Thursday, August 30, 2007

Using the Michael Vick case

Here is an interview with Peter Singer about the Michael Vick dog fighting case that could be used to promote good classroom discussion, especially if students are empirically informed about the two kinds of uses of animals.


Of Dog Fights and Men

by Ben Crair
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 08.29.07

On Monday, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick plead guilty to federal charges of dog fighting, including charges that he personally endorsed the execution of underperforming dogs by hanging or drowning. For insight into the reaction to Vick's case, The New Republic spoke with ethicist Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. His book Animal Liberation, first published in 1975, is considered the foundational text of the animal rights movement. He discussed the sorry lives of the American pig, the ethical difference between hunting and dog fighting, and why both of those are minor cruelties in the scale of things.

What do you make of the public reaction to Michael Vick's involvement in illegal dog fighting?

Well, I think in a sense it's quite fair. It seems from the allegation that Michael Vick did horrible things to dogs. If he did what's alleged, people should be disgusted and revolted by it. From my point of view, what is regrettable is that people only react so strongly to such things when they occur with dogs. If something similar had been done with pigs or chickens, the reaction probably would have been much milder. That seems to me to be wrong. I think pigs suffer just as much as dogs, and, in terms of what we do to pigs in this country in general, they suffer a lot more cruelty than dogs do because there are so many of them in factory farms in appalling conditions. That's the incongruity. It's not that there's an overreaction to the Vick business, it's rather that there's an underreaction to what's happening elsewhere.

Basketball player Stephon Marbury was widely criticized for telling reporters, "We don't say anything about people who shoot deer or shoot other animals. You know, from what I hear, dog fighting is a sport." Do you think his comparison was valid?

Well, the aim of a hunter is to kill the animal with as little pain as possible--or it should be. That's the ethic that you get in sport hunting, at least. I'm not condoning or supporting sport hunting but there is a distinction in that the good hunter will shoot the animal in a vital place where it will drop dead immediately. It won't suffer. It seems pretty clear that the dogs that didn't fight well that Michael Vick and his associates killed were not killed instantly at all. They were drowned, for example. Drowning is obviously a much more distressing death than being shot with a bullet through the brain or in the heart.

Has the reaction to the Vick case exposed a schizophrenia in the way the public judges offenses against animals?

That comparison that you just asked me to make between dog fighting and sport-hunting is interesting in itself because these are both really very minor cruelties in the terms of the scale of things. The big thing that is going undiscussed here is the industrial raising of animals for food. Just in terms of the numbers, it's so vastly greater than sport-hunting, which in turn is a lot bigger than dog fighting. We're talking literally about billions of animals each year being reared in conditions that don't enable them to have a minimally decent life and then being killed in mass-production factory ways that again often are not painless. So that's the schizophrenia, that all of this hidden suffering that's engaged in by supposedly respectable corporations and that people then buy in their supermarkets is the thing that is unspoken. It's not the recreational activities that we should be focusing on.

Has there been an increase of interest in animal cruelty recently?

I think so. At the 2006 elections there were a number of animal anti-cruelty initiatives passed. There's been a bit of an upsurge in it and I would say that the response to Vick is consistent with that. People are starting to realize that this is an issue that a lot of people are taking quite seriously now. Perhaps that is going to have some larger political ramifications as well.

Ben Crair is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Disappearing discussion

Readers may note that the 'Recent comments' index has disappeared from In Socrates' Wake. We've been having some technical issues trying to get the feed and are working on some possible solutions. In the meantime, if you'd like to keep with the content here, please use the RSS or e-mail subscriptions links below. Thanks for your understanding.

Tiny revolutions

I enjoyed the insights by Melissa Ballard in this article at Inside Higher Ed. Ballard reminds us that effective teaching rarely involves dramatic breakthroughs but is instead a matter of facilitating tiny changes in students' performance, habits, and outlook on life. An encouraging message, to my mind.

Monday, August 27, 2007

What should philosophy majors know?

