Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Teaching X-phi session at APA Pacific meeting

Doubtless many of you are enjoying the Marriott Meat Market, er, APA Eastern meeting in New York. But for those of you headed to the Pacific meeting in San Francisco three months, the APA Committee on Teaching Philosophy has put together an intriguing session on teaching experimental philosophy. Details below the fold ....

APA Committee Session: Experimental Philosophy in the Classroom

1:00-4:00 p.m.

Arranged by the APA Committee on the Teaching of Philosophy

Chair:Alexandra Bradner (Denison University)

Speakers:Emily Esch (College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University)

Chris Weigel (Utah Valley University)

“Experimental Philosophy in Introduction to Philosophy: Opportunities and Challenges”

Joshua May (University of California–Santa Barbara)

“Philosophy 101 and Experimental Philosophy”

Kevin L. Timpe (Northwest Nazarene University)

“Polling as Pedagogy: Experimental Philosophy in a Metaphysics Course”

Richard Kamber (The College of New Jersey)

“Teaching Aesthetics with Experimental Philosophy”

Commentator:Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State University)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tailoring to student learning styles: Don't bother?

The CHE reports on a recent study concluding that while differences in learning styles (kinesthetic, visual, auditory, etc.) exist, it is unwise for instructors to 'match' their teaching techniques to their students' learning styles:

no one has ever proved that any particular style of instruction simultaneously helps students who have one learning style while also harming students who have a different learning style.
The experimenters taught the same material (in this case, a lesson on molecular structure) to students using a given learning style (kinesthetic) for one group and a second style (verbal) for another. The 'matching' claim predicts that students with a given style will learn the material best with their favored style, but the researchers found that one learning style worked best for both groups, even though students tended to enjoy learning in their own favored style.

I'm certainly not qualified to comment on the methodological and disciplinary questions raised by the study. (From the article, there's clearly a lot of controversy about it.) But I can say that I think this is a welcome finding from my own admittedly limited pedagogical perspective. Varying your techniques to help students with different learning styles is now standard advice for college teachers. But I've always instinctually recoiled from taking this too much to heart.

First, not all content is easily presentable according to the various learning styles. Sure, Venn diagrams are nice for logic. There are of course some famous visual metaphors in philosophy — Plato's cave, Hume's billiard balls, the ship of Theseus. I once had a blast putting students in groups and asking them to draw pictures that explain and contrast Spinoza's metaphysics with Lebniz's. (And I've occasionally had students get out of their chairs and place themselves along a continuum to indicate their position on some question.) But philosophy is a highly verbal discipline for a reason. Making logical distinctions, keeping track of the give-and-take surrounding an argument, etc., are things most readily and naturally done in language. So while I'm not opposed to working in different learning styles into the classroom, I don't think instructors should go to extraordinary lengths to accommodate these styles.

Second, this underscores the point that disciplines are what they are. Philosophy is what it is. Part of our responsibility as instructors is to foster the skills — the 'styles,' if you will — conducive to mastering our disciplinary content. Philosophers teach philosophy, yes, but we also implicitly teach reading, writing, and reasoning (among other capacities). And the soundest response to the diversity of student learning styles is not to fit the content to the styles, but to expand the range of styles through which students can learn effectively. This is a bit snarky, but our response to students having difficulty with math is not to try teach them science in a math-free way. Nor do PE teachers try to improve the fitness of students with verbal learning styles by having them read books about exercise.

Lastly, even if it were a good idea to have students master material according to their preferred styles, it's not obvious that this tailoring or matching is the instructor's responsibility. For one thing, presenting material in multiple styles is time-consuming, and at least in my classroom, time is a very precious commodity. But on top of that, students who are aware of their own learning styles can be encouraged to figure out how to adapt the material to their own learning styles. Consider: I teach in English. This is a second or complementary language for many of my students. Doubtless many of them study or discuss the material outside the classroom in languages with which they are more comfortable. And so they should. I'm not so finicky to suggest that they must master the material through English (even though they'll have to ultimately demonstrate their master in English). In doing this, they are adapting the material to their own knowledge or learning style, so to speak. But the same applies to students with diverse learning styles.

So in classic debate format: Agree or disagree:
Philosophy instructors should not go to significant lengths to accommodate student 'learning styles'.


Friday, December 18, 2009


Readers of ISW might already be aware of this, but in case you aren't ProfHacker is a site which "delivers tips, tutorials, and commentary on pedagogy, productivity, and technology in higher education, Monday through Friday." A recent post, the End of Semester Checklist, has some good ideas for wrapping up the fall semester.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bleg: Ancient philosophy anthologies

I'll be teaching Ancient Philosophy starting at the end of March and was hoping folks could direct me toward a good anthology for such a course. When last I taught it (2004), I used the Baird and Kaufmann anthology (Prentice-Hall). Here are the constraints:
  • It's a quarter course (ten weeks), so I'd prefer a shorter and/or less expensive anthology, since I probably can't assign a large portion of the material anyway.
  • It's intended to be a survey of ancient — I plan on a day or so on the pre-Socratics, some early Socratic material, Plato through the Republic or Theatetus, and a bit of Aristotle. I probably won't be able to cover any post-Aristotelian material.
  • I plan on having the students read one medium-length Platonic dialogue in its entirety (probably the Gorgias or Protagoras).
  • I'd like most of the textbook to be primary sources. I don't mind a little bit of stage setting, context, analysis, etc. from the authors, but that shouldn't be the emphasis.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A defense of lectures

Adam Kotsko at IHE gives one of the better defenses of lecturing I've encountered. Kostko's point is a simple one, and easy to forget: Discussion is a wonderful mode of learning, but it presupposes that students have knowledge and skills they often don't have.

Kotsko begins with an observation that resonates with me: Students often tell me they enjoy discussion, but they want more lectures because they feel they learn more from them. (Does everyone else have this experience?) Tempting as it is to dismiss this as students being lazy or passive, Kotsko suggests that this preference reflects students' (accurate) self-perception that they are not prepared for the lofty pedagogical ideal of a "lively discussion of a book by a small, engaged group." What do students lack that they need in order to be real participants in discursive inquiry? Kotsko's answer is familiar:

A big part of that has to be getting them to a point where they are good readers. That means being actual baseline good readers who are able to identify key themes, sympathetically state the author’s argument in their own words, talk about what each section of the book is supposed to be contributing to the whole, and so on — that kind of thing is the necessary foundation for the “critical reading” stage.

I think that the assumption that students have baseline reading skills is behind the thinking of people who want more or less exclusively discussion-based classes — lectures, they suppose, are just trying to transmit information, which the books can do by themselves. If we assume that the students are reading attentively outside of class, we can use the class time to practice our critical reading with each other. I don’t think it’s at all clear, however, that students typically come to college with the skills necessary to make such a model work. Some will, but it’s much safer to assume that your students need help. And I believe that we should interpret students’ desire for more lectures precisely as a cry for help.

Kotsko's suggestion is that lecture can serve to develop these reading skills, and indeed, has significant advantages over other instructional modes:

Lectures can play a significant role in getting students to that next level if they’re used not primarily to transmit information, but to guide students in their reading and in certain modes of thinking. Lectures have significant advantages over written texts — including the ability to use the full range of tone and pacing that an improvised oral delivery allows, as well as the ability to check in periodically to make sure students are still “on board” and change the presentation if necessary — and those advantages should be mobilized in a way that feeds into the reading process itself. A simple example is telling students what they should be looking for in their readings and giving them an outline of the basic argument ahead of time (my own students have requested as much). This will give them more confidence going in and give them a way of seeing what it looks like for themes to emerge or arguments to be strung together. After a few classes worth of that kind of directed reading, perhaps they’ll be ready to begin drawing out themes and arguments themselves. Again, these skills are not something we should be taking for granted!

Kotsko doesn't quite put it this way, but his thought is that lecturing is a form of modelling. We philosophers can reconstruct and represent our own forms of thinking and inquiring, which, after all, is what we want our students to ultimately develop. The hope is that once these forms of thinking and inquiring take root, students can then tackle course content on their own and will be ready to participate meaningfully in critical discussions that presuppose at least modest mastery of that content.

