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....


  1. One that jumps to mind, perhaps because it was just last spring...

    Course- Introduction to Philosophy
    What Made It the Worst- First, I've never had an entire class so resistant to discussion. And given that I emphasize discussion every day, each class felt like and in fact was a sort of battle. Second, there was one very immature student who thought that he was above all of this philosophy bs and that attitude came out every day. He made a very inappropriate comment near the beginning of the semester about overweight women, slept in class, messed around on his cell phone, etc. I called him out a few times in class, but it had little effect. I began to dread this class.
    What I Learned- Sometimes I may just need to spend a lot more class time lecturing, if I can't get a class to discuss. I did break them up in small groups often, but in general the quality of their group work was lacking. I also learned that I need to have in mind a course of action for when a student says something highly inappropriate in class, because in the moment I didn't do much. Lastly, even in a difficult class, there were students who were enthusiastic, thoughtful, and enjoyed the course. I need to focus my attention on them, rather than a difficult student or group of students who are a small minority of the class as a whole.

  2. I don't have a course example, mostly because I am no longer teaching courses, but instead individual lectures scattered throughout the syllabus. My worst lecture would have to be shortly after I arrived in Northern Ireland. I was doing a lecture called introduction to bioethics for a group of students on a food biotechnology. I had spent a fair amount of time trying to make my lecture culturally apt, updated my chocolate bar examples and so on. I started out my intro to ethics lecture with the Maid Marian & Robinhood story which I will share in full if people are interested, it gives a good example which gets consequentialist, deontologist and virtue ethicist intuitions out. But it relies on people knowing who Robinhood, Maid Marion & the Sheriff are. When I began the story, I started to see puzzled looks so I stopped and asked them whether they recognised the characters. It turned out that that particular class was an exchange class with a Greek university, and all of the students were Greek and had no idea who Robinhood or the rest were. So I had to fairly rapidly give the context to make the example make sense to them.

    What I Learned -
    Don't just assume about the students backgrounds, check if there is information available.


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