Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"All we did in this class was save some lives...."

Time for this blog to get a bit more multimedia savvy!

This is largely an "informative" post, sharing what I (try to) do and seeking any feedback.

Above is a video clip I use in discussions of arguments about helping people living in absolute poverty. I use Singer's NY Times "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" and some snippets from "Famine, Affluence and Morality" for some philosophical details. I like this issue because, unlike many moral issues, it has a stronger potential than many issues to be "relevant" to one's personal life, in this case, how one spends money and, indeed, even one's career choice.

While I think there are a lot of complex moral and empirical issues here, many students tend to think that Singer's arguments can easily be refuted. Since I think it's initially important to address objections that people actually have (as opposed to objections that philosophers raise, but just about nobody else would think of), I focus on the objections I round up from students. Some of them are here.

Inspired by Stuart Rachels, I also challenge them to put their thinking into practice. Since Singer's conclusion is stated in a way that is hard to pin down, we consider whether his arguments might show that each of us (who is able) is obligated to donate $.25 a day to help people in absolute poverty. This is about $10 a month and I encourage them to check out a maximally efficient organization called The Ten Dollar Club. Other students, business majors, have learned about microcredit organizations and have gotten involved in that. Here's a neat book of ideas I recently came across: Our Day to End Poverty. I also make some fun posters too for those who believe they do something that warrants their getting them.

I can add that, of course, anyone can do this even if they believe (as I do!) that Singer's arguments are, strictly speaking, unsound.

Singer writes that "Discussion, though, is not enough. What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously? In this instance, taking our conclusion seriously means acting upon it." This seems right to me and this is one way I've tried to do this. And maybe I've even saved some lives in the process.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tips for Starting Grad Instructors

I had lunch today with one a former student of mine named Andrew. He'll be starting the philosophy Ph.D program in the fall at the University of Kansas, and is pretty excited about getting started both as a student and as an instructor. He asked me for a couple of pointers about teaching for the first time (he will be heading up some discussion sections of Introduction to Philosophy), so I gave him what I thought would be some useful advice about what seems to work in the classroom, and also about certain bad things and practices I've learned to avoid. Afterward, I thought it might be a good idea to ask the general audience here for advice for starting instructors like Andrew.

What advice would you give a first-time graduate student instructor? What should one try to do? What should one try to avoid? The subject is pretty open. What's the best way to cultivate a good relationship with the class? Should you lecture more? How do you deal with problem students? Should you be more authoritarian, or more "buddy-buddy"? There's a lot of ground here that can be covered obviously.

I've already emailed Andrew and told him I would post this question here, so he'll surely be checking in to see what advice people have to give him. If we have any other grad student readers, perhaps our collective suggestions can be useful for them as well (as well as for us!).

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Business and ethics: a disconnect

On of the advantages that I have over many people who teach business ethics (or similar type courses) is that I spent many years in business in positions ranging from hourly paid to Director of Operations. As would be expected, during this time I made many decisions that greatly impacted both people and organizations. I use some of these experiences to demonstrate that there is an ethical dimension to business that we cannot escape. In this post I am going to share two of them with you.

1) What to do with excess people? (This has been written up as parts of various papers I have had the good fortune to be published)

When I was hired as Director of Operations for a major manufacturing plant, I was faced with the dismal reality of losing business because of practices that had been allowed to develop under my predecessor. My main charge at the time was to keep the business from going back into bankruptcy. To that end, I needed a tool to play ‘what if’ games that I could utilize to help make decisions based on what was happening relative to certain key variables pertaining to how the business was functioning. I came up with an equation that demonstrated how many people I could afford to have employed given the value of these variables. The equation is:

P = X where X = (U x D x W)

P = people
U = units produced
D = sales dollar per unit
W = percent of D going to wages and benefits
R = burden rate of W per hour (this is the hourly cost per employee and includes hourly wage, insurance, workers compensation, vacation/sick days, etc.)

T = average number of hours worked per person to earn W

In my business ethics courses, I emphasize that my job is to balance this equation. This may seem obvious (it is), but the ethical implications are astounding. If we accept, as Socrates argues (by agreement) in Crito that that if are to be ethical we 1) should do no wrong and 2) that to cause harm is to do wrong, then the question is what do I do when one (or more) of the variables that affect P is changed for the worse and I can no longer economically sustain my currant level of employment? I ask my students to list the options available to me as a manager and to select the one that is best. I tell them that in one day (bloody Friday), I laid off ½ of the hourly employees and ½ of the salaried employees at the plant I was operating. I ask them to analyze what I did and if what I did was the morally correct thing to do.

I then modify the ‘game’ and have them imagine that there are two companies that are competing in the marketplace. Both companies are internally exactly the same and they each have 50% of the market share. I did ask them to explain what will happen in both companies if one of the companies (company A) has a fire that reduces their ability to produce by 50% and that this loss of production will last for 6 months. I break them into groups and have them play various roles associated with the stakeholders of each company. The results are very interesting. The truly depressing ethical downside of this is that regardless of what company A does, Company B can make a move that is morally defensible that will further harm company A. (I have published this in a paper and if you post you email address and request a copy I will be happy to send you one.)

I explain to my students that they have not lived until they have terminated someone and that person cries and begs for his job because he has no other options and you get up and lead him out of the building. We do not use the word ‘terminate’ lightly; we have “killed off” that person relative to the organization for whom he formally worked. As an aside, I argue that mangers should do their own firing/laying off and not pass that responsibility on to HR. To paraphrase Sartre, “you cannot mange effectively without being elbow deep in the blood of innocent people.”

