Thursday, December 25, 2008

Getting Students Involved in Research

Happy holidays!

Some schools are interested in getting students involved in research, e.g., working with professors and getting involved in their projects (if not much more independent research). This would be easier in some fields (e.g., some sciences), but this seems like it would be more challenging with philosophy for a variety of reasons. I wonder if anyone has had much success in getting students involved in their research and, if so, what they did and how they did it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Teaching philosophy: The discipline or the problems?

Bruce Fleming is worried that teaching literature is now less about literature and the worlds literature represents than about teaching the discipline of literary studies. Is there a parallel problem for philosophy — that we sometimes teach the discipline instead of teaching the problems that inspired the discipline in the first place?

Fleming on literature's pedagogical woes:
We're not teaching literature, we're teaching the professional study of literature: What we do is its own subject. Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarified a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays isn't, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes, and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives. It's, well, academic, about syllabi and hiring decisions, how works relate to each other, and how the author is oppressing whomever through the work. The literary critic Gerald Graff famously told us to "teach the conflicts": We and our squabbles are what it's all about. That's how we made a discipline, after all.

Nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who've just touched down on Earth. We professional storekeepers explain the vegetable section, the dairy section, the meat section, note similarities and differences among our wares, variations of texture and color, the fact that there's no milk where the applesauce is, and perhaps the fact (which we bemoan) that there are no papayas. We're teaching the store, not what's in it. We don't presuppose visitors know anything about where the things on display came from; if they do, it's because we told them — that can be our work too, speaking of the world before it ended up in the grocery store. But we're the ones who decide whether or not to include that world outside, and how much. We just want to rack up sales. All this fixation by the storekeepers on the store misses the point: People grow food in order to eat it. Similarly, books are meant to be read. Reading is the point of a book, not integrating it into a discipline.

Thus, Fleming worries that the academic study of literature has distanced itself from the human concerns that lead people to write and read, with the result that students may learn a great deal about how to study literature but miss out on the insights into the human condition that literature may offer.

I'm in no position to say whether Fleming's views on how literature is taught are accurate. But I'm curious whether the critique applies at all to teaching philosophy in academic contexts. I expect that there is such a problem in graduate philosophical education, but I'm thinking in particular of the introductory level philosophy course, where oftentimes the course objectives are both 'disciplinary' (help students learn to reason, read critically, etc.) and 'humanistic' (help students understand their own ethical or philosophical views, appreciate timeless intellectual problems). Can these objectives be pursued simultaneously? The very best philosophy instructors succeed on both scores, but my own experience is that this is quite a challenge. To the extent students come to such courses with any expectations at all, those expectations are largely humanistic (they want to know what to think about God's existence, immortality, human nature, ethics, etc.) and students find the emphasis on disciplinary objectives off putting. Logic and close analytical reading are hard, after all, and suggest that answers to these humanistic queries are more elusive than students might have expected. Being turned off by philosophy's being a discipline is of course a sign of intellectual immaturity but understandable all the same. Students reasonably think that what we have to offer them is not a set of techniques but answers (or at least sketches of answers).

Conversely, students who gravitate to the disciplinary dimensions of philosophy are often uninterested in its problems qua human problems. I've taught a number of students who I would describe as good philosophy students: quick, with agile minds. But many of these students seem to have a relationship to the problems of philosophy that's actually very arid. There seems to be little at stake in their minds with respect to such problems.

Is this a challenge in the philosophy classroom? And if so, how do we meet it?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Back on course with 'On course' January 7

We're giving our On Course online reading group a holiday break, but we'll be back January 7, with Mike Austin helping us with the chapter on teaching with small groups. See you ... here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Brighouse on grade inflation

At Crooked Timber, the well-known philosopher of education Harry Brighouse has a wide-ranging post on grade inflation and the functions of grading -- well worth checking out. Brighouse reaches several intriguing conclusions about grading and grade inflation:

  1. Grades have increased over time -- but so too has the quality of student performance. Brighouse notes that the ethnic and gender integration of higher education, along with a decline in legacy admissions, has increased the quality of the pool of students from which colleges and universities draw. An interesting point: I don't know of too many students these days who are content with the "Gentleman's C". In fact, at my institution, lots of those Gentleman's C gets you put on academic probation!
  2. Grading's function is at best imperfectly calibrated to recognize merit. A tidbit:
    it is not really true that high achievers are, by virtue of that, meritorious. To the extent that achievement is the product of natural talent, or fortuitious environment, which in most cases is considerable, it is not meritorious, but a matter of brute luck on the part of the achiever. I agree with political theorist Michael Sandel that one of the deep flaws of our social environment is that it sends lots of signals to high achievers that they are somehow meritorious in virtue of their achievement and need not feel humble or an obligation to turn their talents to the service of others less fortunate. Universities already participate in that culture, there is no need for the grading system to further mislead. Anyway, high achievement in a particular class is not always the result of effort in that class. The best predictor of achievement in a class is prior achievement in the subject that class teaches; some students routinely achieve at a lower level than other students because they are more intellectually ambitious, and thus (in my opinion) more academically meritorious.
  3. The legitimate functions of grading are to inform students and their future employers or their future institutions of their academic quality and to motivate improved student performance.

There's perhaps much to contest in Brighouse's views, but I admire its willingness to take on some of the bromides one often hears in discussions of academic grading.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Teaching Feminist and Race Theory: problematic assumptions and positive transformations

I teach feminist and race theory to five students, four of whom are white, none of whom are female. Yet, for all their lack of diversity, they understand the philosophical relevance of gender and race. Critical theory for them, however, was remarkably new when they began. While they began their studies with me in order to broaden their perspective in social and political philosophy, none of them had ever reflected on some of the contemporary social structures and implicit patterns of thought that are implicitly sexist and/or racist. None of the students were sexist or racist when they entered the course, and they would have been quite defensive about being labeled as such. Yet, on campus, and in other classes, this was the challenge they faced.

Two of my students were called out by a group of women in a class as being sexist for trying to discuss gender! My question then became, how does a group of well-meaning white guys sincerely trying to understand gender and race theory get called sexist (or racist)? Which then led me to the question, how does a group of well-meaning white, male students of critical theory not see the structural patterns of oppression that are implicitly sexist and/or racist? That is when I finally realized the difficulty of teaching feminist or race theory. There is a quasi-principle of inverse proportions at work affecting our students’ investigation of the structural patterns of oppression (and this seems true regardless of their race, or gender): the more perceptive the student is to the marginalization and exploitation of one group, the more likely he or she neglects to see the structural patterns of exploitation and marginalization at work in their own thinking.

Let me proffer an example. In the context of explaining Iris Marion Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression”, one of my students attempted to draw out the implications of Young’s work by exploring the exploitation of migrant workers by large corporations. During his explanation, someone made a quip regarding a previous night’s episode of a new television show called “My Big Redneck Wedding”, where couples from the rural United States get married in non-traditional ways on television, such as in the woods wearing hunting camouflage. The students burst into laughter at the ridiculousness of the couples on the show. I was shocked. Could these students not see that the couples on the show were themselves being exploited for the wealth of the television network and the entertainment of a few? In fact, no! The obvious had not occurred to the students, that their own thinking had been unintentionally inculcated by patterns of thought that, in fact, had given rise to both the marginalization and exploitation of some unfamiliar social group.

Our students come to us with a wide array of hidden assumptions. They also find philosophy liberating as they begin to see patterns and structures of thought in a new way. Watching their fledgling philosophical experience grow into a real passion for philosophy is probably the best part of teaching, but it also has its down-side. Like any passion, the more intense it grows, the more myopic it makes us; and, hence, the less likely it is that our most passionate students will reflect upon their own hidden assumptions. When teaching critical theory, it seems important to draw the students’ attention back to their own patterns of social thinking, and not let them just critique the obvious patterns of social injustice. We should not only reveal the implicit patterns of thought and social structures on a macro level, but also guide each student individually to help her see her own hidden layers of oppression that might (and probably do) exist. (For an interesting and fun look at our students’ hidden assumptions, take a look at Beloit College’s 2012 Mind Set list. How many implicit patterns of social structure can you find hidden within?)

Exposing the hidden patterns of oppression and marginalization within ourselves and our students is uncomfortable, and I have not yet discovered an easy, simple way of doing this. Any suggestions here would be greatly welcomed! One method I have used, however, is to find a “safe” social group that I can generally assume all (or most) students will find humorous and “different”, such as “Renaissance Fair Devotees”, “GenCon Goers” or (like myself) “Buffy the vampire Slayer fans”. Then I try to explore the ways in which the students’ humor is systematically structured. So far, I have found that the students begin to see that their humor depends upon certain hidden structures of thought underlying the concepts they have about that particular social group. They, then, begin to recognize how patterns of oppression might be hidden and unintentional, yet structural and systematic, just like the patterns necessary for their humor. From here, I have been able to introduce them to the main topics of critical theory regarding structurally derived social injustices. I have found through this process that while my well-meaning, white, male students are not sexist, they have begun to understand the complaint of those feminists who complained that they are.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Steppin' up to the mic, part 7

ISW is pleased to welcome its newest contributor: Jason Nicholson. Jason specializes in social and political philosophy, but his pedagogical duties also include history of philosophy, logic, and ethics. And perhaps most intriguingly: He teaches philosophy to (!) high schoolers at a private boarding school. I'm sure we're all interested to hear about that experience.

