Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A suggestion on what to include in course material

In teaching intro courses there is the standard philosophical readings that most of us use to introduce philosophy to our students. Over the past few years I have been utilizing non-traditional material (as well as the more tradtional readings) in my intro to philosophy and intro to ethics courses. This material has included literature such as The Plague and The Fall by Camus, The Kite Runner by Hosseini, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood. I have also used videos (Youtube is a Godsend) as well as movies. I have found that utilizing this type of material, alongside the more traditional philosophical material, has helped students gain a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, some of the issues being discussed. I think it is helpful for students to see that philosophical issues arise in the normal context of lives being lived. After all, is that not one of the reasons Plato had for using dialogues that take place in the day to day lives of the people taking part in the discussion. If students can see the ‘naturalness’ of some of the important philosophical issues, I think it makes these issues more real and important for them. They can see how these issues can relate to their own lives. As we think about what material to use next semester I would like to suggest that everyone include at least one non-traditional piece in your required readings. In my intro to ethics courses next Fall I am planning to use The Lakota Way by James M. Marshall III as a way of introducing virtue ethics to my students. This is a collection of short stories within the Lakota Sioux tradition, each one pertaining to a particular virtue or character trait that is desirable for people to possess if they want to lead a flourishing life. Does anyone else have any more suggestions?

Monday, April 27, 2009

From the Wall Street Journal

Late last month, the Web site Inside Higher Ed reported that several universities were shrinking the number of students admitted to their Ph.D. programs this year. Emory University is cutting its doctoral students by 40% -- admitting 220 this fall, down from 360 a year before. Columbia is reducing its intake by 10%. New York University is planning a reduction, although a "very modest" one, according to school officials. And the University of South Carolina is considering a plan to have some departments admit doctoral students only every other year.

There are several reasons for this doctoral downsizing. For one thing, teaching graduate students costs universities money -- at least on first glance. Ohio University economist Richard Vedder estimates that schools spend anywhere from five to 15 times as much on graduate students as on undergraduates. Grad students are taught in small classes with senior professors. And students in doctoral programs (as opposed to those who leave after taking master's degree) are generally on some kind of fellowship. They pay no tuition and receive a school-year stipend between $10,000 and $20,000.

But graduates students also act as teaching assistants, doing a great deal of time-consuming classroom work (and grading) that professors themselves are thus not compelled to do. In all sorts of courses, especially in their freshman and sophomore years, undergraduates may find themselves being instructed more often by a 25-year-old doctoral candidate than by the university's full-time faculty members, who, of course, already have their doctorates (and one or two books to their credit, too). It is an odd, upside-down arrangement, but it has an economic logic: By providing cheap labor, graduate students save college administrations millions of dollars each year in salary costs.

So why the cuts? Well, the calculations work out differently for different schools. For instance, universities in lower tiers might not have to do as much because they can get away with having a higher percentage of classes taught by graduate students. But some of the schools making doctoral cuts this year gave compassion as their reason. Catherine R. Stimson, the dean of Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, was quoted in Inside Higher Ed: Given the state of the academic job market, she asked, referring to would-be doctoral candidates: "Is it fair to bring them in?"

It sounds like a logical question, but is it really? After all, the dire academic job market is nothing new. As Peter Berkowitz recalls from his time as a graduate student and professor at Harvard and Yale in the 1980s and '90s: "The departments knew that something like half the students they admitted to their programs wouldn't get Ph.D.s." And, says Mr. Berkowitz (who is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution), "something like half of those wouldn't get tenure-track jobs."

In an article called "Contingent Faculty and the New Academic Labor System" (2004), Gwen Bradley notes that an academic job shortage is rarely the result of some surprising lurch in supply-and-demand curves, since "the same institutions both manufacture and consume the Ph.D. product." In other words, universities know very well that they are producing far more Ph.D.s than they need. Compare this situation with the medical profession. Even if medical residents are made to work long hours under difficult conditions, the vast majority of them will get jobs as doctors. The vast majority of, say, Ph.D.s in English literature will not. Given that the typical doctoral degree takes six or seven years to complete (during prime job-training and family-forming years), there is a moral problem here. It is no great exaggeration to say, as Mr. Berkowitz does: "Many lives are ruined this way."