2) Over the years I have become convinced that, as Michael suggested, business should be understood within a virtue ethics framework. Business is a formal structured way by which we can develop into the kind of persons we want to be and to find happiness in our lives. One of the key virtues is ‘respect for people’ (You can obviously get this from Kant and Buber also.) I explain to them that they really do have a virtue ethics framework already in place; we do differentiate in practice between people of good and bad character. I refer to this a ‘character in practice.’ I them tell them of an incident that occurred between me and a hourly employee who reported to me when I was a line supervisor. To make a long story short, this employee did not follow my orders and in front of all is co-workers I verbally abused him for @ 20 minutes. Work came to a standstill. I utilized language that would embarrass a longshoreman (it embarrasses me now when I think of what I used to say). Anyway, I completely humiliated this person to the point that he shoulders were slumped over in a submissive fashion and he was on the verge of tears. I then left for the day, but when I got home I phones him on the floor and let him have it again. Boy did I feel good! I had corrected a problem and handled the situation correctly. Or had I? I have my students discuss my action. No one has thought that what I did was morally permissible, even given the fact that the employee had potentially greatly harmed the organization by not following my orders. From their point of view (and now mine) I was exhibiting ‘bad’ character.

These, and other examples from my career, help me to bridge the belief that ethics has no place in business. Feel free to use them as you see fit.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Transparency and the Ethics of Teaching Ethics

While I have to thank fellow poster Chris Panza for opening my eyes to this a few years ago, I have now embraced a rather radical form of transparency of assessment in my philosophy classes. Chris's original idea that sparked my interest (if I'm getting it right) was to have the final exam questions for the course in the syllabus on the first day of the course. While I haven't been able to go that far yet due to the sometimes simple logistical problem of not knowing at the beginning of the term how far we're going to get by the end of the term, I do hope to be there eventually.

As of now I enforce a strict policy on myself that I tell my students about on the first day of classes: there will never be a question on one of my exams that they have not seen at least a week ahead of time. (This goes even for multiple choice questions, though they do not get the answers. The one exception is for a course that deals primarily in skill-building (like logic) rather than content. For these classes I do not provide actual questions but rather model, practice questions.) There is some evidence that this policy benefits the students, but more and more I'm wondering if it isn't a moral requirement to have such a policy.

First of all, a couple of points about how having all questions available a week ahead of time has affected my classes:

  • Students report a great deal of relief in anxiety compared to their other courses, and in particular their other philosophy courses.

  • Students do not report that they believe my courses are any easier than other philosophy courses and I've gained a reputation of "challenging but fair" instead.

  • On many evaluations and in many conversations, students report gratitude for the "study guide" (which I have to remind them is not a "guide" but the actual questions on the exam).

  • I have not received a single complaint about the "fairness" of an exam in the 3-4 years I've been using this policy.

  • I have noticed no evidence that students simply replicate old answers to questions that have received high marks (though this may be because I constantly change questions and am fairly new at my university).

  • If I haven't formally created a rubric for grading when I write up the questions, I easily have one in my mind after answering students' questions about the exam questions.

And what I think are the most interesting two:

  • Exam scores, on average, have stayed the same or ticked up a little bit (it's a little hard to tell as my classes sizes vary considerably and I didn't keep good data before the policy)

  • The average remains the same, but this is an artifact of an increased number of higher grades and lower grades. So in a course with a low B average, more B+'s and A's, more C's and C-'s, and fewer low Bs.

The interepretation of these results would be an interesting project (I think they show something about the policy encourages students to take more responsibility for their own work), but I've actually been thinking about the ethics of this kind of policy lately. More specifically, I'm wondering what the justification can be for hiding what questions are going to be on an exam. The most common defense of the old way seems to be that telling students what is going to be on the exam ahead of time means they will only study those areas that will be on the exam. I think this is true, but I take it to be the precise challenge in exam writing. If there's something I want students to study that isn't on the exam, I need a better exam. If I've covered too much in a unit than can be reasonably assessed, I need to cover that much less and the important stuff more thoroughly.

Furthermore, and this is where the ethical argument starts in, even back when I was a (fairly good) undergraduate, I always thought there was something weird about the element of trickery involved in getting me to study everything in order to answer just a few questions on an exam. There was of course the earlier problem with wondering why they didn't just make the tough choices about what was really important, but there was also a profound frustration when one spent a good deal of time preparing for an exam thinking the emphasis of the course was on one aspect, then, when the exam came around, discovering the professor had a very different idea of what the emphasis had been. (And looking back, one wonders whether the fault was in choice of emphasis or simply quick and dirty exam preparation.)

So in a nutshell, the ethical qualm is that (as teaching guru Keith Barker put it), this is education, not the lottery. Any increased breadth in knowledge gained by hiding questions can be gained by rethinking one's exams and without hiding the questions. Transparency seems to promote student responsibility, decrease student anxiety, and decrease the frustration at perceived arbitrariness that turns students off to philosophy in particular and university education in general.

There's a lot more that I want to mention, but hey, blogging isn't writing journal articles, and I'm much more interested in hearing what everyone else has to say on the topic.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Teaching Philosophy with Homer Simpson

In this post, I'd like to raise the issue of using popular culture as a vehicle for teaching philosophy.

There is a current trend in philosophy publishing of connecting philosophy with some aspect of popular culture. There are three different publishers with a series of this type (Open Court, Blackwell, and the University Press of Kentucky), as the books have been relatively popular.The Matrix and Philosophy was a (rare for philosophy) bestseller.

