Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Teaching X-phi session at APA Pacific meeting

Doubtless many of you are enjoying the Marriott Meat Market, er, APA Eastern meeting in New York. But for those of you headed to the Pacific meeting in San Francisco three months, the APA Committee on Teaching Philosophy has put together an intriguing session on teaching experimental philosophy. Details below the fold ....

APA Committee Session: Experimental Philosophy in the Classroom

1:00-4:00 p.m.

Arranged by the APA Committee on the Teaching of Philosophy

Chair:Alexandra Bradner (Denison University)

Speakers:Emily Esch (College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University)

Chris Weigel (Utah Valley University)

“Experimental Philosophy in Introduction to Philosophy: Opportunities and Challenges”

Joshua May (University of California–Santa Barbara)

“Philosophy 101 and Experimental Philosophy”

Kevin L. Timpe (Northwest Nazarene University)

“Polling as Pedagogy: Experimental Philosophy in a Metaphysics Course”

Richard Kamber (The College of New Jersey)

“Teaching Aesthetics with Experimental Philosophy”

Commentator:Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State University)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tailoring to student learning styles: Don't bother?

The CHE reports on a recent study concluding that while differences in learning styles (kinesthetic, visual, auditory, etc.) exist, it is unwise for instructors to 'match' their teaching techniques to their students' learning styles:

no one has ever proved that any particular style of instruction simultaneously helps students who have one learning style while also harming students who have a different learning style.
The experimenters taught the same material (in this case, a lesson on molecular structure) to students using a given learning style (kinesthetic) for one group and a second style (verbal) for another. The 'matching' claim predicts that students with a given style will learn the material best with their favored style, but the researchers found that one learning style worked best for both groups, even though students tended to enjoy learning in their own favored style.

I'm certainly not qualified to comment on the methodological and disciplinary questions raised by the study. (From the article, there's clearly a lot of controversy about it.) But I can say that I think this is a welcome finding from my own admittedly limited pedagogical perspective. Varying your techniques to help students with different learning styles is now standard advice for college teachers. But I've always instinctually recoiled from taking this too much to heart.

First, not all content is easily presentable according to the various learning styles. Sure, Venn diagrams are nice for logic. There are of course some famous visual metaphors in philosophy — Plato's cave, Hume's billiard balls, the ship of Theseus. I once had a blast putting students in groups and asking them to draw pictures that explain and contrast Spinoza's metaphysics with Lebniz's. (And I've occasionally had students get out of their chairs and place themselves along a continuum to indicate their position on some question.) But philosophy is a highly verbal discipline for a reason. Making logical distinctions, keeping track of the give-and-take surrounding an argument, etc., are things most readily and naturally done in language. So while I'm not opposed to working in different learning styles into the classroom, I don't think instructors should go to extraordinary lengths to accommodate these styles.

Second, this underscores the point that disciplines are what they are. Philosophy is what it is. Part of our responsibility as instructors is to foster the skills — the 'styles,' if you will — conducive to mastering our disciplinary content. Philosophers teach philosophy, yes, but we also implicitly teach reading, writing, and reasoning (among other capacities). And the soundest response to the diversity of student learning styles is not to fit the content to the styles, but to expand the range of styles through which students can learn effectively. This is a bit snarky, but our response to students having difficulty with math is not to try teach them science in a math-free way. Nor do PE teachers try to improve the fitness of students with verbal learning styles by having them read books about exercise.

Lastly, even if it were a good idea to have students master material according to their preferred styles, it's not obvious that this tailoring or matching is the instructor's responsibility. For one thing, presenting material in multiple styles is time-consuming, and at least in my classroom, time is a very precious commodity. But on top of that, students who are aware of their own learning styles can be encouraged to figure out how to adapt the material to their own learning styles. Consider: I teach in English. This is a second or complementary language for many of my students. Doubtless many of them study or discuss the material outside the classroom in languages with which they are more comfortable. And so they should. I'm not so finicky to suggest that they must master the material through English (even though they'll have to ultimately demonstrate their master in English). In doing this, they are adapting the material to their own knowledge or learning style, so to speak. But the same applies to students with diverse learning styles.

