Friday, November 20, 2009

More on Thought Experiments in the Classroom

This issue has been addressed before on ISW, but I would like to raise it again. I find it difficult to get students to see the relevance of thought experiments, even the less esoteric ones such as Singer's drowning child analogy in his argument for famine relief. Even if they come along for the first part of the ride, when I start adjusting the drowning child case to handle their objections to the analogy between it and the starving child, I start to lose them.

David Boonin and Graham Oddie's applied ethics anthology has a helpful discussion of the role and relevance of thought experiments (specifically, arguments from analogy) in the introduction. They discuss how to understand such arguments, how to criticize them, and the technique of appealing to variant cases. I have found summarizing and explaining their points to be somewhat helpful, but I'm interested in how others motivate and justify this form of argument in applied ethics to students who seem skeptical of the method.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Philosophers and ink stained wretches

Carlin Romano claims we need courses in the Philosophy of Journalism. Is he right?

Romano suggests that philosophy of journalism belongs in the philosophy curriculum just as philosophy of law, philosophy of science, or philosophy of religion do. I'm not sure about this. I don't see that there are fundamental metaphysical questions in journalism as there are in science or religion. Nor does journalism present analogous conceptual questions associated with philosophy of law (the nature or law or legal norms, for example).

On the other hand, I'm not a journalist (though I did play one as the crusading editor of my high school newspapers), and Romano does make a case that journalism and philosophy could fruitfully enrich one another. I'm not so convinced that, as Romano claims, philosophy and journalism are united as "the two humanistic intellectual activities that most boldly (and some think obnoxiously) vaunt their primary devotion to truth." (Science, anyone?) The central prerogative of academic philosophy may be "publish or perish," but that goes all the more for journalism. Sure, truth matters in journalism, but it matters differently. For one thing, the truth has to sell. Second, philosophy (on my view, at least) aims to understand. As Sellars put it, it is the endeavor "to see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term." Journalism rarely has such comprehensive truth-seeking as its aim, and indeed, much of what strikes me as deficient about the contemporary journalistic media is not that it fails to discern truth. Rather, the truths it discerns rarely help us understand anything worth understanding.

That being said, Romano points out that journalism is an arena of human affairs rife with meaty philosophical interest. In democratic societies, journalists should be tasked with doing critical thinking directed not only at their subjects but at their own profession.
we need journalists who scrutinize and question not just government officials, PR releases, and leaked documents, but their own preconceptions about every aspect of their business. We need journalists who think about how many examples are required to assert a generalization, what the role of the press ought to be in the state, how the boundaries of words are fixed or indeterminate in Wittgensteinian ways, and how their daily practice does or does not resemble art or science.
Simultaneously, journalism is a laboratory for thinking about philosophical problems in a concrete way:
we need philosophers who understand how epistemology and the establishment of truth claims function in the real world outside seminars and journals—the role of recognized authorities, of decision, of conscious intersubjective setting of standards.
So: philosophy of journalism -- yea or no? And if so, how is this distinct from 'media ethics'?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The noble lie I tell myself

Boy, there's not a better article to get you thinking about the instructor-student relationship than this piece by Gary Lewandowski and David Stromhetz. When students don't learn, how quick are we to decide that they're the problem? The authors:

Was it your teaching? Impossible, of course. You are a conscientious teacher who worked diligently on your lectures. You tracked down recent references, created examples, embedded discussion questions, made several rounds of revisions, and followed tips for creating proper PowerPoints. But the students still did poorly, and will surely blame you and exact revenge on your teaching evaluations. The only viable explanation for the students’ poor performance is that the students are to blame. It’s not you, it’s them! (Or so you think.)

Teachers want students to learn, and when students fail to meet that goal, someone must bear the responsibility. The kids aren’t all right – they’re the problem. At one time or another, it is easy to feel as though students are not holding up their end of the teacher-student "relationship."

But just as students tend to take all the credit when things go well and blame us when things go wrong, aren't we Pollyannas too - patting ourselves on the back when students learn but pinning all the responsibility on them when learning doesn't happen? Lewandowski and Stromhetz:
Teachers are all familiar with the notion that when students do well in our courses, they take the credit as the smart and capable students that they are. However, when students do poorly the teacher often bears the blame. Students have "earned" every A, but have been "given" every B, C, D, or F by their less than stellar teachers.

