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.


  1. I've found that I learn names the fastest when I have to return things (e.g., logic homework assignments) to the students during the first few classes. Otherwise, it's really hard for me to learn the names of the quiet students.

    On cell phones in class, I rarely have a problem with ringers. We all smile and shake our heads, the guilty student looks sheepish, and we move on. But I do get somewhat annoyed by people texting in class. I've generally just ignored it, and the chronic texters learn their lesson (or not) when they discover that they could not, in fact, pay attention to class and their phone at the same time. How do other people handle that?

  2. I simply do not allow electronic equipment in my classes. If someone persists in texting,etc., I ask then to leave.


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