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?)