Welcome aboard Jason!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Helping students with analogical reasoning

Just curious to know if anyone out there has tips for helping students develop the ability to appraise arguments by analogy. Analogies are of course all over in philosophy, especially in ethics, but many of my students struggle to understand how analogies are supposed to support their conclusions and how one might go about criticizing a parcel of analogical reasoning.

Here's one problem in particular that students seem to have. Analogical reasoning procceds by arguing that, because A has feature(s) F and G, and B has feature(s)F, then B has feature G. That's a great simplification of course, but it captures the gist of such reasoning. Many students try to criticize analogical reasoning by pointing out some difference or other between A and B, but the difference they point out doesn't seem to undermine the analogy. (Thomson's abortion article comes to mind here; students are good at pointing out differences between the fetus-mother situation and the violinist-plug in situation, but many of the differences they cite don't do much to undermine what, according to Thomson, is analogous about these two situations). It's as if students fail to appreciate what an analogy is, since they think that one can show an analogy to be weak simply by pointing to any difference at all between the two items. But of course, if there weren't some differences between the analogized items, they would stand in a relation of identity and we wouldn't need to invoke an analogy!

But that's just symptomatic of a larger struggle my students seem to have with figuring out what's going on in analogical reasoning and how to critically engage such reasoning. Any thoughts or tips?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

‘On Course’, Part 5: In the Classroom: Discussions

This chapter begins with a little story of an instructor planning for class next morning. She has high hopes to “lecture” for a short to introduce the issues, ask a few provocative questions and then step back as spirited, focused, and engaging discussion erupts amongst nearly all the students. The class runs into overtime and the students spill out of the classroom to the local watering hole to keep on yakin’ about deep ideas and important stuff. 

This, of course, is just a professorial fantasy. (At least it is for most of us; is there anyone out there for whom anything like this is the norm? If so, how do you do it?!). But in this chapter Lang gives some advice on how to make your reality match this discussion-oriented ideal. His concrete suggestions to increase the quantity and quality of discuss are these:

1.      In-class writing assignments that are either ungraded or count for only a tiny percentage. These assignments can get students “transitioned” into the day’s class, gives them time to produce some thoughts about the issues, and preclude social loafing, i.e., their hoping that someone else is going to say something and so they won’t have to say anything. Also, since students have written responses, it’s less obnoxious to call on people, since it’s less threatening for anyone to, if need be, read a prepared response, as opposed to speaking off the top of their heads.

2.      Give each student one minute or so to verbally respond to some question you pose and say what she thinks is important, relevant or interesting (about the reading or whatever for the day). (p. 92). This can work in smaller classes and could work at the beginning or the end, as opening or closing statements. I suppose this response should follow some in-class writing, since that should lead to better one minute responses.

3.      Put students in small groups or pairs for brief discussion (p. 93). These are called “Think-Pair-Share” groups. They can help give students confidence if they find that other students have similar responses, questions, confusions, etc. They’ve already begun talking and thinking in a smaller group so they’ll be better prepared for doing this in front of the whole class.

4.      Ease into discussion with some fact-finding and collecting evidence. First focus on compiling information: have students get the facts out there on the board for all to see. This will get them talking and so better prepared to engage in more challenging analysis, interpretation, evaluation, etc. I suppose this would also work with review material from last class, if you’ll be building on material covered last time.

5.      Have students prepare for debates. In-class writing can be used to help prepare them to take a side.

6.      Finally, start early. The more talking the more people do the earlier in the course, the more likely the trend will continue. Lang observes that students can be encouraged to speak up by (among other options) challenging them to a “duel” of sorts (“I’ve said something interesting, now you say something interesting”) or in more of an unconditional positive regard manner where we assume that students are going to say something great (“Listen to all of these terrific ideas and comments; can we hear your thoughts as well?) (p. 97).

 Here are some other important things from the chapter.

 Lang says that participation should be graded only if you can do it fairly and consistently by really having some sense of who is and is not participating. He expresses doubts that this can be done in large classes. He mentions a method of allowing each student to grade his or her own participation, but allowing professorial veto over the student’s evaluation.

 When discussions get off track, Lang says to be OK with it for a while since students will appreciate the opportunity to discuss what they find interesting. If things get too far from the issues that are supposed to be under consideration, he advises pointing out that what they are talking about won’t be on a paper or test (p. 99!!) or, much better, asking another question to re-direct the discussion and/or finding threads in what’s been said to redirect. He notes that this ability can come with experience of leading discussions.

 If you have a few students who dominate the discussion in an obnoxious way and few others speak, Lang mentions someone’s system where, say, two comments are required per class and students who very much want to participate can do so only once everyone else has met their quota, so to speak. When some students dominate Lang also just asks the others to not allow the “repeat responder” to be the only one to participate and so to contribute because we want to hear from everyone. The goal is to prevent the majority from feeling like they can avoid participation because a few students in the class will do that. He also advises kindly and gently calling on people, not solely relying on people to volunteer.

 Finally, Lang advises giving students time to talk. Wait for them to speak up. Don’t give in to the silence and start speaking (or rephrasing the question[s]). Supposedly teachers typically only give students two seconds to respond before taking over; Lang advises waiting ten. Use those ten seconds to write on the board, drink coffee, walk around the classroom, or whatever, but give students time to respond or else they’ll think they don’t really have to do it.

 Here are some of my reactions, as I related what Lang says to some of what I do:

 On in class-writing:

One way I try to do this is just to write some moral or philosophical claim on the board. If it’s somehow unclear or ambiguous, I’ll ask, “What might this claim mean?” Or, “What might someone mean if she says this?” and give them a few minutes to write out an answer. Or I’ll ask what reasons anyone might give in favor or against this. Or write up an argument and ask how anyone might respond to it. These kinds of question would work also by considering some actual philosophers’ claim(s) or arguments from the assigned readings, if they have done the reading or are able to look at it then and discern an answer.

 I like to do this because, in addition to Lang’s reasons, it helps me find out what students are really thinking. I have found that students’ reactions to philosophical issues, conceptions of how to respond to them, etc. often tend to be very different from professors’ and so it’s good to find their reactions to try to ensure that we aren’t on totally different pages, two ships passing in the night, etc.

 On debates:

For better or worse, I have always been leery of “debates” and have never used them in classes. My vague sense is that they are needlessly adversarial and polarizing, aren’t an ideal method for open-minded, dispassionate inquiry and – my main worry – can reinforce a common, and false, sense that, for every controversial issue, most major positions on the issue are equally rationally defensible. I might be totally wrong about this and a debate forum would typically not have the skeptical “all views on this topic are OK” result. What have people found?

 On the one minute verbal response:

This again allows the instructor to find out what students are thinking and adjust accordingly, which is good. I would worry about this activity though because if students say something significant, then you’d want more than one minute to discuss it: you wouldn’t just want to drop the interesting comment and move onto someone new. Perhaps interesting themes or patterns in commentary would emerge that could be picked up later, but you might miss a lot. You could wind up with a variety of reactions and only some of them could be pursued in detail which might be OK. I think this would work out best only if the instructor is quite able to think on her feet really well; I suspect most philosophy teachers have this ability, but I am not sure.

 This was just a short summary of Lang’s interesting and helpful chapter. I look forward to people’s responses and questions!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Teaching Personhood and Abortion

This isn't exactly a teaching question, although it seems that just about any philosophy question can be turned into one by adding, "And how would you teach this?" My question is what the best arguments for thinking that (early) fetuses are persons, or what's the best way to present this point of view. I think I may be too close to some of these issues, in terms of some research interests, to step back and see things from a more helpful perspective for classes.

Here's a bit of background. To avoid it, skip to *** below.

My general strategy for teaching the abortion issue is to first distinguish a number of conclusions that one could hold on the topic, e.g., that it's always wrong, always permissible, sometimes wrong (in what circumstances?), sometimes permissible (in what circumstances?) and even perhaps sometimes obligatory (in what circumstances?). My goal here is to encourage them to become more precise in their conclusions, avoid slogan-mongering and make it clear that more complex views on abortion are possible, such that some are (or could be) wrong because of some reasons, whereas others could be permissible because of some reasons, etc. (I use this nice page from Fred Feldman to help with this).

