Friday, November 30, 2007

Evaluating Values

Usually at the end of the semester in my intro to philosophy and intro to ethics courses, I like to encourage my students to connect the ideas about value that we've been examining to their own lives. I have them complete an exercise in which they think about their values and the level of integration of their daily lives with those values. The questions are somewhat personal, and so I simply give them time in class to complete them and don't read over their answers. This means some won't take it seriously, but many will. This exercise is drawn from Heather Reid, The Philosophical Athlete (Carolina Academic Press, 2002).

Thinking Activity: Evaluating Values
1. Question: Which are your strongest and most important values?
2. Observe: Make a list of things and accomplishments you care about in life. The list can include objects, people, degrees, awards…whatever fits you.
3. Analyze: Go over your list and decide whether the item is intrinsically valuable (worthwhile in itself), instrumentally valuable (worthwhile as a means to something else), or both. Cross out all those things that are only instrumentally valuable and replace with the intrinsic value toward which they aim until your list only has intrinsic values or intrinsic/instrumental values.
4. Question again: Do these values actually guide your actions in life? Do concerns about money or acceptance sometimes get in the way of your ultimate intrinsic goals, such as happiness? How so? What, if anything, can you do to change this?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

'Fails to consider'

Tim Burke has a nice, short post at Easily Distracted about students using phrases like 'fail to consider' in their writing. As Tim points out, such phrases indicate a tentativeness on the writer's part — a kind of hedge against saying something more assertive. I was also intrigued by this comment from Rob MacD:

Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe observes that student writing rarely uses any of the vast inventory of verbs to describe mental actions: he argues, she assumes, they challenge, I infer, he claims… Instead students return again and again to variations of “discusses,” “considers,” or “talks about.” Graff relates this to a broader difficulty with familiarizing students to argument culture, where our students often understand the process of “choosing topics” but not of “forming arguments.”

That certainly reflects my experience with students attempting to write philosophy. They often have an impoverished vocabulary to describe argumentative moves and strategies. Any tips out there as to how to help students develop the habit of thinking about their own thinking —and the thinking of those whose work they study — in more richly argumentative terms?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Evolution vs. Intelligent Design(ers?)

Google apparently thinks that this movie -- "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" -- is right up a philosophers' alley. Perhaps this would be useful to integrate into next semesters' philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, intro to philosophy, etc. courses. It looks like a provocative film, at least.

Philosophers on Facebook

Late last summer, between finishing my summer courses and gearing up for the fall, I set up a Facebook page. Facebook is a social networking site that a lot of college students use. I tend to initially resist technology such as this, and then use it after my resistance is overcome by my curiosity. Facebook ended up being a good way to connect with old friends, but it also was a way to communicate with students, and I thought this would be a good thing. However, last week, I deleted my account.

One benefit I found with respect to my role as a teacher was that those students who were interested were able to get to know me a little bit better (my interests, what I'm reading and writing, and so on). I think this was good because it opened up some common ground between us, and this was part of my motivation. I was even able to engage in some philosophical discussions with students. On the negative side, Facebook is a time sink, and I found myself wasting precious time messing around with the various applications available on the site. Also, while I enjoyed the ability to connect with students in a way that was fun for them, being on Facebook had some negative consequences. Some seemed to think we were "real life" friends, rather than just "Facebook friends". Also, there was access to parts of my student's lives that I'd really rather not have access to! In the end, I'd rather communicate with students and friends face to face, when possible, rather than on Facebook.

I'd be interested to hear others experiences on Facebook or Myspace, both positive and negative.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Consolation of Philosophy

At this point in the semester (or quarter) it is useful to think about what sorts of things one can do that will help one remain engaged and enthused in the classroom. Just when our energy is running low, so is our student's. Here is something I do to revitalize.