So in classic debate format: Agree or disagree:
Philosophy instructors should not go to significant lengths to accommodate student 'learning styles'.


Friday, December 18, 2009


Readers of ISW might already be aware of this, but in case you aren't ProfHacker is a site which "delivers tips, tutorials, and commentary on pedagogy, productivity, and technology in higher education, Monday through Friday." A recent post, the End of Semester Checklist, has some good ideas for wrapping up the fall semester.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bleg: Ancient philosophy anthologies

I'll be teaching Ancient Philosophy starting at the end of March and was hoping folks could direct me toward a good anthology for such a course. When last I taught it (2004), I used the Baird and Kaufmann anthology (Prentice-Hall). Here are the constraints:
  • It's a quarter course (ten weeks), so I'd prefer a shorter and/or less expensive anthology, since I probably can't assign a large portion of the material anyway.
  • It's intended to be a survey of ancient — I plan on a day or so on the pre-Socratics, some early Socratic material, Plato through the Republic or Theatetus, and a bit of Aristotle. I probably won't be able to cover any post-Aristotelian material.
  • I plan on having the students read one medium-length Platonic dialogue in its entirety (probably the Gorgias or Protagoras).
  • I'd like most of the textbook to be primary sources. I don't mind a little bit of stage setting, context, analysis, etc. from the authors, but that shouldn't be the emphasis.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A defense of lectures

Adam Kotsko at IHE gives one of the better defenses of lecturing I've encountered. Kostko's point is a simple one, and easy to forget: Discussion is a wonderful mode of learning, but it presupposes that students have knowledge and skills they often don't have.

Kotsko begins with an observation that resonates with me: Students often tell me they enjoy discussion, but they want more lectures because they feel they learn more from them. (Does everyone else have this experience?) Tempting as it is to dismiss this as students being lazy or passive, Kotsko suggests that this preference reflects students' (accurate) self-perception that they are not prepared for the lofty pedagogical ideal of a "lively discussion of a book by a small, engaged group." What do students lack that they need in order to be real participants in discursive inquiry? Kotsko's answer is familiar:

A big part of that has to be getting them to a point where they are good readers. That means being actual baseline good readers who are able to identify key themes, sympathetically state the author’s argument in their own words, talk about what each section of the book is supposed to be contributing to the whole, and so on — that kind of thing is the necessary foundation for the “critical reading” stage.

I think that the assumption that students have baseline reading skills is behind the thinking of people who want more or less exclusively discussion-based classes — lectures, they suppose, are just trying to transmit information, which the books can do by themselves. If we assume that the students are reading attentively outside of class, we can use the class time to practice our critical reading with each other. I don’t think it’s at all clear, however, that students typically come to college with the skills necessary to make such a model work. Some will, but it’s much safer to assume that your students need help. And I believe that we should interpret students’ desire for more lectures precisely as a cry for help.

Kotsko's suggestion is that lecture can serve to develop these reading skills, and indeed, has significant advantages over other instructional modes:

Lectures can play a significant role in getting students to that next level if they’re used not primarily to transmit information, but to guide students in their reading and in certain modes of thinking. Lectures have significant advantages over written texts — including the ability to use the full range of tone and pacing that an improvised oral delivery allows, as well as the ability to check in periodically to make sure students are still “on board” and change the presentation if necessary — and those advantages should be mobilized in a way that feeds into the reading process itself. A simple example is telling students what they should be looking for in their readings and giving them an outline of the basic argument ahead of time (my own students have requested as much). This will give them more confidence going in and give them a way of seeing what it looks like for themes to emerge or arguments to be strung together. After a few classes worth of that kind of directed reading, perhaps they’ll be ready to begin drawing out themes and arguments themselves. Again, these skills are not something we should be taking for granted!

