Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Philosophy's relation to other disciplines

Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber has a post referring to an interview with Michele Lamont, who recently completed a book on academic peer review. Lamont has some intriguing remarks about the differences between philosophy and other disciplines, remarks that I think have pedagogical interest:

Philosophy is a problem discipline, and it’s defined as such by program officers. Philosophers do not believe that nonphilosophers are qualified to evaluate their work. Perhaps that comes out of the dominance of analytic philosophy, with its stress on logic and rigor. Philosophers think their discipline is more demanding than other fields. Even its practitioners define the discipline as contentious. They don’t see that as a problem; argument and dispute are the discipline’s defining characteristics.All that conflict makes it difficult to get consensus on the value of a philosophy proposal — or to convince people from other disciplines of its merits. The panels I studied are multidisciplinary. Nonphilosophers are often frustrated with the philosophers. They often discounted what philosophers had to say as misplaced intellectual superiority.

Brighouse comments:
Philosophy seems to be an outlier within the humanities, just as Linguistics is; we have less in common with the other humanities in terms of the concepts and methods that we deploy, and even the subject matter, than they have with one another (I don’t think I could make the case for that claim in a rigourous way, but I’m convinced its true). Some philosophers, furthermore, seem largely uninterested in any other kind of intellectual endeavour, and this just increases the sense of the other humanists that wee are arrogant; worse still, those of us who are interested in other disciplines frequently look to the sciences and social sciences rather than to the rest of the humanities.

I sincerely hope that the arrogance Brighouse and Lamont find among philosophers isn't the norm. Indeed, I like to think that one thing philosophy ought to engender is intellectual humility. And my observation is that philosophy tends to be somewhat more interdisciplinary than many other disciplines. Not having much territory that belongs exclusively to us, we philosophers often have to look to other disciplines to complement our own insights. For instance, it's hard to tell the difference these days between 'pure' philosophy of mind and philosophically motivated cognitive science. With respect to the study of the mind, the interpenetration between philosophy and the empirical sciences is complete. Similarly, though there's still plenty of 'pure' practical ethics or 'pure' political philosophy, a lot of the most interesting work is empirically nuanced too. (I'm thinking of, e.g., so much of the work on global and institutional justice.) Now, this doesn't mean that when philosophers look to other disciplines, they look to the same disciplines. For example, I've often thought that one way to characterize the analytic/Continental distinction is that when analytic philosophers look outside the disipline, they tend to look to the natural sciences, psychology, and the more data-driven social sciences (economics, say), whereas Continental philosophers tend to look to literature, social theory, and the more culturally-oriented social sciences (e.g., anthropology).

Here's the teaching-related thought: Students come to philosophy with some disciplinary background. Even entering freshmen have a working understanding that the methods and objects of investigation vary greatly among history, mathematics, and literature, say. And I suspect that students' early experiences with philosophy are shaped by the place they expect philosophy will occupy in their own mental map of the various disciplines. And this, I think, is a double-edged sword. For while students can find in philosophy something familiar from disciplines that attract them, they will also find in philosophy something to which they are intellectually averse. To put the matter in somewhat stereotypical terms: The computer science major will welcome philosophy's systematicity, emphasis on explicit analysis, and logic, but may not be so enthusiastic about philosophy's openendedness and emphasis on intellectual toleration and empathy. But the English lit major will respond in the opposite way, welcoming the latter and being somewhat put off the former.

Of course, this doesn't imply that philosophy instructors should teach so as to welcome one intellectual orientation: The computer science major and the English lit major both become more cognitively limber by studying philosophy. But it's still worth thinking about student disciplinary expectations and where philosophy fits in. For several years, I've distributed a midquarter feedback survey to my students in my intro to philosophy and intro to ethics courses. One question reads:

This course is (exactly/more or less/not at all) what I expected.

Over the years, the distribution of answers has been about even, 30-40% for each response. This suggests that philosophy, for good or ill, confounds students' mental maps of the disciplines.

I'd be curious to know what teaching challenges this issue presents. I'd also really interested in hearing from people who aren't philosophers about their own experiences studying philosophy and how their reactions were shaped by their disciplinary backgrounds.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

don rags: a different sort of student evaluation

(This post isn't specifically about the teaching of philosophy, so consider yourself warned.)

Michael is busy heroically (I'm not being facetious or sarcastic) refusing to ride the "Student Evaluations of Teaching Are Worthless" Express . Meantime, I thought I'd slightly redirect the conversation about student evaluations to focus on something equally timely at this point of the year: faculty evaluations of students, rather than by students.

A former student of mine is now a faculty member at a US college that has a tradition of holding "don rags" during each semester. As I understand it from her description, a student meets her instructors (i.e., dons) as a group. The student sits there and listens as her instructors discuss her in the third person. They talk about her work in each of their courses, their perceptions of her as a learner ("ragging" on her if the perceptions are negative), what she will need to do if she's to succeed in subsequent years, and even whether she will be asked not to come back. Then the student is invited to comment/respond.

Parts of that practice aren't entirely unfamiliar to me, from my time in graduate school: graduate faculty met each year to discuss their students' progress through the Master's or doctoral program, and sometimes to have difficult conversations about whether some student should be asked to leave the program. They then sent a letter to each student, summarizing their discussion.

Of course, I'm alternately intrigued and horrified by the practice of inviting the student to listen in on that discussion! But I'm also curious about some of the benefits and problems of structured, regular conversation between a student's instructors about that student followed by feedback to the student about the substance of that conversation.