I pick some philosophy to read - just for myself - that has nothing whatsoever to do with my own research or with what I'm currently doing in the classroom. It feels like a guilty pleasure. But it really helps me in the classroom. It reminds me of what I love about philosophy and teaching philosophy. Recently I've been reading up on the Absurd, and I also purchased a book on Epictetus by Long. Neither of these topics has anything to do with 18th century philosophy of mind, or with the courses I'm teaching. But being as worn out as one gets at this point in the year, I don't expect I can do much research now anyway. Might as well indulge my philosophical curiosity.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Better to be a burger-flipper satisfied...

More philosophy in the news! As posted on Brian Leiter's blog (via Thom Brooks' blog), the Guardian says philosophy majors are increasingly in demand. The article hits a lot of good points, but I especially like that people are finally starting to recognize the tremendous practical value of philosophical thinking. It's not just about thinking outside the box or questioning assumptions, employers. Philosophers are also much better at working within certain sets of assumptions, precisely because they realize that they are working within sets of assumptions.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Academic Employment News

"Adjuncts outnumber tenured professors on U.S. campuses"

By Alan Finder
International Herald Tribune, Tuesday, November 20, 2007

DEARBORN, Michigan: Professors with tenure or who are on a tenure track are now a distinct minority on U.S. campuses, as the ranks of part-time instructors and professors hired on a contract have swelled, according to federal figures analyzed by the American Association of University Professors.

Elaine Zendlovitz, a former retail store manager who began teaching college courses six years ago, is representative of the change.

Technically, Zendlovitz is a part-time Spanish professor although, in fact, she teaches nearly all the time.

Her days begin at the University of Michigan in Dearborn with introductory classes. Some days end at 10 p.m. at Oakland Community College, in the suburbs north of Detroit, as she teaches six courses at four institutions.

"I think we part-timers can be everything a full-timer can be," Zendlovitz said during a break in a 10-hour teaching day. But she acknowledged: "It's harder to spend time with students. I don't have the prep time, and I know how to prepare a fabulous class."

The shift from a tenured faculty results from financial pressures, administrators' desire for more flexibility in hiring, firing and changing course offerings, and the growth of community colleges and regional public universities focused on teaching basics and preparing students for jobs.

But it has become so extreme that some universities are pulling back, concerned about the effect on educational quality. Rutgers University in New Jersey agreed in a labor settlement in August to add 100 tenure or tenure-track positions. Across the country, faculty unions are organizing part-timers. And the American Federation of Teachers is pushing legislation in 11 states to mandate that 75 percent of classes be taught by tenured or tenure-track teachers.

Three decades ago, adjuncts - both part-timers and full-timers not on a tenure track - represented only 43 percent of professors, according to the professors' association, which has studied data reported to the federal Education Department. Currently, the association says, they account for nearly 70 percent of professors at colleges and universities, both public and private.

John Curtis, the union's director of research and public policy, said that while the number of tenured and tenure-track professors has increased by about 25 percent over the past 30 years, they have been swamped by the growth in adjunct faculty. Over all, the number of people teaching at colleges and universities has doubled since 1975.

University officials agree that the use of nontraditional faculty is soaring. But some contest the professors' association's calculation, saying definitions of part-time and full-time professors vary, and that it is not possible to determine how many courses, on average, each category of professor actually teaches.

Many state university presidents say tight budgets have made it inevitable that they turn to adjuncts to save money.

"We have to contend with increasing public demands for accountability, increased financial scrutiny and declining state support," said Charles Harrington, provost of the University of North Carolina in Pembroke. "One of the easiest, most convenient ways of dealing with these pressures is using part-time faculty," he said, though he cautioned that colleges that rely too heavily on such faculty "are playing a really dangerous game."

Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, said part-timers could provide real-world experience to students and fill gaps in nursing, math, accounting and other disciplines with a shortage of qualified faculty, though he, too, said that the shift could come with costs.

Adjuncts are less likely to have doctoral degrees, educators say.

They also have less time to meet with students, and research suggests that students who take many courses with them are somewhat less likely to graduate.