With more and more people going to college, one might reasonably wonder why there hasn't actually been a shortage of Ph.D.s in recent years. Two decades ago William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, predicted as much, claiming that there would soon be far more university teaching jobs than academics to fill them. He co-authored a study foreseeing "a real shortfall" in the humanities and social sciences starting in the late 1990s.

The shortage never materialized. Even during boom times, there was not much of an uptick in job listings for university faculty. Any increase in job demand was met by an overwhelming increase in labor supply. Universities began hiring adjunct faculty members. They typically teach courses at more than one school. (In California, they're referred to as "freeway flyers.") They don't get benefits and, all told, probably earn less than minimum wage.

Not surprisingly, these adjunct faculty members are feeling exploited and getting angry. In recent years, their concerns have been taken more seriously by the American Association of University Professors, which now has committees engaged in rigorous hand-wringing over their ordeal. Marc Bousquet, the author of "How the University Works," sees a couple of key ironies in the academic job market: Getting a Ph.D. now often means the end of an academic career rather than the beginning of one; and the American university, which claims to be an egalitarian institution, relies on people who can only afford to take badly paid adjunct teaching positions because they have another source of income, either from a spouse's job or a second job of their own.

One response may be: So what? Is there any compelling reason that universities -- as self-interested as any institution -- should reconsider their employment policies? Why not staff classes with adjunct labor? Why not give customers the same product at a lower cost?

The last question points to a bigger problem, though: Is it the same product? Who knows? Higher education has gone so far off the rails in recent years that parents and students hardly know what they are supposed to have learned in a freshman composition course or in Sociology 101. And as long as there is a degree waiting at the other end, they hardly care.

Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste editor.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Course, Common Problems Chapter.

It is a bit tricky to find a philosophy teaching angle on Lang's chapter about common problems. I'm afraid I haven't been altogether successful in finding one. As usual, Lang's advice is candid, unimpeachable, and even funny. Nevertheless, one can't help but feel he was running out of a little steam here, especially in his last two questions which ask if he has any final advice and whether these questions constitute exhaustive advice. One can't help but wonder if any academic reading the book would actually have those two questions in mind. But like a good prof at the end of a semester, I believe we can and should forgive Lang for a tired but good humored ending.

Lang offers advice on the following areas: 1) rude student behavior, 2) the use of technology in the classroom, 3) tardy and absent students, 4) remembering student names, 5) dealing with flirtatious students, 6) special concerns about labs and online courses, 7) stage fright, and 8) inadequate superiors. His funniest remarks are at the end of (5), wherein he accurately suggests staying far away from any romantic relations with students, recommending the painting of civil war figurines instead.

I limit my commentary to remarks on (1), (2), and (4). For (1), Lang's advice to choose whether you will confront a student in class or after class is very good. He opts for after class and has found it works well, but any new professor should know that some students will be fundamentally unreachable in either way. In philosophy (because there are no answers, right?) I find that there is a type of student who feels like the need to challenge the possibility that a philosopher could know more than he or she could. This leads to a behavior that is not rude in the sense of academic misconduct, but disruptive all the same. I feel that it is absolutely crucial not to let such a student define one's course and one's perception of the course. This can be a difficult maneuver, especially in an intro class, because our culture likes to see supposed authority hoisted on its own petard and other students can get behind the troublesome student. But the answer is, I believe, Socratic. For these students usually come from a pretty sophistical form of arguing involving equivocation, switching the topic, and (above all it seems), appealing to Hamlet's "more things on heaven and earth". I've found it works to actually engage such a student in a verbal "joust" in class in which one points out and actively refuses to participate in the sophistical techniques while showing how staying on point is vital to philosophical discussion. It can be difficult to get exactly the right tone, but after a couple of tries with this type of students I think I have the pacification measure down well. Sometimes one can even turn on a light in these students' heads that leads to more philosophical study. That's rare. But at least you get your class back.

