Monday, March 31, 2008

Political Philosophy during the US Election

I know not many of you have seen posts or comments from me for a while, but I haven't disappeared completely. I've just been very busy teaching in London and "lurking". I hope to be back to full strength soon, but in the mean time, I was wondering about thoughts and insights people have on the following:

I have the (good?) fortune to be able to teach an introduction to political philosophy this fall during the 2008 US elections. Normally, I teach the class as a history of pre-liberal and liberal political philosophy with reactions/challenges to liberalism and a little bit of justice near the end. In the fall, I'd like to be a little more topical and concentrate the course on democratic theory. But I'll primarily be teaching to non-majors and those without much political theory/science background. And it's not exactly my specialty in political philosophy, so I'll be learning a lot over the summer. So does anyone have ideas for more easily accessible introductory texts on democratic theory that stress its connections to political philosophy? What about fun articles that present problems with and within democratic theory? Any other experiences about what worked well when teaching political philosophy during elections?

Friday, March 28, 2008

The eros of teaching

William Deresiewicz' "Love on campus" attracted a good bit of discussion in the blogosphere when it was published last summer, but I've not posted about it because (a) I simply don't know how to react to it, and (b) I'm not sure what it tells us about the art of teaching. Deresiewicz offers a compelling cultural studies-like analysis of how popular culture depicts the (male) humanities professor: a useless, demasculinzed, lecherous parasite who enjoys a sense of potency and significance only when seducing his female students.

So far, so ugly. Of greater interest is Deresiewicz' proposal (familiar from Plato's Symposium) that teaching is a quasi-erotic activity that is poorly understood in our culture because we lack the conceptual resources to understand intimacy that is neither familial nor carnal. People should read the whole article, but a few of his choice words say it best:

The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. ...

...the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught. Teaching, Yeats said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket, and this is how it gets lit...

Can there be a culture less equipped than ours to receive these ideas? Sex is the god we worship most fervently; to deny that it is the greatest of pleasures is to commit cultural blasphemy. In any case, how can you have an eros of souls if you don’t have souls? Our inability to understand intimacy that is neither sexual nor familial is linked to the impoverishment of our spiritual vocabulary.

What attracts professors to students, then, is not their bodies but their souls. Young people are still curious about ideas, still believe in them — in their importance, their redemptive power. Socrates says in the Symposium that the hardest thing about being ignorant is that you’re content with yourself, but for many kids when they get to college, this is not yet true. They recognize themselves as incomplete, and they recognize, if only intuitively, that completion comes through eros. So they seek out professors with whom to have relationships, and we seek them out in turn. Teaching, finally, is about relationships. It is mentorship, not instruction. Socrates also says that the bond between teacher and student lasts a lifetime, even when the two are no longer together. And so it is. Student succeeds student, and I know that even the ones I’m closest to now will soon become names in my address book and then just distant memories. But the feelings we have for the teachers or students who have meant the most to us, like those we have for long-lost friends, never go away. They are part of us, and the briefest thought revives them, and we know that in some heaven we will all meet again.

I'm inclined to think that Deresiewciz (and Plato) are correct that great teaching has an erotic element, a kind of fevered grip on the mind. Is it possible to acknowledge this in our present culture without inviting sexual overtones? And it is appropriate or sensible to think that the creation of this quasi-erotic fervor should be what we aim at in the classroom?

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Grad School Cafe

One of my graduated advisees is presently in the middle of waiting for responses to all of his applications for entry into Ph.D. programs for philosophy. He recently brought my attention to a "Grad School Admissions Wiki" that helps students to learn when others have been admitted to certain schools (or rejected, or wait-listed). Basically, it works like the "Job Market Wiki" (for philosophy) that I think is out there too (I think I saw it on Leiter's page at some point, but I can't remember). The Grad School Wiki basically tries to get hopeful applicants information faster than they typically tend to get it from the schools themselves. It also seems to function as a support system, and also has forums dealing with many questions regarding the whole process. Go below the fold for more information on it.

Type the rest of your post here.

The address for the forum is here:

Once there, click on "results/search". Then when the page comes up, type in "philosophy" into the search box. That will narrow the results only to students reporting on admissions/rejections to philosophy graduate programs.

It seems pretty useful, but I'm curious whether others have had more experience with it. If you have, is this a resource that we should pass on to our students, who in my opinion need every piece of information they can get their hands on, especially at this time of the year (the month before the dreaded April 15th)? Any drawbacks about this resource that anyone knows about?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Getting a Job at a Teaching Institution

I recently received the following request related to teaching-focused institutions and the job market. Given the mysterious aspects of the job market, some input from those who've recently served on hiring committees would likely be useful to many grad students in our profession.

