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.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In the Age of Psychological Egoism

So my latest "Values Analysis" class (sophomore level ethics class) seems, on the whole anyway, to be a particularly jaded bunch. Although it is typical in an ethics class to find that a fair number of people think that psychological egoism is true, in this class the number might be as high as 50% (maybe higher).

Clearly, psychological egoism is a very demanding theory, as it is far more demanding than mere pessimism about human altruism. I can believe in altruism but be a pessimist about how often it actually emerges in the world. But the psychological egoist thinks that altruism (again, where it is seen as separate from self-interest) is impossible, not just unlikely or rare.

I'm curious what factors I should attribute the increase in belief in this thesis to. If I were teaching at a different school, one with a lot of poor students, or students who had lived through inner-city ghetto conditions growing up, I could understand it. Seen from that grim perspective on life, the world sure looks like the kind of place in which altruism is a fiction. But my students do not come from these backgrounds at all. Quite the opposite.

So I'm left wondering what it is. One possibility: if you believe in psychological egoism, it does provide you with a "free pass" to oneself in all future situations where you don't help another person in a situation where you don't perceive a way to benefit personally. A psychological egoist might reason that there's no reason to feel bad about such a situation -- it's not rational, after all, to feel guilty about something you couldn't do (be motivated to perform altruistic acts) in the first place. This leaves me wondering if belief in psychological egoism may be more prevalent in the top and bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Those at the top believe in it because it allows them to guiltlessly keep what they have; those at the bottom believe it because their experiences lead them to this conclusion.

That's one possibility, though it's a grim one that I'd hope isn't the real reason. Anyone have any other suggestions? My explanation requires a bit of cynicism, and hopefully that's just the New Yorker in me speaking. :)

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Office

Folks might enjoying checking out this piece I wrote for Inside Higher Ed. My office really is my favorite perk!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Collecting Conclusions

Over time, I have noticed one thing: students (well, people in general, obviously) like to "collect" conclusions like some people like to collect stamps or coins. What I mean is this: when you go through an argument for X in class, you can tell that some people who were disposed towards X in the first place now feel as if X, which they had already in the past "collected," was now authenticated because an argument exists for it. The argument could be awful, but that's fine with them, because all they were looking to do in the first place was collect X (or legitimate it) and put it in their "belief sack" and continue on their way.

It could be that they don't even understand the argument. That's fine too.Same thing happens in the reverse. You can tell that students who are wildly against X will refuse to believe X, no matter how many arguments you present for it, or no matter how many arguments you can muster against X. At some point in the past they "collected" X and no one is going to take X away from them.

This is fairly typical behavior, and there's nothing shocking or unusual about it. But in philosophy I always think that what we're trying to do is get people past that. Just because it's natural to do it doesn't mean we ought to embrace the practice. As I tell my students: if you like X, great. But you really shouldn't like X if there isn't a good argument for it. And if someone presents you with a really good argument against X, it should bother you, because now your belief in X should be shaken to some degree. You shouldn't just dismiss the argument without even trying to analyze it critically because you've already previously collected X and no one is going to take it from you. In other words, part of philosophy is about training people to appreciate the importance of attending to arguments for and against one's position. We don't just collect conclusions (which sounds more like the business of subjectivism) -- we assess arguments. The conclusions we end up with are the ones that stand up best over time.

Which brings me to my point: I don't think many philosophy students are all that different about the desire to collect conclusions than anyone else. I see this all the time, but noticed it specifically the other day in Modern Philosophy. After presenting Descartes' ontological proof in Meditation 5, my students were left without a clue as to how to critique the argument. But yet they (many of them, anyway) seemed entirely unmoved by the conclusion -- that God necessarily exists. I don't mean that I expected them to leave the room religious, but rather that I know many of them are not religious, or are at least skeptical that a proof can establish a deity. So I do expect them to be bothered by the argument and really try to figure out what's wrong with it. Instead, it seems to me that they had already "collected" the conclusion that God doesn't exist, or at least that no argument could establish it, and no one was going to rob them of that. But if this is true, then the only thing that makes a philosophy student different from everyone else is this: philosophy students collect stranger conclusions. But they'd still be belief collectors, just like just about everyone else.

Does everyone else experience this as well in their philosophy classes? Note please that I'm not trying to be overly critical of my students here. We all do this to some degree. But when someone points out to me that I've shrugged off an argument because it doesn't mesh with a "collected" conclusion I prize, I'm embarrassed about it. I'm not sure I sense that embarrassment in all of my philosophy students (some, but not all).

Any stories of your own? How do we get them to stop "collecting conclusions" without a sense of shame about it?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Political philosophy readings

Over at PEA Soup, Matt Zwolinski has a post requesting suggestions for readings in political philosophy. The response has been good, with both some classics and some 'non-standard' items as well. Check it out!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Building a Successful Philosophy Club

Recently I've been working with a few of the philosophy (and religion) students here to try to come up with some good solid ideas for (a) running an effective philosophy and religion club and (b) getting students to run it autonomously, with help from faculty in the form of advice (and the all important funding).