A final comment: Kotsko also reminds us that while lecturing can be criticized for being too passive to instill deep or genuine learning, lecturing is only as 'passive' as the lecturer. Yes, delivering information in a droning, unenthusiastic way is misguided. But if we approach lecture autobiographically, as a way of having students rehearse philosophical inquiry with us — and we do this with energy — it can be as intensive and intellectually active as any other teaching method.

ISW'ers: How do we make lecture something more than just the passive dissemination of information? And in particular, how do we use it to foster the skills requisite for discussion?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

No one likes spam, spam, spam, spam ...

ISW Readers,
Sadly, we've recently been beset with comments spam. To cut down on this, we'll be using word verification for comments. We realize this is a bit bothersome, but it takes only a moment to do the word fill-in and comments will still appear immediately (as opposed to full blown comment moderation, which is burdensome to the Wakers and delays conversation). Sorry, and thanks for understanding.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Weir on final exams

Just in time for finals, the ever helpful Rob Weir at IHE has a useful list of do's and don'ts when it comes to crafting final exams. They follow below the fold.

  1. Don’t exact revenge. "Maybe you had a class (or two) in which students were inattentive or disrespectful and you’re thinking of lowering the reality boom. Sorry; you should have done that earlier in the semester. Maintain professional poise and design a final appropriate for the subject matter, not your revenge fantasies."
  2. Don’t experiment with your final. "... the final isn’t the place to dust off an intriguing new idea. You should hew closely to whatever methods you've been using to evaluate throughout the semester. If you've assigned essays all semester, don’t suddenly opt for an objective exam..."
  3. Don’t use the final to test things you never got around to teaching."...the professor controls the agenda and it's unfair to expect students to paint on walls that never got built."

  1. Make the final harder (and probably longer) than other exams. "This is the culminating exercise of a course and it's fair game to ask students to demonstrate mastery of the material. It should have a cumulative aspect to it, be it in the form of actual detail or in (forewarned) application of central concepts."
  2. Multiple measurements will yield better results. Rob's thought: Mix essay, multiple choice, etc.
  3. Prepare your students. "Give students advance warning of how the exam will be set up. If you can, provide practice exercises. You might, for example, use the course Web site to post a model of a well-done essay or a well-crafted theory application."
  4. Make instructions and expectations crystal clear. "However you configure the exam, make certain that students know what they'll be doing and how you'll evaluate it. ... If you have any special conditions, spell them out in person and in writing."
  5. Make students aware of your college’s honors code.
  6. If you can, break away from conventional exams. "I'm aware that some colleges have non-optional requirements about finals. If you are allowed leeway, however, consider alternative examination methods. I do not believe for a second that blue book exams are necessarily the best way to measure student success... If you’re teaching an upper-division course, the best assessment tool may be a research paper, a lab demonstration, an oral presentation of research, a piece of creative fiction, a collaborative project, a demonstration of craft, or a work of art."
  7. Take your time grading.
Hard to argue with Rob's sage advice, though to my eye, 'do not' #2 almost appears to contradict 'do' #6. Anyone have thoughts about final exam construction -- intriguing ideas, unusual formats or questions, etc.?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Another Look At Teaching Pre-College Philosophy

A few months back, I wrote here at ISW about the pros and cons of teaching pre-college philosophy. The response took me by surprise. Many of you engaged the arguments, pro and con, and took a serious look at the reasons for and against teaching pre-college philosophy. Many others expressed their own delight and inspiration at the prospect of teaching pre-college philosophy. Not surprisingly, however, many of you wanted to know more about how to land such a job. The question naturally lends itself to a different, but important, question for those interested in teaching High School philosophy: what does it mean for a philosopher to teach pre-college philosophy? So, there are two questions I will try to answer in response to the comments that have been made since my post. The first is whether a philosopher can land a pre-college philosophy job; and the second is what it means to be a philosopher who teaches High School?

Can a Philosopher Really Land a High School Philosophy Job?
A former student of mine, who is now at Georgetown University and was working in its philosophy department at the time, contacted me one afternoon. Two tenure track positions in philosophy were open, and she had already filed over three hundred CVs for the jobs! “That’s insane!” I thought. I began to ask myself whether I would even have a remote chance of landing such a gig given the competition. There was no way. I am A.B.D, but even if I were finished with my dissertation, I don’t have the pedigree, the publications or the “pop” on my CV that makes a department like Georgetown say, “We need this philosopher!” But I didn’t need the position; I wasn’t looking for a job. I had a job.

I teach philosophy at Wayland Academy, a private boarding school nestled among the farm towns of South-Eastern Wisconsin. The Georgetown University job search caused me to reflect upon the two questions of this essay: How did I land this job? And what does it mean that I am a philosopher teaching High School?

There are High School philosophy jobs in the United States, but they are rare (they are less rare in Europe, but still not easy to come by). It is mostly the private schools, and even then mostly the elite, private boarding schools, that have the relative freedom to offer such a course or courses. Where philosophy is offered, it is usually offered as an elective to seniors, and not usually taken seriously as an academic course. That is not to say that the teachers aren’t serious or that nothing serious ever gets done, but it is often the case that it is difficult to sell the dean on a rigorous philosophy course that has no specific place in the curriculum. But it can be done!

Six years ago, when I was hired at my current post, I was not hired to teach philosophy. I was hired to teach Honors U.S. Literature and freshmen World Civilizations. I have neither an English degree, nor a History degree, but I had taught High School English and History before, and the school liked my advanced education. I was fortunate enough to enter into a dynamic conversation among the faculty and administration about cross-curricular studies and the development of an intensive writing initiative on campus. Over the course of many conversations that year, I was allowed the opportunity to begin a series of history of philosophy classes that would be offered for advanced credit to upper-classmen. The Dean of College Counseling visited one course, then sat down with me to work out a draft document that could be sent to colleges for those students taking the course in order to explain the rigorous nature of what was being offered. There is more to the story, but the point is that I began teaching philosophy at an academy that believed in what I was doing, and didn’t shy away from making it known outside of the academy. This singular fact, that the academy was interested in what I was doing, created an opportunity that I did not think imaginable. I am a philosopher, and I teach High School philosophy. My course offerings since then have included courses in ethics/political philosophy, introductory logic, and independent studies in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the philosophy of language.

So that you do not think that Wayland Academy is the only school with such an opportunity and a vision, explore some of the links below. While I cannot say that there will be a job posted in the “Jobs For Philosophers” section of the APA any time soon, with a little creativity, a supportive administration, some ambition and sometimes a lot of convincing, landing a job teaching High School philosophy is definitely possible.

What does it mean to be a philosopher who teaches High School?
I really do love my graduate institution, and I have never been more supported in my education as I have been by the faculty at Marquette University. Yet, even there, it is difficult for some to understand why I would not make the jump to the college level. To be honest, I reevaluate this question every year, and it is an ongoing conversation that I have with my closest colleagues in the field. But as for the question, “what does it mean to be a philosopher who teaches High School”, there is very little question about it.

1) I do not publish, and I rarely submit to conferences. It is not that I am uninterested, but I don’t have as much time to research as I would like. That said, I am finishing my dissertation, and I have been teaching High School full-time all the way through my graduate studies at Marquette. I imagine, then, that when I am freed from my academic obligations that I too will be able to teach and publish. The most important fact, however, is that I am not expected to publish. I am expected to be an excellent teacher, to coach, to supervise, and to mentor. That’s it. If I publish, when I publish, it will be because I want to, and because I need to say something, not because my tenure depends upon it.

2) I teach four classes each semester with elective options each year. My average student-load is around 55 students, and my average class size is 14 for under-classmen courses and five for upper-classmen electives. I, therefore, can spend a great deal of time crafting lectures for my students, lectures that are specifically designed for that group of minds in front of me at that moment. I do not need to be original or profound; I just need to connect with the students in front of me, who genuinely look forward to anything interesting that I have to teach. Which brings me to my final point:

3) My students are young. They are inspired, and they are not yet jaded by their education or their world. Therefore, if I can show them that what I am teaching is worth studying, they will worthily study it. They live for those “A-ha!” moments, which makes teaching them refreshingly rewarding...and they succeed because of it. My former student, who is now at Georgetown, once submitted a paper to the Wisconsin Philosophical Association annual conference. Under blind review, her paper was accepted….and mine was not. After delivering her paper and fielding questions, she was asked what college she was attending. She demurely replied, “I will have to graduate high school first before I can answer that.” Wayland is not a school for “smarties.” It hosts average students, whose faculty have enough time for them and where they are encouraged to be inspired by what they are learning.

