Monday, March 30, 2009

10 commandments of lecturing

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Rob Weir offers his own "10 Commandments of Lecturing". I should say that these are more like 10 commandments of teaching, period, but it's an excellent list (enumerated below the fold).

I. Thou shalt connect new lectures to previous ones.
II. Thou shalt move beyond chalk and talk.
III. Thou shalt not lecture like a caffeinated hummingbird or a tree sloth.
IV. Thou shalt not assume too much.
V. Thou shalt link known to unknown.
VI. Thou shalt be enthusiastic.
VII. Thou shalt not be a pompous ass.
VIII. Thou shalt not tolerate disruptive or disrespectful students.
IX. Thou shalt not lecture outdoors.
X. Thou shalt seize learning moments.

I have to say I've violated IX (hey, I teach in California -- outside is inviting!) and try super hard on I. So ISW readers:
- Which of Weir's commandments do you routinely disobey?
- Which of his commandments are diligent in obeying?
- Are there any commandments that need to be added?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

when a student dies

Hello, colleagues, this is my first posting, and I'm honored to have been invited to join. I wish that my first subject were less grim, but it's related to John Alexander's post last month about treating students as people, so it seemed appropriate to discuss it here.

Last semester, I taught a small seminar (an upper-level Philosophy course with only seven students). One afternoon somewhat late in the semester, twenty minutes before class, I received a quasi-automated email from the campus Registrar’s office, with the Subject line: “[Your Student] has been withdrawn from your course”. I thought back to a frustrating conversation with that student at the end of the previous week’s class, about some persistent problems in his essays that he had not, despite my several entreaties, addressed. I didn’t lose my temper or speak disrespectfully, but I was impatient and annoyed and I let him know that. “Maybe he decided to drop the course”, I thought, wondering whether I had been wrong to express my annoyance and feeling some guilt about that possibility.
Barely a minute later, I got another email from a staff colleague in a different campus office, with the Subject line: “[Your Student] has died”. The body of the email was brief, stating only that the student had died late the previous week – in fact, the day after he and I had last spoken.
Of course, I was stunned. [Without getting into details of this particular student’s death, I can say that it was nonviolent, very sudden, and couldn’t easily have been anticipated.] And in about fifteen minutes, I was going to have to go into the seminar and tell the six other students something that I was still having trouble “processing” myself. In slightly more than ten years of teaching, I had not had a student who was enrolled in one of my courses die during the term, and I was almost as unprepared for that as I could be. I was unprepared to hear the news, and I was certainly unprepared to convey it to the other students in the seminar.
Class that day was quite brief. I conveyed the news – such as I knew it – to the students who were there. One student immediately ran, red-faced, out of the room. We sat silently and disconsolately for a few minutes. I told the students that I was at a loss for what to do. I reminded them that we have an excellent counseling center (we do) and that they should please, please consider making an appointment to talk to one of the counselors there. I told them that the Philosophy department would hold some sort of memorial gathering and that I would give them the details as soon as I had them. Then we left.
Given the particular circumstances, and that I was operating mostly on whatever instincts were relevant, I think that I responded about as well as I could have done. Since then, of course, I’ve talked with a handful of colleagues (including one of the counselors) about how instructors can help students when one of their classmates dies. But few of them had faced that situation, and so another important question – how to help the instructor – remained largely open. In thinking about that question, I found it invaluable to talk to that student’s other instructors. We were all dealing with his death, and for most of us (and our students) it was a new experience.
I wish that I had acknowledged, much sooner than I ever did, that some of my students might die during the term. While I knew that it was statistically possible that at some point during my teaching career, one of my students would die, I had not really thought about that as anything more than an abstract possibility. (Not that there’s anything wrong with abstract possibilities, of course.)
I wondered a lot about how I could continue to meet my responsibilities to teach and challenge the remaining students in the remaining weeks of the semester, while also behaving decently in memory of the student who had died (i.e., not acting as if nothing had occurred that might have an effect on the mood of the seminar). There was no question in my mind that the class should continue to meet, but how much class time, if any, should I devote to talking about (exchanging stories about, etc.) the student who had died? Should I keep the same reading assignments, the same writing assignments, the same deadlines, the same classroom? Of course, the circumstances of this student’s life, not just those of his death, affect the way I answered some of those questions. This particular student, though respected by his classmates, wasn’t particularly well liked by them. I knew that, and they knew that I knew it, and so I considered it entirely possible that some of them didn’t feel any need to talk to a counselor at all. Yet I also knew that we all react to death in ways that we can’t always (correctly) anticipate. So, I mentioned the counseling center only one or two other times and then stopped. And I announced the department’s memorial gathering and stressed that attending it was completely optional.
While there wasn’t an obvious link between the subject of the seminar and the topic or experience of (facing) death, part of me feels that I may have missed an important chance to talk with the students about death, dying, and meaning. It’s a bit of a cliché to bemoan the airless, sterile environment of the classroom or of academic philosophy, and I don’t want to be clichéd. But I wonder whether I was guilty of contributing to that kind of environment. Confronted with a very sobering and inevitable part of the so-called “real world”, maybe I should have made the time to talk with the students – in class, not just outside of class – about those Big Topics that are, after all, what drew at least some of them to Philosophy in the first place.

