Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Revising versus correcting

One of my perennial frustrations in trying to help students develop as writers is their persistent resistance to substantively revising their work. Some of this is due to sheer stubbornness. For many students, the task of writing is sufficiently daunting that a readable draft is such a big accomplishment that they don't want to touch it. (Besides, it looks so pretty printed on those crisp white pages!) In other cases, poor time management is the issue, as students just don't plan ahead and so leave themselves only a tiny window of time to revise their work.

But as with many other challenges related to teaching writing, much of the problem arises from students' unfamiliarity with the stages of the writing process, in this case, not knowing what it means to substantively revise. Tom Deans offers an interesting diagnosis of how we instructors can inadvertently contribute to this problem by tacitly collaborating with students so that the process of revision turns out to be a process of correction:

Conflating revision with correction is quite natural: Students submit (usually flawed) drafts; faculty prescribe how to fix them; and students fix the flaws. Such a process, as anyone who has worked with a skilled editor knows, may not always be fun but it leads to a better final product.

The problem is that the ultimate aims of editing and teaching are different: editors want better writing; teachers may want that too, but they ultimately want better writers.

Certainly students can learn a great deal by following the lead of a good editor, but when teachers slip into editor mode, students in turn focus on delivering what the teacher/editor wants more than on either learning or inquiry. Consider the extreme version (but I've seen it happen): a student submits a draft electronically; a dedicated teacher makes extensive, time-consuming edits in Track Changes; and the student scans the first few edits and then hits the "Accept All" button. Revision done.

Deans points out that when we get into the "I'll tell you what's wrong and you fix it" mode, students turn in better writing but they don't become better writers. Ultimately, they don't learn how to critically engage their own work and become dependent on other people for their editorial judgment and their own writing voice.

Deans reminds us that we can avoid the "I'll tell you what's wrong and you fix it" mode by ensuring that the feedback we give "challenges writers with options and sparks further conversation." All well and good, I say, but there's a nearly genetic resistance to serious revision among my students. And it's especially frustrating when students won't revise in simple ways that nevertheless lead to dramatic improvements in argumentative cogency.

A common example: I receive a lot of student papers that I call "rabbit from the hat" papers. These are papers in which it's clear that the student is knowledgeable about the topic, but because the student hadn't settled on a thesis beforehand, wrote the paper as a report of their own thinking about the topic. As a result, the thesis emerges at the end of the paper, but is basically buried in the last few sentences. It is possible to write a successful philosophy paper this way, but it takes enormous rhetorical skill to keep the reader interested until the end. The more common result is that the reader loses patience trying to figure out what the paper's arguments are leading up to. The discouraging part is that this is an extraordinarily easy problem to correct: Put the rabbit up front by stating the thesis in the first 100 words or so of the paper, so that the subsequent argumentation is oriented around the thesis. Yet many students won't do this even after I explicitly suggest it to them!

In any event, I'd be curious to know what experiences others have with students' revising (or not revising) their work and what they've found to be effective in instilling in them the habit of revising — and not just correcting.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Should We Force The Truth On Others? Choosing to be Neo or Socrates

I am presently working on a paper that deals with the problem stated in the title of this post. I am presenting a brief outline of the main argument below and would welcome any comments. In so far as I do not know how to post the entire draft, if you would like to read it, please let me know and i will email it to you. You can contact me at

Once while watching the Matrix with my son Micah, he commented that he thought that Neo would be acting unethically if he exposed the reality of the Matrix to others without their consent. Even though doing so would expose the illusion that they actually live in a world as it appears to them and act as they think they act, he thought that people have a right to choose to remain ignorant and that Neo’s proposed actions would violate this right. When I teach an intro to philosophy course I use the Matrix in discussing the nature of knowing and skepticism. I ask my students to write a short paper on which pill (the red for knowledge or the blue to remain ignorant) they would take and to explain their reasoning behind their decision. Inevitability about 1/3 of the students will choose the blue pill to remain ignorant. The reason most often given to justify their position is that they are happy with their worldview and lives and they do not want to consider the possibility that they may not be correct regarding the truth status of their beliefs about the way the world is and what constitutes happiness. For them, remaining ignorant of possible viable alternatives is the preferable alternative. They simply do not want to investigate their core beliefs and have them challenged. This is an understandable position in that core beliefs are these that form the foundation upon which we build our conceptual frameworks. It can be very difficult for us to put these beliefs under critical scrutiny. If a foundational core belief turns out to be false, then a major portion of our framework crumbles and we may be left “dazed and confused” without a concrete reference point to regain our intellectual bearing so that we can continue to knowingly and freely move forward in our lives.

