Friday, June 26, 2009

review of ISW in June 2009 issue of Teaching Philosophy

Those of you who are fans, or at least regular readers, of this site probably also know about the journal Teaching Philosophy, which since its founding in 1975 "has provided a peer-reviewed forum for the exchange of ideas about the challenges faced by philosophers in the classroom, and has published the largest body of original work on philosophy teaching in the English language." Over the years, I have found the journal to be a very helpful resource.

The current issue (Volume 32:2, June 2009) includes a Digital Media Review section. One of the "digital media" under review is this very site. Prof. John Immerwahr (Villanova Univ.), the reviewer, gives a clear (yet concise) overview of this site -- along with advice about how to subscribe to a weblog such as this one.

I'll shatter the suspense -- SPOILER ALERT -- SPOILER ALERT -- SPOILER ALERT --

by saying that it's a positive review! Some selected bits of Immerwahr's review follow. (Seeing the full review online requires that you or your institution's library have an online subscription to the journal, I'm afraid.)

  • "This particular blog calls to mind the tradition of essay writing from Montaigne through Addison and Steele. The general format is that Cholbi or one of the other regular authors 'posts' a reflection on some issue related to the teaching of philosophy....other readers post comments or reactions to the original comment.... The whole process, in other words, is rather like a virtual 18th century coffee house. Most of the posts are brief, well-written, thought-provoking, and addressed to real concerns for a typical philosophy instructor."
  • "[The discussion of Michael's post, "What If I Just Don't Like You?", is] an interesting exchange that one can read in just a few minutes. It is just the kind of conversation that one might have in a department common room with a group of serious and thoughtful colleagues. But, as we all know, in today’s hectic world those conversations are increasingly rare. It fills a niche, in other words, between a researched article in Teaching Philosophy and a casual venting with a friend, spouse, or partner."
  • "ISW allows us to participate in a conversation around issues in teaching that is both thoughtful and thought provoking, inviting further commitment but not requiring it. For a small investment of time, it offers a rich reward."

Hooray for us (especially for Michael), and sincere thanks to Prof. Immerwahr for the positive and encouraging words.

By the way -- as it happens, the other review in the Digital Media Review section (this one written by Ruth Poproski)
is of a site developed and maintained by Immerwahr himself:, which "presents strategies and resources for faculty members and graduate assistants who teach philosophy courses, especially at the introductory level; it also includes material of interest to college faculty generally." There's a permanent link to that site down in the lower righthand side of this page. Check it out!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Philosophy behind bars

Our old friend the CHE has a short piece by Robert Gormong relating his experience of teaching philosophy in a Virginia correctional facility. I've talked to a number of people who've taught philosophy (or cognate disciplines) in prisons and nearly all find it to be highly rewarding. Gormong writes:

Whatever their flaws, I thought my inmate-students were in a unique position to benefit from a class on philosophy. Philosophy is a discipline that ought to help students shape their lives and values — and at Lunenburg, my students desperately needed to rethink their lives. At their best, they understood that. Many of them proved it in their intense devotion to the class.

Anyone else done this sort of teaching? What were your experiences like?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Best student excuses for late work

Crooked Timber has a nice post on all-time greatest student excuses for late papers. I'd love to hear other examples of the best excuses ISW readers have received. But here are some personal favorites from the CT post:

"It was during my first year of teaching here in Arkansas that I got my favorite late paper excuse of all time: one of my freshmen comp students told me his paper would be late because, the night before, his stepfather had shot his computer with his shotgun while he was messing around, and it would take him awhile to get a new one."

"I missed an organic chemistry final. My excuse was being in jail and I had the newspaper account of the arrest as proof. The professor was pleased with the originality of my situation and let me take a make-up exam."

"How about “I got my girl friend pregnant and I had to help her get an abortion.” A friend of mine used this on two seperate occasions with the same instructor."

"During a summer session I had a student who failed to turn in an assignment via e-mail because his neighbors, from whom he was stealing a wi-fi signal, moved out, leaving him without internet access. That sounded pretty plausible to me."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Laowai Philosophizing

Hi everyone, this post isn't really from me, but from Chris Panza who is teaching this semester in China and can't get to Blogger through the Great Firewall. He'd posted it to his blog here, but he thought it might make for a good teaching post as well.


Sadly, my (our) time in Beijing is slowly coming to a close (we leave in July). This is not something that I or my wife are particularly happy about – both of us feel as if we are, just recently, beginning to get our “sea legs” (so to speak) in Chinese culture. The quickly approaching end of the experience has led me to reflect a bit on what I’ve experienced already, especially with respect to teaching and thinking about Chinese Philosophy while here. There are a lot of subjects I plan to talk about in the future on this topic, but the one I’d like to discuss right now concerns the very general issue of doing Chinese Philosophy in China.

