Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Homosexuality and Moral Arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Handout How-To?

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Philosophy Writing Handbooks?

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

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

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

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

Some practical fallout after the break.

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Does Philosophy Provide Any Answers?

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

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

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Degrading on the curve

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Homer redux

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Expecting the Old Guys

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

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

The Problem Approach:

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

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

The historical approach:

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

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

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

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Bioethics Recommendations?

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

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

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

Any suggestions, anyone? Thanks in advance.

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

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Getting past multiple guess

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

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