We have an outcomes assessment requirement in our department for those graduating with a philosophy degree. It hasn't been used much in the past because people had sort of forgotten about it and the assessment was the now defunct philosophy subject area GRE. So I was wondering what our cohort here thinks would be a good summative assessment for undergrad philosophy majors. I'm actually mostly curious about the most general questions. As our students tend to take a wide variety of courses, questions relative to particular courses are not really allowable (other than introductions to ethics, logic, or philosophy). If possible, I'd like to put an emphasis not on knowledge-based questions (Plato's theory of the forms says?) but on skill-based questions--questions or puzzles that philosophy majors should be better equipped to answer than the average college graduate who hasn't taken much philosophy. (Something like, "Write the following abstract argument in a much clearer form.")

Also, what do people think about these kinds of outcomes assessments? It strikes me as "yet another exam", but also one that helps plan and focus a philosophy major. That is, I think that when done correctly, it can give people a definite sense of what they're supposed to learn and what they have learned as a philosophy major.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Grading on Comportment

Adam thinks that the main point of Mike's post on classroom management was lost (I lost the point too). In this short post I'd just like to redirect it to what Mike probably intended (or at least what Adam thinks he intended) the main focus to be: grading students in the philosophy class based on comportment. In other words: should a part of a grade in a philosophy classroom be based on whether a student is cordial, not arrogant, respectful of the opinions of others, genuinely interested in creating a classroom environment that focused on collaboration (and so on).

Adam and I saw a plenary talk about this topic some years ago (3 years ago?) at the AAPT. The talk was given by the then-president of the AAPT (I believe his name is Daryl Close). I can't remember exactly the specific arguments Close gave, but I remember that he was clearly against this sort of practice, arguing that grades in philosophy classes should be reflective only of the student's learning/writing.

Later on, Adam and I had an argument about this ourselves, with Adam more on Close's side and me taking up the opposing point of view. In the effort to keep things simple, I think Adam's argument went something like this:

P1. The business of philosophy is focused solely on the analysis of theoretical problems (understanding them, solving them, advancing them, etc).
P2. Being a good philosophy student means being good at the business of philosophy.
C1. A good philosopher is good at the analysis of theoretical issues.
P3. The aim of a philosophy class is to impart the skills to engage in philosophy.
P4. Students should be graded on whether they develop those skills.
P5. Comportment plays no part in a student's ability to develop/use those skills.
C2. Students should not be graded on comportment.

I suppose my contention with this argument, if I recall (not that we walked around talking about P2s and P5s), was that P1 is false, because the business of philosophy isn't just about the analysis of problems (necessary, but not sufficient). I argued that philosophy is also (a) a social discipline involved in getting people to learn to appreciate and perhaps engage in the activity of approaching the world differently (from a philosophical perspective). In a way, it involves helping people to "get out of the cave". Certain kinds of comportment, taken generally (not in specific instances, where it may help) do not contribute to this, and if anything disrupt the creation of the kinds of environments where "learning to do or appreciate philosophy" flourishes. Moreover, (b): the philosophical way of life is also about cultivating a real sense of Socratic humility about the way in which one lives/currently thinks about the world. Excessive arrogance is inconsistent with this (I see this sometimes in the dismissive attitude of some of my own students towards religion, and I also see it on both sides of fence in some folks regarding the superiority of "analytic" or "continental" points of view).

Essentially, my way of looking at it suggested the following distinction:

P6. Good thinkers do all of the things that Adam prized. You can be a great thinker and be an ass, or be uninterested in the development of others, cultivate a dismissive disposition, etc.
P7. Good philosophers are good thinkers and care about (actively, not just in theory) the issues I've raised.
P8. Philosophy class aims at developing students with the skills to do philosophy.
C3. Thus, comportment grading is acceptable (if not even required).

