Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When the superstars shine too bright

Lazy, unprepared, intellectually overmatched and/or irresponsible students can disrupt the dynamic in the classroom. But Rob Weir reminds us that the hardworking, well prepared, capable students pose their own threat to the classroom dynamic. Here's how Rob handles this:

Your very brightest students can harm the group dynamic, usually without meaning to do so. Some kids just “get it” miles in advance of their peers. They make connections that are so astonishing in their depth and complexity that their classmates flinch from admiration and intimidation. Try calling on these students selectively and seek to recruit them as discussion aides. I generally take such students aside and ask them to play a particular role in discussion. (It’s amazing how many don’t realize how bright they are!) I generally solicit their input after discussion has unfurled a bit so it appears more as a collective thought than an individual one. In some cases I’ll even ask them if they will ask redirect questions of a peer response such as “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” I’ve had some success stories from this, including students who decided they wanted to become teachers. Caution: Students have the right to decline the aide role. If they do, you will simply need to limit how often you call on them.
I think we can all recognize that a very competent student can dominate a class negatively without even trying. I certainly agree with calling on such students "selectively." But I'm not so fond of Weir's suggestion that you enlist your superstars as "discussion aides." Part of intellectual maturity is to recognize when you need to stand back and let others have a larger role in the learning environment. Being put in a position of semi-authority reinforces the superstar student's sense of her 'specialness.' I'm wondering if there are better solutions here. Any ideas Wakers? Are there ways of turning the superstars from attention hogs into resources for other students without seeming to make the superstar into a co-teacher?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

So for next time, read this fascinating article by Dr. Me!

ISW reader Gwen Bradford wrote me about something that was discussed, albeit indirectly, in the third ever post at ISW, (now over two years ago, if you can believe it!). Here's Gwen:

I'm a graduate student, and I'm teaching an undergraduate seminar on a particular issue in value theory - the value of achievements, to be specific. There isn't a great deal of literature that deals directly with the issues. In fact, this is precisely why it's the subject of my dissertation! I wasn't planning on assigning anything of my own for the class to read and discuss, but the directions that our discussions have been taking suggest that it would be interesting and useful for the students to read.

Here's the issue. I would really prefer it if the student didn't know that I am the author. I would like them to feel totally uninhibited and free to criticize my arguments, and I think they will definitely be hampered in their critical engagement if they know they're reading something of mine. The paper that I want to assign (a chapter of my dissertation), isn't yet published anywhere. Would it be wrong if I assign the reading, but under a pseudonym?
I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts about this, but here a few ideas to get things started: Gwen's clearly worried that students will be less critically engaged with her own work than they would with the work of others — hence, her suggestion of assigning it under a pseudonym. A small wrinkle is that pseudonymity probably wouldn't work for published work. But putting that aside, on the few occasions when I've assigned my own research, I didn't use a pseudonym because, in my estimation, students are more likely to mirror you, i.e., the engagement you manifest in your own research will engage them. I wrote this in the comments to the post I mention earlier:

An analogy: I often think of teaching as being a tour guide in an exotic city. I help the students navigate the intellectual terrain, pointing out the landmarks, explaining why they're landmarks, etc. This has the advantage (if you're a good guide) that students get a fair and reasonably thorough picture of the city. On the other hand, it conceals the fact that as a researcher, you're contributing to this growing city and that you care enough about the city to want to contribute to it. So what effects would students knowing the latter have on their conception of the instructor? Will they mirror the instructor by becoming less dispassionate and more engaged (since your research indicates you care, they might care more also) -- or are those gains offset by students' perceiving the instructor as less objective, as an interested party with an agenda?

Over time, I've begun to think that whatever the downside, it's outweighed by showing students that you're not just teaching material for the sake of teaching it — that you (and they!) are parties to a conversation, not just observers of it. But Gwen's concerns still strike me as entirely legitimate.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Whoa there, Perry Mason?

Philosophers Anonymous had a lively discussion recently about whether we should encourage philosophy students to continue on to grad school. I think about that issue from time to time, but the number of students I teach who are both interested in, and qualified, for philosophy grad school is too small, in my estimation, for me to lose much sleep over the matter.

Law school? Another story altogether. Seemingly every one of the majors I teach at least casts a sideways glance at law school. I'm certain that students who consider grad school in the academic fields labor under many illusions about what they're getting into, illusions that I think it is my obligation to dispel. But I've also begun to think that students have many equally powerful misconceptions about law school and the legal profession. This post at Crooked Timber, with many comments by lawyers, highlights many of these misconceptions.