For those of you at teaching-oriented institutions, how do you rank the importance of the various elements of an application: Cover letter, CV, letters of recommendation, teaching philosophy (or teaching portfolio), writing sample? I’ve been told (from someone in my department) that focusing on the cover letter is a waste of time, but all of the general advice I’ve seen regarding cover letters (e.g. in books on the academic job search and in the Chronicle) is that they are quite important, particularly for non-research institutions. I just had a dean and faculty members from local 2- and 4-year institutions (one in philosophy, two in science) tell me that they don’t look at anything else unless they like the cover letter. They like to get a sense
of voice and a sense that the applicant understands their institution (as well as addressing the requirements listed in the job ad). Is this your experience as well, or do you weight things differently?

We’ve also been told by recent speakers (who work at research institutions) that if we’re interested in teaching-oriented colleges, that we should be careful to avoid publishing in top-notch journals, because that will hurt our chances of getting an interview. That seems quite
counter-intuitive to me, but I wonder if that is more true if you are sending out a generic cover letter.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Time To Make the Donuts...

I love Dunkin Donuts coffee, so sometimes my thought experiments often tend to incorporate the store. In this case, my thought experiment is about pedagogy. Now, on the one hand I love talking about pedagogy, because I love to teach and because I find the investigation of the relationship between the teacher and the student to be an interesting (if not complex) one. But on the other hand, these damn thought experiments never seem to work out correctly, and just never seem to perfect map on to what you want. Ah well. This time I’m wondering what the proper responsibilities of an instructor are with respect to his/her students. Get a donut, and check below the fold.

Being a professor reminds me of selling donuts. Let’s say that you, as the instructor, have the job of making good tasty donuts. So you set to work. As time goes on, you notice that some people come in, buy the donuts, and eat them. But there are others who take advantage of a policy you have in the donut shop: if you pay for a dozen donuts, you can get free parking in the lot outside. Let’s say that the Dunkin Donuts shop is in NYC, so parking is pretty valuable. So some people come in, pay for their donuts, and leave without ever waiting for the bag. They just want the parking spot. So they pay and then leave. You think this is odd, but a fair number of people do it. As a matter of fact, some buy the donuts and then sneer at you when you try to stop them from leaving without their food.

The analogy with education is obvious. Some students pay for their education (donuts). Some pay not for education, but for certification or for a degree (the parking spot, which is valuable for separate reasons). So some earnestly try their best, excel, and push themselves. Some don’t. Some even sneer at you when you suggest that it might be a good idea to engage and learn something, since they’ve paid their tuition.

My question, one I’ve been grappling with for the last few years, is this: what is the job of the donut maker? There are lots of possible answers here, obviously none of them mutually exclusive:

1. Make the best donuts you can make for those who want to eat them
2. Do (1), but in addition remind the parking lot folks that the donuts are indeed, good to eat.
3. Do (1) (and maybe 2), but assure that no one merely parks in the lot without eating the damn donuts.

Everyone will agree that (1) is the donut maker’s job, so it’s not worth quibbling about. But (2) and (3) are more controversial. I think most people will agree that (2) is at least a prima facie obligation of any good teacher. To some degree, you have to sell the donuts too, right? But what now about (3)? Should you assure that no one just uses the parking lot without munching down on a Boston Creme?

Essentially, here I see it that what we’re suggesting (if (3) is included) is that part of the job of the educator is to punish the student for trying to use the parking lot only. There are lots of ways to mean this. Here are a few:

* (a) Making sure that students are suitably punished for bad work.
* (b) Making sure that no one “coasts” through the course without really caring much about it.
* (c) Trying to turn the “failing” students around via various methods of intervention.
* (d) Adding putative devices merely to weed out who isn’t doing their work, even when those devices (quizzes, say) take away from the educational time dedicated to the students who are doing their work.

I’m guessing no one is opposed to (a). But what (b), (c) and (d)? These are all difficult questions, and there are no black and white answers here. There was a time that I was firmly committed to all four, but I’m staring to wane on the last three. At the end of the day, the question is a simple one (without a simple answer): how responsible should we expect students to be for their own educational choices, even when they make bad ones? Is the onus on us to make sure that the student recognizes the value of their education? Is the onus on us to assure that they fail (you know those coasting “C” students — if you made the test a bit harder, they’d fail)? Is it to turn students around when they aren’t doing well for one reason or another? Just a lot of questions.

Have a donut.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Teaching Ethics Seminar

Do Ethics in the Rockies this Summer!

After a two-year break, Deni Elliott will again offer her highly successful 5-day seminar, Theory and Skills of Ethics Teaching, July 14-18 on the University of Montana-Missoula campus. The course is intended for teachers of ethics in traditional and non-traditional learning environments and graduate students interested in teaching practical ethics courses. Participants develop teaching materials for their own particular setting or interest area. Successful participants have included ethics officers from corporate, governmental and medical settings, K-12 teachers, ethics instructors from a variety of practical ethics fields including biomedical, business, environmental, law, media, and military. Writers seeking to incorporate ethics in their work and administrators developing ethics programs and centers have also found the experience worthwhile.

