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.


  1. Thanks Adam for your insightful discussion.

    I try not to put the 'fear of God' into my students. Most of my students' interest in philosophy is minimal to start with. They are taking it as a course to fulfill a Gen Ed requirement and it happens to fit their schedule. The vast majority will not take another philosophy course, so I want mine to be as intellectually stimulating as possible so at least they can come away with some critical skills that they will find useful. To this end I think it is crucial to set the tone immediately. Although I do go over the syllabus in class the 1st day, it is not the 1st thing that I do. I start out by setting up a problem, most often the trolley problem, and we discuss various options suggested by the students regarding that what one should do if they are in a position to change the course of the trolley. We start to set up argument with premises that lead to certain conclusions and see if those arguments will work if we tweak the problem a bit. By the end of the class the students have experienced 'doing philosophy' as well as learning a bit about how to set up arguments. I explain to them that this is how this course will be conducted.

    Another starting exercise that I have had success with is to ask the student to write down how the would finish the sentence "The purpose of a college education is..... I put the results up on the board as we discuss them. This leads naturally leads into a discussion of instrumental versus intrinsic goods. Again, the students are actively involved in doing philosophy from the get go.

    The trick is to be able to keep this up throughout the semester!

  2. A great pair of posts, Adam.

    I can't state emphatically enough how opposed to the 'fear of God' approach I am. Yes, it might signal to some students that they need to take the course more seriously than they thought they did. But fear of failure is not a motivation that tends to encourage learning. It certainly encourages performance in the sense that students who fear failing are more likely to complete the assigned tasks. But I think the research on learning and motivation suggests that students motivated by fear disengage from learning as such and end up being motivated not by the importance or beauty of the problems we ask them to consider but by the almighty grade. They become intellectually passive and dependent — exactly what we're trying not to instill in them.

    I also think there are ways of underscoring how challenging philosophy is and using this as a motivator that don't involve 'fear of God'-like behaviors.

  3. On starting exercises: I've had some success with giving students a series of typically 'philosophical' questions of all varieties (Can one be in pain and not know it? Could it ever be morally justifiable to let one's child starve? Can we know anything about the future?), and then having them try to come up with an answer to each question in small groups of 3 or 4. Many students come into the class not fully realizing the sheer diversity of opinion there can be on such matters, so this exercise helps them see that others can disagree with them on some quite fundamental questions -- and thus (I hope) that the questions need discussing.

    On the fear of God: I agree that saying on the first day that philosophy is hard probably isn't productive. (One exception: in my Intro to Logic class, which many students take because they thereby hope to fulfil a Math requirement without doing any Math, I warn them that Logic is very much like Math.) However, I do try to put a little bit of fear of me into them on the first day. Specifically, I emphasize that I have little tolerance for irresponsible students: those who are habitually late to class, miss deadlines, etc. (I should add that I also emphasize that I will go out of my way to help students who are responsible.) If this scares away any students who are inclined to behave that way, that's fine with me - though I have no evidence it does. Another reason for it is so I have something simple to say to students who complain later when their grade suffers as a result of absences, lateness, etc: "Remember what I said on the first day? About five times?"

  4. I think that there is a difference between putting the fear of God into someone and telling students that philosophy is a difficult subject. Students need to have realistic expectations. I put a statement to this effect in my syllabus for intro level courses so that students do not have a false expectation that because the course is an intro level course that this means that it is somehow easier. I also try to give them a realistic expectation of how many hours per week on average they will spend on work outside the classroom. I agree with Gazza about how to deal with irresponsible students. I do think that we try to weed out those students who will not be responsible or who have unrealistic expectations concerning the course and either get to adjust their attitudes or drop the course. If this is putting the fear of God into them, then I guess I am guilty of doing that. But, much of this can be done thru the syllabus and if it is posted on BB before the start of the course then the students can evaluate the course requirements and expectations before the 1st class meeting.

  5. When I first read Lang's bit about identifying and eliminating "preconceptions" on the first day, I was skeptical about its usefulness in the philosophy classroom. Isn't the whole semester partly about eliminating preconceptions? Aren't there too many to cover in the first day?