"Really, we are offering less educational quality to the students who need it most," said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, noting that the soaring number of adjunct faculty is most pronounced in community colleges and the less select public universities. The elite universities, both public and private, have the fewest adjuncts.

"It's not that some of these adjuncts aren't great teachers," Ehrenberg said. "Many don't have the support that the tenure-track faculty have, in terms of offices, secretarial help and time. Their teaching loads are higher, and they have less time to focus on students."

Ehrenberg and a colleague analyzed 15 years of national data and found that graduation rates declined when public universities hired large numbers of contingent faculty.

Several studies of individual universities have determined that freshmen taught by many part-timers were more likely to drop out.

"Having an adjunct in a course is not necessarily bad for you, but having too many adjuncts might be," said Eric Bettinger, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Teaching Ethics and Animals?

The past few days in my intro to ethics class we have been discussing ethics and animals. In defense of animals, we read Singer's widely reprinted essay "All Animals Are Equal" and a short paper called "Reasonable Humans and Animals". We first think about the fur industry, and then think about animal agriculture and then I have them think about the relations between the two in a paper.

In response, and in some defense of common views about animals, we read a page by Kant on why we have no obligations to animals (and non-"self-conscious" beings in general, apparently) and something by Tibor Machan on why animals don't have "rights," as well as a sheet of at least 50 objections or responses to arguments in defense of animals that I have compiled. If I had more time, I would try to find more things in defense of the status quo and/or or critical of arguments in defense of animals.

While some of my students enjoy this topic and find it important and meaningful, typically, however, at least some students are not so happy about this discussion. This is, I suspect, because I try to get them to really see what's going on with the Singer and Simmons' arguments and force them to carefully examine the various critical objections and responses, i.e., think them through with care to figure out if they really hold up to a bit of critical thinking.

So my questions are these:
  • What, if anything, can be done to avoid or lessen these of (negative, unengaging) responses? Perhaps there are people who teach these topics but don't have, or rarely have, these kinds of reactions, i..e, they typically have better responses than what I often get, at least with some groups of students. If there are such people, how do they do it?
  • What sort of methods, approaches, and attitudes are best for trying to get students to productively engage these issues?
  • What are the best readings or resources to present in defense of the status quo, common views, etc.?
I can add that I think many of my students' ability to engage with the issue improve over the few class meetings we use for these issues. Hopefully they are spending some time to process the issue on their own and their quality of thinking improves as a result.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Philosophers get out of the cave, into the pod(casting)?

My university has a program that assists faculty in creating audiofiles that can then be used to create podcasts students can subscribe to, download, etc. I've not yet explored this in detail, but I'm interested and would be curious to know if anyone has any experience or insights into this.

The first issue is the content of the podcasts themselves. The obvious benefit of podcasts would be that students could listen while in their cars, on the bus, walking to class, etc. I don't think I want to encourage their use as a substitute for in-class activities, so I don't think I'll put lecture-like content on them. My idea was to use them as ways of refreshing student's recollections about the content of previous meetings, perhaps highlighting a few key points, suggesting a few questions to ruminate over in preparation for the next meeting, and so on. I thought I could also ask students to e-mail me questions related to a given meeting's content, and I could offer responses to the questions on the podcast. I could also remind students of upcoming tasks and deadlines.

Anyone have any suggestions here?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Teaching Intro to High School Students

Hi All,

Tis' the season for email requests. I received another email from Jenny Hudson, who teaches in an international school in Hong Kong (living in Hong Kong! I'm jealous!). She asks for some advice about teaching introduction to philosophy to students of that age, and also in that setting. I'll reproduce her email request below for all of you to read.

Advice needed for a new teacher of Philosophy

I have just started to teach Philosophy to 17 and 18 yr olds in an international school in Hong Kong. The course is designed to fulfill the requirements of the IB syllabus. The school has chosen 3 units of study; What is a Human Being (mind body question, manifestations of personhood, knowledge of self and others), Philosophy of Religion (concepts of a higher being,religious experience and behavior and religion around the world) and Theories of Ethics.