In planning for and looking forward to this trip, one of the things I was most excited about was the prospect of interacting with Chinese on the subject of pre-Qin philosophy. After all, I’ve only spoken to American students about it, and with American scholars. So I was eager to talk about these subjects with people who grew up in the same culture that emerged from those very thinkers I was studying.
Although I would have hoped for even more interaction in this way, there’s still a lot to talk about here. Let me start in a simple place: the reception that I received as someone studying/teaching Chinese Philosophy here in China. Before recording my impressions, I should put out a rather large caveat: my data set here is small. Vanishingly so, as a matter of fact; still, my experience is what it is, and it is formed regardless of the paucity of my data “points”. So I’ll just talk about the experience and let the reader take it with the grain of salt that is appropriate.
My general impression is that my reception by others (Chinese) can be split into two large categories – with one group of people generally approving, an another one not. Each group is a big umbrella, housing different reactions that can be thought of as “positive” or “negative”. I’ll briefly describe the two:
A. The Negative Group.
One “group” of Chinese that I meet seemed surprised, shocked, perplexed, and sometimes annoyed, that I would be teaching Chinese Philosophy here in China. To unify the whole group, however, I always found myself getting the same response from others — upon my saying that this is what I was doing here, the reaction was something like, “Huh? You are teaching Chinese Philosophy here?”
How should this be interpreted? What were they thinking when they said “you”? I’ve come away thinking that there are some different ways to interpret it.
a) The “I don’t teach in Chinese, and I read the texts in translation” problem. There is no doubt that some of the more negative interactions were based on these facts. This is understandable to some degree – if a student was studying Joyce’s Ulysses in Mandarin, I’d probably think that was odd too. That said, I did have a few students mention to me (who would read the Analects in Mandarin alongside my discussing it from translation) that they felt that the interaction with translation helped them to better understand what was going on in the original. That’s interesting, though my own grasp of ancient Chinese is not good enough to comment on the observation. Surely a controversial thing to say, however!
b) The ”I’m not Chinese (or at least Asian)” issue. I’d hate to think that this fact meant anything to anyone, but I can’t help but to think that this did bother some people. More times than not, when I would get the “you are teaching what?” reaction, it was from people who had no idea how good my skills in reading Chinese were (or speaking it for that matter, other than the fact that we were talking in English, though that wouldn’t necessarily indicate anything in this environment). This led me to think that the descriptor for the term “you” was “laowai” (foreigner). In the beginning, I thought perhaps I was getting the impression wrong, but after a while I started to feel as if some had a negative reaction to the fact that I – as a Westerner – was teaching the subject at a Chinese university (irrespective of language ability).
Sometimes it seemed as if there might be two different things going on:
B1) At times I got the impression that it was a “what could a laowai really know about this?” reaction. When I got that impression, I would think to myself “would I feel the same way about a Chinese teaching Melville?” I found my own internal reactions to be conflicting. On the one hand, a quick internal reaction said “yes” – what could a Chinese know about the distinctively Western challenges that Melville is dealing with? On the other hand, my more thought out cognitive reactions would then step in and say “no” – that it was silly to think such a thing. A Chinese can read Moby Dick and understand it just as well as someone from Melville, New York (I used to work there, by the way — gratuitous trivia there).
B2) At other times, the reaction I got felt more like the person I was talking to was insulted, like “even if a laowai could know about this, Chinese should teach it.” I’m certain here that if I were convinced that a Chinese could understand Moby Dick as well as anyone, that I wouldn’t care at all whether an American (or specifically someone from Long Island!) taught it. This one I can’t really figure out at all, if I read the impression right. I would hope that in these interactions, I was misreading the situation. But perhaps not.
B3) Third, some people innocently seemed to be genuinely perplexed. Why would this tall Western guy with the thick American accent care about Chinese Philosophy anyway?
Lots of difficult questions and issues here, I think, for anyone teaching/reading/learning about Chinese Philosophy (or any text read in a cross-cultural forum and context, for that matter). Of course, and once again, I might have misread these reactions, so I’m not sure how much stock to put into my own impressions. Still, I did feel them, whether they were veridical or not.
B. The Positive Group
I received just as many, if not more, positive reactions. They too fell into a number of groups, some overlapping.
C1) I definitely got the impression that some were genuinely excited that a Westerner would be so interested in their own culture and philosophy. I felt a genuine sense of pride from some people that a laowai would show such interest in a heritage that they clearly had a great pride for. Here I experienced a bit of a “good for you!” reaction.
C2) Some people simply thought (in conjunction with C1) that it was just great that Westerners and Easterners could talk about something like this, with the hope of forming a kind of “common language” to address common concerns and problems.
C3) Perhaps most controversially, the most common positive reaction I received pointed to a belief that Chinese texts (especially the Confucian ones) had been misinterpreted or misappropriated by this-or-that specific interest group through Chinese history. These interest groups differed – some thought of political groups (both ancient and contemporary) whereas other pointed to their own parents. People who fell into this group were genuinely excited by the idea of discussing these texts in a different context, without the assumption that those interpretations were obviously right.
Some people (in discussion) were genuinely intrigued by my own readings of the texts (Confucian, specifically). Some even indicated that whereas in the past they had had no interest at all in the works, they now saw that they “spoke” to their own concerns in life. Here, I need to be careful: I’m not suggesting here that “the Westerner” came in and saved Confucius from the Confucians (to bite an old Roger Ames article title). I think it was rather that they were simply happy to have someone read the texts in a way that didn’t simply seem to serve the interests of the group giving the interpretation. Some felt that Confucius had been used by parents to “control” them, make them feel bad, or whatever, and there were similar concerns that political powers-that-be had done the same in the past.