As a philosopher, then, I have a job where I can think and teach for the same reason that I began studying and teaching in the first place, because I love it! My job gives me the relative leisure (heavy on the relative…boarding schools are still busy places) to craft my ideas for the sake of teaching students who want to learn (mostly…they are people after all). It gives me the freedom to publish, if and when I have something to say, and because it’s worth saying (some of my colleagues continue to publish and give papers in their respective fields every year for the sole reason that they want to). Teaching pre-college philosophy allows me to be a philosopher, in the way I understand being a philosopher, perhaps not with all of the professional trappings that the university offers, but a philosopher nonetheless.

I thank those of you who contributed both publicly and privately to the ongoing conversation of teaching pre-college philosophy. I am glad to have gotten to know some of you through email, and I am sincerely grateful for your thoughts. The primary purpose of the piece was to introduce people to teaching philosophy at the secondary school level. I gladly anticipate your responses whether publicly or in private.


For information regarding private boarding schools:

For information regarding private day schools:

For information on where to begin looking for a job:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The ideal teacher?

Bob Blaisdell has given up on being the ideal teacher. I never wanted to be one.

Or at least, Blaisdell's ideal teacher is awfully far from my ideal. His is a middle-aged male, so I guess I have that covered. But beyond that, I see little to recommend this ideal. His ideal teacher is
  • "a handsome monk in civilian clothing"
  • not too enthusiastic, "but very funny and very serious"
  • inspirational rather than nagging
  • devoid of sexual desire or identity, indeed of any marks of a personal life at all (no spouse, children, etc.)
  • "He can drink juice or water, maybe coffee, but it’s better if he doesn’t. He really shouldn’t eat."
  • "No bus, no train. He has a car, and it’s an unusual car -- not too expensive, but cute and funny. He does not live too close to the college."
And in the grand finale, Blaisdell writes that after the Ideal Teacher corrects a student
the corrected student laughs without shame and is only momentarily embarrassed. He sees before him an open path back into the good graces of his classmates and of course the professor himself. There is a hazy bliss that descends every day or two in class, wherein all the students realize they love him and they love their classmates and they love everyone in the world equally -- everyone realizes their boundless humility and tolerance -- and the whole class and Ideal Teacher sit for long moments in the glow of mutual respect and appreciation.
Kumbaya, eh?

Blaisdell is after ironic caracture, clearly.
Ideal Teacher, this combination of Bill Cosby and the Dalai Lama with a dash or two of the latest superhero, is an angel of light. He will live forever and he was never born.
But irony only works if the ironized object remains to some degree an object of respect or veneration. But Blasidell's Paper Chase-inspired stereotype — mildly eccentric, belonging to a fictional class of scholarly aesthetes — is well past its expiration date. No instructor I admire embodies the stereotype, and no student I know desires that instructors conform to it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

More on Thought Experiments in the Classroom

This issue has been addressed before on ISW, but I would like to raise it again. I find it difficult to get students to see the relevance of thought experiments, even the less esoteric ones such as Singer's drowning child analogy in his argument for famine relief. Even if they come along for the first part of the ride, when I start adjusting the drowning child case to handle their objections to the analogy between it and the starving child, I start to lose them.

David Boonin and Graham Oddie's applied ethics anthology has a helpful discussion of the role and relevance of thought experiments (specifically, arguments from analogy) in the introduction. They discuss how to understand such arguments, how to criticize them, and the technique of appealing to variant cases. I have found summarizing and explaining their points to be somewhat helpful, but I'm interested in how others motivate and justify this form of argument in applied ethics to students who seem skeptical of the method.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Philosophers and ink stained wretches

Carlin Romano claims we need courses in the Philosophy of Journalism. Is he right?

Romano suggests that philosophy of journalism belongs in the philosophy curriculum just as philosophy of law, philosophy of science, or philosophy of religion do. I'm not sure about this. I don't see that there are fundamental metaphysical questions in journalism as there are in science or religion. Nor does journalism present analogous conceptual questions associated with philosophy of law (the nature or law or legal norms, for example).

On the other hand, I'm not a journalist (though I did play one as the crusading editor of my high school newspapers), and Romano does make a case that journalism and philosophy could fruitfully enrich one another. I'm not so convinced that, as Romano claims, philosophy and journalism are united as "the two humanistic intellectual activities that most boldly (and some think obnoxiously) vaunt their primary devotion to truth." (Science, anyone?) The central prerogative of academic philosophy may be "publish or perish," but that goes all the more for journalism. Sure, truth matters in journalism, but it matters differently. For one thing, the truth has to sell. Second, philosophy (on my view, at least) aims to understand. As Sellars put it, it is the endeavor "to see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term." Journalism rarely has such comprehensive truth-seeking as its aim, and indeed, much of what strikes me as deficient about the contemporary journalistic media is not that it fails to discern truth. Rather, the truths it discerns rarely help us understand anything worth understanding.

That being said, Romano points out that journalism is an arena of human affairs rife with meaty philosophical interest. In democratic societies, journalists should be tasked with doing critical thinking directed not only at their subjects but at their own profession.
we need journalists who scrutinize and question not just government officials, PR releases, and leaked documents, but their own preconceptions about every aspect of their business. We need journalists who think about how many examples are required to assert a generalization, what the role of the press ought to be in the state, how the boundaries of words are fixed or indeterminate in Wittgensteinian ways, and how their daily practice does or does not resemble art or science.
Simultaneously, journalism is a laboratory for thinking about philosophical problems in a concrete way:
we need philosophers who understand how epistemology and the establishment of truth claims function in the real world outside seminars and journals—the role of recognized authorities, of decision, of conscious intersubjective setting of standards.
So: philosophy of journalism -- yea or no? And if so, how is this distinct from 'media ethics'?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The noble lie I tell myself

Boy, there's not a better article to get you thinking about the instructor-student relationship than this piece by Gary Lewandowski and David Stromhetz. When students don't learn, how quick are we to decide that they're the problem? The authors:

Was it your teaching? Impossible, of course. You are a conscientious teacher who worked diligently on your lectures. You tracked down recent references, created examples, embedded discussion questions, made several rounds of revisions, and followed tips for creating proper PowerPoints. But the students still did poorly, and will surely blame you and exact revenge on your teaching evaluations. The only viable explanation for the students’ poor performance is that the students are to blame. It’s not you, it’s them! (Or so you think.)

Teachers want students to learn, and when students fail to meet that goal, someone must bear the responsibility. The kids aren’t all right – they’re the problem. At one time or another, it is easy to feel as though students are not holding up their end of the teacher-student "relationship."

But just as students tend to take all the credit when things go well and blame us when things go wrong, aren't we Pollyannas too - patting ourselves on the back when students learn but pinning all the responsibility on them when learning doesn't happen? Lewandowski and Stromhetz:
Teachers are all familiar with the notion that when students do well in our courses, they take the credit as the smart and capable students that they are. However, when students do poorly the teacher often bears the blame. Students have "earned" every A, but have been "given" every B, C, D, or F by their less than stellar teachers.

However, professors are not immune from adopting a similar self-serving bias. When a specific class, an entire course, or an entire semester of teaching evaluations go well, we simply re-affirm our teaching prowess. But when evaluations are less than complimentary, there must be another explanation. Most commonly we attribute poor teaching outcomes to the occupants of the desks in our classroom. Yet, if you asked students why some of their courses are less fulfilling, less educational, and less enjoyable, students would likely suggest that the instructor is to blame. Certainly both perspectives have a kernel of truth.

They also remind us of some reasons to be humble and not so ready to lay the responsibility solely on students. First, we probably compare them to ourselves, and maybe, just maybe, we had bad study habits and attitudes when we were students. And second (as I like to remind myself), we instructors are freaks. We had the ability to excel in our disciplines, despite (in all likelihood) not always being the beneficiaries of quality teaching. Beyond this, we still must teach. We still must educate. And there's the serious danger that placing so much blame on students ultimately serves them badly.