According to Hope May, the Socratic method is designed to expose two types of ignorance; definitional ignorance where we do not end up with an acceptable definition for what is being investigated and inconsistency ignorance where the definition that we are investigating leads us to conclusions that are inconsistent, or contradictory, to what was originally stated. Consequently, there is an important normative, as well as pedagogical question that confronts us as educators; “should we force our students to accept what we believe to be true if doing so could radically change the way they view and live their lives?” Neo thinks that it is permissible to force the truth on others and is going to proceed to expose the existence of the Matrix to others without their consent. There is an alternative approach exemplified by Socrates. While agreeing that we should expose ignorance, he would act differently; he would simply offer us the opportunity to uncover the truth for ourselves through critical reflective dialogue around an important issue, but would not force us to learn the truth regarding that issue without our first giving our consent to follow where the argument takes us. Socrates would allow people to enter into, or remain in, the dialogue as they choose. Assuming that it is part of our duty as philosophers to expose ignorance (and I think that it is), if we, as educators, decide to follow the example of Neo, do we violate any ethical parameters that should define the pedagogical role that the teachers of philosophy should play in exposing ignorance?

It is interesting to note that Neo would fail to give others the very choice that Morpheus, the true Socratic figure in the Matrix, gave him when he was first confronted with the opportunity to discover the truth concerning the nature of our existence. Socrates’ approach represents a more passive and nuanced approach then Neo’s in exposing ignorance because it rests on the belief that others do not have to participate in the dialogue, or can even leave the dialogical process, if they so choose. In fact, for Neo there is no dialogue, there is simply exposure to the truth, no quarter given to those to whom he would force the truth upon. However, there is an important moral constraint in the way the method functions when utilized by Socrates: it is not forced upon anyone. Those engaged in the dialogical process must consent to be part of that process even if they are bystanders. Socrates never gives an argument for not forcing people to learn the truth in undertaking his investigations, he simply incorporates it into the way he conducts his investigations. Although he is committed to exposing ignorance and discovering the truth about important issues, he never forces anyone into a discussion, or into remaining in a discussion. At any point in the dialogue we, like Euthyphro, are free to end the discussion and walk away. In fact, we are free not to enter into a dialogue. Even if we make a statement that was to catch the interest of a Socratic-like investigator, we do not have to answer the question posed by that person. Socrates believes that we will suffer a great harm by not investigating the truth of important issues, namely we will never arrive at a firm foundation for making the correct decisions on how to live our lives so that we can find true happiness, but we are free not to know and to be harmed by not knowing.

Neo, on the other hand, is like a freedom fighter. He knows that we are living in slavery and that slavery is an undesirable state of existence if people are to be self- determining moral agents. Neo assumes that there is a contradiction between being self-determining and choosing to become a slave. He must believe that no self-determining agent would knowingly and freely choose to become, or remain a slave. If people choose to become slaves, or to remain ignorant if the opportunity for knowledge is presented to them, they must be somehow being compelled or tricked into making this wrong life altering decision. How can we be morally responsible for our lives if we do not control them? How can we control our lives if we are in a dream-state like existence with our experiences simply being the result of a computerized program designed to deceive us into believing something to be true which is in fact false?

Socrates seems to be arguing that we must know in order to be free, while Neo is arguing that we must be free in order to know. This might be the real issue, the right to be free versus the right not to know. Neo sees the evil of the Matrix, not as a limitation on what we can know, but on our freedom to choose and to act as self-determining moral agents based on those choices. Socrates has a different agenda then Neo; he wants to expose ignorance to arrive at knowledge while Neo wants to expose ignorance to arrive at freedom.