I’m curious to know, from other instructors who have had one (or more) of their students die during the middle of a term, what suggestions they’d give to their colleagues about what to do when that happens.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Teaching Pre-College Philosophy

Is there a future for pre-college philosophy? Over the past few years, I have been heavily invested both professionally and personally in the question of whether an effective, worthwhile, and legitimate philosophy curriculum can be established at the high school level, and whether a philosopher can make a credible, scholarly career out of teaching high school philosophy. I have collected a substantial, however modest, set of research on the subject ranging nearly fifty years across many nations. In what follows and what is to come, I offer both what I have discovered and my reflections on teaching high school philosophy. At best, I hope to convince that teaching high school philosophy is not only credible, worthwhile and legitimate, but also an important part of the scholarly field that should be taken more seriously and given greater attention by professional philosophers. At worst, I hope at least to justify (if only to myself) my own professional choices. I welcome all responses, both positive and negative, but ask that the discussion develop a constructive response to the question.

In 1958 the American Philosophical Association approved a report from the Committee on Philosophy in Education regarding teaching high school philosophy. ["The Teaching of Philosophy in American High Schools" by Douglas N. Morgan and Charner Perry. From Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 32, (1958 -
1959) pp.91-137.] The committee was composed of C. W. Hendel, Chairman, H. G. Alexander, R. M. Chisholm, Max Fisch, Lucius Garvin, Douglas Morgan, A. E. Murphy, Charner Perry and R. G. Turnbul. The report refrained from recommending a national curriculum for high school philosophy, but it laid out in detail the pros and cons of teaching philosophy in high school. Of course, philosophy has been taught in many pre-college classrooms for hundreds of years both here in the United States and abroad, but the 1958 document is the first serious, detailed and rigorous attempt in the United States that I know of to investigate the relative merits for students, the field of philosophy, and the citizenry in general of teaching philosophy to pre-college students in both the public and private sectors. What follows is a summary of some of the arguments considered by the committee and my observations fifty years later. (N.B., In some places I have updated the arguments to reflect more the language of our time.)

Arguments for:
1) Philosophy is intrinsically valuable both in its critical evaluation of the meaning of words and concepts, and in its thoughtful reflectiveness that distances the mind from imposing ideologies and assumptions. It is not the content of philosophy that is essential, but the discipline of the mind. Thinking philosophically is a natural good for the human mind and therefore is a good in itself.

2) Many do not go to college, but would benefit from philosophical inquiry before entering into public life. By thinking philosophically, we become better people and better citizens.

3) Philosophical questions arise in us when they do. The brighter students we teach usually already have been pondering philosophical questions from an early age, but it is also the case that even our more average students as well have paused before the distance of the stars, the immensity of it all, and pondered their place in the cosmos. There is no need to attempt to erect philosophical inquiry in our students; the foundations are already firmly laid. If philosophical questions are already present in our younger students, the danger is not leaving those questions unanswered, but having those questions answered by half-truths and dogmatic ideologies. "So much the worse for our culture. We, as philosophers and educators and human beings, have a serious social debt to discharge. Introducing some intelligent young people to philosophy is one way in which we may discharge this debt." (p. 94)

4) Philosophy is intrinsically difficult. Teaching may cut through the diminishing view of the humanities in our culture and reinvigorate high school studies as something more than mere fact-checking, memorization, and petty busy-work. Philosophy promises to bring some scholarly credibility back to teaching high school.