Once more precise conclusions are distinguished, I tell them we are going to overlook some of this precision for a bit (!!) and have them break up into groups to develop lists of as many reasons as they have ever heard anyone give in favor of thinking that most abortions are wrong or abortions tend to be wrong, as well as a view that most abortions are permissible or they typically are. I then focus on the arguments for views that abortion is wrong.

Students tend to initially give lots of responses that are "question-begging" or close to it: it's wrong because it's murder, because it's a bad choice, because there are better options (like adoption), and because it's irresponsible and because it's wrong to end pregnancies. They have some better arguments as well, but I tend to have to provide them with the kinds of arguments that philosophers tend to focus on.


Eventually we get to personhood arguments. I am not at all impressed when folks just say "Here's what persons really are" and then give some Locke-inspired definition (I believe Mary Anne Warren just "suggests" her view on personhood), since someone can easily respond, "Well, I just don't accept your definition." So what I do is some kind of "inference to the best explanation" type exercise where we identify some clear cases of non-persons, some clear(er) cases of persons (including fictional and otherwise possible but perhaps not actual persons) and then try to figure out - from these clearer cases - what makes persons persons and why non-persons are non-persons. We then arrive at something like Warren's view, but with some reasoning behind it, instead of a mere suggestion.

The problem, if it is a problem, is that on this view early fetuses are clearly not persons. However, obviously some people do claim that fetuses are persons and so I am wondering what, if anything, can be said in favor of this (or, at least, what anyone says to one's students in favor of this!). One thing I try to point out is although many people think that -- if fetuses are not persons, then abortion is permissible -- this is not true because abortion could be wrong even if fetuses are not persons; they could be non-persons for whom there could be excellent moral reasons to not kill. I think my fixation on this fact has given me some mental block to seeing why people might think that early fetuses are persons.

Folks will say, "Yes, these fetuses are not concious, sentient, rational, communicative, etc. beings, yet they are persons nevertheless," so clearly they reject the Lockean view (or at least deny that meeting its criteria is necessary for personhood). I don't like to think that these people are saying something that is analytically false; I think they just have a different view on what persons are.

They then might propose that all living human organisms are persons, that if something is a living human organism then it is a person. This is a view, although what would be of interest would be the reasons that could be given in favor of it.

My speculation is that, for many people, "a person" just means something like "a being with high moral value," "a being that is wrong to kill," or whatnot, some purely moral definition, perhaps with no psychological component built into it. Is this what many people (including students) often mean by person? Is this definition false?!

Sorry for this long post. Perhaps someone out there has had similar bewilderment about personhood, how the term is often used, how you might figure out what persons "really" are, and so on and can help me out. Thanks!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Staying 'On Course', part 5: Discussions

Once again: ISW presents Lang's On Course. Coming this week: discussions, hosted by our own Nathan Nobis!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What if I just don't like you?

Over at Inside Higher Ed, William Major worries not about political bias influencing instructor's behavior, but about bias stemming simply from the fact that we like some students and dislike others. Major mentions many examples in which he was tempted to change a student's grade on the basis of these likes and dislikes. Is there reason to be worried here?

Obviously, we should want our grades not to be infected by unwarranted biases and to reflect our students' academic performance and mastery. (Though you know how I feel about grades in general!) It's hard to argue with sentiments like these:

Just as we need to be aware, for instance, of overt preferential or prejudicial treatment, we need to be on the alert for all feelings, good and bad, not to purge them — I am not sure how to do this — but to acknowledge them and make sure we understand how they influence us. Teacher: where possible, heal thyself.

But I guess I found Major's own examples where he's tempted to bump up the grade of a likable student, or knock down the grade of a not so likable one, not terribly credible — or at least they don't speak to my experience. I just don't find too many students who routinely fail to attend class (or sleep when they do bother to attend!) that are nevertheless sterling academic performers, for instance. Most of 'likability' will show up or be accounted for indirectly in student grades. I admit I like students who show up, are prepared, ask questions when they don't understand, respect the material I'm teaching, etc. But those students will tend to do well on other performance metrics (and will score well in the area of attendance and participation). Similarly, I admit I dislike students who don't show up, are never prepared, seem willing to let the quarter pass by without seriously engaging the material, etc. But again, those will tend to do poorly on those other performance metrics.

There is one kind of example that troubles me slightly in this area: the eager beaver, let's call the student. This is a student (and they're almost always from introductory courses) who is very taken with philosophy, asks questions, visits during office hours, and so forth, but struggles with tasks such as essay writing and test taking. The eager beaver is often as knowledgeable about the material as other students, but has trouble displaying that knowledge via the assigned tasks. I often feel like I should be able to reward the eager beaver's enthusiasm, engagement, and effort with a slightly higher grade, but the numbers don't support the higher grade.

I've indicated some reasons to downplay Major's worries, but is Major right to be concerned here?

Monday, November 17, 2008

In Socrates' Wake on Facebook

I took the liberty of creating a Facebook page for In Socrates Wake:

Please sign up, e-socialites!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'On Course,' part 4: Lecturing

Lang's third chapter is on lecturing. As a teaching technique, lecturing has come in for a great deal of criticism over the past several decades. The principal criticism is that lecturing is a passive, teacher-centered form of learning with low rates of student recall and retention. (Lang mentions some of the discouraging research findings on lectures on pp. 66-67.)

Though I appreciate Lang having a chapter on lecturing, I have to say that I find the whole concept of 'lecturing' rather alien to my own teaching style. I rarely think of preparing a class meeting as preparing 'a lecture,' and very little of my class meetings revolve around me talking. (This isn't to say that I'm not the main voice in the classroom, but that I think of myself mostly as initiating inquiry or conversation rather than expounding ideas.) In some respects, my own approach echoes Lang's advice: vary your teaching methods within a given meeting, take frequent breaks for student interaction or to see and hear something else, check in with students to gauge their understanding, give students a change to digest and review material before moving on, etc. So although I'm sure I could do better on this score, I like to think I do fairly well in not making, well, 'lecture' be this passive, teacher-focused enterprise. Hence, an initial question I'd be interested in having comments on is whether any of you even think of ourself as delivering lectures in anything like the traditional sense.

As with the prior chapters, there's lot of solid, practical advice here, such as the communication tips about using one's voice, motion, etc. Let me make three points that struck me as I read:
  1. Lang is insightful about students taking notes in class and how it's very easy for us to proceed too quickly. (This is one of the definite downsides of PowerPoint, as we've discussed before.) This problem tempts me simply to provide printed notes to the students, but Lang is probably right that having to write something down is at least active and is likely to stimulate some minimal level of recall or understanding. One thing I do now to slow things down, while still giving the students the ooh!aah! of technology, is to use the computer projector in my classroom as a kind of typewriter. I boot it up, open Microsoft Word, and type the important items from my prepared notes into a document that the students all see projected on the screen. I also like this because Word is easier to modify than, say, PowerPoint, so I can change arguments, etc. quickly.
  2. This chapter returns me to a theme I've hit on before: teaching versus learning. The chapter is excellent on teaching via lectures and has some advice on how to help students learn from lectures. But I felt that Lang left a glaring question unaddressed: Do students know how to learn from lectures? Lang notes (pp. 75-76) that students will write down practically everything that's written down, but will write down very little that's said. In my experience, many students write down all and only what's written on a chalkboard, etc. So if I critique an argument, or a student raises an objection, etc., almost nobody writes this sort of thing down. This is particularly regrettable since, in the philosophy classroom, that rational give-and-take is precisely what we're aiming to teach. Part of the problem is disciplinary: Students don't appreciate that this give-and-take is part of what we expect them to master. But I also think that no one ever shows students how to learn from the typical college lecture. Or am I wrong about this?
  3. Lang recognizes that how lectures will unfold will vary from discipline to discipline. He says that the functions of lectures are to summarize, highlight, and clarify. (p. 73) Doubtless when I 'lecture', summarizing, highlighting, and clarifying are among the activities I engage in. But I also do a lot more: reason, wonder, analyze, show relevance, invite debate, etc. This is especially true when an argument is the focus of the lecture. Note that summarizing, highlighting, and clarifying are very instructor-based, verdictive activities. They're not really about inquiry (though they might be part of inquiry). In short, a philosophy lecture is very often a form of guided inequiry. It would be great to hear from commenters some ideas as to how 'lecture arguments' effectively, for it does strike me that this present challenges beyond the challenges of summarizing, highlighting, and clarifying ideas.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Staying 'On Course', part 4: Lecturing

A reminder to our loyal readers: Part 4 of our reading group on Lang's On Course is scheduled for midweek. The topic: that much reviled old teaching standby — lecturing!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Joblessness at 14-year high. Why not work at ISW?