I'm pretty new to this sort of thing. What, in your opinion, makes a departmental club successful? Clearly you (a) want the club to make inroads into the larger student community, so that you can build enrollment for your classes, (b) you want it it to forge better (and more collegial) professional relationships betwen students as co-members of the same disciplinary community, and (c) you want it to be fun.

Any suggestsions out there? Are there any "best practices" you'd like to suggest? Or any "avoid that!" suggestions? Perhaps a club should aim for more than what I've outlined?

I'm all ears on this one!

A tension in writing pedagogy?

I'd like to discuss what I've experienced as a tension in how we help students learn to write in philosophy and to get some insight as to how the tension might be resolved.

First, the tension: Good philosophical writing is much more orderly than many students are accustomed to. At its best, it proceeds in a logical way, makes its assumptions explicit, lays out its reasoning carefully and directly, etc. I imagine that all of us have observed students struggling with this objective, producing written work that, whatever the merits of the ideas on offer, lacks structure, focus, or flow.

The natural remedy for this is to be direct with students about the orderliness that's expected. I have handouts I provide to students and I make available examples of written work that exemplifies the orderly style they should strive for. However, I've found that this has an unexpected negative consequence: Rather than their awareness of the need for order liberating them, many students find it either constraining or mechanical. The writing they produce becomes very by-the-numbers, with unoriginal theses and arguments drawn directly from texts or class discussion. The result is formulaic, sterile, risk-averse writing the crafting of which (I suspect) does little to help students master philosophical ideas.

This tension is important for two reasons: Yes, we want to encourage orderly writing. But writing also serves two other aims.

First, even though philosophical writing is less "creative" than many students realize, it can be a way for students to articulate and defend their own philosophical views. Students often take this to heart more strongly than I would like, treating each writing assignment as an opportunity to state, now and for all time, their true view on some philosophical matter. I like to remind them there's no sincerity requirement on their written work. (I don't even think there's a sincerity requirement for professional philosophers, but that's another story.) Nevertheless, helping students find a philosophical voice is a legitimate pedagogical goal, and I've found that this goal is sometimes at odds with the goal of producing orderly writing.

Second, the pedagogical value of writing isn't exhausted by the production of written work. The process of writing -- shaping a thesis, putting together arguments, digesting texts, identifying objections -- makes no less a contribution to student learning than does actually producing prose. That said, I've found that the need to produce orderly prose often results in students not really using the writing process as a way to interrogate philosophical ideas. They revert to plugging ideas into a written structure so as to generate clean prose, which means they neglect the much dirtier process of wrestling with philosophical problems and claims.

The tension, then, is between order and engagement with content, between the goal of crafting well-structured prose and the goal of learning about philosophical problems by writing about them. I don't think this tension is irresolvable, since some students react positively to the need for order, as it frees them to think less about the writing task proper and more about the intellectual tasks that accompany writing. Still, I believe there's a genuine tension here, one I've observed often in my career.

Can these two goals be harmonized? One idea I've fiddled with is to use more free writing with students. The idea here would be to give students a block of class time (10 minutes, say) to write whatever comes to mind in connection with some claim, topic, text, etc. The hope would be that this would let students do a bit of intellectual exploration (I wouldn't collect them, so there'd be little performance pressure) that they could then use as a springboard for more formal writing tasks later on. Perhaps they would, upon reading their free writing, come to appreciate that orderliness makes one's ideas more perspicuous and that our (my) insistence on orderly writing is not a whimsical authoritarian demand. Has anyone tried any free writing techniques? Do you have any thoughts about how to address the tension I've identified?

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Labor of Teaching Philosophy

On labor day, I thought I would quickly raise the issue of whether teaching philosophy &/or being a professional, academic philosopher is (morally) justified labor.

At least two contemporary philosophers have argued that sometimes -- if not often -- it is not. Peter Unger in Living High and Letting Die argues -- too simply put -- that younger, less established philosophers should quit teaching and go to law school to become corporate lawyers to make a ton of money to donate to organizations that help desperately poor people. And Saul Smilansky, in 10 MORAL PARADOXES and "The Paradox of Beneficial Retirement", argues -- again too simply put -- that many philosophy teachers should retire because they would be replaced by better philosophy teachers (he argues this about any profession where there are many, many qualified people for the positions).

A first question I have is whether there are other arguments for views that are morally critical of the profession of teaching philosophy and, perhaps especially, doing philosophical research (or certain kinds of research, perhaps on certain topics...). Perhaps philosophers who develop these arguments never get them out on paper since they found them so convincing that they quit the field (!!), but I'm sure there must be more arguments than these two above (which, of course, need much more explanation than what I gave).

Second, and more importantly, are any of these arguments any good?

I have some thoughts on these questions, but I have to get back to work so I can't answer them now.