The conclusion drawn from these arguments was that, "[b]ecause philosophy is good, and because some bright pupils want and need work in philosophy, there is a prima facie case in favor of introducing it more widely. It remains to be seen, of course, whether counter-arguments and practical considerations should prevail against this prima facie case." (p. 95) I appreciate the caution of the committee on this point, first and foremost because those of us who teach high school philosophy, it seems to me, are quite passionate about it, and therefore can easily loose our heads over its relative merits. Nevertheless, I find that my academic colleagues at university and professional conferences are more and more intrigued over the level of proficiency possible both in knowledge of the history of philosophy and in thinking and writing philosophically by young high school students. Here are some examples from what I have seen, where I teach students who are bright but average. (I don't mean that disparagingly, but only to point out that my school provides a fertile place for learning for a wider variety of students than "the best". My institution is not among the elite.) In the past five years I have had the privilege of teaching a course in logic, a problems course entitled "Justice and Public Morality", and a regularly offered set of courses in the history of philosophy (Ancient to Medieval and Modern to Contemporary). I have taken students to multiple lectures and conferences at which they both participated and were engaged. One student even had her paper accepted by blind review to the Wisconsin Philosophical Association's annual conference in 2008 (where ironically my paper was rejected --no hard feelings C.P.). In addition, over the past four years the students have invited three guest philosophers to campus for an open lecture. Each time, they filled the lecture hall with energy and questions. This year's guest lecturer is Prof. Charles. W. Mills of Northwestern, who will be giving a lecture entitled "Racial Justice". So I think I am safe in arguing that high school philosophy has many benefits and can be successfully developed more broadly than might be suspected.

There are, however, good arguments against teaching philosophy in high school. No one really argues against it on philosophical grounds, but arguments can be made that such a curriculum is impractical or unwise.

Arguments Against:
1) The students are generally too immature to understand philosophy, and therefore will not benefit from the study. (Similar arguments, I think, can be made of first and second year college students).

2)Philosophy is too emotionally unsettling to be handled by students who naturally lack a certain emotional maturity. High School students are still too emotionally attached to their parent's world-view, and there is not a healthy way for them to facilitate their break from traditional thinking. Learning philosophy can be a culturally and emotionally overturning thing for young students.

3) On a practical level, challenging pre-conceived notions and ideologies can make parents uncomfortable. They might not appreciate their child hearing arguments for skepticism, atheism and moral relativism at such an early age. (I had an interesting experience with this. I have a "No Hunting" sign in my office. A parent came in one morning to talk about his son and saw the sign. He questioned if I was one of those "liberal" teachers who would hold it against his son that he would be missing a day of school in late fall to go hunting. I told him I would only hold it against his son if he came hunting for me. The joke was lost on the parent. I took the point to heart, however, and assured the parent that while my class would be discussing arguments against things the student may believe, I had no intention on changing the student's beliefs or penalizing the student for disagreeing. The parent left unwillingly satisfied.)

4) In-service jealousy over having the brightest students. (I think this is a perk, but it can have its political back drafts.)

5) Curricula become immediately over-crowded with too many courses and not enough space for essential instruction in math and English.

6) Philosophy should not be taught in High School, because high school teachers are too incompetent in the field of philosophy to teach it well enough. Philosophers never entertain a career in high school teaching, but are only interested in publishing and the collegiate life. Without sufficient expertise in the classroom, teaching philosophy in high school is not a worthwhile pursuit.

This last point hits at the heart of my professional goals. Should the current academic culture change? If teaching philosophy, or how to think philosophically, is important in itself, then we need at least some of the brightest minds teaching it at the earliest levels possible. In this post, and in the posts to come, I hope to make the argument that high school is at least as good a place to start as any. Just as we see it being called for in the field of physics, we must get experts who are willing to serve the greater social good, at least for a time, and teach younger students. This could have as added benefits both the positive creation of better teaching in the college classroom once those who teach high school eventually move on to the university sector, and the recreation of philosophy as a more valuable part of our cultural, educational heritage to come.

I welcome your responses and look forward to further discussion.


Friday, March 13, 2009

On Course: Academic Honesty

In this chapter Lang addresses the important issue of academic honesty and in particular plagiarism.