Kotsko doesn't quite put it this way, but his thought is that lecturing is a form of modelling. We philosophers can reconstruct and represent our own forms of thinking and inquiring, which, after all, is what we want our students to ultimately develop. The hope is that once these forms of thinking and inquiring take root, students can then tackle course content on their own and will be ready to participate meaningfully in critical discussions that presuppose at least modest mastery of that content.

A final comment: Kotsko also reminds us that while lecturing can be criticized for being too passive to instill deep or genuine learning, lecturing is only as 'passive' as the lecturer. Yes, delivering information in a droning, unenthusiastic way is misguided. But if we approach lecture autobiographically, as a way of having students rehearse philosophical inquiry with us — and we do this with energy — it can be as intensive and intellectually active as any other teaching method.

ISW'ers: How do we make lecture something more than just the passive dissemination of information? And in particular, how do we use it to foster the skills requisite for discussion?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

No one likes spam, spam, spam, spam ...

ISW Readers,
Sadly, we've recently been beset with comments spam. To cut down on this, we'll be using word verification for comments. We realize this is a bit bothersome, but it takes only a moment to do the word fill-in and comments will still appear immediately (as opposed to full blown comment moderation, which is burdensome to the Wakers and delays conversation). Sorry, and thanks for understanding.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Weir on final exams

Just in time for finals, the ever helpful Rob Weir at IHE has a useful list of do's and don'ts when it comes to crafting final exams. They follow below the fold.

  1. Don’t exact revenge. "Maybe you had a class (or two) in which students were inattentive or disrespectful and you’re thinking of lowering the reality boom. Sorry; you should have done that earlier in the semester. Maintain professional poise and design a final appropriate for the subject matter, not your revenge fantasies."
  2. Don’t experiment with your final. "... the final isn’t the place to dust off an intriguing new idea. You should hew closely to whatever methods you've been using to evaluate throughout the semester. If you've assigned essays all semester, don’t suddenly opt for an objective exam..."
  3. Don’t use the final to test things you never got around to teaching."...the professor controls the agenda and it's unfair to expect students to paint on walls that never got built."

  1. Make the final harder (and probably longer) than other exams. "This is the culminating exercise of a course and it's fair game to ask students to demonstrate mastery of the material. It should have a cumulative aspect to it, be it in the form of actual detail or in (forewarned) application of central concepts."
  2. Multiple measurements will yield better results. Rob's thought: Mix essay, multiple choice, etc.
  3. Prepare your students. "Give students advance warning of how the exam will be set up. If you can, provide practice exercises. You might, for example, use the course Web site to post a model of a well-done essay or a well-crafted theory application."
  4. Make instructions and expectations crystal clear. "However you configure the exam, make certain that students know what they'll be doing and how you'll evaluate it. ... If you have any special conditions, spell them out in person and in writing."
  5. Make students aware of your college’s honors code.
  6. If you can, break away from conventional exams. "I'm aware that some colleges have non-optional requirements about finals. If you are allowed leeway, however, consider alternative examination methods. I do not believe for a second that blue book exams are necessarily the best way to measure student success... If you’re teaching an upper-division course, the best assessment tool may be a research paper, a lab demonstration, an oral presentation of research, a piece of creative fiction, a collaborative project, a demonstration of craft, or a work of art."
  7. Take your time grading.
Hard to argue with Rob's sage advice, though to my eye, 'do not' #2 almost appears to contradict 'do' #6. Anyone have thoughts about final exam construction -- intriguing ideas, unusual formats or questions, etc.?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Another Look At Teaching Pre-College Philosophy

A few months back, I wrote here at ISW about the pros and cons of teaching pre-college philosophy. The response took me by surprise. Many of you engaged the arguments, pro and con, and took a serious look at the reasons for and against teaching pre-college philosophy. Many others expressed their own delight and inspiration at the prospect of teaching pre-college philosophy. Not surprisingly, however, many of you wanted to know more about how to land such a job. The question naturally lends itself to a different, but important, question for those interested in teaching High School philosophy: what does it mean for a philosopher to teach pre-college philosophy? So, there are two questions I will try to answer in response to the comments that have been made since my post. The first is whether a philosopher can land a pre-college philosophy job; and the second is what it means to be a philosopher who teaches High School?

