to the reasonably intelligent person? I am sure that Kamm has important points to make, but they are obscured by the way they are presented. Am I the only person who feels this way?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Writing about how to Write a Philosophy Paper

Here's an assignment I've been using for a while on how to teach students how to write a philosophy paper. I've found that if I can get them to -- on paper -- teach someone else how to do it, then that has better results than merely asking them to read something about how to write a philosophy paper (which they may or may not do) or me telling them how to do it.

Here's the prompt I use:

How do you write a philosophy paper?

4-5 pages

The assignment is this:
A friend knows that you are in a philosophy course. This friend asks you to come to her group to give a little presentation on what philosophy essays are like and how to effectively write them. Your job is to carefully read the readings below on how to write philosophy and then effectively summarize them for this person. Write up the text that you could read -- or pass out -- to this audience so that they can learn from you. Write so you teach them how to write a philosophical essay: pass on what you learn from Professors Pryor and Horban! This assignment requires you to summarize advice from a number of different sources and explain this advice to other people in your own words.

There are a two writings on how to write a philosophy paper that you need to read. Please read:

1. An online article by Jim Pryor called "Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper":
2. An online article by Peter Horban called “Writing a Philosophy Paper”

Papers must by typed and carefully written: put your name, email, the date, course # and time at the top of the first page; DO NOT USE A COVER PAGE. And give your paper a title.

9-10= excellent
8 = good
7 = fair
6 = poor
5 or below = very poor

They will be graded on clarity, organization, thoroughness, grammar and spelling, and, most generally, whether your reader would get a good sense for what philosophical / argumentative essays are like and how to write them.

Although citations -- i.e., direct quotations -- are not needed for this paper, if you use them you should use an official citation method that you learned in introductory English. Guidance on how to do so is found here, among other places:

Perhaps some of ya'll will find this useful, or know of a better way to advance students' understanding of what philosophy papers are like and how to write them

Diagramming Aristotle

In an upper-level ethics course I teach, I implemented an assignment discussed in Teaching Philosophy by Jonathan Powers entitled ““Diagramming Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics” Issue Number 23, pp. 343-351. Powers describes an assignment in which he has students do a one-page diagram which helps them connect the ideas in the Nicomachean Ethics together into a coherent whole, so that they do not lose the big picture of Aristotle’s theory. This was a very valuable assignment, giving students the opportunity to do something different from writing a paper, while still having to develop and communicate a solid understanding of Aristotle’s moral theory. At the end of the term, I asked students for feedback on this assignment, to get a sense of their thoughts about it. I asked them what they liked about it, and what they didn’t like:

Sample of Student Feedback on Aristotle’s Ethics Diagram Assignment

I liked it because:

- “It was a good learning tool that forced me to really think about the interplay of concepts. I actually put more thought and effort into it than I would have into a paper.”

- “The diagram...encourages an understanding of the relationship of ideas.”

-“It helped me more completely understand Aristotle’s theory.”

I didn’t like it because:

- “So many concepts are so vague and interconnected with one another that it was extremely difficult to show all of the relationships without it looking like a jumbled, incomprehensible mess.”

- “It was hard to fit all of the information onto one 8.5 x 11 piece of paper.”

- “It was a little confusing.”

- “It was a vague assignment.”

Here are the details of the assignment:

Component #1

Your diagram, picture, collage, or whatever it is that you decide to do to represent Aristotle’s views, must fit on one side of an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper. You must include the following components of Aristotle’s theory (you may also include components that are not listed here):



Practical wisdom


The Good











The mean relative to us



Component #2

You must also write a brief explanation of your diagram. This must be typed, double-spaced, and no longer than one full page. Do not try to summarize Aristotle’s whole theory in this portion of the assignment, just use this summary to clear up any confusing parts of your diagram. Staple this summary on top of your diagram.

Have others used similar assignments in place of a traditional precis or term paper? I would be interested to know what your experiences are, both positive and negative, with these different approaches.