No, we can't pay you. But ISW would be interested in hearing from interested parties willing to join the esteemed list of contributors (scroll down, look right). Poking around the blog should give you a good idea of what's expected from contributors, but the minimal requirements are:
  • a decent amount of experience teaching this discipline we call philosophy
  • a thoughtful and conscientious approach to said teaching
  • the ability to write cogently and provocatively about teaching
  • a desire to share your ideas about teaching with others and participate in a collaborative community
Because we'd like to diversify the blog's content, the following, though not strictly qualifications, would be welcome:
  • that you aren't male
  • that your main philosophical interests or teaching responsibilities aren't in ethics.
Have I sold you yet? Again, no pay but decent benefits. Please shoot me an e-mail at
if you're interested.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Are student evaluations bad for students' moral development?

I'd be interested (to rip off Brian Weatherson) thoughts, arguments and rants about the following quotation from Michael Platt. True or false?

I cannot think that the habit of evaluating one's teacher can encourage a young person to long for the truth, to aspire to achievement, to emulate heroes, to become just, or to do good. To have one's opinions trusted utterly, to deliver them anonymously, to have no check on their truth, and no responsibility for their effect on the lives of others are not good for a young person's moral character. To have one's opinions taken as knowledge, accepted without question, inquiry, or conversation is not an experience that encourages self-knowledge.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Exams: All together now?

Group work and exams are perennial topics of interest here at ISW. So has anyone tried to combine these, making use of group exams? I've never done it myself and have a pretty clear idea of why people would avoid it. But has anyone out there tried group exams or evaluations in a philosophy class? If so, what was the format? And was it successful? (Or maybe you've been on the other side: Has anyone been made to take a group exam in a philosophy class?)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On Course, #3: Teaching with Technology

In this chapter, James Lang stakes out what I think of as a moderate position on the use of technology in teaching, neither Luddite nor naive enthusiast. He points to some of the advantages, both pedagogical and professional, of integrating technology into our teaching, but also denies that we need to "radically restructure education" (44) in order to meet the needs of Millennials or digital natives. I'm inclined to agree, inasmuch as in order to teach effectively with technology, you have to know how to teach effectively in the first place. As Lang puts it, "the basic principles of teaching and learning" apply in "whatever environment we and our students find ourselves." Indeed, he goes so far as to allow that effective teaching can be extremely low-tech: "you do not need to make use of technology in any way to be an effective teacher." (59)

Lang doesn't dwell on specific technologies in the chapter, which is wise given that (a) many technologies have a short shelf life and are quickly rendered obsolete, and (b) the start-up costs of mastering a wholly unfamiliar technology are high.

The one technology Lang focuses on are learning mangagement systems (LMS's), a la Blackboard, Sakai, Moodle, WebCT, etc. He notes four uses for LMS's:
  1. They facilitate the use of various multimedia in the classroom. I try to show videos, use photographs, etc. when I can. As we've discussed here before, philosophy is a discipline that's not especially congenial to those with a strongly visual approach to learning, so we should at least try to augment the highly verbal-textual content with visual materials. Does anyone have any examples from their own teaching of innovative uses of multimedia?
  2. LMS's create an organized course space that will automatically tabulate grades, etc.
  3. They provide a documentary history for one's teaching (useful for promotion and tenure), as well as making it easy to draw upon old course materials to create new courses and materials. I have to say that I've become highly reliant on Blackboard as a repository of quizzes, writing assignments, etc., that I can use to design or revise courses.
  4. LMS's offer discussion boards to build community among students, enabling those less willing to speak openly in class contribute to the class discussions on their own terms. Lang has some nice ideas as to how to use the boards: scanning their content to identify common learning challenges the students are facing, the 'log assignment' (pp. 50-51), etc. He recommends making participation in the discussing boards mandatory rather than optional, lest you end up with the e-quivalent of "crickets chirping." That certainly echoes my experience. Students will not contribute to these discussion boards unless they're required to do so. My sense is that the novelty of participating in these boards wore off a long time ago. On the other hand, I've not been entirely happy with the outcome even when I have required students to contribute to online discussion boards. In many respects, the very problems that occur in classroom discussion replicate themselves in online forums. Students write without thinking, have not prepared by reading the material, don't engage very deeply with one another's ideas, make pro forma efforts ("That's so true," "I agree with that," etc.). There are exceptions, of course — and perhaps my own experience is exceptional — but I've formed the provisional hypothesis that online discussion works well only when students already have the skills and attitudes that enable useful offline discussion (and only a few students have those skills and attitudes). But I'd be most interested in hearing others' thoughts on the use of online discussion.
This links to one last remark I wanted to offer. Lang's chapter is about teaching with technology but says relatively little about students learning with technology. This is a bit of a surprise, considering how I praised Lang in an earlier post for highlighting the shift from teaching to learning:
The simple observation that the question 'what or how should I teach?' is subordinate to the question 'what will students learn?' is still revolutionary, despite the fact approaching teaching in terms of student learning is now the central theme of almost all the literature on college teaching.

Yet as some of my recent posts might suggest, the main issue with technology is not our using it, but our using it to help students learn. And I'm somewhat pessimistic that our students know how to use technology to learn, regardless of how adept they are at using technology.

Next up will be a topic dear to all our hearts (lecturing), but please take this chance to share your thoughts and ideas about teaching with technology.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Update on digital students

When I last lamented the challenges presented by technology-infatuated Millennial generation students, several of our astute commenters were skeptical (perhaps understandbly) that this group of students really does bring a coherent set of attitudes or abilities to their academic studies.

So here's one for those skeptics: In an article 'Generational myth' (Chronicle of Higher Ed), Siva Vaidhyanathan tries to pour cold water on the claim that a generation of tech-savvy students exists:

A tidbit from the article:
I have been hearing some version of the "kids today" or "this generation believes" argument for more than a dozen years of studying and teaching about digital culture and technology. As a professor, I am in the constant company of 18- to-23-year-olds. I have taught at both public and private universities, and I have to report that the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technology varies greatly within every class. Yet it has not changed in the aggregate in more than 10 years.

Every class has a handful of people with amazing skills and a large number who can't deal with computers at all. A few lack mobile phones. Many can't afford any gizmos and resent assignments that demand digital work. Many use Facebook and MySpace because they are easy and fun, not because they are powerful (which, of course, they are not). And almost none know how to program or even code text with Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Only a handful come to college with a sense of how the Internet fundamentally differs from the other major media platforms in daily life.

College students in America are not as "digital" as we might wish to pretend. And even at elite universities, many are not rich enough. All this mystical talk about a generational shift and all the claims that kids won't read books are just not true. Our students read books when books work for them (and when I tell them to). And they all (I mean all) tell me that they prefer the technology of the bound book to the PDF or Web page.

Much of what Vaidhyanathan proceeds to say strikes me as sensible: that generalizations about generations are dangerous and imprecise; that they tend to overlook diversity, especially economic diversity; that it would be unwise to upend well-established educational practices to fit the learning habits of a few students who are technologically sophisticated. I would also add that I think we need to make the case for the limits of digital technology and technology generally — that there's a reason to read the Republic rather than watch the movie.

At the same, though, Vaidhyanathan hits on exactly what I think is hard about integrating technology into our teaching. Students, even the technologically sophisticated ones, know little about how to use technology to learn. Oh, students can use technology a thousand different ays. But what we should be worried about isn't whether they know HTML. It's a matter of whether they can distinguish reputable WWW sources and unreputable ones, for example. It's a matter of whether they can watch a YouTube video on a controversial ballot measure and decode it rather than being swayed by its misleading suggestions or imagery. It's a matter of whether they take advantage of the awesome power afforded them by modern word processing technology to actually revise their work. It's a matter of being able to communicate meaningfully in a digital forum beyond "I agree with that." And if we expect students, whatever their level of technological know-how, to learn through technology, then these are the things we need to emphasize, not knowledge of programming languages.

Maybe James Lang will help us out with these issues on Wednesday!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Follow the Wake!

Folks might notice that I put a link on the right to enable ISW readers to follow our blog. Please become a follower if you so desire. It's a great way to keep up with what's happening here.

Staying 'On Course', part 3: Teaching with technology

Coming to a blog near you: James Lang on teaching and technology. Stay tuned for our discussion this coming Wednesday, October 29!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A No Longer Teaching Philosophy Blog

Here is a new blog called "Leaving Academia Behind" that some ISW readers might find interesting. The blog's author (and others pondering similar moves) would, I'd guess, appreciate anyone's relevant experiences, observations and advice. Here's the blurb about it:
"This blog has been created to explain my decision to leave academia behind. In addition, I hope that it can serve as a guide to those in a similar situation. I know that when I first made the decision I did not know what I'd be doing next. Discovering that there are things to do outside of academia took some time and hopefully this blog can help speed that up."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Judging one's own competence, or Yikes!

