Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Join us for the first ISW reading group!

Starting in October, In Socrates' Wake will be facilitating an online reading group of James Lang's recent book On Course. The book has been widely praised and comes recommended by some of the ISW readership.

Our plan is to proceed chapter by chapter through the book, with biweekly posts by ISW contributors to kick off the discussion of each chapter. We will continue with other blog content as well, but wehope that our readers will get the book and make a habit of joining in the discussion. Details below the fold ...

Here's the planned schedule of posts:
  1. Before The Beginning: The Syllabus [October 1]
  2. First Days of Class [October 15]
  3. Teaching with Technology [October 29]
  4. In the Classroom: Lectures [November 12]
  5. In the Classroom: Discussions [November 24]
  6. In the Classroom: Teaching with Small Groups [January 7]
  7. Assignments and Grading [January 21]
  8. Students as Learners [February 4]
  9. Students as People [February 18]
  10. Academic Honesty [February 4]
  11. Finding a Balance Outside the Classroom [March 18]
  12. Re-Energizing the Classroom [April 1]
  13. Common Problems [April 15]
  14. Student Ratings and Evaluations [April 29]
  15. Last Days of Class [May 13]
  16. Teachers as People [May 27]
As you can see, we're planning posts every other week on Wednesdays, though that's adaptable to the schedule of the posting contributor.

Lang's book is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Powell's , and through Harvard University Press.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Asymmetry in teacher-student selection

I haven't made a post here in a while either, so I thought I'd start again with something that's a bit more controversial. It's well established that, unless a certain course is required for a plan of study, a student is free to refrain from taking courses from a certain professor. However, the opposite is not true. If a student is not required to take a certain course, a professor generally cannot "opt out" of having the student in his or her class. Now of course if a professor is just allowed to prevent students from taking a course carte blanche this would be a very bad idea. The opportunity for discrimination of many kinds is very present, to say nothing of professors summarily refusing students to keep grading loads down or professors refusing students who know more than they do in order to avoid accountability to the class.

But we've all had students who go through one of our courses that aren't outwardly disruptive but are certainly corrosive to the course. I figure we should be required to have those students the first semester they take our courses. It's such an unpleasant experience for all involved that it's hard to believe anyone would want to repeat it. And yet, bafflingly, sometimes the name appears on the next semester's course roster. Just when one is ready to start with a clean slate and forget the previous year's trials, there is the whole problem threatening to repeat itself.

I'm pretty sure the answer here is that the potential for abuse far outweighs giving professors even a curtailed right of "repeat refusal". But there are cases that make me want others' input, like very vocal students who do none of the work or do it very poorly, plagiarism cases, or students who walk the disruptive/disrespectful line with great skill. And these problem students can loom very large when one has new or deserving students who need a slot in a full classroom. Thoughts?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Kugel on stages in learning how to teach

I came across this stimulating article by Peter Kugel (a computer scientist with some philosophically oriented interests as well). Kugel describes five stages that teachers go through in the development:

(Sorry I can't get the image to render any bigger, but if you click it it should open a larger version in a new browser tab.)

Kugel's account of these stages really resonated with me. My anxieties early in my teaching career were very me-centric, worries about whether I'm even qualified to teach, etc. As time has gone on, I've noticed my attention shifting from me to them — the students. Amusingly, when I become frustrated as a teacher now, I notice myself devolving from where I think I typically am (about stage four, if I'm being generous) to an earlier stage. The explanation for this, I think, is that most frustrations emanating from teaching ultimately trace back to our inability to control our students — that, unsettling as it may be, they're people with a wide range of backgrounds, talents, interests, etc., so that I can't simply will that they learn and make it so. So I devolve back to thinking about teaching largely in terms of myself: my knowledge and disciplinary expertise, etc.

What do people think? Does Kugel's stages represent your own arc of development as teachers? What can we learn from his picture of this development?

The 'Over-extended Student' and Meeting Student Expectations

In the discussion of the post I most recently put up, Kevin Schulte presented a scenario of what I referred to as an example of the ‘overextended’ student. This is becoming an increasingly larger phenomenon that is placing a potential strain on the student/teacher role relationship. As educators we are aware of the changing demographics of our students. We realize that the ‘traditional’ student is on the decline as more students are coming to college with commitments that extend well beyond what we associated with the ‘traditional’ concept of a person who was 18-22 years old, taking a full load and limiting outside work /family activities in order to make the ‘college experience’ the central focus of their lives. We have people who are returning to school after years in the workforce and/or raising families to take higher educational courses either for self-improvement reasons or to earn a degree to enhance their economic opportunities. Not a semester goes by where I do not have students that reflect Kevin’s situation. The important question is how to accommodate these students without sacrificing the level of academic content or expectations associated with college degrees?