Currently the students are studying the first 2 themes and, while I have the philosophical knowledge to teach them, I am uncertain of any 'good' teaching methods. I am a qualified teacher but have not taught this age group before and I find their maturity a little daunting!

I am interested in ensuring this course is taught in the most engaging way possible but need some ideas to kick start me.

Does anyone have a tried and tested techniques for teaching philosophy, for making the lessons engaging, to ensure the lessons are not just me reading notes to the kids, and explaining them?

I would really appreciate any activities, methods, websites, ideas - anything that can help me to make the course as interesting as possible.

Thanks in advance

Building a Havrutot in the Classroom

I received this by email from Vance Ricks at Guilford College. A colleague of his, Jonathan Malino, had an idea about a possible classroom tool for group work/understanding learning through a group experience, and Vance suggested that he try to get it up here for some comments on how to develop the idea. So I'm functioning as the messenger here. I think the idea is an interesting one, and because I'm such a dreadful failure at getting this kind of collaborative learning to happen in my own classrooms, I'm curious to hear what people have to say about it too. Here's the original email, with a few changes to translate from email to blog-ese:

In Introduction to Philosophy, I broke the class into groups of two. Generally when I break the class up, the groups have 3-4, but I wanted to be sure no one could be passive. I also picked the groups, so that students who don't sit near each other or appear to know each other well would work together.

As I watched them, before I started to float, I recalled that the typical format for Jewish text study in a yeshiva is called "havrutot," or study partners/partnerships. I've always found this format a terrific experience when we do it my Israeli philosophy conference, although there groups tend to be more than two. But in a yeshiva setting, each partner has a palpable responsibility for the learning the pair accomplishes. Plato is aware of one aspect of this kind of study, when he quotes the
Illiad in the Protagoras (and in the Symposium) "When two walk together, one sees before the other" (rough quote). In the Protagoras, Socrates also talks about how, when we discover something, we are eager to share it and check it with others. In short, there is a social aspect to learning and discovery that includes, but goes beyond, the inherent social character of the elenchos.

I mention all this because as I watched the students on Friday, I thought that it would be interesting to find a way to build havrutot into my Intro. class in a systematic way. I don't know how to do this, but I'm going to give it some thought.

Any suggestions here for our colleague at Guilford?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Learning and Motivation, pt I: Abandoning existing beliefs

I have recently been reading (with colleagues from various disciplines) Marilla Svinicki's book Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. This will be the first of what I intend as a series of posts sharing provocative tidbits from the book that I hope prove relevant to the teaching of philosophy.

Svinicki devotes an early chapter to the topic of what theories of learning tell us what will assist students to master new content. One of the main barriers is that "prior knowledge and experience affect current behavior and learning," and not necessarily in salutary ways. For example, learners may have existing beliefs that are sufficiently ingrained that attempts to dislodge these beliefs by presenting counterevidence to them will often fail. Svinicki, citing a paper by Posner et al. (1982), states that four conditions must be met in order for learners to abandon an existing belief (pp. 28-29):
  1. Dissatisfaction: learners have to be confronted with information that makes them dissatisfied with the existing belief
  2. Intelligibility: the belief proposed as a substitute must be intelligible to the learner
  3. Plausibility: the belief proposed as a substitute must be plausible to the learner
  4. Fruitfulness: the proposed new belief must be able to "predict new ideas as well as explain old ones"
Svinikci's four criteria fit somewhat awkwardly with much of what we teach in philosophy: For instance, philosophical beliefs have logical implications, but often don't "predict" anything. Nevertheless, her description resonates strongly with me inasmuch as much of philosophical learning is unlearning: unearthing and querying unrecognized assumptions, noting that our commitments have surprising — even implausible — implications, etc. This is much of what we sometimes think of as 'critical thinking.' And on the whole, I think philosophers are reasonably successful in using our analytical and logical skills to help students meet the first criterion.