Given that we may be unable to effect wholesale, lasting changes in the inherent natures of our students, we as teachers can adapt and better meet our teaching goals. As they say, the first step is acknowledging that we contribute to the problem. By focusing on student deficiencies, you may inadvertently perpetuate the problem. Case in point, by developing a mindset that students have significant deficiencies, you may become more prone to developing a confirmatory bias that leads you to more easily identify and remember students’ deficiencies. Worse, negative expectations about students might lead you to act in a way (perhaps unknowingly) that elicits negative behaviors from students.

For example, if you became convinced that your class was unenthusiastic, you might devote less effort to your next lecture because quite frankly "why bother? They aren’t interested anyway." Thus, your next lecture is subsequently less engaging, and the students are, as you predicted, unenthusiastic. By identifying and resisting this self-defeating pattern, you can take steps to avoid it. After all, you are the person with the most influence on the classroom and have the most ability to produce the desired change.

These words remind me of what I like to call (following Plato) my noble lie. The unpleasant fact of the matter is that educators (especially at the university level) are dealing with students who, intellectually at least, are pretty close to a finished product. They are already heavily acculturated, academically and otherwise, and the influences of genetics and their family environments are nearly fully manifest. One need not be a determinist to think that our ability to fundamentally transform the learning habits and orientations of our students is extremely limited. Yes, some students 'find themselves' in college. Yes, some students will be diamonds in the rough whose talents just needed the right environment or the right teacher. But overwhelmingly (and I'm under the impression that data support this), the best students entering college are the best when they leave, the average are average, and those who struggled before college continued to struggle during college. This doesn't mean students don't learn during their college years. It simply means that those most learners do not experience dramatic shifts in their learning capacities.

But this is a truth, if I were to accept it, that would defeat my very aims as an educator. Again borrowing from Plato, one cannot teach what cannot be learned. And so any hope of truly teaching my students depends on my assuming, even against substantial evidence, that students can learn and grow in their ability to learn.

So what is my noble lie? It's more of a hyperbolic conceit. But put simply: Each and every student I teach can, with reasonable effort, master what I aim to help them learn. Is it true? Probably not. Teaching, they say, is an act of faith. My noble lie expresses that faith.

(How many of my fellow instructors are noble liars too?)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

An Alternative way of Revising

This time of year, many of us find ourselves writing many comments on papers that we have written before, for the same student, and we find that we are writing the same comments throughout the paper. When we do this, we get frustrated, and the students get discouraged. But shouldn't we be marking all the places in the paper that illustrate the particular problems on which we expect students to improve? In addition, we all recognize the value of revision - but full papers are often insufficiently revised, compounding the frustration and disappointment of both teachers and students alike. What to do? Here is what I am trying.

By this point in the semester my students have had at least one if not two papers on which I have commented extensively, including comments on clarity, grace and style. Together we have begun to locate particular patterns in their writing to focus on for revision and future papers. From this point onwards, then, I select only one paragraph per paper to mark for style, grace, and other formal matters. As a matter of discipline I allow myself only three more comments on any given page. Of course, I still provide an overall evaluation based on content. I also select only one paragraph to mark for issues concerning explanation, argument and evidence.

Instead of encouraging students to revise an entire paper, I give them the opportunity to come to office hours with a revision of one or both of these selected paragraphs. This can easily be read together in office hours and presents a good learning opportunity. It also allows the student to do some revision without getting behind in class because she is trying to tackle a major revision of a whole paper.

I should say that given my small class size, I also give them one opportunity to revise one whole paper if they wish. But for larger classes, this might be a good way to 1) recognize the value of revision, 2) make revision targeted and effective rather than a daunting and distracting process, and 3) encourage us as teachers to remember that writing lots of similar comments across a whole paper is as demoralizing to students as it is frustrating for us.

Monday, October 26, 2009

On teaching "contemporary" philosophy

ISW acolyte Kevin Timpe writes me with the following query about teaching a contemporary philosophy course:

I'm scheduled to teach a Contemporary Philosophy course for the first time in the spring. It is part of the history of philosophy sequence for our major. While none of the courses in the sequence are specifically required, students have to take at least 3 of the 4 courses in the series.

My question is this. I'm a typical analytic philosopher. I had a class on Levinas and one on Habermas in grad school, but I haven't taken studied or read Sartre, Heiddeger, Merleau-Ponty, etc., since my undergraduate days. While I know that I could read these folks' primary works, to teach them I'd largely be relying on secondary sources for my own understanding. I'm wondering what you collectively think of me focusing just on the analytic side of contemporary philosophy, rather than trying to do both? After all, there's no way I can do justice to all of the worthy figures anyway. And I think there is a benefit to be had by teaching both what one knows and what one is passionate about. That said, I also worry that I may be doing the students a disservice if I didn't also include continental figures. What do you think? And regardless of how you answered the above question, what texts would you suggest I cover in this course? Book orders are due in two weeks!
Wakers: Can you help Kevin out?

Saturday, October 24, 2009


This is a continuation of issues raised in the last two threads.

I give three critical papers as assignments throughout a semester. They are a major component of the final grade. These papers have a 1000 word maximum limit (no minimum). For the 1st paper, the assignment is to construct an argument using only two premises defending an assigned conclusion, for example, ‘professions should hold their members accountable for their actions’ or ‘the father should not have killed his child.’ As part of the assignment, after the argument is constructed the student is to take the premise that states what we should do and defend it using either a utilitarian of Kantian perspective. They are instructed not to defend the conclusion of their original argument, but only to present a reason why the normative premise might be true. In class we go over numerous examples of how to construct arguments and how to identify the normative premise. Of course, by the time they are asked to utilize a normative perspective these perspectives have been well-covered in class and through other non-graded writing assignments that they get credit/no credit depending on whether or not they do them. I offer to review their introductions/thesis statement and argument before they turn the paper in and to offer suggestions if there are problems so they can make corrections. I even put an example of how to set up the discussion with a sample introduction/thesis and sample argument on BB for them to refer to when writing their introduction/thesis and argument.

One would think that with all the preparation and guidance that the students would do very well on these papers, but historically the 1st papers are an utter disaster. This semester, of the 106 students who received grades, 43 of them received a D or F. There were only 8 A’s. The main reason for the failure is that they did not do what the assignment asked of them. Now this will change and the 2nd and 3rd papers will be vastly improved. But how do we account for this poor performance. (By the by, I had the same results when I gave exams instead of critical papers and handed out review question from which the exam was to be taken 1-2 weeks before the exam.) It is not that they are stupid because the vast majority of them who got D or F will end up getting C or B on the next paper.

I suggest that the reason why students perform so poorly is that they do not know how to learn! They do know how to take tests (that is what they have learned in middle and high school), but that requires a vastly different set of skills. They do not understand that learning is an on-going process and that one has to practice as part of learning. I am beginning to think that we do our students a disservice by giving them a syllabus that covers every contingency and by given them review questions before exams. I have had students ask me for review questions for all the exams including the final exam at the beginning of the semester. They want to know what they will be tested on so they can focus their studying. But is that learning? I think not, but I do not have the answer. I am perplexed and a bit frustrated, but I do keep searching for the best pedagogical approach.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Whatever you do, don't "study"!

I really loved Christopher Storm's response to learning how superficially his mathematics students "study" for exams:

Storm's situation:
All too frequently, a student will arrive at my office, often quite frustrated and worn down, and say they just don't understand the material on the midterm even though they've studied for countless hours. I usually ask how they have "studied" and receive a blank look followed by some comment about reading over notes again and again.

This is when I inwardly cringe, for the student has taken a completely passive role in preparing and has not done any mathematics, wasting valuable preparation time.

His new strategy? Get rid of "studying" in favor of students' planning to learn the material via a set of active learning techniques:

This semester, I decided to be proactive and see if I could fix the problem before my students had spent hours "studying" instead of doing math. Before the midterms in my Calculus II and Ordinary Differential Equations classes, I instituted the Storm Study Challenge.

The challenge is simple: you are not allowed to use the word "study" in the lead up to the exam. Instead, you must phrase your plans in an active, concrete way. Asked what you are planning to do that evening, you might respond "I am going to work ten chain rule problems from the review section of my textbook and then look over some more problems to be sure I can always identify how I should break the functions up." By providing active goals, I hoped that students would be able to structure their time effectively. In addition, with such clear goals, they could better judge where they were in terms of preparedness.