As a graduate student, I used a book from Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy Series—The Simpsons and Philosophy—as a supplementary text for an introductory course in ethics. I have never had more student enthusiasm at the beginning of a course than I did for this one. Almost to a person, students were excited because the class connected with something they knew about and enjoyed (I met with many students in the class one-on-one at the start of the semester). At the end of the semester, many students were still positive, though some thought that there was too much focus on the Simpsons, and that sometimes the connections between the Simpsons and philosophy were a bit tenuous. This fall, I’m teaching a course dealing with existentialism and postmodernism, and among the 5-6 books required for the course is U2 and Philosophy. Several of the chapters deal with both of the topics of the course. At the end of the semester, I’ll report how it went.

As you likely know, some philosophers are opposed in principle to the X and Philosophy books, where X stands for some element of popular culture. From a brief survey of stuff on the Internet, the reasons seem to be as follows: it waters down philosophy, those who do such books are merely seeking to make some “easy money,” and junior philosophers are using these books as a way to pad their cv’s. Another argument against these books is the following:

1. PC (some piece of pop culture) is very popular.
2. What is very popular must appeal to the masses.
3. The masses have no real aesthetic sense.
4. PC can't be that good.

For a presentation and evaluation of this argument, click here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve contributed to Lost and Philosophy and edited Running and Philosophy (both with Blackwell) and am currently editing a volume on football and philosophy (with the University Press of Kentucky). My view is that using these types of books in an appropriate way can be conducive to learning, because it shows the relevance of philosophy as well as its often unrecognized presence in the everyday lives of students. It is also much more interesting to use Homer and Bart Simpson in an illustration vs. philosophical characters such as Smith and Brown. Of course, not all of the books that have come out are worth using, nor is every chapter of every book worthwhile. However, the same can be said of more traditional philosophy textbooks, as well as scholarly work in philosophy.

Has anyone else used these books, or chapters from them? What are some of the possible pros and cons of using popular culture to teach philosophy? Do you have arguments for or against such use?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Business and ethics: a disconnect ; Part Two: Ways to eliminate hostility; day one

Because of length, I have decided to break this into 2 posts. The first deals with exercises that I do on the first day of class.

As I indicated in part one, three factors that lead to student hostility are, 1) fear, 2) disconnect between philosophy and the ‘real’ world, and 3) the perception that colleges and universities exist as training grounds for people to enter into the market as employees. In this post I am going to outline some approaches that I have found helpful in dealing with this hostility. (They are also helpful in dealing with lack of motivation.) Putting any hostilities, or other issues, on the table, in the open, makes them something we can deal with. People can start to let go of these hostilities through discussing why they exist and whether or not they have merit. Often they do and it is my responsibility to openly and objectively deal with those that do have merit. These exercises are designed to get the students actively involved in doing ethics and to start to look at their own conceptual schemas and moral perspectives. There is nothing particularly earth shattering or original in what I am doing, but they do work and provide a foundation that can be built upon. I am sure that many of you already practice some of these approaches. I welcome additional suggestions.

My overall course objectives are:
1) To get students to begin to understand their own moral perspectives and analyzing moral issues from these perspectives, modifying their perspectives as required by arguments or inability to reach a reasoned conclusion.
2) To start getting them to realize the importance of explaining and justifying their actions. By focusing on #2 we begin to introduce philosophical concepts into the discussion and applying them to their individual schemas.
3) To start to get students to understand the importance of defending their positions in the face of criticism and to construct sound arguments which explain and justify their positions.
4) To provide students with a basic understanding of the major moral perspectives of utilitarianism (act and rule), deontology (Kantianism), ethics of care, and virtue ethics.

My immediate objective in the first class meeting is to get students actively involved in discussing ethics. I have found that this is a good way to bring out any hostilities and other issues that might be present that, if left unattended, could result in students not performing as well as they could. It also establishes that the main learning/teaching strategy is going to be dialogical in nature. I do not rely on lecture. I find that when I lecture many students lose interest, but if we are actively engaged that they stay attentive.

On the first day of class I do 1-2 of the following exercises:
1) I have students take a short survey of questions dealing with practical ethics and have them answer them True, False, or Undecided. I then have students break into small groups and discuss why they answered as they did. We then discuss some of the responses in the larger group setting. The goals of this exercise are to 1) start to make students aware of their conceptual schemas and moral perspectives and 2) start the process of learning how to make a sound philosophical argument.
2) I have them write a one-sentence reaction to the question, “What is the purpose of a college education?” Again I have them break into small groups and discuss their answers. Then we discuss the answers in the larger group. This will bring out the distinction between ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ goods. Each response is discussed from the perspective of it denoting an instrumental or intrinsic good.
3) I discuss the famous ‘trolley problem’ (simplified; a choice between killing one person to save five people who would otherwise die, or letting the five people die) in four different variations and place them at the switch. The first scenario has them deciding to throw the switch and putting the trolley on an empty unused siding thereby saving the five lives. I then survey the class to see how many would throw the switch. Almost universally they will respond that they would throw the switch because we should save lives if we can. We treat this as a moral principle; we ought to saves lives if possible. I then modify the scenario and place a sleeping bum on the unused siding. The bum will be killed if the switch is thrown. Again, almost everyone will throw the switch even if it means killing the bum. I then ask students to explain why they would do so. Most answer in the time-honored fashion that numbers matter and that if we can save five lives by only killing one person then we should do so (besides it is only a bum, some will say). I ask those who would not throw the switch “why.” The response most often given is that killing is wrong. (We can here introduce the distinction between consequentialism and non-consequentialism.) We discuss both of these positions and try to develop reasons that support each position. I then modify the scenario and have their baby playing on the siding who will be killed if the switch is thrown. Not surprisingly, but not easily defensible from what has been said earlier if they would have thrown the switch, most will not throw the switch. I ask them to account for these different and contradictory responses. The fourth scenario is there is one of their children in the group of five and one of the children playing on the unused siding. Most students now groan! We discuss why there is frustration with these examples. I also explain that many problems we face in our lives resemble the trolley problem is structure. I then end with an assignment to find a real life example that resembles the trolley problem. I will use this paper as the focal point to start off the next class discussion.
4) As I take role I have them tell me why they are taking this course, what their expectations re for this course, and/or what they think ethics is. This is another way to introduce the concepts of ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ goods, but it will also uncover some of the hostilities that might exist.
5) As I take role I will ask each student a question on ethics pertaining to their major and ask them to give a reason that they think supports their positions. For example if they are majoring in advertising I will ask if they think it is permissible to use sex or violence to sell a product. If they are in marketing, I will ask if it is morally permissible for a drug company to price a product at such a level that it results in many people not being able to purchase the drug.