Can a Philosopher Really Land a High School Philosophy Job?
A former student of mine, who is now at Georgetown University and was working in its philosophy department at the time, contacted me one afternoon. Two tenure track positions in philosophy were open, and she had already filed over three hundred CVs for the jobs! “That’s insane!” I thought. I began to ask myself whether I would even have a remote chance of landing such a gig given the competition. There was no way. I am A.B.D, but even if I were finished with my dissertation, I don’t have the pedigree, the publications or the “pop” on my CV that makes a department like Georgetown say, “We need this philosopher!” But I didn’t need the position; I wasn’t looking for a job. I had a job.

I teach philosophy at Wayland Academy, a private boarding school nestled among the farm towns of South-Eastern Wisconsin. The Georgetown University job search caused me to reflect upon the two questions of this essay: How did I land this job? And what does it mean that I am a philosopher teaching High School?

There are High School philosophy jobs in the United States, but they are rare (they are less rare in Europe, but still not easy to come by). It is mostly the private schools, and even then mostly the elite, private boarding schools, that have the relative freedom to offer such a course or courses. Where philosophy is offered, it is usually offered as an elective to seniors, and not usually taken seriously as an academic course. That is not to say that the teachers aren’t serious or that nothing serious ever gets done, but it is often the case that it is difficult to sell the dean on a rigorous philosophy course that has no specific place in the curriculum. But it can be done!

Six years ago, when I was hired at my current post, I was not hired to teach philosophy. I was hired to teach Honors U.S. Literature and freshmen World Civilizations. I have neither an English degree, nor a History degree, but I had taught High School English and History before, and the school liked my advanced education. I was fortunate enough to enter into a dynamic conversation among the faculty and administration about cross-curricular studies and the development of an intensive writing initiative on campus. Over the course of many conversations that year, I was allowed the opportunity to begin a series of history of philosophy classes that would be offered for advanced credit to upper-classmen. The Dean of College Counseling visited one course, then sat down with me to work out a draft document that could be sent to colleges for those students taking the course in order to explain the rigorous nature of what was being offered. There is more to the story, but the point is that I began teaching philosophy at an academy that believed in what I was doing, and didn’t shy away from making it known outside of the academy. This singular fact, that the academy was interested in what I was doing, created an opportunity that I did not think imaginable. I am a philosopher, and I teach High School philosophy. My course offerings since then have included courses in ethics/political philosophy, introductory logic, and independent studies in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the philosophy of language.

So that you do not think that Wayland Academy is the only school with such an opportunity and a vision, explore some of the links below. While I cannot say that there will be a job posted in the “Jobs For Philosophers” section of the APA any time soon, with a little creativity, a supportive administration, some ambition and sometimes a lot of convincing, landing a job teaching High School philosophy is definitely possible.

What does it mean to be a philosopher who teaches High School?
I really do love my graduate institution, and I have never been more supported in my education as I have been by the faculty at Marquette University. Yet, even there, it is difficult for some to understand why I would not make the jump to the college level. To be honest, I reevaluate this question every year, and it is an ongoing conversation that I have with my closest colleagues in the field. But as for the question, “what does it mean to be a philosopher who teaches High School”, there is very little question about it.

1) I do not publish, and I rarely submit to conferences. It is not that I am uninterested, but I don’t have as much time to research as I would like. That said, I am finishing my dissertation, and I have been teaching High School full-time all the way through my graduate studies at Marquette. I imagine, then, that when I am freed from my academic obligations that I too will be able to teach and publish. The most important fact, however, is that I am not expected to publish. I am expected to be an excellent teacher, to coach, to supervise, and to mentor. That’s it. If I publish, when I publish, it will be because I want to, and because I need to say something, not because my tenure depends upon it.