Well, that's a hastily typed version of it I think. All of this said, I don't grade based on comportment -- I've never put it into practice. This is not because I'm not convinced by what I've written above (not that I've ever really sat down and tried to work out specific forms of the arguments needed), but rather because I can't figure out a way to put it into practice that would be really clearly understandable to students and also not excessively subjective. So it's more of a practical problem than anything else.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Managing the Classroom

In recent years, I've run into a problem in the classroom that has been around for a long time, but has a variety of new incarnations with the arrival of iPods, cellphones, and so on. I've never made a big deal in class when someone's cell phone rings, because I've forgotten to turn mine off at inopportune times as well. However, I've had students take calls in the middle of class and leave the room, text their friends, play games on their phones, and so on in recent years. Sometimes this distracts others (the calls), while other times it distracts only me (playing games). So, I've decided to institute a "Class activity" grade.

The following statement now appears on my lower-level course syllabi, in order to give me a little more power in dealing with recalcitrant students:

Class Activity

This portion of your grade will be positively impacted primarily by coming to class and making positive contributions to in-class discussion. Other positive aspects include e-mail discussions and office visits that demonstrate you are thinking about the material in a substantial manner. Ways that this portion of your grade can be negatively affected include your cell phone ringing in class, talking on your cell phone, texting, reading the newspaper, sleeping, or any other sort of disruptive class behavior.

It seems that the downside of this is that on the first day of class, it could set an adversarial tone. I try to avoid this by injecting some humor into the class when I discuss this aspect of their grade. I also tell them that I'll understand if their phone rings once in class, but if it goes on it will hurt this portion of their grade.
How do others handle this issue?

Monday, August 20, 2007

My wife's challenge

My wife recently challenged me to teach about the ethical issues surrounding world hunger/poverty in my intro to ethics courses. She had been reading an article on Norman Borlung written by Jonathon Alter in Newsweek (July 30, 2007) and she asked me to read and comment on it. Of course, I have discussed world hunger and poverty this in my intro course for years (who hasn’t?), but not at the level that would be required if I was to take her concerns (and challenge) seriously. During our discussion she said that this would be a topic well worth investigating and discussing in my ethics courses because what we are dealing with is a central issue in ethics; how should we live our lives and how our actions as individuals and groups (communities, nations) affect who will suffer. One of her concerns (taken from the article) was why does the US federal government pay people not to produce food when so many are hungry and what can we, as ordinary citizens, do to stop this practice?

Of course she is correct that this is a very important issue, so I am going to take up her challenge, but it is too late to do so this semester in the depth that would be necessary to understand the complexities of this issue. I am thinking of doing this in the Winter semester of 2008, but I am faced with pedagogical issues. How best to accomplish achieving learning outcomes; in fact, what are the learning outcomes that I want? What are the issues related to world hunger/poverty that are worth discussing in an intro course? How should I utilize traditional texts or important articles on these topics? Should I require some level of community service with agencies/organizations that deal with hunger and poverty in our own community as a requirement for earning an A (or even a B)?

I am really going at this rather blindly, so I am asking for help! But one thing I am thinking of doing is making this course a large research project where the students will do some introductory readings on the general topic, research the general topic of world hunger/poverty, and bring to class relevant material to share and discuss. The course will develop as the discussions leads us. This will be tremendously interactive, as well as risky. I am inclined to think that if I can successfully pull this off (with your help) then the students will learn through their research and class discussions about the classical ethical theories (which is a stated general goal of our intro to ethics courses) and come to realize our interdependence with the environment and each other.

I am familiar with Singer’s work and have in the past have used Narveson and Kamm as counterpoints to his position. I am using Singer and Narveson in a 2-week section of my Fall courses to see if I can determine a way to develop some parameters wherein to conduct a semester long research project. But, I would be very interested in your ideas on how best to develop this course. In so far as there are @ 850 million people suffering from hunger (Newsweek, July 30, 2007) this does seem to be an important issue for all of us to tackle.

I look forward to hearing your comments and suggestions.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Textbooks and the almighty dollar

I'm sure that most of us have noticed that textbooks costs are out of control. Though my suspicion is that costs for philosophy textbooks have not risen as quickly as they have in other disciplines (the sciences, business), this is a pedagogical issue in philosophy as well: Students certainly won't do the reading if they don't have the reading material. So what can be done here?