(Some caveats: I don't mean the don rags specifically: they're only one possible model for how to do that. My graduate school department's practice is a different model; there may be still others. And I'm also assuming that these conversations could supplement, not replace, other ways of evaluating our students -- such as comments on their written work, etc. Finally, I'm thinking primarily of how departments could employ this method for their majors, rather than for undeclared students -- who might actually benefit more from it.)

The biggest problem, clearly, is the amount of labor/time that would be required. That would especially be true of departments with many majors and few faculty. My own department would not be especially heavily burdened by doing this, but I'm sure that others would find it very hard to do it annually, let alone once a term.

I can think of a few possible benefits of such a conversation and feedback:
  • a regular -- indeed, mandatory -- opportunity to talk with one's colleagues might help reduce the sense of isolation that many instructors feel, especially near the end of a term
  • we all have students who bring different -- sometimes very different -- personas to their different instructors, and that sort of conversation could help each instructor get a fuller, more complex sense of each student
  • many conversations about assessment that I've been privy to treat the primary object of assessment as the course, not necessarily the student. A "don-ish" conversation could, if it and the subsequent feedback were tied carefully to the "learning outcomes" that the department has established for its major(s), be a consistent way at the departmental level to assess each student's progress through the major
  • I've taught many students who, not necessarily through any fault of their own, treat each course as a discrete experience, related only coincidentally to any of their previous or subsequent coursework. Conversations and feedback of the sort I'm describing might help students develop/strengthen their meta-cognitive skills, helping them become more self-conscious of themselves as learners and as membes of an academic community.
Are there other benefits or problems with this way of evaluating our students? Can those of you who've been through it (either as instructor or student) chime in?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Lang's On Course: Student evaluations

Lang's chapter 13 deals with a perennially controversial teaching topic: student evaluation of teaching. Here I'll lay out some of his main claims about student evaluations and talk a bit about his suggestions for improving the results on one's evaluations.

First, let me say that my own reading of the literature on student evaluation supports Lang's conclusion that much of the conventional skepticism about student evaluation is misplaced. By and large, student evaluations validly measure certain aspects of instructor performance (whether students have learned from the course, their enthusiasm, how well the exams or other evaluative instruments corresponded with the course content). At the same time, there are elements of instructor performance that students are not well positioned to evaluate: the choice of textbooks or course content, the instructor's knowledge or mastery of the course content, etc. My own sense is that Lange may underestimate how many bad student evaluation questionnaires are out there: Many that I've seen ask students questions that are outside their competence and fail to ask questions that fall within their competence. And many have basic methodological problems (for example, students are asked to consider double-barreled statements such as "The instructor's lectures were organized and informative").

Indeed, this may be one area where faculty autonomy is overrated. Colleges and universities vary in this regard, but at most of the places I have taught, departments are given some vague guidelines as to how to develop their questionnaires but are left to their own devices beyond that, with the result that different disciplines have questionnaires that vary dramatically in length, content, and so on. I wouldn't suggest absolute uniformity across an institution with respect to these questionnaires, but I wonder if having an outside expert develop the questionnaires might be a good idea. In any event, I'd be curious to know from commenters whether my remarks reflect their own experience of student evaluation in different institutions.

Since Lang's book is directed at new teachers, he gives some valuable advice as to how to improve your student evaluation results.
  1. Know the form and what's asked.
  2. Get additional feedback from students earlier in the term, using techniques such as minute papers, 'muddiest point' exercises, and questionnaires.
  3. Be transparent as you teach, explaining to students how the various activities you provide them promote their learning, etc.

I think Lang is right on target with these suggestions, but let me echo and underscore a few points.
  • When you get additional feedback, do what Lang proposes and discuss the feedback with the students. Students are willing to forgive our missteps and will tolerate high academic standards if they see that we are acting in good will. Hence, when students give us feedback and we not only acknowledge it but also indicate how we intend to incorporate that feedback in the future, we engender that good will -- and better evaluations result.
  • Constantly remind students of the course learning objectives. One challenge for students, especially in philosophy courses, is that they are often uncertain as to what they are supposed to learn. If so, then student evaluation becomes a misguided exercise: Students are being asked whether they learned X but their attention is focused on whether they learned Y.
  • Foster the habit of student self-evaluation. Many of us are nervous about student evaluation because it may not do a good job prying apart our contribution to student learning from students' own contribution to their learning. Clearly, the interaction between these contributions is complex: Sometimes great teaching produces great learning, but it may not always do so. In light of this, I've found it important for students to get in the frequent habit of evaluating their own performance and efforts. This encourages a more mature attitude to instructor evaluation because students are more aware of their role in the collaborative learning process and so are more able to focus their attention specifically on how the instructor helped or hindered learning.
Finally, I think one thing that bothers many teachers about student evaluation of their performance is that the information gathered is often not put into context. I'm familiar with institutions where student evaluations are the only data used to evaluate teaching performance. Student evaluations are valid but limited, and need to be supplemented by other kinds of information: peer visits (though these don't take place often enough to be of great value), expert consultations, instructors' own self-evaluations, etc. Student evaluations measure the outputs of an instructor's teaching efforts, but these other sources of information can help measure the inputs to determine if the instructor's teaching is basically sound, regardless of whether it happens to be effective in producing student learning in a particular case. Teaching is, as Lang reminds us in this chapter, as much art as science.