I think that we need to understand the situations of overextended students as an internal conflict within their roles as student, employee, parent, etc, as well as an external conflict between the professor’s role and the role of the student. To get straight to my main point, I do not think that as a professor I am obligated to settle the conflicts that arise within a person’s particular roles that they knowingly and freely assumed by restructuring the requirements of the course if I believe that each serves an important function in learning the material that I am teaching. I spend a great deal of time preparing for these courses as often they are the only exposure to philosophy that most students will have during their college experience. I want to make the course as interesting and challenging as I can without placing unreasonable expectations and requirements on students. But, I do want them to understand that philosophy/ethics can have a direct and profound impact on their lives. Furthermore, we all need to learn to live with and to adapt to the consequences of our choices and actions. I am not forcing people to take my course, or be in school, or have outside work, or family requirements. My course is one of many that they can choose from to meet their graduation requirements. I do have an obligation to make the material in the course I teach to be reflective of the general knowledge and trends in the field at the level of the course being offered and to treat everyone fairly. One thing I do to help accomplish this to is to post a detailed syllabus on Blackboard for each course I teach @ 2 weeks before the start of the semester so students know what they have signed-on for. Students can read the syllabus and contact me before the start of the course if they have concerns/questions or they can drop the course if they do not want to do the work. I will make accommodations as legitimate needs arise and cannot be addressed by what is stated in the syllabus.

There is a related issue that concerns what some students seem to expect in intro or Gen Ed courses. Recently I (and other teachers I have talked too) have had students who think they are entitled to get a good grade in intro courses simply because they are a Gen Ed course and therefore, in their minds, the course does not matter as much as a course in their major or a higher level course. Some students also think that the workload should be lighter in 100 level courses, not some many tests/papers, etc. I have had students complain to me about having to read Descartes’ Meditations because it is too long! Now, I will admit that these students are in the minority, but the numbers seem to be increasing. A level 100 course should not be as demanding as a 300-400 level course in the same subject. But that does not mean that a 100 level course should be a ‘cake walk.’ To help make sure that students understand how I view my courses, I have added the following statement to all my level 100 courses:

"Note: Please be aware that even though this is a level 100 and Gen Ed course this does not mean that it is easier then higher-level, non-Gen Ed courses. Philosophy, by its nature, is a difficult subject and may be unlike anything you have been exposed to before. To be successful you will need to develop a critical attitude to what is being discussed. My goal is for you to be as successful as possible in this course. If you need additional help or clarification of the material, please make use of my office hours or e-mail. I do factor in effort and improvement in the determination of the final grade."

In a sense I am, as a professor, no different then an employer. Should employers be required to be flexible in their work environment to allow people to adjust their work hours/requirements to meet their other needs or do employees need to adjust their other needs to meet the requirements of the workplace? This is a difficult question, but my straightforward answer is ‘no’. If I make an exception for a person in one situation such as being overextended, do I then have to make exceptions for those who do not have time to do the research for a project because the hours spent on doing the research may take them away from other obligations they have? Having worked in manufacturing for 35 years before becoming a full-time professor I can testify that employers expect people to perform up to the stated objectives of the organization or face negative sanctions for failing to do so. I too faced situations of being ‘overextended’ in my life and I sacrificed my business career advancements for family. I was not ‘dedicated’ enough as an employee because I placed my family 1st and wanted to actively participate in the raising of our children and to allow my wife to compete her educational goals. It was my choice to do so and it did work out for the best. I was actively involved in the early years of my children’s lives, my wife got two baccalaureate degrees, and I got my MA degree in philosophy. Eventually I did rise in the ranks to Foundry Manager, Plant Manger and Director of Operations in three different organizations so I was even successful in manufacturing, but on my terms! I did not expect my employers to ‘bend over backwards’ to accommodate my other commitments, nor did I hold it against them when they required me to live up to what I had promised them. I was able to work it out, but it did cost me professionally for some years. Consequently, I treat students as employees and the syllabus as a contract.