For (2), we've recently addressed the use of laptops in the classroom and how another blogger, Andrew Cullison, dealt with them. So I'll just make a quick remark on mobile phones. First, the line between a standard phone that can simply call and text and a smartphone (like the iPhone which can do word processing, note-taking, and make you dinner) is starting to blur. It will be hard in the near future to tell if students are using these phones for actual classwork or for fun, but there will be legitimate uses. I like to use the camera in my iPhone after class to take pictures of what I have written on the board. That helps a lot, by the way. But I do believe that as mobile use has become pretty ubiquitous, it is time to end the ridiculous teacher tactics for dealing with phones ringing. Even when they provide great enjoyment for the class, the act of having the professor answer or a student singing a verse of the school's fight song, the class is derailed much more than it ever would have been with a stern look followed by an embarrassed look and a couple button pushes. These tactics are not done in professional settings and we want to think of our students as proto-professionals. I bring my phone to class for reasons mentioned above and though I check religiously, it has gone off once. It's time to accept that it's going to happen, it shouldn't happen, and people don't need extra embarrassment unless the lesson really isn't getting through. All this said, of course, if the student should in any way start *talking* on the phone, hang the person high atop the classroom walls.

Finally, and briefly, with (4): I am one of those people who can remember names. I do a little exercise day one in which I try to remember all 30 students' names. I don't do anything special that I know of. I just happen to have exactly as much short-to-mid-term memory to get them all in and repeat them all back after they introduce themselves. By two to three weeks in I easily have all the names. I understand that there are some people who are "bad" at names. I can't imagine their memory is worse than mine, but so be it. All I have to say is that it really is amazing how the students react if you actively try to remember their names and use them unprompted in the classroom and around campus. Knowing a name lets a student know you consider him or her and end rather than a mere means. I believe that I don't even see a lot of problems other profs do, simply because I know there names and they know I wanted to know their names. If you can do it, do it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Weir on the art of lecturing

Following on his "10 Commandments of Lecturing," Rob Weir has a new piece in Inside Higher Ed on how to craft effective lectures. Again, there's lots of good advice about lecturing here.

  • Have a small number of clear objectives that you return to throughout the lecture. Don't try too much or try to pack in too much detail!
  • Remember communication basics: eye contact, varying your tempo, have good notes to rely on.
  • Start with a hook.
  • Use a small number of well-chosen examples.
  • Restate the main ideas at the end.
I'd only add two suggestions to his: First, use your chalkboard, whiteboard, whatever you have by way of visuals, but don't let them be the lecture. We've talked a lot here at ISW about PowerPoint, etc. and how students take notes and interact with visual material. I think it's important to remember that the visuals are supposed to help the lecture along, not be a word-for-word reconstruction of the lecture.

Second -- and I'm a strong advocate on this point -- I have doubts that students are well prepared to learn from lectures at the college level. So one technique I often use is to lecture in a traditional way, but then arrange for an exercise that enables students to reinforce their understanding of the lecture while also serving to troubleshoot my performance. This can take the form of a small group exercise where students develop questions based on the lecture, a 'minute paper' exercise, etc. Lectures are important because they are a content-rich way of delivering material, but they are very instructor-centered, which makes it all the more important that we instructors know which material we successfully conveyed and that students have the opportunity to engage lecture material in their own terms.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

On Course: Re-Energizing the Classroom

Sorry for the lateness of this post.

