Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gatekeeping Graduate School

Over at Pea Soup there is a lively discussion about advising students applying to graduate programs in philosophy:

The idea being floated is that there is an implicitly conservative tendency in the way that many of us approach such advising. We spend a lot of time talking about what graduate school is like and what the profession is like, and perhaps we also give advice about the most beneficial behavioral strategies for succeeding. In doing so we implicitly endorse the current culture and practices of the profession - the bad along with the good. What sorts of experiences have you had in advising undergraduate regarding graduate study? Do you ever discourage students from applying? Do you go beyond giving advice? That is, do you help them put together a package and prepare them for the professionalized atmosphere of graduate school?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Course: Students as People

In this chapter Lang addresses key issues surrounding how we should, as teachers, relate to our students as people. He wants us to remember that students have lives outside our classrooms and that these lives may have a negative, as well as positive, impact on their academic performance. He gives as one example how one of his student's work deteriorated over the course of the semester. In talking with her about her performance she made it known that her mother was dying. Another example was of a student who was in an abusive relationship with her significant other. Many of us have had similar experiences that have helped to shape how we understand and interact with our students. Some of us may even have had similar experiences as our students. Lang's point is that there are factors other then ability and desire that impact student performance and that remembering this fact is crucial to us if we are to be successful as teachers. The key is to be able to maintain our academic criteria and standards as well as try to reasonably accommodate student's legitimate needs.

Relative to recognizing our students as compete people, he discusses a number of key issues:1) Stick compassionately to our standards2) Listen, but don’t counsel3) Know your campus4) Protect yourself5) Age6) Gender7) Attendance status8) Race/ethnicity. We have discussed many of these points before, so I will not dwell on all of them. I would like to make a few comments on 2 and 4.

As I have mentioned before, there are only two reasons why people fail; they either cannot or will not do the work. Both of these issues need to be addressed by us as they arise in so far as they impact the student’s performance. Simply refusing to do the work requires only that we make it clear to the student what the consequences will be of continuing to operate in this frame of mind. A student who cannot do their work needs our counseling regarding what can be done to make the necessary adjustments so that performance can improve. We should only counsel relative to improving their performance in our class, not on what they should do relative to the problem they are facing in their lives resulting in poor performance. Relative to this, we should direct them to the proper persons that can offer that type of assistance. We can be empathic to what the student is going through, but we should not let our empathy detract us from what we are requiring of our students to be successful inour course. Part of our job is to keep ‘their feet to the fire,’ so to speak. We may offer an extension, but we should never allow them to not do what is assigned.

Regarding ‘protecting ourselves’ it is crucial that we not be perceived as 1) playing favorites, or 2) creating a hostile environment within which we expect learning totake place. Regarding the 1st point we need to keep a professional attitude towards our students. We need to remember that relationships, even professional ones, are reciprocal in nature. We need to treat our students respectfully if we expect to be treated respectfully. We need to treat our students fairly and equally unless we have an overriding reason to treat someone outside the norm. e.g., an illness/death in the family, or outside workcommitments that the student cannot avoid. But, the reason must be defensible and if we are making adjustments for one, these adjustments must be available to other students if they find themselves in similar circumstances. Regarding the 2nd point we need to be aware of how our behavior is interpreted by our students. This is particularly true with the ever-increasing cultural and demographic diversity being seen on college campuses as well as the general community. In light of the changing demographics within our institutions we need to be aware that what we find unobjectionable, may be objectionable to others. The extent to which a student may find our behavior unacceptable could result in our creating an environment where that student’s performance is less then had we been aware of the impact our behavior was having on his or her performance and making the necessary corrections. This can be rather tricky. I suggest that you watch for reactions to what you are doing and note negative type responses. If negative responses continue then change your behavior. At times you may have to make an apology to either a particular person, or the entire class, if you overstep some boundary, unintentionally or otherwise. I do speak from experience on this matter. I also encourage an open door and open dialogical approach to teacher/student interaction. This approach makes it clear to students that they can come to you and discuss any issue that is class related without fear of retaliation. I encourage students to address a problem as it arise and not to wait and let it fester. Being open can disarm potentially disruptive situations and maintain a good professional student/teacher relationship.