Great technique, if you ask me. And Storm reports some positive results:

The effect was great. I had students coming to my office with specific questions on specific topics. We spent our time much more effectively, and I felt that at last my students were taking control and doing the "right" things to master the content in my courses.

On the midterms, I offered a bonus point for an honest answer to whether a student had accepted the challenge or not. In both courses, over half of the students did accept it or made an effort at it (although some students said yes, but their further comments suggested that they had missed the point of active studying). Out of curiosity, I compared how students who had accepted the challenge measured up to those who had not: there was a ten percent gap in achievement in both classes.

While I cannot claim the Study Challenge really accounted for the difference, I suspect the Challenge provided motivated students with a better understanding of how to "study" for a math exam.
I must admit I rarely think about how students study in philosophy courses, but my own experience echoes Storm's. Students in my philosophy courses report "studying" a lot and not succeeding on exams, etc. But I'm curious to know what "studying" amounts to in their minds and whether this is a good use of their time. My suspicion is that many students approach studying philosophy in the way they might study history or a foreign language, by rote memorization. As a result, just as the typical Storm student "has not done any mathematics" to prepare, so too has my typical student (I'm speculating) "not done any philosophy" to prepare.

I don't give students a lot of counsel about how to study other than to de-emphasize memorization and just sit down and debate the issues and questions with other students. This is clearly closer to "doing" philosophy than memorizing claims, arguments, etc. And since what I evaluate my students on is not memorization (I nearly always allow students to use notes, texts, etc. to do their exams) but comprehension, analysis, reasoning, etc., this is a more prudent technique for them anyway.

But I'd be interested how we tell students to study philosophy and how they actually do it. To the students out there: How do you study philosophy, and what works? Instructors, what do you tell students who ask how to study the material? If you followed Storm's model, what would be your philosophy equivalents of Storm's "work ten chain problems" — the active learning they ought to practice in order to master the material?

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I stole my extension policy from one of my graduate school mentors. My policy is this: on any paper, at any time, the student may ask for and receive a week's extension, no excuses required. The only provisos I have are two: first, the student must ask at least three days in advance. Second, she forfeits her right to a timely return.

I like this policy because it puts the burden of time management on the student. If a student finds herself in the position of asking for an extension repeatedly, this is good evidence for both of us that she is having problems with time management. On the other hand, for the student who manages her time well, it allows her to ask for an extension in cases where it makes sense (e.g. she has two other papers due that day) without making her feel as though she is asking for special treatment or that she is implying that my class has less priority.

It also cuts down on having to hear excuses. Finally, the quality of the papers that are turned in late are rarely better than the ones that are turned in on time - i.e., if there is an advantage to taking the extension I can assure you that it is not one that shows up in the grading. Well, not exactly, I do receive fewer papers that have one page of substance and four pages of filler. So, for those who take the extension, their papers might be better than they otherwise might have been. But those papers are rarely if ever better than the papers represented in the batch turned in on the due date.

The disadvantage is that the student has less time to respond to comments than she would have had, had she turned the paper in when it was due.

Any thoughts? Is this policy fair? Wise? What extension policies do you use?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Unbelievable student answers

Have you ever thought you have heard/read/seen everything? Here's one that I did not expect from a student answering a question on an exam regarding the definition of eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia: an illness similar to diarrhea.

I do not even begin to know how to process this one!!!!

Share your example of unbelievable student answers - this might be fun.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making teaching a reward

Over at the The Philosophy Smoker, there's a bit of discussion (in the context of the job market, of course) about what makes for a desirable position in academic philosophy, especially with regard to teaching load. I agree with the sentiment, expressed several times over at TPS, that graduate school subtly encourages us to value research over teaching. We budding philosophers naturally absorb the values and priorities of those who teach us, and numerous exceptions aside, we were taught by faculty at Research 1 universities who naturally come to value research more than teaching. This isn't a surprise, really. R1 faculty don't teach as much as those at other institutions and don't get tenure or promotion on the basis of their teaching. Hence, as grad students, our conceptions of the professional lives that are desirable are likely to be those of our graduate instructors.

But here's the naked facts: The overwhelming majority of academic philosophers aren't at R1's teaching grad students. For them, teaching is what pays the bills and absorbs the majority of their time. And even those at R1's must teach. Given this, you can't expect to avoid teaching entirely. I therefore subscribe to the following hypothesis: You will not have a satisfying academic career unless you enjoy teaching, and you should not consider an academic career unless you can imagine yourself enjoying teaching.

Easier said than done of course: Most anyone who is even a smidgen serious about teaching knows it's hard work. Time consuming, yes, but also intellectually more challenging than one expects. And of course, it's complicated by the fact that whether or not you succeed at it is only half dependent on your own efforts. There's those pesky students after all. And I often wonder if the aforementioned bias in favor of research over teaching, acquired in grad school, is something that graduate schools need to counteract. In other words, not only do grad schools need to educate people to be good teachers, they also need to educate them to enjoy the tasks that will almost certainly dominate the remainder of their students' professional lives.

But all is not lost even if grad schools fail on this score. For you can learn how to enjoy teaching while on the job. Here are some things that have helped me, but I'd really like to hear from others what they do to make teaching a more rewarding experience.

How to enjoy teaching
Don't be afraid to cede some control. Sometimes we need to let our students have a more prominent role in our classrooms. Let them guide discussion, develop the exam questions, or critique each others' work
Share your research. We talked about this recently, but I think sharing your research humanizes you in the eyes of your students and creates a more authentic and engaged environment for discussion.
Vary your preparations. I've learned a lot of philosophy that I wouldn't have learned otherwise because I've had to teach outside the usual intro's and courses in my specialization. This is a way to ensure that teaching helps you learn.
Find a teaching community. Find some people to talk about teaching with. Or, you know, go looking for a blog or something.
Realize you're a freak. One of the most important things I've learned about teaching is that those of us who are attracted to university-level teaching are freaks. Usually, we were very skilled as students and could probably have learned effectively from most any instructor. But most of our students find the material we teach challenging, even off putting. They need effective teaching. I try to remind myself of this so as to sustain my empathy for students and their learning situation.
Once in a while, start from scratch. It can be highly gratifying to see a course all the way from its origins in a course proposal, through the syllabus, to the end of the first time you teach it.
Watch someone else teach. Everyone in higher ed teaches, yet for the most part, we rarely see anyone else do it.

So Wakers: How do you make teaching more rewarding for yourself?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"No grades, no tests, no papers."

I get word that the revolution to end grading continues. A pair of faculty members at the University of Tulsa are running a grade-free course in political philosophy. (OK, OK, I'm fudging. It's a reading group rather than a for-credit course, but still... And how do you get external funding
for a reading group?)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sandel's online Justice course

I just came across this website (via Everyday Philosophy at the Purple Bike Café) that is gradually releasing videos from what appears to be a comprehensive introductory ethics course by Michael Sandel at Harvard. I've read Sandel, but I had no idea he was such a gifted lecturer.

The aesthetic is a little weird -- the production qualities suggest daytime talk show meets Sunday preaching meets professional comedy. But the intellectual content is excellent and it's great to see a high profile philosophy professor grappling with highly motivated undergrads and using the discussion to help teach a course -- and a very large course at that. Lots of great ideas for how to teach certain issues. It's also a little eerie to get a peek inside someone else's intro classroom and see how he interacts with his students. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When the superstars shine too bright

Lazy, unprepared, intellectually overmatched and/or irresponsible students can disrupt the dynamic in the classroom. But Rob Weir reminds us that the hardworking, well prepared, capable students pose their own threat to the classroom dynamic. Here's how Rob handles this:

Your very brightest students can harm the group dynamic, usually without meaning to do so. Some kids just “get it” miles in advance of their peers. They make connections that are so astonishing in their depth and complexity that their classmates flinch from admiration and intimidation. Try calling on these students selectively and seek to recruit them as discussion aides. I generally take such students aside and ask them to play a particular role in discussion. (It’s amazing how many don’t realize how bright they are!) I generally solicit their input after discussion has unfurled a bit so it appears more as a collective thought than an individual one. In some cases I’ll even ask them if they will ask redirect questions of a peer response such as “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” I’ve had some success stories from this, including students who decided they wanted to become teachers. Caution: Students have the right to decline the aide role. If they do, you will simply need to limit how often you call on them.
I think we can all recognize that a very competent student can dominate a class negatively without even trying. I certainly agree with calling on such students "selectively." But I'm not so fond of Weir's suggestion that you enlist your superstars as "discussion aides." Part of intellectual maturity is to recognize when you need to stand back and let others have a larger role in the learning environment. Being put in a position of semi-authority reinforces the superstar student's sense of her 'specialness.' I'm wondering if there are better solutions here. Any ideas Wakers? Are there ways of turning the superstars from attention hogs into resources for other students without seeming to make the superstar into a co-teacher?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

So for next time, read this fascinating article by Dr. Me!