The most interesting fact in the chapter is the ubiquitousness of cheating - Lang cites that surveys show that 47 percent of graduate students have cheated in the past year.

Having taught a three hour session on scientific integrity followed by a one page assignment where I caught 33 percent of the students subsequently cheating/plagiarizing this is a topic I'm particularly interested in.

There is lots of useful advice here, trying to make assignments unique, use electronic measures to detect plagiarism and of course making it clear to students what you take plagiarism to be.

In particular the advice to not take matters into your own hand and deal with things yourself but instead use the university's procedures for dealing with misconduct is excellent, there is no easier way to get yourself into serious trouble than taking matters into your own hand.

What I would have like more of however is advice about dealing with the system, in particular when people are resistant to admitting plagiarism has been detected because it is a hassle (this happened to me, people thought I was just making a big deal about a small assignment).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings."

Following up Nathan's link to the New York Times piece on "justifying" the humanities in hard times: Leon Wieseltier often fumbles when he talks philosophy and is often much too precious a writer for my taste. But his recent New Republic column on the same topic is an impassioned defense of the humanities; tough times are when humanities are most needed. A little taste:

In tough times, of all times, the worth of the humanities needs no justifying. The reason is that it will take many kinds of sustenance to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings. The external world is no longer a source of strength. The temper of one's existence will therefore be significantly determined by one's attitude toward circumstance, its cruelties and its caprices. Poor people and hounded people have always known this, but now the middle class is getting its schooling in stoicism. After all, bourgeois life was devised as an insulation against physical and social vulnerabilities, as a system of protections and privileges secured honestly by work; but the insulation is ripping and the protections are vanishing. We are in need of fiscal policy and spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout, and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest. These are assets in which we may all hold majority ownership; assets of which we cannot be stripped, except by ourselves.
It is interesting to speculate on whether disciplines such as philosophy might benefit from an extended period of economic calamity. I know that job seekers are finding the market even more uncongenial than usual this year, and the standard wisdom is that tough economic times drive students away from the humanities toward more allegedly 'practical' disciplines like business. At the same time though, social turmoil tends to encourage more reflection and more questioning of basic assumption and values (I understand that the era of the Vietnam War, civil rights protests, and the emergence of feminism was a period of strong growth for philosophy enrollments), so perhaps there's a silver lining in all this economic darkness.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

An "interdisciplinary" introduction to philosophy course?

Conceptions vary of what philosophy is, or should aspire to, even (or perhaps especially!) among philosophers themselves. One such conception is that philosophy addresses questions and assumptions that are central to, but generally go unexamined, in other disciplines. My purpose here is not to defend this conception of philosophy. Indeed, it strikes me as highly controversial and limited. (Ethics doesn't seem to fit well into this conception of philosophy, for instance).

But I had a thought for what might be an intriguing way to organize an intro to philosophy course: Identify assumptions made in other disciplines and use these as these content objects for the course. So I could imagine you could have a course where:

  • Students read the Republic, say, and having had it pointed out to them that Plato's psychology is strongly egoistic, investigate to what degree egoism is assumed in orthodox economics or political science.
  • Students read Descartes and other work on skepticism concerning knowledge of the empirical world as a way of considering whether natural science is naively empiricist.
  • Students read core sources on free will and determinism and consider to what degree the governing precepts of contemporary biology (or physics, or even sociology) are deterministic.
Better yet, perhaps students could generate the assumptions themselves based on their knowledge of other disciplines. (That might not work if the intro students are mostly freshmen.)

I can see one obvious objection to this approach: It makes philosophy seem like the snarky kid in the corner with no domain of its own, whose job is to hassle other disciplines. Yet on the other hand, I could see two advantages to such an approach: First, it's an ideal way to get guest speakers into your class from other disciplines (and in my view, guest speakers are almost a welcome addition to a class). Second, it seems likely that students will continue to apply the knowledge they acquire in the class because they are likely to go on to study these other disciplines. Teaching philosophy as a 'freestanding' discipline, with its own distinctive problems, encourages students to think of philosophy as something that one does outside of thinking about other things. In contrast, this approach signals that the activity of philosophy arises along side of other intellectual pursuits and is hardly cordoned off from them.

Could such an approach work?