I know that this will sound old fashioned, but simply follow the ‘Golden Rule’ in our interactions with our students. Keeping this in mind will help us remember that we are not one-dimensional and that all of us are leading full and complex lives

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An exericse in gender and family justice

Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber outlines a most ingenious exercise designed to help students appreciate the relevance of family life and the division of labor for questions about justice between the genders. I'd be curious to know if anyone out there has done something similar and what your experiences were.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Lang -- Students as Learners, Part II

I’d like to take a minute start a discussion on the second part of Lang’s chapter on “Student Learning”. In the second part, Lang discusses Perry’s model of intellectual development in college. He has a lot to say that’s pretty interesting – especially for those of you who teach ethics. Check below the fold for more.

Perry’s claim is that students in college tend to talk through a developmental model as they progress from freshmen to seniors. This developmental model has two major points. First, Perry thinks that as students progress through college, they come to have different beliefs about the status of the truths of the subject matters they are encountering (its metaphysics, say). Moreover, they come to have different beliefs about the accessibility of those truths (its epistemology, say). As they progress through these stages, their way of understanding how their education should and should not be structured changes accordingly.

Here are Perry’s three stages:

Stage One: Dualism (the Education Fundamentalist)

When students start college, Perry suggests, they are dualists. They believe in absolute truth, and they think that their professors possess those truths. As a result, they want the professor to just “pass it along” in an uncomplicated lecture-oriented format. Because the transmission of facts should be uncomplicated and factory-like, students in this stage dislike discussion or small group work. After all, what’s the point? It’s not like the other students have the knowledge, so these pedagogical methods are really just wastes of time. Interestingly, Lang also suggests that students who have a difficult time moving out of this stage may, in fact, turn out to be dropouts, perhaps because thinking of knowledge and truth in a different way requires too much accommodation and revision.

Stage Two: Relativism (the Education Chameleon)

At the second stage, students have overcome Dualism. But here they start to challenge all education. As far as they can tell, if there are no right answers, then they are all the same. As a result, students start to see education as really just a game (and mostly bull). It’s just a bunch of paper pushing, a shell game that they need to figure out. As a result, they become uninteresting in knowledge, and more interested in figuring out “what the teacher wants”. The teacher has the goodies (the grades), and so they need to figure out how the teacher plays the game so they can get them.

Stage Three: Commitments (the Educational Existentialist)

I don’t think Perry uses “existential” but I will because it sounds similar to me. Here, the student learns to transcend the relativism stage and make a commitment to being an embodied learner. The student accepts that part of what education is requires their own appropriation of what they are encountering. The teacher is now not seen as a game player or a sage on the stage but instead an experienced facilitator whose job it is to introduce students to previous “commitments” and then create an environment where new facts and commitments can be formed.

There are lots of places to go with this thread, so I’ll leave it open. However,

I’ll briefly note a few things:

1. The move here from one to the next does remind me of Nietzsche. In the dualism stage, the student thinks that God is truth. In the second, God is dead, but with God’s death truth dies too. As a consequence, we might see this not as a movement away from dualism, but rather a move into a kind of lamenting dualism. The student is mourning the death of Dualism, suggesting that if there are no absolute truths, there are no truths at all. In stage three, the student finally learns to overcome dualism entirely (as far as I see it). The student learns to see truth in a new way (different from stage one and two).

2. In my own ethics course, oddly, I don’t move through these stages as Perry has them. Instead, I start with the assumption that my students are relativists, and try to get them to move past it to a form of Dualism, to a recommitment to truth. Then at the end, I use Nietzsche (specifically) to challenge their newly-formed dualism and leave them with the convictions to ethics and to living a good life, but with no preference for relativism and a new-found dislike for dualism. My hope is that this creates the ground for “commitment”. But I’m not sure if it actually happens. I’d be curious to know how other people structure their own ethics courses.

Any thoughts in general?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

If solitude dies, does philosophy go with it?

The always provocative William Deresiewicz observes that today's college students, thanks to the omnipresence of technologies that connect them to one another and to the larger world, have "lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude." If true, does this have consequences for those of us attempting to teach philosophy?

We've discussed the challenges of group work often here at ISW, with many emphasizing that the heavily socially networked students of today often gravitate toward collaborative learning. But does philosophical understanding also require an ability to work in solitude — to be alone with one's own thoughts? One worry is that the technologically-induced absence of solitude makes introspection and true engagement with texts impossible. Deresiewicz:

And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness." Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity. This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude. But we no longer believe in the solitary mind.