Yet I wonder how often we succeed in meeting criteria 2-4. I suspect many students new to philosophy are thrilled by philosophy's capacity for intellectual destruction but become disillusioned when they feel that the relentless criticism of views endemic to philosophical practice results in many views being toppled but not much being offered in their stead. In philosophical research, being 'purely destructive' has its place. (If I recall correctly, Gilbert Ryle had several papers whose purpose, he said, was wholly destructive.) But in the classroom, being purely destructive is itself destructive -- and I wonder how often we help students destroy without helping them 'move on' to an ostensibly better view of the phenomena in question. This relates to some of our earlier discussions: Mike's on philosophical progress and mine on 'easy' moral skepticism. But I'd be curious to hear people's thoughts about how well we philosophy teachers do beyond instilling a sense of dissatisfaction in students concerning their philosophical convictions, and if we're not doing as well as we should, what techniques or approaches might help us steer students toward convictions that are intelligible, plausible, and fruitful.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Teaching the History of Philosophy

When teaching the history of philosophy I encourage students to approach the history of philosophy as they would contemporary philosophy. It is as important to identify, outline and reconstruct Locke’s arguments as it is to identify, outline and reconstruct Peter Singer’s arguments. For each, one must use the principle of charity and considerations of overall coherence. Originality does not primarily consist in arriving at some completely novel idea but in providing explanations, arguments and interpretations of ways that philosophical problems can be or have been treated.

I emphasize that when one identifies, outlines, reconstructs and explains an argument, one is providing an interpretation for which one is responsible, i.e. one that is open to criticism.

Students often ask: “When do I get to do philosophy?” This is a difficult question to answer because when we ask them to explain, for example, Reid’s criticism of Locke’s theory of personal identity, we are asking them to do philosophy. But they often take us to be asking for a book report and they wonder why we’re not “letting them” do philosophy.

Any advice about how to make clear to students that when we ask them to provide interpretations and explanations of various positions in philosophy as exemplified by particular figures – from Socrates to Singer – we are asking them to “do” philosophy?

Course Refreshers

We've hit the shorter days of November and we've all seen it in our classes: attendance drop-offs, falling behind in the reading that turns to not doing the reading, and even our better students becoming a little complacent. It's time for a little pick-me-up that provides a bit of a reminder that we haven't been just doing the same thing for weeks on end. A little bright memory that carries the course into Thanksgiving break in a couple of weeks and after that the rush to finals. So does anyone have anything special they do at this point to reinvigorate a course?

One of the things I've done in the past is a quick midterm evaluation (though usually earlier in the semester and I completely spaced on doing them this semester). I have a midterm evaluation form which is probably too comprehensive, but part of the form asks students to distribute 10 points into what kinds of different activities we should do in class (so half lecture, half discussion would put 5 points in the "lecture" box and 5 points in "discussion" box) and that part is easily done even without a form. I usually average it out across all the forms and change course if necessary. Another thing I've tried in past logic courses is "fallacy jeopardy", made possible with a couple of Powerpoint presentations that really do work like the Jeopardy board. Finally, in my more applied courses, I try to go a little more into theory and some of the deeper questions to remind students that there's a lot under the surface. In my less applied courses, I try to take a break from the official narrative of the course and spend a course applying old, dead philosophers to recent events. (I try to do this anyway, but these are more sustained lessons that can take all or half of the class period.)

Anybody else have anything they do to perk up a November classroom?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Steppin' up to the mic: part 6

I'm happy to tell our readers that Rebecca Copenhaver has joined us as a contributor. Becko teaches at Lewis and Clark College, and she is an early modernist, a specialist in Reid in fact. So we're hoping she can enlighten us on the mysteries of teaching the history of philosophy. Welcome Becko -- and we look forward to your posts.