2) I teach four classes each semester with elective options each year. My average student-load is around 55 students, and my average class size is 14 for under-classmen courses and five for upper-classmen electives. I, therefore, can spend a great deal of time crafting lectures for my students, lectures that are specifically designed for that group of minds in front of me at that moment. I do not need to be original or profound; I just need to connect with the students in front of me, who genuinely look forward to anything interesting that I have to teach. Which brings me to my final point:

3) My students are young. They are inspired, and they are not yet jaded by their education or their world. Therefore, if I can show them that what I am teaching is worth studying, they will worthily study it. They live for those “A-ha!” moments, which makes teaching them refreshingly rewarding...and they succeed because of it. My former student, who is now at Georgetown, once submitted a paper to the Wisconsin Philosophical Association annual conference. Under blind review, her paper was accepted….and mine was not. After delivering her paper and fielding questions, she was asked what college she was attending. She demurely replied, “I will have to graduate high school first before I can answer that.” Wayland is not a school for “smarties.” It hosts average students, whose faculty have enough time for them and where they are encouraged to be inspired by what they are learning.

As a philosopher, then, I have a job where I can think and teach for the same reason that I began studying and teaching in the first place, because I love it! My job gives me the relative leisure (heavy on the relative…boarding schools are still busy places) to craft my ideas for the sake of teaching students who want to learn (mostly…they are people after all). It gives me the freedom to publish, if and when I have something to say, and because it’s worth saying (some of my colleagues continue to publish and give papers in their respective fields every year for the sole reason that they want to). Teaching pre-college philosophy allows me to be a philosopher, in the way I understand being a philosopher, perhaps not with all of the professional trappings that the university offers, but a philosopher nonetheless.

I thank those of you who contributed both publicly and privately to the ongoing conversation of teaching pre-college philosophy. I am glad to have gotten to know some of you through email, and I am sincerely grateful for your thoughts. The primary purpose of the piece was to introduce people to teaching philosophy at the secondary school level. I gladly anticipate your responses whether publicly or in private.


For information regarding private boarding schools:

For information regarding private day schools:

For information on where to begin looking for a job:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The ideal teacher?

Bob Blaisdell has given up on being the ideal teacher. I never wanted to be one.

Or at least, Blaisdell's ideal teacher is awfully far from my ideal. His is a middle-aged male, so I guess I have that covered. But beyond that, I see little to recommend this ideal. His ideal teacher is
  • "a handsome monk in civilian clothing"
  • not too enthusiastic, "but very funny and very serious"
  • inspirational rather than nagging
  • devoid of sexual desire or identity, indeed of any marks of a personal life at all (no spouse, children, etc.)
  • "He can drink juice or water, maybe coffee, but it’s better if he doesn’t. He really shouldn’t eat."
  • "No bus, no train. He has a car, and it’s an unusual car -- not too expensive, but cute and funny. He does not live too close to the college."
And in the grand finale, Blaisdell writes that after the Ideal Teacher corrects a student
the corrected student laughs without shame and is only momentarily embarrassed. He sees before him an open path back into the good graces of his classmates and of course the professor himself. There is a hazy bliss that descends every day or two in class, wherein all the students realize they love him and they love their classmates and they love everyone in the world equally -- everyone realizes their boundless humility and tolerance -- and the whole class and Ideal Teacher sit for long moments in the glow of mutual respect and appreciation.
Kumbaya, eh?

Blaisdell is after ironic caracture, clearly.
Ideal Teacher, this combination of Bill Cosby and the Dalai Lama with a dash or two of the latest superhero, is an angel of light. He will live forever and he was never born.
But irony only works if the ironized object remains to some degree an object of respect or veneration. But Blasidell's Paper Chase-inspired stereotype — mildly eccentric, belonging to a fictional class of scholarly aesthetes — is well past its expiration date. No instructor I admire embodies the stereotype, and no student I know desires that instructors conform to it.