Please see this page for further information.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Paralysis of the pen

I'm teaching my department's 'proseminar' this quarter: This course is designed specifically for those considering (or who have recently declared) philosophy as their major, and instead of focusing on particular philosophical content, it aims to practice and develop the characteristic skills philosophy students need, including analytical reading, scholarly research, logical reasoning, and of course, writing.

However, I made a somewhat unsettling discovery recently:
The students have been working for several weeks on their term papers and a first draft is due this week. Last week, I did an exercise I commonly do in class: I distributed note cards to each student and asked them to write down what challenges they were confronting in completing their drafts and what sorts of writing-related topics they wanted us to address in class this week. There were a wide variety of responses, but one clear theme was an undercurrent of anxiety. What were the students anxious about? Broadly speaking, what I'd call "authorial judgment": which authors present the best cases for a thesis, which objections to take seriously, how to determine the scope of the paper, etc. What was undeniable is that students expressed a sense of being stuck or trapped.

These are understandable anxieties, but what took me aback in these responses was that the very purpose of the course has been to provide students with practice in using effective writing strategies that ought to diminish this kind of anxiety. But it appears that for some of them, my talking about the need for extensive pre-writing, etc., has induced a kind of graphophobia, where they're afraid to write and paralyzed by the need to make authorial choices.

I should say that I've encountered this sort of paralysis before. But it usually arises when students have an inadequate understanding of the writing task and how to tackle it. What's puzzling here is that we've worked so much on the very strategies that ought to forestall it. So now my concern is how to help students alleviate or circumvent this sort of anxiety or paralysis? How do you motivate them to make these necessary choices and write?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Teaching Seminar

Co-Sponsored by
The American Philosophical Association
The American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT)
To be held during the AAPT’s
17th Biennial Workshop/Conference on Teaching Philosophy
University of Guelph
Guelph, Ontario, Canada
August 6-10, 2008


The Teaching Seminar will be led by Dr. Betsy Decyk, California State University, Long Beach, the Executive Director of the AAPT. Through a mixture of seminar and practicum experiences, students will explore issues, experiment with approaches and engage in a community of reflection in order to strengthen their individual philosophies of teaching. Topics will include preparing to teach (for example, course design and textbook selection), developing learning-centered philosophy classes, using traditional and non-traditional methods of assessment, and engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

It is required that participants attend all of the Seminar sessions, which will be held each morning, August 7-10. Participants are invited to attend the regular AAPT Workshop and Conference sessions in the afternoons and evenings.
Current graduate students, including students who will be receiving the Ph.D. in June 2008, and recent graduates (from 2006 - 2008) are eligible to apply for the Teaching Seminar. Preference will be given, first, to applicants who will be teaching their own courses during the 2008-09 academic year; second, to those who will be teaching discussion sections during 2008-09; and third, to those who will be grading for courses they are not teaching during 2008-09. Participants will also be chosen with some concern for achieving a balance among fields of interest.
Maximum number of participants: 20. Accepted applicants will be notified and will receive a reading list with their notification.
The American Philosophical Association will be offering travel grants of up to $300 each for 20 participants. Recipients of APA travel grants must be members of the APA.
The registration fee for the AAPT conference is waived for graduate students accepted into the graduate seminar, however membership in the AAPT for $15.00/one year is expected. The cost of meals and lodging, estimated to be between $150 and $200, will be the responsibility of participants or their departments.
Please see reverse side for application process.
Please note the postmark deadline is May 1, 2008.
Co-sponsored by APA and AAPT
During the AAPT 17th Biennial Workshop/Conference on Teaching Philosophy
August 6-10, 2008
Name: ____________________________________
Phone:___________ Fax:_______________
Institution: __________________________________
Email: _________________
Summer address: ______________________
Major Fields of Interest: ___________________________________________________
Applying for APA Travel Grant? YES NO
Estimated Travel Expenses:
Will Your Department Defray Other Expenses (meals and lodging)? YES NO
Please append:
􀂾 A statement of interest, including any previous teaching experience (please limit to one page).
􀂾 A letter of support from your Department Chair, indicating what your teaching duties will be in
Mail four (4) copies of all application materials to: Teaching Seminar, American Philosophical
Association, 31. Amstel Avenue, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716. Please be sure to include
an address where you may be reached during May, June and July. For additional information about the content of the Seminar, please contact Betsy Decyk, email: Questions about administrative or financial matters should be directed to David Schrader, APA Executive Director, phone: 302-831-8691, email: For information concerning membership in the APA, please contact Janet Sample, APA Membership Coordinator, phone: 302-831-4657, email: Website: http://www.apa.udel.du/apa.
For information concerning the American Association of Philosophy Teachers or the 17th Biennial Workshop Conference on Teaching Philosophy, please contact Betsy Decyk ( or the AAPT website at:
APPLICATION DEADLINE: MAY 1, 2008 (postmark)