By establishing a dialogical approach to learning, I get most of my students to be willing to understand the importance of studying ethics as a means of arriving at an understanding of their own individual conceptual schemas and how these schemas influence how they understand, and act in, the world we live in.

In my next post I will present personal experiences with ethical implications that occurred while I was a manager that I discuss in business and professional ethics courses as ways of getting students to understand and examine the underlying ethical dimensions of their actions in professional life.

African-American Philosophy

I teach at a HBCU (Historically-Black College or University). It's safe to say, as the chart below shows, that minorities are a minority in philosophy, both at the professional level and, I suspect, at the major / minor / interested student level. Would anyone like to share an empirically - informed or even merely speculative theories on why this is so and what can, and should, be done about this?

I've developed this page to help me learn more about these topics and, hopefully, as a resource for students. And here is that promised data on Ph.D.s in philosophy broken down by gender, race and ethnicity, from the APA:

Data on the Profession
Ph.D.'s in Philosophy by Gender/Race/Ethnicity





Native American



















































Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Battle of the calendars: Quarters vs. semesters

On my campus, we teach on a quarter-system: Fall, winter, and spring quarters, with an optional summer quarter. Many faculty on my campus believe that a quarter-based academic calendar is less conducive to learning than a semester calendar. What do you think?

For the sake of comparison, I teach three courses per quarter, with the fall quarter running from late September to early December, the winter quarter from early January to mid-March, and the spring quarter from late March to early June. There are, I think, a couple of advantages to this sort of calendar. First, students end up taking a larger number of courses overall. In philosophy, this means that students end up being exposed to a larger cross-section of the discipline. Whereas on a semester system, students might, for instance, decide to take either ancient philosophy or medieval philosophy, students on a quarter system can probably fit both into their academic plans. I've also found that, on the quarter system, fewer students drop classes. It may not seem like a big deal, but suppose that after 2-3 weeks, you've determined that a class you enrolled in just isn't what you expected, etc. On a quarter system, you might opt to hang in, since you have about seven weeks left. In contrast, on a semester system, you have eleven weeks left. It may not seem like a big difference, but since the time costs of remaining enrolled are less on a quarter system, students seems to be a little more willing to stick with a course.

The quarter system also enables some course sequencing that might be awkward on a semester system. For instance, we offer a two-quarter logic sequence, of which the first course is required for philosophy majors. But many take the second course in the sequence as well, which gives them a better grounding in logic without forcing them to take a whole year's worth of logic.

But on the whole, the disadvantages of quarters probably outweigh the advantages. Here are the disadvantages:
  1. It's absurdly fast paced, both for students and faculty. Everyone is constantly preparing for next quarter, administering midterms or finals, etc.
  2. For faculty, it means preparing many more distinct courses. This can be pleasant in a way, but you spend an enormous amount of time on course design.
  3. The cross-disciplinary breadth is counterbalanced by a lack of depth. It's very hard to teach any of the major subdisciplines of philosophy adequately in ten weeks. History surveys (ancient, modern) often have to neglect major figures or movements when taught on a semester calendar, so the quarter calendar only compounds the sense that the material is covered in a superficial way. I manage to teach a decent ethical theory course in ten weeks, covering egoism, utilitarianism, Kantianism/deontology, and virtue ethics, but I feel I give much of the material a 'fly over' treatment.
  4. It makes independent projects challenging. Students wanting to write a thesis or do an independent study struggle to do anything meaningful in ten weeks. Figure 3-5 weeks to do the reading and research, another 3 or so to write a draft, maybe a week or two to refine that draft -- clearly not enough.
There are also other institution-specific issues (e.g., how to count the credits, etc., of transfer students coming from the more common semester system, etc.) . But simply from a learning standpoint, are there reasons to favor one calendar over the other?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Steppin' up to the mic (latest installment)

We're proud to add Nathan Nobis to our list of ISW contributors. Nathan has written a good deal on the ethics of treating animals and has already offered great comments on some ISW posts. Welcome aboard, Nathan!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Business and ethics: a disconnect - Part One