In this chapter Lang discusses the common phenomena that most, if not all, of us go thru, normally towards the end of the semester; the feeling that we are going ‘through the motions in the classroom, trotting out the same old teaching techniques every day.” This realization can be very discomforting and is sometimes difficult to overcome. We have utilized a wide variety of teaching techniques, most of them discussed in this book, and we feel as if we, and the class, are running out of steam. The level of excitement is diminishing and it seems as interest in the subject matter and class discussions has waned. So the question Lang poses (and answers) is ‘how can we provide a spark to get ourselves, and our students, enthusiastic about the subject matter again?” He addresses five ‘experimental strategies’ that we can use to re-energize the classroom and three activities that we, as learners ourselves, can use to “remain fresh as a teacher.”

The five experimental strategies are 1) posters, 2) field trips, 3) inkshedding, 4) trials, and 5) case studies. Having taught for over twenty years now, I must admit that I use case studies as part of my regular teaching techniques. I dedicate the last 2-3 weeks of my courses in ethics to student presentations where they either construct their own case, or utilize an existing case, and analyze the moral issue associated with the case from a minimum of two different normative perspectives. This approach works wonders in that students usually do good work on cases/issues they themselves select. Furthermore, having them present the normative issues turns the focus away from me as ‘expert’ to them as ‘expert.’ The students also more directly interact with each other and I then function as a moderator. The idea of using a poster to map out the development of an argument or a problem seems to me to be a very workable idea; one which I plan to try next semester. In philosophy doing a field trip may be difficult, if not impossible, after all how does one go back in time. But here, I think we can utilize other technologies; e.g. movies/videos, literature/plays, having students attend a departmental colloquium, and/or assigning students to use the Internet to find concrete examples of issues we are discussing in class. For example, if we are discussing world hunger and our obligation, if we have one, to help end it, we could go on the Internet and find concrete examples of people suffering and people helping those who are suffering (Youtube is a wonderful thing). Reacting to an image is different then reacting to an argument! I think both of them have their place in teaching ethics. Inkshedding, the idea of having students write for five minutes on a topic and then giving their writing to another student who reads it and then writes on what they have read, is a strategy I am going to have to think about. If anyone has any ideas on how to incorporate it into teaching philosophy, I would love to hear them. Trials are also something that I think could be very useful in teaching philosophy. After all, we do have the paradigm in Socrates’ trial for impiety and corrupting the youth. Again, if anyone has tried this out, I would love to hear about it.

There are three activities that Lang suggests for helping us to remain fresh: become a learner again, stay currant, and be nosy. As a way of becoming a learner again, Lang suggests taking a course or lessons of some sort. This way you keep your mind open as well as active. It allows you to creatively explore things outside your normal comfort zone. Staying currant is a matter of keeping up with what is happening in educational theory or in your discipline. This may appear to be very time consuming and therefore something that is not practical, but he suggests three relatively easy things we can do in this regard; we can read a journal either in teaching methodologies or in our own discipline. As far as finding out different strategies for teaching philosophy is concerned I recommend the journal, Teaching Philosophy. Most issues of this journal that I have read contain at least one article that I have found useful. ‘Being nosy’ is simply taking advantage of learning from your peers what they do that is successful in their classes. As Lang points out, sometimes simply talking with a colleague about a teaching issue can be more helpful then trying to find a solution on our own. He also suggests that we take advantage of what our institutions offer in the way of programs designed to help teachers become more effective. Finally he suggests that we visit other colleagues’ classrooms and see how they do it.

There is an underlying point to this chapter that I think needs to be brought out. As Lang points out, it is true that we do run into a ‘wall’ sometime during the course of a semester; not all class sessions are as successful as we would like them to be. This should not be seen as a mark of failure on our part, but as a normal part of teaching and one that we can recognize and minimize if we have strategies for doing so. Furthermore, we should realize that we all could improve our teaching. There is a natural tendency to become comfortable with what we do successfully. But, this feeling of comfort itself can sometimes cause us to be not as successful as we could be; we may become complacent. As a way of overcoming complacency, as well as the ‘doldrums’ that naturally occur, this chapter is especially pertinent and helpful; even to someone who has taught successfully for over 20 years.