The author, Harry Brighouse, quotes approvingly from Derek Bok's book, Our Underachieving Colleges. Bok argues that colleges don't help students understand the day-to-day realities of life in various professions, with the consequence "that students are rather ignorant of what different careers involve, what they are likely to do within them, how those careers contribute to the society, and what contribution they would make to their own wellbeing." In reference to the law in particular, Bok sayeth:

For students who begin their legal training hoping to fight for social justice, law school can be a sobering experience. While there, they learn a number of hard truths. Jobs fighting for the environment or civil liberties are very scarce. Defending the poor and powerless turns out to pay remarkably little and often to consist of work that many regard as repetitive and dull. As public interest jobs seem less promising (and law school debts continue to mount), most of these idealistic students end by persuading themselves that a large corporate law firm is the best course to pursue, even though many of them fund the specialties practiced in these firms, such as corporate law, tax law, and real estate law, both uninteresting and unchallenging…..

Almost half of the young lawyers leave their firm within three years. Many complain of having too little time with their families, and feeling tired and under pressure on most days of the week. Many more are weary of constantly having to compete for advancement with other bright young lawyers or troubled by what they regard as the lack of redeeming social value in their work. Within the profession as a whole, levels of stress, alcoholism, divorce, suicide and drug abuse are all substantially above the national average.

I'm not a lawyer and don't have close connections with the legal community, but Bok's remarks resonate with me. Defending others' legal interests is a noble calling and one that puts to use many of the skills students learn from studying philosophy. But most lawyers end up as the janitors of human affairs, cleaning up other people's ugly problems, rather than as crusaders for social justice. And oftentimes, it's damn hard work to boot.

How do all of you advise prospective law students? Do students enter law school with their eyes wide open? I try to provide students a balanced picture of law school and of life as a lawyer, but I fear that it rarely sinks in. For that reason alone, I think I'll be directing students who ask about law school to the CT post. It provides a more credible, on-the-ground picture of life in the legal profession than I can provide.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sayonara to office hours?

I was surprised by this discussion of office hours over at Reassigned Time. Like I suspect is the case for most of you, I'm required to hold office hours in proportion to the number of classes I'm teaching (about four hours per week usually). I'm also supposed to hold them on at least two different days, etc. But I don't get a lot of visitors during those hours. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that my students (like me) don't want to be at the university nights and weekends and have other courses or responsibilities that conflict with daytime office hours. (I've also tried bribing them with cookies, provocative philosophical discussion, liquor, etc., to no avail!) But the discussion at RT suggests that in this e-age, scheduled face-to-faces with students may be superfluous. I always add "and by appointment" to my line about office hours on my syllabus, and some students do arrange for appointments to discuss specific concerns. But more often, I feel like the Maytag repairman, waiting forlorn for someone to patronize my philosophy shop.

So: How do you all feel about office hours? Useful, essential, indispensable -- or an inconvenient relic? Does anyone out there do anything unusual with office hours? Shall we write the obituary on office hours?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Turning plagiarism into a teachable moment

Our reader Matt Pianalto writes me about a recent case of plagiarism and a response he's considering. Matt wonders: Is this too soft a response to plagiarism?

So, a week into my semester I’ve had a case of admitted plagiarism on a one page (!) assignment. In the past at other schools, I’ve been completely zero-tolerance, and have automatically failed people for just this. I know some people talk about “teachable moments,” and for some incomprehensible reason I am feeling slightly less heartless in this case. As I pointed out to the student, the stupidity of his act goes beyond what he did but also concerns WHAT assignment he plagiarized. The students were asked to figure out what Socrates could mean by saying that a good person can’t be harmed. Of course, the implicit view informing Socrates’ statement is that the sort of harm he sees as truly bad is harm to the “soul,” and that the only person who can harm one’s soul is oneself, by doing wrong. (Say, by knowingly plagiarizing your philosophy homework…)

So instead of kicking this student out of class, with an F, I’m thinking about requiring this student to read some related parts of the Republic (Books I, II, and IX), and to relate all of this, as well as the in-class reading (the Apology and the Crito), to his case, in the form of a substantive paper (much more work than the original assignment, and for no credit. But if the assignment isn’t done to my satisfaction, the student fails). My topic idea is something like, why is Socrates right that it’s better to be caught doing wrong than to get away with it? This is somewhat pedantic, but could be eye-opening for the student. The student will also be required to prove that at least one visit was paid to the Writing Center. It’s also a pain in my butt, but a more interesting pain than all the paperwork I’ve already had to complete. I guess I’m a little worried, however, that I’ve “gone soft” by even thinking of giving the student this opportunity. My policy simply says that my “default” sanction for academic dishonesty is an F for the course, so I’m operating within the realm of stated possibilities in my syllabus. Maybe I should only do this if I’m willing to do it every time (even if the violation doesn’t involve readings of Plato). Is it worth it?

What say you ISW readers?