First off, by way of introduction, I am pleased to have the opportunity to be a contributor on “In Socrates’ Wake.” I am excited about this blog because I think that philosophy is a discipline and activity that everyone should be exposed to. Therefore, the effective teaching of philosophy is crucial for success in exposing students from varied backgrounds and perspectives to the intricacies of philosophical reasoning. I use the term ‘discipline’ because I do not think that philosophy is a subject like physics, chemistry, history, etc. with a specific body of knowledge that once mastered makes a person a philosopher. It is a discipline because it is a distinctive way of way of thinking. If memory serves me, it was A.J. Ayer who said that philosophy is distinguished from others subjects because of it method. Done well, it allows us to see issues from different perspectives and helps to develop our critical imagination. In my teaching, I use Socrates as the paradigm philosopher, both from a theoretical perspective and a practical perspective. I have greatly benefited from studying the Socratic dialogues. The Socratic method served me well as a manager in helping me to work with people in a dialogical manner to uncover the root causes of issues and developing resolutions for them. To that end, I think that philosophy is the analytical methodology that when properly employed enables us to critically think about subjects/questions in depth so as to uncover and understand the underlying schemas upon which these subjects/questions rests and to be able to determine if there are sound reasons for accepting these schemas. If we cannot find sound reason that justifies our present schemas, then philosophy provides a methodology for revising our schemas. I have in mind here Rawls’ notion of ‘considered judgments in reflective equilibrium’ as an example of this type of methodology. The Socratic approach of finding the correct definition (form) of key terms is another methodology that can be useful.

The Issue: In a recent post, David Hunter, commenting on my observation that many students are not that motivated to study philosophy, indicated that he faces hostile students in the ethics course he teaches dealing with professional life. Having taught business ethics, managerial ethics, and ethics in professional Life courses over the last twenty years and having been in business for thirty-five years, I can identify both with his predicament and the predicament of his students. There are many factors that might contribute to this hostility (and lack of motivation). In this post, I shall consider what I take to be three of the main factors, 1) fear, 2) a disconnect between philosophy and the ‘real’ world, and 3) the perception that colleges and universities exist as training grounds for people to enter into the market as employees. In this post I will briefly discuss each of these items.

1) From the business perspective my major responsibility was basically what Friedman said it was; to create wealth by following the laws of the community I am operating in without performing acts of fraud and/or deception. This is what I was taught by my mentors in the business world (I never took a business course in college) and essentially what is still being taught today in business schools. Of course, now we consider ‘stakeholders’ and not just ‘shareholders’ in making decisions, but profit (versus cost) is still the central core value that we utilize when making business decisions. Profit is the main filtering value thru which we evaluate and utilize other values. From the ethical perspective, we should ‘do the right thing’ (whatever that means). We should be able to explain and justify our decisions by utilizing various moral principles supported by well-worked out moral theories, or developing the virtues necessary to be an ethical businessperson and implementing them in my daily endeavors. The ethicist is thinking something along the lines of “I have something of great value to offer you and if you open your minds you will see the benefit of studying ethics and integrating ethics into your daily practices.” While I think that what the philosopher/ethicist has to offer is of great value, the fear, and, dare I say, the experience, of many businesspeople is that the ethicist is simply going to be critical of them and how they make decisions and conduct business in the marketplace. They fear that they are going to be depicted by a broad ‘brush stroke’ of implications from a few well-known and overworked examples as immoral agents engaged in immoral practices. In so far as most people consider themselves to be reasonably good people and act, as they should, this fear may not be misplaced.

2) There is the perspective of the businessperson (and many others) that philosophy, and by association, ethics, is simply ‘in the clouds;’ it is unrealistic and not practical. They see little value in studying it because they think there is an insurmountable disconnect between the philosophers’ and the businesspersons’ worldviews. I think that this perception has great merit. Imagine being a businessperson and being told by ethicists (the expert) that there are fundamental questions that must be addressed and resolved before one can begin to operate a business as one should. As I have written (in an unpublished paper, “Character In Practice, Business, And Moral Decision-Making”), I believe that when we, as ethicists and philosophers, engage in meta-ethical analysis and maintain that what we are doing is theoretically prior to, and necessary for the correct application of epistemically warranted normative values in practice that we effectively remove ourselves from having any meaningful opportunity to interact and positively affect the dialogue that is taking place at that pragmatic level where actual normative issues arise which affect individual and organizational behavior and performance. Focusing on meta-ethical issues, and the analysis thereof, as the starting point of discussing normative issues in business, organizational, and/or professional life creates a serious disconnect between what ethicists engaged in meta-ethical analysis are doing and what business people engaged in operating within societal rule-defined parameters are doing in actual practice such that these two groups do not appear to have a common ground to meet on as long as the ethicists are arguing that there are fundamental meta-ethical issues that need to be addressed before the practical normative issues faced by practitioners can be resolved.

Furthermore, just imagine the reaction of a person working 50-60+ hours a week managing a business in today’s complex and highly competitive global marketplace reading some contemporary work in ethical theory, for example, F. M. Kamm’s Intricate Ethics. I can assure you that most would simply give up trying to follow the nuances of her arguments and dismiss this work as without merit. I know that if I were still working full-time in business I would not be reading this work, or many other works of philosophy/ethics. We would of course be wrong; it is an important work in ethics. But for those engaged in the day-to-day struggles of operating a business the time is not there to be able to exert the mental energy necessary for following complex arguments. We do not see the practical value of studying such work.