However, professors are not immune from adopting a similar self-serving bias. When a specific class, an entire course, or an entire semester of teaching evaluations go well, we simply re-affirm our teaching prowess. But when evaluations are less than complimentary, there must be another explanation. Most commonly we attribute poor teaching outcomes to the occupants of the desks in our classroom. Yet, if you asked students why some of their courses are less fulfilling, less educational, and less enjoyable, students would likely suggest that the instructor is to blame. Certainly both perspectives have a kernel of truth.

They also remind us of some reasons to be humble and not so ready to lay the responsibility solely on students. First, we probably compare them to ourselves, and maybe, just maybe, we had bad study habits and attitudes when we were students. And second (as I like to remind myself), we instructors are freaks. We had the ability to excel in our disciplines, despite (in all likelihood) not always being the beneficiaries of quality teaching. Beyond this, we still must teach. We still must educate. And there's the serious danger that placing so much blame on students ultimately serves them badly.

Given that we may be unable to effect wholesale, lasting changes in the inherent natures of our students, we as teachers can adapt and better meet our teaching goals. As they say, the first step is acknowledging that we contribute to the problem. By focusing on student deficiencies, you may inadvertently perpetuate the problem. Case in point, by developing a mindset that students have significant deficiencies, you may become more prone to developing a confirmatory bias that leads you to more easily identify and remember students’ deficiencies. Worse, negative expectations about students might lead you to act in a way (perhaps unknowingly) that elicits negative behaviors from students.

For example, if you became convinced that your class was unenthusiastic, you might devote less effort to your next lecture because quite frankly "why bother? They aren’t interested anyway." Thus, your next lecture is subsequently less engaging, and the students are, as you predicted, unenthusiastic. By identifying and resisting this self-defeating pattern, you can take steps to avoid it. After all, you are the person with the most influence on the classroom and have the most ability to produce the desired change.

These words remind me of what I like to call (following Plato) my noble lie. The unpleasant fact of the matter is that educators (especially at the university level) are dealing with students who, intellectually at least, are pretty close to a finished product. They are already heavily acculturated, academically and otherwise, and the influences of genetics and their family environments are nearly fully manifest. One need not be a determinist to think that our ability to fundamentally transform the learning habits and orientations of our students is extremely limited. Yes, some students 'find themselves' in college. Yes, some students will be diamonds in the rough whose talents just needed the right environment or the right teacher. But overwhelmingly (and I'm under the impression that data support this), the best students entering college are the best when they leave, the average are average, and those who struggled before college continued to struggle during college. This doesn't mean students don't learn during their college years. It simply means that those most learners do not experience dramatic shifts in their learning capacities.

But this is a truth, if I were to accept it, that would defeat my very aims as an educator. Again borrowing from Plato, one cannot teach what cannot be learned. And so any hope of truly teaching my students depends on my assuming, even against substantial evidence, that students can learn and grow in their ability to learn.

So what is my noble lie? It's more of a hyperbolic conceit. But put simply: Each and every student I teach can, with reasonable effort, master what I aim to help them learn. Is it true? Probably not. Teaching, they say, is an act of faith. My noble lie expresses that faith.

(How many of my fellow instructors are noble liars too?)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

An Alternative way of Revising

This time of year, many of us find ourselves writing many comments on papers that we have written before, for the same student, and we find that we are writing the same comments throughout the paper. When we do this, we get frustrated, and the students get discouraged. But shouldn't we be marking all the places in the paper that illustrate the particular problems on which we expect students to improve? In addition, we all recognize the value of revision - but full papers are often insufficiently revised, compounding the frustration and disappointment of both teachers and students alike. What to do? Here is what I am trying.

By this point in the semester my students have had at least one if not two papers on which I have commented extensively, including comments on clarity, grace and style. Together we have begun to locate particular patterns in their writing to focus on for revision and future papers. From this point onwards, then, I select only one paragraph per paper to mark for style, grace, and other formal matters. As a matter of discipline I allow myself only three more comments on any given page. Of course, I still provide an overall evaluation based on content. I also select only one paragraph to mark for issues concerning explanation, argument and evidence.

Instead of encouraging students to revise an entire paper, I give them the opportunity to come to office hours with a revision of one or both of these selected paragraphs. This can easily be read together in office hours and presents a good learning opportunity. It also allows the student to do some revision without getting behind in class because she is trying to tackle a major revision of a whole paper.

I should say that given my small class size, I also give them one opportunity to revise one whole paper if they wish. But for larger classes, this might be a good way to 1) recognize the value of revision, 2) make revision targeted and effective rather than a daunting and distracting process, and 3) encourage us as teachers to remember that writing lots of similar comments across a whole paper is as demoralizing to students as it is frustrating for us.