On this score – whether I was Western or not, and whether my readings were even accurate – I felt a genuine desire from some people to reconnect with these texts in new ways, as a way of “freeing them” from what they took to be strictly enforced (and wrong or at least rigid) historical interpretations. A few even found a new reason to be self-critical of their own particular way of engaging in their relational environments!

Positive and negative reactions taken together, this has been a great experience. I wish it could have been longer. I myself (well, my wife too, as she agrees) could easily stay here a few years. I, for one, know that what I could learn about Chinese culture, or even just Chinese thoughts about their own heritage and philosophy, just barely scratched some superficial surface. On one level, this is deeply frustrating, as I realize just how little I really know. On the other hand, I realize that I knew nothing before, so at least I’ve had the opportunity to engage in even this amount of superficial cultural interaction.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lang's On Course: Teachers as People

Lang's final (and very short) chapter focuses on figuring out the person one wants to be in and around the classroom. What sort of teaching persona should one adopt, and why? Lang confesses that he spent too much time and energy on this issue, but given that it is something we all think about, he addresses it and includes such issues as the following:

-How hard of a grader will I be?
-What style of management will I employ in the classroom?
-How much of my personal life should I share in the classroom and with students in general?

It is this last question that Lang focuses on, and I will follow him in this. Lang's first point is that this issue becomes less of an issue as time progresses, because we integrate our teaching persona with our selves, as our comfort level in the classroom increases. Relatedly, Lang says on p. 296 that "the more experience I have as a teacher, the more I am willing to allow other parts of my life, or other faces in my life--father, husband, musician, and so on--to form part of my teaching persona." Finding a comfortable level here will result in naturally staying at that level of transparency.

Lang's second point is a story, summed up by the advice from the head of a seminary: "Just when you think everyone's thinking about you, it usually turns out that nobody's thinking about you at all." This is a good piece of wisdom in and out of the classroom, according to Lang.

Overall I thought the chapter made several good points. Though I've been teaching as a faculty member for 5 years, and as a grad student for a few years prior to that, I'm still working through some of these issues. As I reflect, I definitely show more sides of who I am to my students now than I used to, including significant things such as my family and moral beliefs, and less significant things such as my love for U2, the Kansas City Chiefs, and cycling. Part of this is that I'm just "being myself," but I also think that many students appreciate a professor who opens the door to his or her life a bit. A significant benefit of this is that it fosters trust between students and the instructor, at least from my own experience. And this is crucial not only to an enjoyable classroom environment, but to high quality teaching and learning as well.

Monday, June 1, 2009

How big is too big?

It appears budget cuts are going to plague the state university system in which I teach for several years to come. In such a climate, many ugly options are considered, including one that I find somewhat controversial: increasing class sizes.

It's taken as conventional wisdom that larger class sizes are a bad idea, whether we talking about kindergarten or college calculus. I sometimes wonder how big a determinant of student learning class size really is though. Place a large number of highly motivated and talented students in a classroom with a motivated and talented instructor and plenty of learning will happen. And I think we can agree that there's a certain limit to the number of students that can be in a room and still achieve a friendly or collegial enough atmosphere for serious discussion. But I wonder how far this goes. Is 100 worse than 50, in a philosophy lecture class, say? Is 300 worse than 100?

But the real problem with large class sizes is, of course, us. And by that I mean that large classes mean more of the most demanding and time-intensive, but often least rewarding, work of teaching: grading, etc. Large class sizes ultimately make for tired teachers, and tired teachers are not especially motivated or energetic. This of course is a hard argument to push in any real life context, since it suggests that we instructors have limits and are not superhuman.

Yet the question still strikes me as a good one: To what extent is class size an impediment to learning, especially in philosophy?