3) There is a perception that many hold that colleges and universities are simply the means to an end. That end being the ability to get a career that will enable them to achieve what we, as a society, have defined as ‘achievement and success.’ Education is viewed as an instrumental good, not something that might have (has) intrinsic value. It will be remembered that Max Weber argued that we develop our sense of self and self-worth by how much of the 3-p’s (power, property, and prestige) we accumulate over the years. One of our society’s core values is ‘achievement and success.’ Through the socialization process that we go through, we have been taught that the 3-p’s are indeed the measure of one’s success and social status. (Simply look at your own life. I certainly like the idea that I have a nice home (much larger then I need) with a swimming pool, two cars, a position at a good university, a successful career in business, etc.) Now we have students take a course that, if done properly, may (will) challenge these deeply held foundational assumptions. We, as philosophers and ethicists, are demanding that they uncover, examine, and justify the core values that define their conceptual schemas. How intimidating this must appear to the novice.

So I can understand why students might be hostile to studying ethics (or philosophy in general). In part 2, I will present a strategy for dealing with this hostility in an ethics course.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Anonymity in Online Forums

In an article last year in Teaching Philosophy, I (and my co-authors, one of whom is Adam Potthast, a co-contributor here at ISW) argued that philosophers should take a second look at using virtual forums (message boards) in their classes. Although we provided a number of reasons in favor of using them, our main one was obvious: virtual forums added significantly (when used right, which is not easy) to the level of significant critical interaction between students. As a result, we believe that VFs can help to make students better thinkers.

Within that piece, one issue that we mentioned, but did not spend a lot of time analyzing, was the importance of enforcing anonymity between students in the VF (so they signed on for the board and registered with fake names). Here, in this post, I’m curious what people think not so much about the use of VFs in general (although such comments are of course welcome), but more so about the wisdom of using anonymity. I realize that some people have strong views about this across the blogosphere, as some believe that contributions to online discussions should be ‘owned’ by real identities. I think this is an interesting issue on its own, but my concern here in this post is more limited, as I am concerned more with the advantages or disadvantages of anonymity within a pedagogical context, not with online conversation in general in public contexts (the two issues may dovetail, as I mention below, but I don’t see them as necessarily identical).

To provide some context for the discussion I’ll note that since the article was published last year, I’ve found that in some assignments using VFs my beliefs about the pedagogical benefits of anonymity have been re-enforced, whereas in others it has been challenged.

The Approaches in Which It Works

The benefits of anonymity have really stuck out to me in the use of what we called the ‘conversational approach’. This is the most basic use of the VF – students have free-for-all conversations about topics in the course, within only some limited supervision by the instructor, with threads started by students and student directed (the instructor can create threads, but students are mostly charged with that responsibility). I personally use this approach in my ethics course, a core-curriculum sophomore level class that is required of all students at my university. What I’ve found is that in this course, the anonymity of the boards works extremely well, and many students have mentioned to me (quite often, actually, in unsolicited comments) that they appreciated not only the board, but the anonymous nature of the discussion. Why:

  1. Students in such courses (sophomore, gen ed) can be terrified of philosophy, so anonymity allows students to try out their points of view without worrying as much about whether it will have a negative impact on their social peer standing. (‘So and so is such a moron!’ worries).

  2. Some students are just socially anxious, and won’t speak in class. Anonymity provides a ‘safe space’ for such students to finally interact with their peers.

  3. Highly contentious and charged subjects can be discussed honestly (‘what? So and so is a liberal?’ kinds of worries)

All of these benefits are similar in focus – anonymity provides a great ‘safe space’ for students to ‘take the gloves off’ and really discuss the issues. And I’ve found that they really do – to a degree that they don’t do in seated discussions. In fact I’ve had many students bug me to reveal the true identities of some posters, asking “so who is BeerKegs 54, really – that guy makes me mad!” I never tell, and they’ll always toss out guesses (which are almost always wrong, interestingly enough!).

Uses in Which Anonymity Seems to Flounder

In other courses, however, anonymity does not appear to be as useful. Specifically, in courses such as “feminist theory” or “existentialism” I have students keep online virtual journals (blogs). In the blog the students are expected to keep a regular public record of their reflections and/or critical thoughts about the course material. They are also expected to comment regularly on the blogs of their fellow students. So this assignment is a great deal more organized than the previous one, and the contributions to blogs are, of course, expected to be of much higher quality and sophistication. Also, clearly, such classes are different in that they are not required, so the students tend to all be self-selected and like minded (all or mostly philosophy students). Also, obviously, they are generally at the same level of education and are fairly advanced within the major (junior, senior). Although I’ve found that students enjoy the blogs, they don’t care for the anonymous nature of the assignment. Some possible reasons for it (some suggested by students):

  1. Since the students are more advanced, they are keen on displaying the sophisticated nature of their thinking to others. They no longer fear whether what they are saying is stupid, and so genuinely want to “own” their own viewpoints.

  2. They have taken real care and time to develop these entries, and so they are very proud of them. Anonymity enforces a kind of ‘alienation’ from one’s own views, and this is inconsistent with the pride they feel in them.

  3. Whereas in the general introduction to ethics course students have said that anonymity really formed the basis for the development of a healthy online ‘community’, many advanced blog-using students have argued that the anonymity had the reverse effect. So whereas it alienates them from their own views, it also alienates them from the views of others, which they want to attach to faces.

My comments and observations above are just meant to provide some fodder and context for thinking about the issue; I’m curious here what people think about the issues of anonymity in virtual discussion, either in general or in more specific cases such as the ones I’ve mentioned above.

Anonymous comments are welcomed. :-)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Call for Papers: E-Learning in Dialogue: Innovative Teaching and Learning in Philosophy and Religious Studies

Thought this might be of interest to the readers of ISW.