The question we have been discussing is not an unimportant one. To bring in an example that you might face (in one way or another) in real life: suppose that you are a physician and that you have a patient who is suffering from an incurable terminal illness that will kill him in one year. The patient doesn’t know that he has this illness; but you know that the patient’s knowing that he has this illness will not help him recover (nothing will) and will bring him a great deal of misery for the remaining year of this life. Are you obligated to tell the patient? What if the patient is also your friend?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Plusses and Minuses of Online Readings

I wonder what experience people have had with using online readings. A recent email prompts this query:

"Drs. [Tim] O'Keefe and [George] Rainbolt [from Georgia State University, Atlanta] have become shocked and annoyed at the high cost of intro to philosophy anthologies. We have decided to put together a web site that has the format of a standard anthology but is composed exclusively of materials in the public domain and of materials that authors have given us permission to use for free. We plan to make this available free on the web. We are looking for input about the web address we should use. We hope that you will take a moment to fill out a one-page survey on some options. To take the survey, just click on this link:

Thanks in advance for your time. If you would like to forward this message on to other philosophy students or faculty, please feel free to do so."
I wonder what experience people have had with using online readings. Mine has been mixed: the problem has always been, at least with my students, that too many of them either don't read them and/or don't print them out and/or they don't bring them to class. So, even though a lot of $ could be saved by their using online readings, they seem to unfortunately resist it and so I am forced to try to make them buy sometimes expensive books. Anyone have any better luck out there?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Weir on lecture shakeups

Rob Weir at Inside Higher Ed has a nice set of tips to enliven class lectures and presentations. He calls them examples of "didaction" that combine instructor exposition or content and student action. It's definitely a list to check out (though in some cases, it may be hard to apply the suggestions to philosophy: Weir mentions "demonstrating a concept" that was just explained -- is this what we philosophers do with examples?)

One thing I noticed: Several of the techniques are ways of involving students that invite them to participate in contexts where there's little pressure for them to provide a right answer: brainstorming, etc. I've often thought that one factor that suppresses student participation in philosophy classes is that students are very accustomed to participating in discussion, etc. by giving the right answer but feel ill-equipped to participate in the more open-ended, investigative discussions that often take place in philosophy classes, where "right answers" are in short supply. It'd be great to have a set of techniques that work around this student anxiety.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

New ETS grad school assessment

Success in graduate school is clearly not a matter of academic ability alone. In my observation at least, a good many other virtues or emotional dispositions shape whether a person completes graduate school, and in turn, how successful they are in their subsequent academic careers. Plenty of bright people end up leaving graduate school (or the profession) because they are not sufficiently creative, focused, or persistent, for example.

Now our friends at Educational Testing Service, who brought us the SAT, the GRE, the LSAT, and the other standardized tests, aim to identify those who have the personal characteristics to succeed in graduate school. Per the Los Angeles Times:

Is there a way to evaluate a student's drive, persistence, honesty and creativity? What is needed beyond college grades, test scores and traditional recommendation letters?

The Educational Testing Service says it has just the thing. The ETS, which runs the Graduate Record Examinations, will soon offer a supplemental assessment of graduate school applicants on those personal characteristics that could help students tackle advanced studies.

The new online system, called the Personal Potential Index, will ask faculty who know the students to rank them on a 1-5 scale for such attributes as communication skills, teamwork, resilience, organization and integrity. It asks 24 questions, including whether the candidate "produces novel ideas," "meets deadlines," "works well under stress" and "is worthy of trust from others."

So: is the aim of this assessment, assuming it's a good one, achievable? My recollection is that most graduate schools send evaluation forms to recommenders that ask similar questions about students. The hope (I guess) is that the ETS instrument will be more systematic or scientific. I'd be also be curious to know if anyone has ethical objections to this assessment: How would you feel about it if you were a candidate for grad school?