We've identified and diagnosed the illusion of understanding in the past: that students often presume they have mastered a body of knowledge when in fact their understanding of it is superficial at beast.

I was therefore intrigued by some of the research findings about our ability to judge our own competence discussed in this Salon article:

Unfortunately, cognitive science offers some fairly sobering observations about our ability to judge ourselves and others.

Perhaps the single academic study most germane to the present election is the 1999 psychology paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." The two Cornell psychologists began with the following assumptions.
  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
To put their theories to the test, the psychologists asked a group of Cornell undergraduates to undergo a series of self-assessments, including tests of logical reasoning taken from a Law School Admissions Test preparation guide. Prior to being shown their test scores, the subjects were asked to estimate how they thought they would fare in comparison with the others taking the tests.

On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile, revealing that most of us tend to overestimate our skills somewhat. But those in the bottom 25 percent consistently overestimated their ability to the greatest extent. For example, in the logical reasoning section, individuals that scored in the 12th percentile believed that their general reasoning abilities fell at the 68th percentile, and that their overall scores would be in the 62nd percentile. The authors point out that the problem was not primarily underestimating how others had done; those in the bottom quartile overestimated the number of their correct answers by nearly 50 percent. Similarly, after seeing the answers of the best performers -- those in the top quartile -- those in the bottom quartile continued to believe that they had performed well.

The converse also bears repeating. Despite the fact that students in the top quartile fairly accurately estimated how well they did, they also tended to overestimate the performance of others. In short, smart people tend to believe that everyone else "gets it." Incompetent people display both an increasing tendency to overestimate their cognitive abilities and a belief that they are smarter than the majority of those demonstrably sharper.
Boy does this shed light on the challenges of teaching! I assume ol' Socrates was right: You can't teach what you don't know. So here we instructors are (and assuming we conform to the study's findings) "getting it" and assuming others do as well, while many of those who don't get it — our students — think they do even in the face of evidence to the contrary. And the less competent the student is, the more likely they are to exaggerate their competence.

So: Is the enterprise of teaching doomed?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Women's challenges as philosophy instructors

I am posting this as a separate thread (I hope that this does not come off as being patronizing) because I think that Becko has brought up a very important issue regarding the challenges that women face in philosophy and academia. Coming from the business world into philosophy I am well aware of the challenges faced by women in that sphere of human activity and interaction. I would think that it must be difficult to be taken seriously when historically the overwhelming majority of philosophers are men and course readings are focused on these figures. We do set the tone by what and whom we choose to teach so I am wondering how we can effectively deal with the damaging effects of gender stereotyping when I suspect that most, if not all, required readings for intro courses are from men. I am reminded of my introduction of the history of philosophy through the readings of Copleston who discussed in his introduction that philosophy as a discipline arose as a result of a slave-based economic system that allowed for the development of a leisure class. It has been argued (correctly) that this system also rested on the subjugation of women. I would be very interested in how Becko and others deal with this issue in their intro courses, as I am sure I am dealing with it inadequately.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On Course, #2: First Days of [Philosophy] Class - Part 2

This post is the second part of my commentary on the second chapter. It grew a little longer, so I'm separating it into two posts. It also makes for a nice division of topics for the comments. In this post, I discuss Lang's suggestions for using opening-day exercises to enhance student learning based on student preconceptions and one omission from the chapter.

Spicing up the first class (pp. 30-40): For people who aren't terribly new to the classroom, this will be the most enlightening part of the second chapter. First impressions go a long way towards helping students get interested in the course and raising course evaluations. Lang cites innovative ways of learning students' names and ice-breakers that get them comfortable with interacting with their fellow students.

But neither is as interesting as Lang's connection of opening-day exercises to learning theory. He suggests that opening day exercises can be particularly powerful learning tools when they connect to and start immediately to mold students' preconceptions about the course material. Some exercises he recommends involve documenting these preconceptions (in groups) and using them to set the agenda for the first week of the course, documenting pre-conceptions and using them for the basis of a first library research assignment, and using the preconceptions to set up a cumulative review at the end of the course.

For philosophers, dealing with preconceptions is, I would argue, even more important than for a lot of other disciplines. This is due to the fact that philosophy is generally not taught before college. This leaves students, many of whom have a natural interest in the subject, to invent it on their own from late-night talks at coffee houses (or, more accurately, Denny's) and whatever books they can find. Thus, many preconceptions can turn into misconceptions. Opening day exercises of the kind Lang suggests can go a long way towards giving the students a new context in which to understand and enjoy philosophy. For those students who haven't stumbled into philosophy, it can also whet appetites or calm fears, as the case may be.

Setting the tone. There is a lot more information in the chapter that will lead to great discussion (and better philosophy classes), but I wanted to end with one thing that Lang doesn't discuss: a professor's initial attitude. There is a lot of misinformation that gets thrown around at grad schools about the correct way to set the tone for a course. I remember several people telling me that it was not a bad strategy to "put the fear of God" into students on the first day. All of Lang's advice suggests against such an approach (it is hard to scare students while doing fun activities with them), but some professors can pull it off. (I'm thinking of one in particular who posts on this blog!) One popular use for "putting the fear of God" into students on the first day is to adjust students attitudes to the seriousness of philosophy and cull-from-the-herd students who are looking for a blow-off course.

I'm not such a professor because such an attitude would be really stretching my natural personality. This isn't necessarily a good thing. I do tend to end up with students who are trapped in a course that is much more serious than they let themselves realize in the first week or so. But the alternative is worse. Stretching a personality into unfamiliar territory on the first day can lead to real disaster, so it is something notable to avoid. Students can smell inauthentic behavior and they will prey on it like a hungry lion after a precocious baby gazelle. It's something to think about on the first day, especially early on in one's career. Striking a tone that one is not going to follow through on for the rest of the term is a trap that new teachers, particularly philosophers, need to watch out for.

I'm looking forward to hearing what everyone else thought about Lang's second chapter.

On Course, #2: First Days of [Philosophy] Class - Part 1

Welcome to ISW's continuing coverage of James Lang's On Course. This post is centered on the second chapter, "First Days of Class". Welcome to all who want to discuss the chapter in the comments. Following Michael's example, I'll review the basic points of the chapter and then highlight some interesting points and one notable omission. I'll also try to gear my comments towards bringing what Lang has to say into the philosophy classroom. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to keep it as brief as Michael, so I'm separating this post into two parts. This is part one.

Let me start by continuing the trend of saying that Lang has somehow managed to be comprehensive, insightful, and concise in his advice. New teachers as well as old hands can benefit a lot by considering what he has to say. With one omission that I will mention near the end of the second post, there isn't a whole lot more to think about doing on the first day of a philosophy course than what Lang recommends. In this chapter he talks about three basic areas: 1) preparing for the first class, 2) delivering the preparation, and 3) spicing it up. (This post covers the first two areas.)

Preparing for Class (pp. 23-27): Lang addresses two main issues in this part of the chapter: 1) what to wear and 2) whether to dive in right away or give students the syllabus and send them on their way. I think that in the philosophy classroom, both issues change slightly from Lang's treatment. In terms of dress, Lang has good, conservative advice: slacks and a collared shirt for both men and women, with women having some additional options that I don't claim to know much about. What drives Lang's advice is his excellent insight that one's dress on the first day is less about coming off as a professional and more about making students comfortable with your authority over their grades and progress in the course. I think, though, that philosophers have a little more latitude in what to wear than, say, an engineer or a law professor. We've already noted here that offbeat professors can seem somewhat cool to students and (not counting artists) philosophers may be the most able to capitalize on this idiosyncrasy. Perversely, philosophers can sometimes acquire authority by seeming unconventional. Of course, for students who fear philosophy as too eccentric of a discipline, dressing unconventionally can have the opposite effect, reinforcing their worst fears. I'm laboring too much on one small point, but the right advice is probably not to dress too far out of the element you are used to presenting yourself within. If you don't ever really think about it, err on the professional side. (And even understanding all of this, I would recommend fighting any urge you might have to wear a beret to your first philosophy class.)

Lang's issue is whether to give students the syllabus and let them go or to start teaching on the first day. He, as all other educational specialists I've heard, observes that simply letting students go sends the wrong message about the class. It can send the message that the professor doesn't want to be in the class and doesn't consider it a worthwhile usage of time. Interestingly, this issue is connected to Lang's next topic, allowing latitude for students dropping the course or adding it late. A popular reason for not spending much time on the first class is that it is wasted effort on students who will drop and energy that could be conserved for students yet to add. I tend to think that he is absolutely right about the message that simply sending people off with a syllabus sends. But particularly in the philosophy classroom, one is missing a great opportunity to connect to students' curiosity about philosophy and allay their fears. (I have a little bit more to say about this later on, so I won't belabor the point here.)