Deresiewicz wonders if the modern university has too readily fostered this aversion to solitude, to the detriment of the students they claim to serve:

To hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one's way beyond it. Today, of course, universities do everything they can to keep their students from being alone, lest they perpetrate self-destructive acts, and also, perhaps, unfashionable thoughts. But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. "The saint and poet seek privacy," Emerson said, "to ends the most public and universal."
So: Have students lost their ability to live in their own minds? And, conceding that the epistemology of philosophy is largely discursive and social, to what extent is that ability needed to get the full value of the philosophical classroom experience? My particular concern is that one of the goals of philosophical education (and liberal education, more generally) is to help students develop self-understanding and an authentic intellectual stance. Might the presence of so much technology and connectivity put these goals out of reach?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

An intriguing laptop policy

Andrew Cullison, occasional commenter here at ISW, recently unveiled a new laptop policy. This is a topic we've touched on before here, and Andrew reports that the policy is working well to this point. The key idea: student are required to upload their notes to a common location when they bring their laptops to class. I'd be interested in trying this out. (Also: check out some of the comments on Andrew's post, several of which endorse "canonical class notes," an extension of Andrew's idea.)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On Course: Session 8-Students as Learners, Pt I

Hey everyone! Sorry for my being “out to lunch” pretty much all last semester. It was a hectic one – a new baby, planning for our semester in China (starting next week) and trying to get my own research and blog (insert shameless plug here - on course (pun intended) had me with my hands full.

That said, let’s move on to the next chapter of Lang, on “Students as Learners”.

Lang’s chapter is, as far as I can see, pretty straightforward and uncomplicated (particularly if you have ever taken a Philosophy of Education class). That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to think about in there, because there certainly is. What I’ll try to do here is walk through the chapter (at least the first half) and raise questions, especially at the end.

Lang starts with the uncontroversial (at least to me) suggestion that people learn in different ways. Some of those ways are broadly developmental and likely linked to innate structures (he cites Piaget) and some are more specifically tied to the (non-innate) developmental stages that emerge in college learning (citing Perry’s work). His aim in the chapter is to talk about these two different developmental models and talk about how it might impact the way that teachers think about their jobs as educators.

Let’s talk here about the more “innate” developmental structures that Lang discusses (Piaget). In the next thread (Part II), I’ll talk about Perry (there's too much to discuss in each model, so each deserves a thread).

So on with it:

Lang works hard to get us to see that human beings are very similar to the kinds of “model building” creatures one might expect to pop out of an early modern philosophy textbook focusing on empiricism (I was thinking of Locke, specifically). The story is familiar: Humans get battered with the bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion of experience, and over time they slowly build up models of reality and of the objects within it, models that in the end are based on how interaction with the world tends to play out. Simply put, each of us develops a conceptual scheme that is full of assumptions about what is what, what things are like, how things come into being, and so on.

This is all quite normal and pragmatically useful. However, as it turns out we can get a little too attached to these buggers (our conceptual schemes). Once we have one built up to some degree, it starts to take on a life of its own. In a way, our conceptual scheme or model is like the Borg. It seeks to assimilate all future experience and data to conform to its own pre-established model.

In fact, Lang points to this very vocabulary. To process future experience in accord with one’s model is called “assimilation.” On the other hand, when I am forced to adjust my conceptual scheme and revise it to make room for new data, it is called “accommodation.”

Not surprisingly, once a conceptual scheme or model is fairly well established, it does indeed become Borg-like. It resists opportunities for “accommodation” and opts for “assimilation” whenever possible (which is most of the time). In many ways, this preference for assimilation makes perfect sense. Accommodation as a method requires more energy expenditure than assimilation. So unless there are clear benefits coming from accommodation, it just ain’t gunna happen. Basically, if the conceptual scheme can "get away" with assimilating (there being no high cost consequences) then it will do so.

In many ways, this is like the criterion of “conservativism” in philosophy of science (or the way in which belief revision works in Quine): if there are two theories, T1 and T2, each of which explains some new data, and T1 is more conservative -- causing less damage to one's overall existing body of beliefs (model), then T1 will be accepted each time. Since these beliefs work together to produce a pragmatically useful model for worldly interaction, alterations (accommodations) will have to be forced in with a shoe horn.