    Several of the comments so far have touched on the common preconception that philosophy is easy—that it's no different than a bull session at Denny's at 3:00 am. Maybe a useful exercise would be to show them that even on topics where we cannot reach total consensus, there are still some answers that are clearly wrong (i.e., to undermine the misconception that 'there is no single correct answer' entails 'there are no incorrect answers').

    Gazza's starting exercise does half of the trick, if you're willing and able to show that some of those answers are be wrong. Since I'd worry about soliciting answers just to shoot them down, I'd be more inclined to pose a question, supply some good answers and some bad answers, solicit more student answers, and then show that my bad answers are bad. You could leave it open about whether the others can be shown to be wrong, too, as an invitation to further philosophizing.

  6. My philosophy students are taking my courses as Gen Ed requirements, but I do have some that have somewhat more than a passing interest in philosophy. It is really hard not to just focus on them while letting all others sit with blank stares. I get the 'blank stare' more in ethics courses than in introductory courses and I take that to be very troubling because of the apparent lack of moral direction in our current culture. So, I generally do the whole introducing me-go over syllabus-expectations on the first day and then begin querying students about what they may know about philosophy and what philosophers do. Most of my students have never had any exposure to philosophy while some have tried to wade through on their own, which I find this to be almost more difficult to teach as I then have to straighten out their misunderstandings while ensuring some understanding on the part of the other students in the class. It becomes increasingly difficult as the difficulty of what the student has been reading increases, for instance, when a student has been reading Wittgenstein or Derrida without the understanding that entire careers are spent trying to glean meaning out of these men. I usually save the 'fear of God' lecture until after midterms, and by then, my students will ask me to proves God's existence.

  7. I think Adam is right to point out that techniques for setting the tone are highly individualized to the teacher. The success of such techniques is sensitive not only to differences in personality, but in age and gender as well. A young female instructor often must do more to convince her students about her expectations. Unfortunately, this is more true in philosophy, where one of the preconceptions our students arrive with is that philosophers are men (usually old men who look vaguely like Bertrand Russell).

    There are challenges we female teachers face that male teachers don't (and vice versa, I'm sure) that are best met with the fear of God approach than any other - if you can pull it off. But mostly they have to do with classroom conduct, etc.

    I do think it pays to be very clear about how unfamiliar most people are with philosophy and that they should expect to find the course challenging. I also think it pays to be very clear about policies and to be strict in following those policies. The truth is, that for most students, such clarity is scary enough.

  8. Hi there...I would like to let you all know that I am a philosophy teacher and have started a blog. You can find it at: www.think-robby.blogspot.com

    I am going to add a link to this site on my blog, and if you are the neighborhood, stop by my blog and say hello.

  9. On student preconceptions: I think philosophers have it easy in that there are so many possible opening-day exercises that reveal preconceptions in our discipline. When I was an undergraduate, I took a night class on existentialism just because it was a philosophy class. On the first day of class, we were instructed to write a little bit about what we thought existentialism was. It was a little uncomfortable to admit how little I knew, but it also helped put in my head a realization of the fact that I didn't have that knowledge. I'm still pretty sure I can't say exactly what existentialism is, but I'm much more comfortable admitting that ignorance now than I was then. (David, I'm not sure the first day is so much about eliminating preconceptions/misconceptions as it is about helping the students to see them, thereby putting them in 'learning mode'. Most of us have been through a course or two where we never really did get into 'learning mode', even by the last day of class.)

    On the 'fear of God': I think I would say "If you are used to getting by, faking it, winging it, or bullshitting, you will find this a challenging course." I'd follow it up with "But this course will also help you to learn new skills that will help you not have to rely so much on your ability to just get by." I only want to (and do) put the fear of God into those who might plagiarize.

  10. David:

    You're right, of course, that there are simply too many pre-conceptions to strike down on the first day. But I hope I wasn't advocating anything more than getting a head start on some of them. After thinking about the post for more than half a week, it seems that for philosophy there are three different areas that are particularly good targets for opening day exercises:

    - Start eliminating pre-conceptions (ease, no answers, required drug use, etc).
    - Building interest (either by connecting to students' practical concerns or showing them fascinating parts of philosophy).
    - Get people actually doing some elementary philosophy. (I like to use philosophical techniques to solve simple real world problems and then get the students to replicate these techniques on much harder, philosophical problems.)


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