Giving the first class (pp. 27-30): I have a hard time believing that anyone simply conducts his or her first class by reading the syllabus out loud, but apparently it happens and Lang inveighs against it. There are certain reasons why going over the syllabus is essential, and these are much better accomplished by giving a general overview and only reading certain more legal parts. He also puts forth the interesting idea of putting students into groups to find three things they want to know about the course and/or the syllabus, then asking these to the rest of the course. This sounds like a great activity to me. I've also heard of professors giving a quiz over the syllabus on the second or third day of the course. Of course the latter doesn't have the advantage of getting students talking to one another.

I'll have more commentary in the second post on this chapter, but I'm looking forward to what people have to say about these two areas in the comments.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?"

My own reactions to Mark Edmundson's NYT piece on why professors are weird is somewhat ambivalent. It traffics in familiar stereotypes about the demeanor, fashion sense, etc., of the professoriate, but also captures something important about good teaching. A long snippet and some thoughts :
Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?

Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest. The historian sees the election not through the latest news blast but in the context of presidential politics from George Washington to the present. The biologist sees a natural world that’s not calmly picturesque but a jostling, striving, evolving contest of creatures in quest of reproduction and survival. The literature professor won’t accept the current run of standard clich├ęs but demands bursting metaphors and ironies of an insinuatingly serpentine sort. The philosopher demands an argument as escapeproof as an iron box: what currently passes for logic makes him want to grasp himself by the hair and yank himself out of his seat.

Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar. The philosophy professor steps in the window the first day of class and asks her students to write down the definition of the word “door.”...

Good teachers know that now, in what’s called the civilized world, the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance, though ignorance will do in a pinch. The great enemy of knowledge is knowingness. It’s the feeling encouraged by TV and movies and the Internet that you’re on top of things and in charge. You’re hip and always know what’s up. ... The cool character now is the knowing one; even when he’s unconventional, he’s never surprising — and most of all, he’s never surprised. Good teachers, by contrast, are constantly fighting against knowingness by asking questions, creating difficulties, raising perplexities.
Edmundson continues with some wry observations on themes such as the corporatization of the university and the sometimes pathetic way faculty introduce technology in order to seem hip and connect with their students.

I'm interested in others' reactions, but I had two thoughts.

First, in terms of our personas as teachers, I think 'weird' can be a good way to go. I don't necessarily mean by 'weird' here eccentric in a questionable-hygeine-forget-your-notes-mumbly-voiced way. I have in mind simply that it can be useful to be perceived by students as, well, different from them, simply because their perception of us is also a perception of what we teach. For example, I dress pretty professionally in the classroom ( a tie, sometimes even a bowtie a la 'The Paper Chase') in part to signal that the inquiry we're engaging in is distinctive. It's not surfing the Net or watching TV. It shows that I see the collaborative task we face as unorthodox, even demanding.

Second, I glommed on to Edmundson's remarks about teachers perceiving the world "in alternative terms" because it highlights something about the teaching of philosophy that often gets lost. In philosophy, a lot of the teaching is oriented around reasoning, but it is also an imaginative discipline in that by "asking questions, creating difficulties, raising perplexities" we help students to envision possibilities for themselves or for the world that may not have occurred to them otherwise. A lot of my best moments teaching ethics, for instance, have been when students, by following a line of reasoning, are caused to take seriously a position they had not previously entertained (that death is not an evil, etc.). Philosophy, when taught well, sparks students to ponder how the world could be rather than how they may have blithely supposed that it is.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Staying 'On Course', part 2: First days of class

Thanks to everyone who's been involved with our On Course reading group. The comments and discussion on Lang's suggestions about developing a syllabus were terrific.

Next up: ISW's Adam Potthast on the first days of class, scheduled for this coming Wednesday.

Monday, October 6, 2008

UPDATE: What's in a name badge?

A while back I mentioned a method I intended to try in order to help me learn students' names (among other things):
The plan is that on the first day of class, I'll distribute name badges to each student and have them write their names on the badges (I'm thinking of semi-permanent name badges rather than simply stickers). I'd collect the badges at the end of each class. When the next class meets, I then randomly place the badges on desks in the classroom, thus gently suggesting where students should sit. I'd plan to do this before each class meeting.

Well, I've got an update: I'm trying this in my larger Gen Ed classes, and I am definitely learning the names a lot quicker. I've not yet collected and redistributed the name badges, and I've not yet decided if I want to do that. I did add one wrinkle I like a lot: I gave the students plastic sleeve-type badge holders, along with one of my university-issued business cards. They then wrote their names on the blank side of the cards and put the cards in the sleeves, giving them a name badge and a handy reference with my contact information. In any event, the student reaction to this has been very positive.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Course, #1: Before the Beginning (The Syllabus)

So here we go: The first entry in our online reading group on Lang's On Course. I hope we have plenty of folks reading and thinking along with us.

The first section of the book concerns constructing a syllabus. I'll mention some highlights and then discuss some themes that struck me as interesting.

Lang's advice about what to include on a syllabus — logistical information, contact info, description, 'promises' or learning objectives, course policies, bases for evaluation, academic honesty statement, disabilities statement, and schedule of tasks and readings — is solid and comprehensive, striking a reasonable balance (we discussed this challenge earlier) between laying out a clear set of expectations and approaching the syllabus like a legal document that kills student interest and motivation. And in general, Lang's recommendations reflect good academic practice and really can't steer you wrong.

Let me mention a few issues from this chapter that deserve some discussion:
  • Whether to give students our home or cell phone numbers (pp. 3-4): Lang's recommendation is more or less "if you feel like it." I don't feel like it. One of the features of the faculty-student relationship that needs to be honored is that it is a professional relationship. We're not friends (yet), nor are we enemies. I tend to think of giving out my home phone number to all my students as crossing a boundary away from a professional relationship. And if accessibility is the issue, students can e-mail me, and I see my e-mail at least five times a day.
  • Learning objectives have a structure (p. 7): Lang, referring to Bloom's learning taxonomy, points out that learning has a structure, with certain learning tasks (those associated with knowledge or comprehension, say) being prerequisites for more advanced learning tasks (those associated with analysis, synthesis, or evaluation, say). This is a good observation. I gather by now that including learning objectives (Lang encourages us to think of these as 'promises') on a syllabus has become the norm. But a list of learning objectives doesn't necessarily highlight the sequential nature of most learning — that most systems of knowledge have an internal structure and that you can't just jump in and master any randomly selected objective at the outset. I've taken to listing learning objectives on my syllabus in three categories: basic, intermediate, and advanced. I'd like to think my doing so conveys to students a message about the logical or cognitive structure of learning.
  • Attendance: Take it or leave it? (p. 10): I like Lang's guideline here: 20+ students, don't take regular attendance. Does anyone out there follow a similar guideline?
  • Short, low pressure writing assignments (pp. 13-14): Lang recommends brief weekly writing assignments with low significance for student grades as a way of keeping track of how well students are learning the course content and for keeping them engaged on a consistent basis. I favor this, too, believing that we often don't ask students to write frequently enough and there's too much 'put all your eggs in one basket' in some philosophy courses (i.e.,the students write a few medium-sized papers and a term paper, say, with large portions of their grades hinging on them). Students need to go through the early stages of philosophical writing more often: thinking through a question or prompt, consulting the texts, fashioning a thesis, etc. Pre-writing is what separates solid philosophical work from the mediocre, so I've come to the conclusion that short assignments help give students more pre-writing practice.
Let me end with a couple of thematic observations about the book:
  • The revelation — from teaching content to enabling learning (pp. 1-2): The simple observation that the question 'what or how should I teach?' is subordinate to the question 'what will students learn?' is still revolutionary, despite the fact approaching teaching in terms of student learning is now the central theme of almost all the literature on college teaching.
  • Teachers as scholars of learning (p. xi): My favorite feature of the book thus far is how it makes use of the empirical literature on student learning. Lang wants to offer a "modest and realistic approach to teaching, one that has been tested and proven in the classroom as well as being informed by the research on teaching and learning in higher education," rather than a "comprehensive overview of teaching and learning theory." As I see it, this is exactly what most college-level instructors need: a scholarly but non-expert understanding of how people learn sufficient to enable them to put this understanding to use in their own teaching. College faculty need not all be scholars of teaching, but they can teach in an informed and scholarly way.
In any event, I'm excited to hear people's reactions to these points or to anything else that grabbed your attention in the syllabus chapter.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Suggestions Needed: Teaching Culture in China

Next semester Christie (my wife) and I will be teaching at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Each of us will be teaching a course called "American Culture." The course content is entirely up to us, and we've been slowly engaged in the task of putting together the material we will eventually be covering (individually, the courses aren't team-taught, but we'll teach the same syllabus). We really need help accumulating suggestions from people regarding what to cover, and how to cover it. Click below the fold and give us a hand! All suggestions welcome!