Subject: First Call for Papers- E-Learning in Dialogue: Innovative Teaching and Learning in Philosophy and Religious Studies- Leeds/York (exact venue tbc)- 14-15 March 2008.

Dear Colleagues,

An early date for your diaries.

The Higher Education Academy, Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies (PRS), is organising an international two-day Conference on 'E-Learning in Dialogue: Innovative Teaching and Learning in Philosophy and Religious Studies' to be held in Leeds/York (venue tbc) in 14th-15th of March. Academics in Philosophy and Religious Studies, who are interested in enriching their practice through innovations in technology-enabled teaching and learning in Philosophy and Religious Studies, will find this two day event a most creative and fruitful way to meet other academics with experience in this area and exchange views with them on ways to enhance and apply, embed and enhance e-learning in their discipline.

The Conference will include presentations and lectures from leading figures in e-learning in the Humanities (from UK and other European countries), who will present both traditional and pioneering approaches to e-learning. There will also be specialised workshops for a hands-on approach to e-learning and to confront the challenges of transferring a traditional approach to dialogue in the humanities to a VLE platform and other forms of e-learning.

Dialogue has been frequently discussed as a major challenge for e-learning in the humanities (and especially philosophy). The innovations presented at the Conference will attempt to challenge this myth and they will present creative and novel ways of applying dialogue in teaching and learning, building on the existing use of dialogue as a teaching and learning strategy in the humanities and religious studies, which has a history of more than 2000 years, starting primarily with Socrates in philosophy and Buddha in religious thought).

All philosophical and religious traditions are welcome and there will be co-operation with and contributions from other Higher Education Academy Subject Centres. We would also like to extend the invitation to attend this conference to teachers in primary and secondary education. Interested researchers and practitioners of e-learning in the humanities, who would like to present their work and provide a platform for exchange of ideas in avant-garde and state-of-the-art innovations, are most welcome to contact Dr. C. Athanasopoulos, 'Costas', at the PRS Subject Centre (c.athanasopoulos@leeds.ac.uk,
costas@prs.heacademy.ac.uk) and send their proposals for papers/workshops (deadline: end of January 2008).

There will also be a prize study case competition for academics using innovative e-learning in PRS, the prize for which will be presented at the Conference.
More details about the Conference and the prize competition will be posted by the end of July 2007 on the Subject Centre website.

With best wishes,

Dr. Constantinos Athanasopoulos- 'Costas'

E-Learning Project Officer

I will probably be going to this since for me it is relatively local, it would be good to hear if other ISWers are interested and might be attending.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Blog bling and Steppin' up to the mic, parts 3-5

Just a note to announce that I've added both e-mail and RSS subscription options for ISW (at the bottom of the right hand column). These will enable our readers to keep up with ISW goings-on more easily.

Also, we have three new contributing members: Chris Panza, Adam Potthast, and John Alexander. I know they'll have many lively contributions to offer.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Do moral philosophy courses encourage 'easy' moral skepticism?

Daniel Callcut very kindly made me aware of his paper 'The value of teaching moral skepticism' (Teaching Philosophy 29 (2006): 223-235). Here's the abstract:

This article argues that introductory ethics classes can unwittingly create or confirm skeptical views toward morality. Introductory courses frequently include critical discussion of skeptical positions such as moral relativism and psychological egoism as a way to head off this unintended outcome. But this method of forestalling skepticism can have a residual (and unintended) skeptical effect. The problem calls for deeper pedagogical-cum-philosophical engagement with the underlying sources of skepticism. The paper provides examples of how to do this and explains the additional benefits of teaching moral skepticism.

I imagine many philosophy instructors have Callcut's worry, namely, that students already inclined toward skeptical views about morality will conclude that the inquisitive give-and-take of philosophical ethics simply confirms their skeptical position (whether the position is egoism, simple subjectivism, nihilism, relativism, etc.). If students are to be moral skeptics, better that this be the product of critical engagement with skeptical and non-skeptical positions rather than an easy dogma.

Callcut's suggestions as to how to forestall this easy moral skepticism strike me as levelheaded and sensible:
  • to evaluate the merits of skepticism in comparison with other positions so that skepticism is not treated as "the default position"
  • to communicate"a sense of just how extreme a claim is involved in the denial of any ethical knowledge" (226)
  • to emphasize that skepticism at the level of moral theory need not diminish our confidence in our well-established first order views (e.g., that torturing children is wrong)
  • to point out that 'piecemeal' justifications of our moral claims are not necessarily infirm (Here Callcut observes that many student skeptics are disillusioned foundationalists; so perhaps some headway can made against their easy skepticism by drawing attention to their foundationalist assumptions.)
  • to acknowledge the possibility of theoretical moral pluralism
  • to insist that the desire not to impose one's values on others is not, appearances to the contrary, a value-neutral strategy
I'd only like to add that while students' moral skepticism can be "unwittingly" confirmed in courses on ethics, my own experience is that it is at least as likely that students will reject moral skepticism as a result of studying moral philosophy. In these courses, what I hope to convey above all else is that philosophy offers a tradition of serious, reasoned argument about moral questions. This is, I think, a shock to many students: The cultures from which they come, to the extent that have 'moral argument' at all, don't tend to treat moral questions as amenable to rational discussion or progress. The choices available in the wider culture are easy dogmatism (sometimes though not always religious in origin) or easy skepticism. What I intend they discover in a moral philosophy course is that there are other options. The students need not hitch themselves any one of them, of course. But the overall message is that moral knowledge is not hopeless. Indeed, moral philosophy presents us with an overabundance of plausible theories and options, rather than a meager menu of self-serving dogmas or theoretical non-starters.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hello, I'm the APA. How can I help you today?