I'm particularly sensitive to this issue because our institution is on a 10-week quarter system. Since most textbooks are produced with sufficient material for a 14-week semester, I tend to assign an even smaller proportion of the texts I ask students to buy than I would were I teaching on a semester calendar. In some cases, I can only reasonably assign one-quarter of the readings in a large anthology. Furthermore, because of the quarter system, students take half again as many courses as they would on a semester system, which means half again as many textbooks.

So I'd be curious to know if others are sensitive to this issue, and if so, what you do to try to keep students' costs in check. I'd also be interested in learning from those involved in the production or authoring of philosophy textbooks why costs are increasing and their views on the matter.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Doing the Reading

What are some of the ways to get most (ideally, all..) students doing the assigned readings, and doing them well so that there can be more fruitful classroom discussions and fewer lectures that summarize the readings?

Of course, in-class reading quizzes, take-home summaries, and reading questions are options.

What exactly has worked well (or hasn't worked well) for you?

I have tried in-class reading quizzes but haven't been too happy with them: they take up a lot of time and perhaps they were each at too little of percentage of the total grade for enough students to take them seriously.

Since teaching life would surely is better when more students do the reading, any tips on how to make this happen would be appreciated greatly.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Day One All-Unifying Case Study

In keeping with Michael's recognition that the semester is about to begin, and also to pick up on something David mentioned in a reply about Robin Hood, let's present what we use as our course-unifying 'case study' on day one of an ethics course (if you use one). What I mean is this: do you have a case study that you use that does a good job of allowing you to distinguish (in a general way obviously) the differences between virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism? Personally, I'm tired of mine (I'll present it later in discussion), and I'd like to trade it in for a new one!

Type the rest of your post here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Worst. Course. Ever.

The end of summer means a return to teaching for many of us. I've been reflecting on an important pedagogical lesson, namely, that teaching requires humility — and a sense of humor. So to that end, I invite everyone to share their Worst Course Ever. I'll start!

Course An Early Modern Philosophy course, about five years ago.
What Made It the Worst Principally, one very uppity student. This student was pretty confident that he had Descartes and the other philosophers of the period figured out -- and they were all dopes. Add to this his abrasive personality, a tendency to hijack class discussion, and a strong desire to win the other students over to his cause, and the result were class meetings that were tense, ill-organized, and exasperating. The other students, most of whom were struggling simply to comprehend these very difficult authors, came to resent this student (he did win a couple of disciples), and to resent me for failing to rein the student in.
What I Learned That the, mmmm, aggression that some students display toward philosophy is sometimes rooted in an oversized ego. That this ego needs to be cut down to size, but NOT with aggressive responses of my own. (Better to give such students a platform from time to time and let them run out of steam before returning to the texts and issues at hand.) That students often panic in the face of challenging texts or ideas, making it my job to help them manage or place in perspective this panic. That students need to be told that inquiry is essential to philosophy, and that 'old philosophers' cannot be dismissed simply because they're old. A lot of other things as well....

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Should professors share or advocate their views in the classroom?

I’d like to raise this issue, explore the possible pros and cons, and find out what others do. In the past, I’ve generally sought to present the two or more sides of an issue (e.g. abortion, God’s existence), present what I take to be the strongest arguments for the positions, the key objections, and leave it at that. Lately, I’ve been a little more open about my own views. I find it difficult not to share my thoughts because, of course, they are my views and I care about these issues. I’ll kick the discussion off with just a few thoughts on this question.

The benefits of sharing and/or advocating our views include:

1. We are being honest and open about our views and why we hold them, which I take to be an important way to model philosophical thinking for our students.

2. Doing so works against students’ concluding that philosophy is just a matter of “opinion,” which I take to mean that there is no true answer to the question at issue, and one can just decide what to believe based on personal preference.

The cons include:

1. Students are hypersensitive, and often with good reason, about professors seeking to enforce their views.

2. Many, if not most, students are afraid to disagree with their professors. They fear it will hurt their grade. This can put a serious damper on discussion in the classroom.

3. When evaluating a course at the end of the term, students often express appreciation for the professor’s “impartiality” or “fairness,” because he or she did not share or advocate his/her own take on the issues.