The folks at Tsinghua would like it if the course covered standard cultural stuff (politics, religion, race, etc) but also a fair amount of "pop" culture as well. In addition, they seem to like the idea of using movies and other artistic media to get out lessons across or our discussions going.

This means that we have a lot of things to consider. First, there's the question of "what to cover?" Second, there's the question of "how to cover what we cover." In the first section, we're looking for subjects to cover. So -- when you think of "American culture" what subjects seem to you to be no-brainers? In the second part, we'd be happy to hear suggestions for (a) movies that could be shown that highlight those themes, (b) artwork, (c) music, (d) literature, etc. In both sections, it's pretty much open. So feel free to add what you can! We need every idea we can get!

Section One: What to Cover?

So far, we're thinking of the following "units" (not in order):

1. The Autonomous Self

2. The American Dream (Economics, Class)

3. Immigrants

4. Gender and Sex

5. Race

6. The (Wild) West

7. The South

8. Religion

9. Politics

10. Culture Wars

11. Education

12. Holidays

13. Consumerism

What else? I have no doubt there are lots of themes we haven't thought of. Please feel free to add more!

Section Two: How to Cover What We Cover

This is totally open ended. We have lots of readings and some films in mind, but I won't list them. Instead I'd rather just leave it open: what would you do? What readings would you use? Films? Literature? Cool and fun class exercises? Really anything here -- the sky is the limit.

Really -- feel free to suggest anything here. For instance, in unit 13 (Consumerism) I'm thinking seriously of showing "Dawn of the Dead," which has an interesting way to present a critique of American consumerism.

We'd appreciate any suggestions you might have. The more the better!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Countdown to 'On Course' reading group ...

A reminder to readers, old and new: The first post in our online reading group for Lang's On Course is scheduled for Wednesday. After being in short supply for a while, most online booksellers appear to have it in stock.

Here are some sources for those still looking for the book:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Guest Gazza: No essay exams?

One of our loyal readers, Gary Bartlett (aka 'Gazza'), wrote me last week about my post on a more retrospective essay exam idea I was tinkering with. Gary confessed to being skeptical about essay exams in general, and his thoughts were provocative enough that I thought we'd post them here (starting below the fold).

GARY: I started to write the following thoughts in response to Michael’s post about exams last week, but I realized they were rather too tangential to his post. So Michael kindly offered me this chance to air them independently. I’d like to hear what others think.

I’m against essay exams in philosophy (and in others disciplines, I think, though I’ll stick to philosophy here). I think exams of any kind have only limited use in philosophy. I use them only in introductory classes, and I ask only short-answer and multiple-choice questions. (Multi-choice questions are an issue on their own, of course. I won’t address that here except to say that I used to think they were inappropriate for philosophy, but I changed my mind. With care and attention put into their construction, and used judiciously, I believe they can be very effective for certain purposes.)

My first kind of reason for thinking that essay exams aren't a good fit for philosophy classes is similar to some of the worries that Michael voiced in his post last week. Even given the revised format he suggests, though, we’re still asking students to produce the essay or essays in a matter of 2-3 hours. And that doesn’t fit well, I think, with the goal we have for our classes. We want to see students engaging with texts and ideas in a thoughtful, reflective way. Asking students to turn out an essay within an hour or two is not very conducive to finding out whether they can be thoughtful or reflective about the material, because such things take time. Essay exams are more conducive to finding out how much of the course material students have memorized. But although memorization of material is perhaps some part of what we want students to get out of our classes, it is only a small part, and it’s only there at all in the service of the more important goal of reflection, thoughtfulness, and so on.

Open-book essay exams would be better, since they would reduce the emphasis that the format places on being able to remember material. But still, in an exam situation it’s not really going to be possible for students to engage in careful and critical reading of and writing about texts.

A second kind of worry I have is that essay exams foster in students a damaging attitude toward academic writing: the idea that writing an essay is something one does relatively quickly. Students already tend to think that papers get written ‘in one fell swoop’, in some sense: that you start at the start, you write for a while, and then you’re done. I don’t suppose that giving essay exams will make students think that we write papers in an hour or two; but it probably does reinforce their idea that papers don’t involve much in the way of reflection, re-writing, and so on.

What do others think about this? Are there benefits to essay exams that I’m missing? (I do, of course, assign essays for my classes – just not in exams.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"The Thinker"

Here is a nice story in the NY Times about the Auburn University philosophy department, especially its chair, Kelly Jolley.

September 21, 2008
The College Issue
The Thinker

With its roots in agricultural education and its remote location in rural Alabama, Auburn University has long been an easy target for ridicule from its archrival, the University of Alabama, whose students refer to Auburn as “the barn” — or as Alabama’s legendary head football coach, Bear Bryant, once put it, to the enduring delight of his fans, “that cow college on the other side of the state.”

Auburn is a land-grant university: it became one in 1872 under a federal program geared toward helping the working class obtain practical college educations. That mission continues largely to this day. A public university with an annual tuition of less than $6,000 for Alabama residents, it accepts roughly 70 percent of those who apply. Among its 20,000 undergraduates, business and engineering are the most popular majors. When students choose liberal-arts majors, they tend to be the more practical ones — communications, criminology, psychology, prelaw.

So it came as something of a surprise when, in the late ’90s, Auburn’s college of liberal arts undertook an internal ranking of its dozen academic departments and philosophy came out on top. The administration figured that there must have been a problem with the criteria it used, and a new formula was drawn up. Once again, philosophy came in first. This time, the administration decided to give up on the rankings altogether. “As I often put it to the dean, you’ve got a philosophy department that you have no right to have,” Kelly Jolley, the chairman of the department, told me recently. “It’s just way, way out of step with what you would expect to find at a place like Auburn.”

Jolley is almost single-handedly responsible for this state of affairs. When he first arrived at Auburn as a young professor 17 years ago, there were just a handful of philosophy majors, and there wasn’t much interest inside the department or the administration in adding more. Today, however, there are about 50 philosophy majors at Auburn. If recent history is any guide, a handful of them will even pursue Ph.D.’s in philosophy at highly competitive graduate schools and go on to become professional philosophers. “I don’t know of a comparable department at a comparable school,” James Conant, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, where two of Jolley’s former students are now studying, told me.

This summer I spent several days with Jolley, attending his classes and talking, often for hours at a time, about philosophy and his approach to teaching. At 42, he is a bear of a man with a prematurely white beard and blue eyes. He walks with an unsteady gait, the product of a pair of bad knees from his days as a high-school football lineman. You might imagine philosophers as inaccessible and withdrawn, endlessly absorbed in esoteric thoughts. Jolley couldn’t be further from this stereotype. He’s cheerful and engaged, an enthusiast about everything from college football, which he follows rabidly, even by Southern standards, to pit bulls (he owns two, Ahab and Sadie).

This is not to say that Jolley isn’t, above all, a philosopher. It’s just that he sees philosophy less as a profession than as a way of looking at, of being in, the world. “I am convinced that philosophy is not just about theory,” he told me. “It’s about a life well lived and thoughts truly thought.”

In May, when I visited Jolley, the Auburn campus had just cleared out for the summer, but he was teaching a summer class, Introduction to Logic. He was also running two unofficial, noncredited study groups, one on an early Greek theologian named Gregory of Nyssa and another on the 20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell, which met in the philosophy department’s cramped, poorly air-conditioned lounge, known as the Lyceum, after Aristotle’s original school of philosophy in Athens.

Jolley has been running discussion groups like these since he first came to Auburn. They are emblematic of his approach to teaching, which, if it’s working properly, quickly migrates out of the classroom and into more informal settings, whether it’s the Lyceum, a coffee shop or the rambling grounds of a Civil War-era mansion where he likes to go for walks with students.

Being a philosopher requires you to engage in the practice of relentless inquiry about everything, so it’s not surprising that Jolley has spent untold hours puzzling over how to best teach the discipline itself. What he has decided is that philosophy can’t be taught — or learned — like other academic subjects. To begin with, it takes longer. “Plato said that you become a philosopher by spending ‘much time’ in sympathy with other philosophers,” he told me. “Much time. I take that very seriously.” We were sitting in his office, which was dark with academic books and journals; a large paperweight reading “Think” sat amid the clutter on his desk. “Plato,” he went on, “talked about it as a process of ‘sparking forth,’ that as you spend more time with other philosophers, you eventually catch the flame. That’s how I think about teaching philosophy.”

Jolley says he thinks of his relationships with his students less as teacher-student than as master-apprentice. His goal, as he sees it, isn’t to teach students about philosophy; it is to show them what it means to think philosophically, to actually be a philosopher. When the approach works, the effect can be significant. Several years ago, a student named Zack Loveless wandered into one of Jolley’s classes and very nearly dropped it after the first day. “I was expecting a survey course, and in walks this big scary guy, using words I’d never heard before, talking about Hume as background for Kant, telling us how hard the class was going to be,” Loveless told me.