ISW reader Gwen Bradford wrote me about something that was discussed, albeit indirectly, in the third ever post at ISW, (now over two years ago, if you can believe it!). Here's Gwen:

I'm a graduate student, and I'm teaching an undergraduate seminar on a particular issue in value theory - the value of achievements, to be specific. There isn't a great deal of literature that deals directly with the issues. In fact, this is precisely why it's the subject of my dissertation! I wasn't planning on assigning anything of my own for the class to read and discuss, but the directions that our discussions have been taking suggest that it would be interesting and useful for the students to read.

Here's the issue. I would really prefer it if the student didn't know that I am the author. I would like them to feel totally uninhibited and free to criticize my arguments, and I think they will definitely be hampered in their critical engagement if they know they're reading something of mine. The paper that I want to assign (a chapter of my dissertation), isn't yet published anywhere. Would it be wrong if I assign the reading, but under a pseudonym?
I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts about this, but here a few ideas to get things started: Gwen's clearly worried that students will be less critically engaged with her own work than they would with the work of others — hence, her suggestion of assigning it under a pseudonym. A small wrinkle is that pseudonymity probably wouldn't work for published work. But putting that aside, on the few occasions when I've assigned my own research, I didn't use a pseudonym because, in my estimation, students are more likely to mirror you, i.e., the engagement you manifest in your own research will engage them. I wrote this in the comments to the post I mention earlier:

An analogy: I often think of teaching as being a tour guide in an exotic city. I help the students navigate the intellectual terrain, pointing out the landmarks, explaining why they're landmarks, etc. This has the advantage (if you're a good guide) that students get a fair and reasonably thorough picture of the city. On the other hand, it conceals the fact that as a researcher, you're contributing to this growing city and that you care enough about the city to want to contribute to it. So what effects would students knowing the latter have on their conception of the instructor? Will they mirror the instructor by becoming less dispassionate and more engaged (since your research indicates you care, they might care more also) -- or are those gains offset by students' perceiving the instructor as less objective, as an interested party with an agenda?

Over time, I've begun to think that whatever the downside, it's outweighed by showing students that you're not just teaching material for the sake of teaching it — that you (and they!) are parties to a conversation, not just observers of it. But Gwen's concerns still strike me as entirely legitimate.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Whoa there, Perry Mason?

Philosophers Anonymous had a lively discussion recently about whether we should encourage philosophy students to continue on to grad school. I think about that issue from time to time, but the number of students I teach who are both interested in, and qualified, for philosophy grad school is too small, in my estimation, for me to lose much sleep over the matter.

Law school? Another story altogether. Seemingly every one of the majors I teach at least casts a sideways glance at law school. I'm certain that students who consider grad school in the academic fields labor under many illusions about what they're getting into, illusions that I think it is my obligation to dispel. But I've also begun to think that students have many equally powerful misconceptions about law school and the legal profession. This post at Crooked Timber, with many comments by lawyers, highlights many of these misconceptions.

The author, Harry Brighouse, quotes approvingly from Derek Bok's book, Our Underachieving Colleges. Bok argues that colleges don't help students understand the day-to-day realities of life in various professions, with the consequence "that students are rather ignorant of what different careers involve, what they are likely to do within them, how those careers contribute to the society, and what contribution they would make to their own wellbeing." In reference to the law in particular, Bok sayeth:

For students who begin their legal training hoping to fight for social justice, law school can be a sobering experience. While there, they learn a number of hard truths. Jobs fighting for the environment or civil liberties are very scarce. Defending the poor and powerless turns out to pay remarkably little and often to consist of work that many regard as repetitive and dull. As public interest jobs seem less promising (and law school debts continue to mount), most of these idealistic students end by persuading themselves that a large corporate law firm is the best course to pursue, even though many of them fund the specialties practiced in these firms, such as corporate law, tax law, and real estate law, both uninteresting and unchallenging…..

Almost half of the young lawyers leave their firm within three years. Many complain of having too little time with their families, and feeling tired and under pressure on most days of the week. Many more are weary of constantly having to compete for advancement with other bright young lawyers or troubled by what they regard as the lack of redeeming social value in their work. Within the profession as a whole, levels of stress, alcoholism, divorce, suicide and drug abuse are all substantially above the national average.

I'm not a lawyer and don't have close connections with the legal community, but Bok's remarks resonate with me. Defending others' legal interests is a noble calling and one that puts to use many of the skills students learn from studying philosophy. But most lawyers end up as the janitors of human affairs, cleaning up other people's ugly problems, rather than as crusaders for social justice. And oftentimes, it's damn hard work to boot.

How do all of you advise prospective law students? Do students enter law school with their eyes wide open? I try to provide students a balanced picture of law school and of life as a lawyer, but I fear that it rarely sinks in. For that reason alone, I think I'll be directing students who ask about law school to the CT post. It provides a more credible, on-the-ground picture of life in the legal profession than I can provide.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sayonara to office hours?

I was surprised by this discussion of office hours over at Reassigned Time. Like I suspect is the case for most of you, I'm required to hold office hours in proportion to the number of classes I'm teaching (about four hours per week usually). I'm also supposed to hold them on at least two different days, etc. But I don't get a lot of visitors during those hours. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that my students (like me) don't want to be at the university nights and weekends and have other courses or responsibilities that conflict with daytime office hours. (I've also tried bribing them with cookies, provocative philosophical discussion, liquor, etc., to no avail!) But the discussion at RT suggests that in this e-age, scheduled face-to-faces with students may be superfluous. I always add "and by appointment" to my line about office hours on my syllabus, and some students do arrange for appointments to discuss specific concerns. But more often, I feel like the Maytag repairman, waiting forlorn for someone to patronize my philosophy shop.

So: How do you all feel about office hours? Useful, essential, indispensable -- or an inconvenient relic? Does anyone out there do anything unusual with office hours? Shall we write the obituary on office hours?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Turning plagiarism into a teachable moment

Our reader Matt Pianalto writes me about a recent case of plagiarism and a response he's considering. Matt wonders: Is this too soft a response to plagiarism?

So, a week into my semester I’ve had a case of admitted plagiarism on a one page (!) assignment. In the past at other schools, I’ve been completely zero-tolerance, and have automatically failed people for just this. I know some people talk about “teachable moments,” and for some incomprehensible reason I am feeling slightly less heartless in this case. As I pointed out to the student, the stupidity of his act goes beyond what he did but also concerns WHAT assignment he plagiarized. The students were asked to figure out what Socrates could mean by saying that a good person can’t be harmed. Of course, the implicit view informing Socrates’ statement is that the sort of harm he sees as truly bad is harm to the “soul,” and that the only person who can harm one’s soul is oneself, by doing wrong. (Say, by knowingly plagiarizing your philosophy homework…)

So instead of kicking this student out of class, with an F, I’m thinking about requiring this student to read some related parts of the Republic (Books I, II, and IX), and to relate all of this, as well as the in-class reading (the Apology and the Crito), to his case, in the form of a substantive paper (much more work than the original assignment, and for no credit. But if the assignment isn’t done to my satisfaction, the student fails). My topic idea is something like, why is Socrates right that it’s better to be caught doing wrong than to get away with it? This is somewhat pedantic, but could be eye-opening for the student. The student will also be required to prove that at least one visit was paid to the Writing Center. It’s also a pain in my butt, but a more interesting pain than all the paperwork I’ve already had to complete. I guess I’m a little worried, however, that I’ve “gone soft” by even thinking of giving the student this opportunity. My policy simply says that my “default” sanction for academic dishonesty is an F for the course, so I’m operating within the realm of stated possibilities in my syllabus. Maybe I should only do this if I’m willing to do it every time (even if the violation doesn’t involve readings of Plato). Is it worth it?