How does all of this affect us in the philosophy classroom? Well, it seems to me that there if this distinction between assimilation and accommodation does not affect us as pedagogues (in philosophy, specifically), not much does! As far as I can tell, the distinction pretty much maps out in theory why teaching philosophy (especially in general education courses) can be so difficult.

Essentially, philosophy calls upon the student to engage in a constant stream of accommodation. We attack assimilation, even mock it. We want students to “rethink” their conceptual models and to question them and revise them, to be prepared to toss large chunks with other newer chunks. All semester long, we attack their preconceptions and models.

If this or that belief is inconsistent with this other one, we ask, doesn’t that call for accommodation? “How can you still believe in free will when you also believe X?” we ask, waving that philosophical finger. "You are a relativist? But what about your belief in..." You know the game. We all do it.

The interesting thing is, however, that students respond to us as if right out of Piaget: “and to what practical value is all of this accommodation?” they ask. “Why should I spend my time thinking about and revising all of these high-faultin’ theoretical assumptions latent in my conceptual model?” (of course they don’t say it just like that, but you get the drift). They ask us, over and over (sometimes verbally, sometimes by ignoring us and texting one another under the table): “What’s the value in all of this, anyway??”

In the sense in which the conceptual model is created for (presumably, the capacity to get around the world successfully, to navigate objects and to have a reasonable chance to get one’s plans and projects off the ground), they have a point. Or at least they have a point that is reasonable enough that we have to give them a decent argument for why we are doing what we're doing. After all, accommodation requires a lot of energy, and there’s got to be a clear “payoff” if one is going to engage in it. In some sense, philosophy is, well...unnatural.

Of course, we return with our bromides about “critical reasoning” and how learning to revise one's model actually helps the student to better navigate a changing world and it helps them to learn to put their plans and projects into play in more sophisticated ways. Yeah, maybe – but for a large number of students, this may not actually be so. At the very least the student might have an argument that rests on the notion of “diminishing returns.” What if the majority of your students don’t want to have these sophisticated plans and projects? What if they are doing just fine, in their own opinion, navigating the world using the models they have already developed? Given their plans and projects, if the world changes, they'll make the necessary (and I stress *necessary*) revisions to their models. So to what purpose is it to ask them to investigate whether people have free will? Or to question whether the external world exists. Or that other people have minds. Or whatever.


Lang, rightfully I think, asks us to “chill out” – to stop getting defensive or even upset when students react to us with hostility, anger, or even with total indifference to what we are doing in the classroom. They are not doing anything we shouldn’t expect them to do. After all, we are the unnatural ones. We are the ones who are attacking their models when *reality* has not asked them to do so. We are the recalcitrant data, in a way (which can be assimilated under "some people are just weird and think about stupid things").

After all, they are the Borg, and we are resisting them. They want to assimilate philosophy, to reduce it to nuggets of familiar facts, and we refuse to let them assimilate. So there’s an undeniable result: frustration. We need to accept that, and thinking of developmental learning styles can help us to see where they are coming from. Of course, we need to also use this knowledge to better figure out how to get students to learn to be more comfortable with accommodation.

Which is where I’ll leave this (admittedly long) thread – with a challenge: without retreating into the familiar territory of “convincing students of the value of critical thinking” (which I personally do not think is a particularly successful strategy, regardless of how I may agree with its target), how can we use Piaget’s distinction here to get students to more successfully engage with the “accommodation” style thinking that we expect students to do in philosophy?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sabbaticals from everything but teaching: Why the heck not?

I am presently enjoying one of the perks of academic life: the sabbatical! It's a much envied feature of the college teaching profession, and one that I have to say was much needed in my case.

But then it occurred to me: Faculty are granted sabbaticals from teaching (and service) in order to do their research. But why shouldn't there be chances to be granted a sabbatical from research (and service!) in order to concentrate on teaching? (I'm imagining someone, most likely at a Research 1 university, being told by a department chair or dean not to work on any articles or books for a year and "just teach.") It says something about our priorities in higher education that there aren't such sabbaticals. The message: Research is fulfilling, but teaching is a burden relief from which we should welcome.

Would any prestigious college or university have the nerve to propose sabbaticals to teach?