Loveless, who grew up in a working-class home in a small town in Alabama, stuck with the course and soon switched his major from psychology to philosophy. He took at least one class with Jolley for each of his remaining semesters at Auburn and did several independent projects with him and is now getting a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Chicago. He describes Jolley as more of a collaborator than a professor; rather than answer his questions, Loveless said, Jolley tried to work through philosophical problems with him.

Jolley is always on the lookout for students with a philosophical bent, and has urged his colleagues to recruit aggressively as well. While I was at Auburn, he introduced me to one of the department’s current top prospects for graduate school, a rising senior named Benjamin Pierce. Jolley told me that Pierce’s gift for reasoning was first identified a couple of years ago in an entry-level logic class. “If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C,” the professor said, introducing the so-called transitive relation.

“Not in rock, paper, scissors,” Pierce volunteered.

Pierce is now majoring in philosophy. “We have high hopes for him,” Jolley told me with the pride of a football coach talking up a strong tackler with great open-field speed. “I would bet that he ends up in a Top 10 graduate program.”

Jolley grew up in Gallipolis, Ohio, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains. He first felt the tug of the philosophical life during his freshman year in high school, when a teacher gave him a copy of Plato’s dialogues. An intellectually unfocused but precocious student, Jolley instantly took to the challenge of wrestling with such a difficult text. “Until then, I’d been clever enough to do whatever I wanted to do, to read with one eye,” he told me. “Then all of a sudden I ran into philosophy, and it was like running into a brick wall.”

But it was the substance of Plato’s meditations — the radical nature of the philosopher’s quest for self-knowledge — that really grabbed hold of Jolley. This was partly a function of his religious upbringing. His parents attended a Church of Christ three times a week. Listening to all those sermons about heaven and hell turned Jolley inward, made him wonder about what kind of person he was. But the church, he felt, hadn’t given him the tools he needed to grapple with that question. Philosophy did. “I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that the old Delphic instruction, know thyself, applied to me,” he said.

At the end of Jolley’s junior year in high school, the College of Wooster offered him a four-year academic scholarship. He skipped his senior year and went straight to college, declaring his intention to major in philosophy on the first day of class. Jolley went on to get his Ph.D. at the University of Rochester and was still finishing his dissertation on Plotinus, the founder of neo-Platonism, when he and his wife packed up their apartment and drove to Auburn in the summer of 1991 with their 15-month-old son.

Jolley’s early efforts to change the culture of the philosophy department at Auburn met with quite a bit of resistance from the university’s administration. Among other things, they rejected his requests for money for more upper-level philosophy classes. Determined to build up Auburn’s philosophy major, Jolley simply taught the courses himself, free of charge.

Many of Jolley’s colleagues were similarly skeptical of what he was trying to do. Several of them urged him to “tone it down,” he recalls, when they noticed the intimidating syllabus for his first class, the history of ancient philosophy, taped to the door of his office. They advised Jolley against wasting his time trying to start a philosophy club at Auburn — the club now has about 30 members — and called his approach to teaching “aristocratic.” In particular, they objected to the fact that he was grading students not on how well they learned philosophical terminology and definitions but on their ability to think philosophically.

Jolley gradually built allies within the department while at the same time looking to bring in like-minded professors. He didn’t expect Auburn to be able to land top candidates, but he was convinced that a lot of talented young philosophers were slipping through the cracks, often because they had the misfortune of specializing in an especially popular area, or because they had been stigmatized for taking too long to finish their degrees. (Jolley’s latest hire, Arata Hamawaki, spent 18 years finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard.) Auburn’s philosophy department is now dominated by graduates of some of the nation’s top philosophy programs.

By any measure, Jolley has accomplished a great deal. But in the service of what, exactly? During my stay at Auburn — and in our e-mail exchanges afterward — Jolley and I returned again and again to that very question. Why does philosophy matter?

Jolley could never seem to come up with a clear, settled explanation, and since clarity is a philosophical virtue, on one level this obviously bothered him. Yet his failure to give a simple answer was, in a way, the best answer he could have given. Philosophy is so much a part of how Jolley thinks, talks and writes that his attempts at an answer were themselves invariably philosophical, which is to say, aimed as much at exploring the assumptions behind the question as at answering it. “One reason it can seem so hard to see how philosophy relates to life is that we have often already decided that philosophy is thinking, not living,” he once wrote me. Explaining why philosophy matters, in other words, requires doing philosophy — the very thing the questioner wants explained.

While I was in Auburn, I attended a few of Jolley’s logic classes. All students at Auburn are required to take at least one entry-level philosophy course like logic. Traditionally, these “core” classes are designed to ease students into a particular subject. This is not Jolley’s approach. As he argues, core curriculums should aspire to do more than merely give students a taste of something. “Look, if the core is really going to matter for a student’s education, they need genuine exposure to that discipline,” he told me a few minutes before class. “You’re not giving them ‘the core’ if what you’re giving them is some sugarcoated simulacrum of philosophy that you’ve decided they can swallow.”

Jolley’s classes are famously demanding. Instead of assigning relatively accessible books on philosophers, he loads up his syllabuses with primary texts and asks his students to record in a notebook their thoughts on what they’re reading. “For the student merely interested in getting a degree, Kelly has nothing to offer,” says a colleague, Michael Watkins. “But for those who are interested in more, Kelly provides an example of what it means to be educated, to take one’s education seriously.”

Logic met at 9:45 a.m. in the Haley Center, a dreary-looking, 10-story building that would have been right at home in Communist East Berlin. Jolley had assigned a short essay by Lewis Carroll, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” an imagined dialogue in which the Tortoise flummoxes Achilles by repeatedly refusing to accept what at first appears to be an easily justified deductive argument. Looking a lot like a forest ranger in his army green shirt, khaki pants and heavy brown boots, Jolley recapped the essay and ran through several opposing interpretations of it. At every turn, he was greeted with an uncomfortable silence.

“Not a very talkative group,” Jolley observed after the procession of flip-flops, orange Auburn T-shirts and backward baseball caps filed out of the room. “I can usually tell if students are getting it from the looks on their faces, but some of these kids were positively Sphinx-like.”

For all of the success Jolley has had creating a thriving philosophy program at Auburn, the core classes still represent the bulk of the teaching load and the biggest challenge to the department’s professors. “There’s a battle at the core level here to convince students that there’s even a possibility that philosophy might have something interesting to offer them,” one Auburn philosophy professor, Guy Rohrbaugh, told me.

It seems fair to wonder whether Jolley’s approach is the best way to win that battle. It’s been years since he has taught, say, a student on a football scholarship, and the size of his classes tends to shrink substantially after the first meeting. Jolley’s goal, as he describes it, is to produce students who are “capable of genuine creative philosophical thought.” That’s a high bar to set for students in an entry-level logic class.

After class, Jolley and I walked across Auburn’s mostly deserted campus and into town for lunch. It was oppressively hot and humid; Jolley wore a fraying straw boater to keep the sun off his face. Over pizza and iced tea, I asked him if he ever wondered whether his style of teaching might be inappropriate for a large state school like Auburn — if the cost of his approach is that he’s teaching to the few rather than the many. “My view is that you really fall into a trap when you start allowing what you believe about your students to dictate how you teach your discipline,” he answered. “Too often these days we end up setting up our courses in light of what we believe about our students and we end up not teaching them. At best, we end up housebreaking them.”

In a sense, what Jolley is engaged in at Auburn is nothing less than a defense of the liberal-arts education. As he points out, the opening stanza of Auburn University’s creed — “I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count only on what I earn” — conveys a certain kind of hostility to the world of ideas in which philosophy and for that matter the rest of the humanities plainly reside. “The creed is a fine document in many ways,” he told me, “but it reinforces a certain picture of what you’re here for, and it can be very hard to break the grip of that with students.”

In Jolley’s ideal world, every student would catch the philosophy flame, but he knows this will never happen. He says that philosophy requires a certain rare and innate ability — the ability to step outside yourself and observe your own mind in the act of thinking. In this respect, Jolley recognizes that his detractors have a point when they criticize his approach to teaching. “It’s aristocratic in the sense that any selection based on talent is aristocratic,” he told me. “I know it offends everyone’s sense of democracy, this idea that everyone’s equal, but we all know that’s just not true.”

Perhaps the dispute between Jolley and his critics boils down to how you define great teachers. You typically think about them as being devoted, above all, to their students. Jolley says his first priority is to philosophy itself. “I care about the discipline of philosophy more than the academic fate of any individual student — and I think I should,” he said. “Otherwise I’m just a baby sitter who occasionally breaks into syllogism.”

Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Challenge: Hamden v. Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power.“