What say you ISW readers?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

When Conflicts Arise in Teaching


A student of mine (a philosophy major) recently graduated and took a job teaching English for a year in South Korea. He is keeping a blog about his personal and pedagogical experiences and trying his best to analyze and understand them from a cross-cultural perspective (his main interests as a student lie in Asian philosophy). He put a post up today on his blog that I'm sure will be of interest to folks here. With his permission, I'm reproducing his post -- and the dilemma he poses for educators who are schooled in ethical theory -- below.

I have always held a particular fondness for the theoretical side of ethics: sitting in my ivory tower of philosophy and thinking about train-switches and bizzaro-Hitlers in parallel-worlds.

This week I found myself in a very obvious real-life moral dilemma, and although I firmly believe our moral selves don't just "swing in" at the point when when we need them to (morality as a way of life, not something that just happens here and there, occasionally), I did see a clear-cut difference between the situation at hand than the situations I find myself in everyday.

This is an interesting topic for all teachers and ivory-tower theorists-- the situation I found myself in really calls into question several different aspects: child abuse, suicide rates, cultural norms, personal duty and relational identity. Interested?

First, let me explain the situation itself. Before heading to class to teach on Friday, I ran into one of my students waiting for the elevator. I asked him how he was, to which he replied "Not good. I am afraid of the speaking test." As you can probably infer, I was to administer a test in order to determine the students' progress on their English speaking ability. I told him not to worry, the test was short and quite simple, and that I would see him in an hour.

As I entered the class an hour later I saw the student again. The student was clearly uncomfortable, sweating profusely and looking quite anxious. This concerned me, as this particular student is usually one that I get along with quite easily, and that I consider to be one of my brighter students. This student has never had a problem approaching me for any reason. Today was different though. Again, the student said he was afraid of the test. I reassured him, and began taking students out to the hall one-by-one in order to ask them a few simple questions and give them grades. The grades would later be entered into our website, where parents can easily check students' progress.

The student in question did very well on the test, and I told him so again, reassuring him as best I could. Within a few moments after the test, he regained his composure and looked much more relaxed. This is when he said "If I don't do well on the speaking test, my mother hits me." I didn't really know what to make of this comment, what truth was behind such a statement, and what exactly to do. I told him again he did very well on the test, and told him not to worry, his mother would be proud of him. These were all completely true statements.

My question is this: in the future, how will I balance my duty as a teacher to reflect the student's proficiency accurately in grades, knowing that this student may face abuse at home if I grade to harshly?

Conflict of interest, you can be sure.

Now for some background information: Students in South Korea face extremely stressful lives. They are in school or academy (private school) year round, and are tested every step of the way. Tests determine eligibility for middle school, high school, university and job-placement. The only way to assure a decent income later in life is to study and test well. Students are pressured to succeed by their teachers, their peers and their families.

Furthermore, South Korea boasts one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The youth are well aware of this problem. I've had more than a couple of my students mention the stress and suicide rates in their weekly writings.

Culturally (based on what I've seen in public, so far), the standard Confucian parent-child relationship is in play and bound to a fair degree of physical discipline--hitting, spanking, and so forth. Of course, this is completely circumstantial, and I have no idea what my student experiences when he gets home. This is almost a separate topic altogether.

The fact of the matter is that my situation is a false dilemma. I have no choice at all-I have to pad grades. As an English "teacher," I'm more of an English "presence" than anything else. Yes, I go through lessons, and the kids do learn. In the grand scheme of things, however, the grades I give mean nothing.

So, for you ivory tower theorists, lets alter this thought experiment a bit. What would you do if you had a choice? Is padding the grades to save the student's skin a wise decision? Or should you hold up your duty as a teacher and honestly reflect the skills of those you are testing? That is, do you worry about the circumstances at home when factoring grades?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Offensive and Defensive Argumentation

Patrick Appel (and others) here seems to make an amazing discovery: yes, the philosophical method actually makes sense and is worth using! Instead of changing positions in argument only when your opponent has defeated elements of your own position, you should actively seek out to create better arguments for your opponent, utilizing a strong principle of charity, and in the process learn things that lead you to alter your own position. Of course, many students would not agree.

When I teach the method in this way, I always have students who question it. They look at me, almost stunned, and want to know why in the world a person should create a better argument for their opponent. Isn’t that the opponent’s job? This way of viewing arguments is, as Appel and others note, entirely defensive.

However, there's more to it. The defensive strategy views the argument, and the thinking behind it, as complete. As a result, there’s nothing more for the holder of the argument to learn. All that remains is the job of occasional defense and the need to adjust the argument when one’s opponent is successful. The contrary method (call it the offensive strategy) sees one’s position as essentially incomplete and so constantly under development. As a result, it doesn’t adjust only in defense. It adjusts as it seeks out its opposition and creates better arguments for the opposition position.

Perhaps for some (students and others) committed to the defensive strategy, all that exists is rhetoric, dogma and arrogance. Argument is a zero-sum game of winners and losers competing for finite goods. With the offensive strategy, participants are motivated by truth, greater understanding and humility. Argument is not zero-sum, and the goods of the practice are available to both sides in the exchange.

I'm wondering what reactions people here at ISW have about this. Do you teach the offensive strategy yourself? How do you teach it? How do you frame the worth of this approach? Do you find from time to time that you, against your better instincts, reward defensive strategy thinking in students (I know I do)? What do your students say to the offensive strategy? How do they view the function of good argumentation?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Getting on board with grading rubrics

An article in the NEA Advocate offers advice on how to create grading rubrics. The article also links to this site, which has a number of nice examples and templates for rubrics. I've become a big proponent of rubrics for student papers over the years. They save my time and communicate to students how they performed in a quick-and-dirty way. Some of the tips from the Advocate article I particularly liked:

  • Think in terms of a task description, the levels of performance, the dimensions (criteria), and the description of the dimensions.That's what a good rubric should do: explain the expectations, the degree to which they were fulfilled, and justify the evaluation.
  • Put a description of the assignment itself on the grading rubric. Simple, and helps reminds students of what they were supposed to accomplish with a particular paper assignment.
  • Involve students in the creation of a rubric. Why not? A little time consuming perhaps, but it's likely that when students work with you and their classmates to develop the grading rubric, they will feel more like they "discovered" the expectations and criteria than that they were imposed on them. An appreciation of those expectations and criteria is likely to 'stick' better when students have crafted them.

A few other tips of my own:
  • Refine rubrics over time by analyzing problem papers, i.e., those that, in your judgment, are better or worse than would be suggested by a particular rubric. I've definitely found that my rubrics have improved over time to better reflect what I actually expect and desire from student papers. Many of the changes I've implemented have come when I found a paper that, with respect to a given rubric at least, falls through the cracks: The paper is somehow better or worse than would be captured by my rubric. Sometimes I've photocopied those papers and made a note to myself to take a look at them when I later revise a rubric.
  • Simple rubrics for simple assignments, complex rubrics for complex assignments. I tend to use simple rubrics for writing assignments in my lower division courses, rubrics with a few general categories and descriptions, and more detailed, analytically penetrating, rubrics and descriptions in my upper division courses for majors. My lower division courses are bigger, so a simple rubric saves me time, and students in those lower division courses often seem overwhelmed by a complex or detailed rubric. Upper division students seem to prefer the more exacting feedback on the other hand.
  • Don't just use a rubric. Yes, students like the snapshot of their performance that a rubric provides, but this does not obviate the value of a few handwritten sentences or remarks at the bottom of the page to indicate that, yes, a real person read their work.

Anyone have good thoughts about how to construct and use grading rubrics?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Teaching Experimental Philosophy (Presentation Call)

I received an email from Jonathan Philips wondering if we could post a call for presentations on the subject of teaching Experimental Philosophy (for the Pacific APA). If you are interested, see below the fold.