Starting this year, I'll be a member of the American Philosophical Association's Committee on the Teaching of Philosophy. (Our own David Hunter is already a member). The Committee's charge:

The Committee is charged with assessing trends and needs in the teaching of philosophy and making recommendations for action by the Board. It sponsors sessions on the teaching of philosophy at Divisional meetings, responds to requests from members and others regarding teaching, and undertakes programs for the improvement of teaching. At the direction of the Board, it prepares statements for Board approval regarding instruction in philosophy.

So I'd be curious to know from our readership how the Committee must better fulfill its charge. How can the APA help its members as teachers? Any and all suggestions welcome!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Steppin' up to the mic: David Hunter

As the post below indicates, David Hunter has agreed to be the second contributor to ISW. As you can tell from his post, David has some very keen observations on the teaching art. So welcome David!

Modelling Behaviour: Teaching Broadly and Essay Setting

Thanks to Michael for inviting me on board, it is a pleasure to be here.

This post really follows up on one of the points made by Michael in this post: The teacher and the researcher.

It is common for introductory philosophy classes to be broad survey style classes. There are good reasons for this; we want our students to be broadly grounded, to have a chance to taste different aspects of philosophy and so on. However a consequence of this, as Michael pointed out, is that introductory and indeed other undergraduate courses in philosophy rarely go into any great depth. This often carries over to the specific lectures, so one week in a philosophy of religion class you may cover the argument from evil, the next the ontological argument. The upshot of this is that a lecture can often look something like this:

Proposition X
Argument 1 for proposition X
Why Argument 1 fails
Argument 2 for proposition X
Why Argument 2 fails
Argument 3 for proposition X
Why Argument 3 fails
Argument 4 for proposition X
Why Argument 4 fails
Conclusion: None of these arguments for proposition X work

Yet when we set essays we often, although not exclusively, ask students to concentrate on just one argument. Even if we do not specifically ask them to focus in the question, we usually argue that there is little point them giving just an overview of the area instead they should focus on a small part of that area since that is all they can cover well. The essay that gives 101 arguments for a proposition with little depth or critical analysis, philosophy by bullet point, will usually not do well.ral point is illustrated by this quote from the excellent The gene How to Plan a Philosophy Paper by Jeff McLaughlin, Thompson Rivers University.

“Choose a topic that is ‘do-able’.

Essay topics like "The philosophy of Aristotle", "What is Truth?", or "Science versus Religion", are far too broad. When thinking about your topic it is better that the "pool be small and deep, rather than wide and shallow". That’s a murky metaphor but basically it means don’t bite off more than you can chew. You don’t want to touch on fifty different and disjointed points and say nothing substantial about any of them (or you run the risk of writing a ‘too-long paper’). Instead, you want to pick a manageable topic that allows you some room for an in depth exploration of the particular issue. Are you keen on the topic of euthanasia? What aspect? Voluntary vs. Non-voluntary? Active vs. Passive? The role of non-family members as decision makers? Consideration of potential negative utilitarian consequences of a newborn euthanasia policy? Narrow your focus and develop your exploration of it.”

But there is an obvious disconnect here, while we insist to our students that good philosophy is focused and in depth, we model precisely the opposite when we get up in front of them and teach. It doesn’t seem too far a stretch to think that some of our students knowing that we are philosophers who are teaching philosophy, will probably get the impression that this is how philosophy ought to be done. Then they are likely to get a rude and disheartening awakening when, following the pattern of what is done in class they do badly in their assignments.

I’m curious to hear whether people broadly agree with this analysis, and what if anything they do about it.

I personally try and make it clear to my students that when I am covering huge swathes of material in a short time in a class that I am not doing philosophy, I am teaching them about others who did philosophy. I try and make this clear by occasionally doing philosophy in class, although I usually keep this for the tutorials, trying to make them focused on one or two aspects of the lecture not the whole. Likewise in the talk I give them about essay writing I make the point that lectures and course books perform a very different function than an academic paper. And what we are usually looking for in an essay is much more like an academic paper (not to the same standard of course) than it is to a course book or a lecture.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The teacher and the researcher

One fact that I suspect becomes apparent to most philosophy instructors fairly early in their careers is the intellectual canyon between the climate of philosophical research and the climate of philosophy teaching. Teaching as I do in a large, moderately selective public university with no graduate program, my teaching obligations almost entirely involve introductory courses (either introduction to philosophy or an introductory practical ethics course), historical surveys, or courses that survey a philosophical subdiscipline (e.g., ethical theory). In these courses, it's rare that the course content intersects with my own research in a very direct or substantial way, and I suspect this is true for most of us: It's the exception when our research and our undergraduate teaching inform one another in profitable ways. Whereas in ethical theory courses, I strive to help students understand Kant's categorical imperative and some of the principal objections to it, my research might concern replies to the objections to the objections, etc. So not only is there relatively little contact between our research and teaching in terms of content, but the level of sophistication in research in much higher than in our teaching.

I imagine that those with graduate teaching duties don't experience this. My concern is not that teaching requires 'dumbing down' the material. (I don't think it does.) My concern is that there is a kind of built-in professional schizophrenia to the profession, where two of the main activities — teaching and research — operate in different worlds, whereas it would be nice if these could be mutually reinforcing activities.

So do others share this experience, and have you changed your approach to teaching (or to research) in response? Are there ways of integrating our own research into our teaching so as to bridge the gap between these two ventures?