As a professional what exactly do I owe my students? I think I am obligated to perform my professional tasks as follows:
1) Treat people with respect. This includes realizing that some students may not be as intrinsically interested in my subject as I am.
2) Be knowledgeable in my area of expertise.
3) Be able to communicate effectively. This includes using diverse teaching methods.
4) Have clear and reasonable expectations regarding what is required to be successful in my courses. I should be able to explain and justify what I am requiring students to do.
5) Clearly state the criteria I will use to evaluate student work.
6) Make myself available to students who desire additional interaction.
7) Make exceptions/accommodations if there are legitimate reasons for doing so and be aware that if I make an exception/accommodation do I need to extend this to others?
8) Treat the syllabus as a contract between my students and me. Do not make changes in the syllabus arbitrarily, but only after discussion with those affected utilizing a method for change that is fair to all.

The changing demographics and expectations of our students places an very interesting challenge on us as educators on how best to meet the needs of our students within the context of providing a good, sound educational experience. We do not want to cheapen the quality and outcome of the experience and we must be aware that our role in providing for a good quality education is to challenge our students to broaden their conceptual frameworks and outlooks with an educational experience that is well thought out, reasonable, and attainable.

I would be greatly interested I how others think about this difficult subject.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Revisions to the grading of an ethics course

It has been quite some time since my last post so I would like to share with you the changes I have made to the formatting of the grading of my intro to ethics course. I have done away with exams completely and am going to rely on the following: 1) three short critical papers with a 1000 word maximum limit where students will construct an argument and present a defense of one of the normative premises. Each paper will be worth 20% of the final grade. 2) A 10-15 minute presentation on a moral issue of the student’s choosing. They can work with one other student on this project, which will be worth 20% of the final grade. 3) Weekly response papers to the readings. These papers will not be graded but will serve as the focus point for class discussion. Students will discuss their papers in class. The grade for this element will be determined by the percentage of papers turned in and will be worth 10% of the final grade. The total of these three elements is only 90% so in order for a student to have the opportunity to earn an A they must provide a minimum of 8 hours of community service and write a 1000-1200 word essay describing their experience while relating it to a normative perspective discussed in the course.

There are many factors that have led me to make these changes. The number of students who simply occupy space in the classroom and do not get actively engaged with the material being discussed frustrates me. Having them do the response papers, a presentation, and community service are ways that I can have everyone actively engage in a topic. Simply relying on exams (essay exams to be sure) as the major factor in determining grades seems to result in students simply memorizing (often rather poorly) the general features of a theory or principle without taking the time to integrate it into their own framework to see whether or not the idea makes sense to them. Furthermore there is a general reluctance on many students part to follow the argument where it leads. By this I mean that often students will accept the premises of an argument but outright reject the conclusion even if it follows from the premises the accept. This is why I am utilizing the critical papers. It is often difficult for students to see exactly what the argument is that is being made, so by having them construct (or reconstruct) an argument and presenting reason in support of one of the normative premises I am hopeful that they will develop this critical analytical skill. They may still act as if the conclusion does not matter, but at least they will understand that it is unreasonable to do so. Lastly, many people think that the bad things that happen to a person are necessarily that person’s fault. You might be surprised by how often I hear that a homeless person is homeless because they choose to be. By having them engage in community service my hope is that they will start to develop a narrative approach to understanding ethics and begin to see the ethical issues in the context of real people facing real problems that may, or may not, be the outcome of events/actions for which they are responsible. I also hope that this experience will make ethics more real for them and that they can see that normative principles have good practical import on deciding what to do. After all, one of the important moral questions is, what type of life is worth living?

Anyhow, I am excited to see if this all works. I would enjoy hearing from you on what your plans are for teaching intro courses as I find them to be the most challenging to teach.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Reductio ad frustratum

I'd be interested to know if anyone out there has some techniques for teaching students reductio ad absurdum. In my experience, what's true of reductio arguments is similar to what I believe Strawson once said about the Euthyphro dilemma: If you get it, you'll likely be pretty good at philosophy, and if you don't, well ...

I'm interested in student understanding of reductio outside of teaching logic per se; on the few occasions I've taught logic I've noticed that it seems to be the one inference rule that large numbers of students have trouble appreciating. This doesn't preclude them from doing proofs using reductio, but they do so mechanically and don't seem to grasp why using that strategy proves a conclusion in the way that they appear to grasp why modus ponens, disjunction, etc., prove a conclusion. But I'm more interested in how to instill an appreciation for reductio in order to help students with their writing. I've encountered many arguments in student papers that would probably be expressed more clearly and forcefully as reductio arguments, but have struggled to help students craft such argumenta in part because the students sometimes don't fully understand reductio anyway.

Thoughts or counsel welcome!