The APA Committee on the Teaching of Philosophy invites abstracts for a special session on teaching with experimental philosophy to be held at the 84th meeting of the Pacific Division of the APA in San Francisco, CA. The three-hour session will include four presentations, each 30 minutes in length. Presentations in all areas of experimental (and empirical) philosophy are welcome, and interactive presentations (as opposed to read papers) are particularly encouraged. Topics might include: teaching thought experiments with “clickers;” introduction to philosophy through experimental philosophy; case studies on the teaching of particular experimental philosophy articles; the tradeoff between philosophical and scientific depth when creating syllabi, for example, in the philosophy of mind; and resistance to the incorporation of experimental philosophy into the curriculum; among other topics. Presenters must be APA members by the meeting date.

Jonathan sent me a PDF to go along with the post, but I can't figure out how to get it up on Blogger (Go Wordpress!). In any case, if you are interested, I'm sure Jonathan would be glad to email it to you. His email address is phillipsjonathans@gmail.com

When (Chinese) Parents Cheat

I posted this up at my own blog, but I figured it might fit well here too. My wife and I have two undergraduate Tsinghua students from China staying with us for the weekend until they start school for the year at my college (Drury). Last night we got into an interesting discussion about the Chinese gaokao. For those of you who don’t know what that is: the gaokao is the national college entrance examination in China. Unlike the SAT here in the US, the gaokao almost single handedly decides (a) whether you go to college and (b) where you can go to college. So the pressure to do well on the gaokao is intense. Last night we talked about a fraud case involving the gaokao that apparently became a hot topic among mainland Chinese students.

Here’s the story (I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the details, here, of course): last year a student took the gaokao and was scored as the top student in China. However, this scoring involved the fact that the student received an extra 10 points on the exam because he was a minority (there’s affirmative action component in total gaokao scoring). Interestingly enough, it’s not the affirmative action angle that is so controversial – this part is more or less accepted as non-problematic (I remember actually discussing this aspect of the gaokao with my students while teaching in China, and only a tiny few thought that minorities shouldn’t be given extra points in this way).

Instead, the real problem was elsewhere. Apparently it turned out that this student was not really a minority. His parents lied, and had been lying about the child’s ethic background for years (possibly with the inevitable gaokao advantage in mind). The child, mind you, did not know what his parents did -- he was in the dark about his own ethnicity. The Chinese officials found out, and took away his 10 points.

Fair enough. Nothing controversial there. Here’s the kicker, though: although the student’s score – even after the 10 points were taken away – was high enough for the student to be scored as one of the of the top students in China (and so could still easily attend any top school such as Tsinghua, Beijing University, or Fudan), no top school would enroll him. They refused to let him in. This is what got the Chinese students riled up. The issue: how far does responsibility and punishment extend? My guests thought that it was horribly unfair to punish the child for what were the sins of his parents. After all, he didn’t even know. However, on the other hand, the argument was made that if the colleges had accepted him there would have been no little reason for other parents not to try and repeat the fraud If the only consequence of being caught for cheating in this way was that you might have the extra points deducted (and a little shame), the risk/reward ratio for parental cheating would be tilted heavily in the direction of fraud.

At bottom, the thinking of the colleges is clear: to maintain the authenticity of the gaokao, and the integrity of the system as a whole, they felt that they should punish this student so severely in the hopes that other parents would not even think of committing this fraud. Whether the child knows or doesn't know about it would constitute no defense.

There are a lot of interesting dimensions here. The immediate question is whether the colleges were right to refuse the student admission. Another question might be whether there are cross-cutltural aspects to this issue: what would American universities do in such a case? What should they do?

Any thoughts?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Taking Course Goal Seriously

How do we articulate course goals in an age of knowledge and information? Does it sacrifice the notion that we ought to trust the power of the texts themselves and our expertise at helping students navigate such texts? Do we do a disservice to students by emphasizing the very targets of assessment mechanisms - knowledge learned - at the cost of a more loose and cryptic notion of what "students should come away with."

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T.S. Eliot asked in his 1934 poem The Rock: Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” I find myself admonishing myself with these words as I craft my syllabi. I should note that I am coming off a year sabbatical, which makes the problem I describe here only more acute.

When I was on the job market I was given sage advice about how to answer a certain interview question: how would you teach course X? I was told: don’t hand them a syllabus, don’t spout a bibliography – talk about what you want students who take the course to come away with.

I took the interview advice and I also took the advice as it was probably intended: if you get the job, think this way about your courses as well. I followed it. But eight years later, I find myself having more difficulty taking that advice. In crafting my syllabi I seem more interested in what the students should know – what information they should have – than in what they should, cryptically, take away from the course.

As the bloggers here know, I have an uneasy relationship with assessment. In a trivial sense, it is absolutely necessary and helpful. But for many of us earnest and honest teachers, it also makes us uneasy – not because we do not want to be assessed, but because it tends to ask the very questions that are making me uneasy about the way I have found myself thinking of my courses lately: should courses be judged on what information and knowledge they impart?

I’ve been prepping a course in Modern: 17th and 18th Century philosophy. In trying to cover as much as possible and in trying to make sure that students understand the scientific and historical contexts I find myself crafting a syllabus that maximizes information at the cost of trusting the texts and trusting myself.

This post doesn’t pose a question so much as a challenge to myself and others during this pre-term time: how do we, in the age of assessment, take course goals seriously by asking what it is that we want students to (cryptically) come away with? For my part, it is not information or knowledge, but understanding. And such understanding might come at the price of information and knowledge.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Revising versus correcting

One of my perennial frustrations in trying to help students develop as writers is their persistent resistance to substantively revising their work. Some of this is due to sheer stubbornness. For many students, the task of writing is sufficiently daunting that a readable draft is such a big accomplishment that they don't want to touch it. (Besides, it looks so pretty printed on those crisp white pages!) In other cases, poor time management is the issue, as students just don't plan ahead and so leave themselves only a tiny window of time to revise their work.

But as with many other challenges related to teaching writing, much of the problem arises from students' unfamiliarity with the stages of the writing process, in this case, not knowing what it means to substantively revise. Tom Deans offers an interesting diagnosis of how we instructors can inadvertently contribute to this problem by tacitly collaborating with students so that the process of revision turns out to be a process of correction:

Conflating revision with correction is quite natural: Students submit (usually flawed) drafts; faculty prescribe how to fix them; and students fix the flaws. Such a process, as anyone who has worked with a skilled editor knows, may not always be fun but it leads to a better final product.

The problem is that the ultimate aims of editing and teaching are different: editors want better writing; teachers may want that too, but they ultimately want better writers.

Certainly students can learn a great deal by following the lead of a good editor, but when teachers slip into editor mode, students in turn focus on delivering what the teacher/editor wants more than on either learning or inquiry. Consider the extreme version (but I've seen it happen): a student submits a draft electronically; a dedicated teacher makes extensive, time-consuming edits in Track Changes; and the student scans the first few edits and then hits the "Accept All" button. Revision done.

Deans points out that when we get into the "I'll tell you what's wrong and you fix it" mode, students turn in better writing but they don't become better writers. Ultimately, they don't learn how to critically engage their own work and become dependent on other people for their editorial judgment and their own writing voice.

Deans reminds us that we can avoid the "I'll tell you what's wrong and you fix it" mode by ensuring that the feedback we give "challenges writers with options and sparks further conversation." All well and good, I say, but there's a nearly genetic resistance to serious revision among my students. And it's especially frustrating when students won't revise in simple ways that nevertheless lead to dramatic improvements in argumentative cogency.

A common example: I receive a lot of student papers that I call "rabbit from the hat" papers. These are papers in which it's clear that the student is knowledgeable about the topic, but because the student hadn't settled on a thesis beforehand, wrote the paper as a report of their own thinking about the topic. As a result, the thesis emerges at the end of the paper, but is basically buried in the last few sentences. It is possible to write a successful philosophy paper this way, but it takes enormous rhetorical skill to keep the reader interested until the end. The more common result is that the reader loses patience trying to figure out what the paper's arguments are leading up to. The discouraging part is that this is an extraordinarily easy problem to correct: Put the rabbit up front by stating the thesis in the first 100 words or so of the paper, so that the subsequent argumentation is oriented around the thesis. Yet many students won't do this even after I explicitly suggest it to them!

In any event, I'd be curious to know what experiences others have with students' revising (or not revising) their work and what they've found to be effective in instilling in them the habit of revising — and not just correcting.