Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Attack of the killer trolley!

I'm teaching the 'trolley problem' tomorrow and found this gem on YouTube. The screaming, terrifying construction workers are the highlight!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bleg: Online logic materials?

An ISW reader facing an unexpected teaching challenge asks for your help and guidance:

"I've been hired to teach a course titled "Logic" at a small university.

I'll be teaching two courses beginning in less than a month. Today I finally was able to get a look at the textbook (already ordered by them for the course) and some example syllabuses from past instances of the course.

It turns out it will be almost impossible for me to use these syllabuses and this textbook in good conscience. The book simply _isn't_ a logic book. It's more like an Intro to Philosophy textbook, and (I won't name the text but) it's not even a very good book for _that_ purpose. The syllabuses, similarly, do nothing to teach actual logic and focus on writing position papers on various philosophical and personal/religious/political issues.

One option, of course, is simply to pretend it's not a logic class and teach it as an intro course instead. But I was told when I was hired that one reason they were looking for someone to teach these courses was so that they would have someone teaching Logic, Critical Thinking and Philosophy courses who actually _knows_ logic, critical thinking and philosophy in some professional capacity. As such, it seems it is part of my _duty_ (not just my own personal inclination) to correct the curriculum here. Moreover, I suspect that accreditation probably turns in part on whether students in critical thinking and logic classes (core classes) are actually being taught something _about_ logic and critical thinking. So I think it's best for the university itself if I make this adjustment to the curriculum. Also, I think logic is valuable, and that I'd be doing a disservice to my _students_ if I didn't teach it to them.

So. Problem. I have this course to teach in less than a month, and I have no text, and perhaps even more importantly, I have no exercises to give the students to let them have practice with the concepts I'd be teaching.

The first round of courses I'm going to teach are compressed. There are only eight three hour meetings, each meeting intended to cover _two normal weeks_ worth of material. Clearly most of the value is going to come from the students working at home on exercises and getting feedback on them.

My current plan is not to run it simply as a Propositional Logic course. I'm going to take a broader approach. It won't be a mere critical thinking course (the students are supposed to have already taken one of those before they take this course) but will take a more in-depth look at the notion of formalized reasoning. The students will be constructing and analyzing actual argument rather than just manipulating formal symbols, but they'll be demonstrating in these constructions and analyses real understanding of the role and value of formalized techniques for dealing with arguments. It's kind of like an applied logic class. (Not just critical thinking, but actual logic, but not just logic, rather, applied logic.)

So here's what I need, and what I haven't been able to find, and which I hope you might be able to help me find by publicizing (anonymously please!) my plight at the blog In Socrates' Wake. I need good exercises designed to help teach the following concepts:

Logical vocabulary (such as validity, soundness, inductive, deductive, inductive strength, argument form, premise, conclusion, etc.)
The formalization of and evaluation of:
--Inductive Generalizations
--Causal Argumentss
--Arguments by Analogy
--(Possibly Abductive arguments, though I haven't thought this one through yet and I'm not sure I'll include such a section in the final course)
--Arguments best formalized in propositional logic (I won't be having the students deal with particularly complicated proofs here)
--Arguments best formalized in categorical logic

My plan right now is for assessment to be through their performance on worksheets and quizzes, as well as very short logical analyses (in English prose) of arguments found "in the wild" so to speak, together with performance on one or two "position papers" in which they're expected to show facility with logical vocabulary and the forms of argument mentioned in the list above.

Some may wonder what I mean by "formalizing" inductive types of arguments like Inductive Generalization and so on. I just mean the notion of abstracting from a specific argument to those characteristics just relevant to evaluating its strength. (That's a description that applies to deductive logic as well of course!) So for example, for an inductive generalization, you'd extract a population, sample, target characteristic, sampling method, and so on. That's what I'd call a "formalization" of an inductive generalization. The big idea of the course is learning how to think through arguments of varying levels of difficulty by learning how to consider them formally, as instances of this or that type of argument, whether they be deductive or inductive.

What I'm _hoping_ for is that there are sets of exercises like this to be found online somewhere that I simply haven't been able to discover. Or that some kind reader of your blog has access to some such sets of exercises in an electronic format that they'd be able to forward to me. Or any other fortunate outcome.

Really, really awesome would be if someone knows of an open-content Logic (or even the right Critical Thinking) textbook online that covers the above topics or roughly the above topics.

Thanks for any advice or help!"


Thursday, April 15, 2010

What not to do...?

David Galef passes on these pedagogical tips from one "Professor N. F. Eckshul." Funny, yes but as a number of the commenters point out, some of these techniques aren't entirely misguided.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

PLATO - Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization

From Jeff Sebo (NYU):
"Nick and I are thrilled to announce the launch of PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), a new outreach organization affiliated with the APA.

You can find information about PLATO here:

This is a seriously amazing organization, with a seriously amazing website. It has all the information you could possibly want about teaching philosophy at the pre-college level. Are you interested in starting an outreach program? Do you want advice about teaching philosophy at the elementary, middle school, or high school level? Do you want access to relevant articles and books and syllabi and software? Do you want to get in touch with other outreach programs, or foundations that you can seek grant money from? All of that information is here, plus a lot more.

In particular, make sure to check out the page called "Creating a Philosophy Outreach Program" (
http://plato-apa.org/getting-started/creating-a-university-outreach-program/). We wrote this guide with input from several other outreach programs, with the hope that it will make starting an outreach program a lot easier than it used to be. So if you or anyone you know is at all interested in this, check it out! And of course, let us know if you have any questions that we failed to address, or advice that we failed to include.

Also, invite your friends to this facebook group! The philosophy outreach effort is gaining a lot of momentum right now, so we should all do our best to capitalize and keep spreading the word!

Happy spring!


Jeff & Nick"

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

An Ethical Challenge

Here is an ethical challenge I gave my students in my ethics courses. We are all familiar with Singer's argument regarding our obligation to save lives if the cost of our doing so meets certain criteria. Between now and final exams (@ 30 days), if each of my students and I save $1.00 per day we could raise @ 4500.00. Assuming that it takes $200.00 to save a life that means we could raise enough money to save @22 people. One of the final exam questions is going to be; How would you explain and justify your actions to these 22 people regarding your contribution to saving their lives.

(Facebook) status anxiety

The Philosophy Smoker has a fun post detailing some wacky student behaviors: the usual strange spellings of philosophers' names, etc. ("Dick Hart's Meditations"!). But this tale satisfies me greatly:

This semester one of my students "friends" me on facebook. Later in the semester, she writes about skipping philosophy class with her buddies as her status. Just before class I get an email saying her grandmother died unexpectedly and she's unable to attend class.

I respond with the usual "I'm sorry to hear that" reply, but attach a screenshot of her status update to the email.

True story.

This ain't no customer service line


So here's the story: In my lower-division ethics courses, there's a weekly quiz administered through Blackboard. The quizzes go up each Friday around noon and come down each Monday at 9 p.m. So the students have about 80 hours to complete a short, six-question reading-based quiz that (based on the statistics from Blackboard) students take an average of 14 minutes to complete.

This morning, I have two e-mails from a student in this course. The first came at 8:41 Monday night. The student wrote to explain that he had closed the browser window with his quiz in it, and Blackboard was not letting him back into the quiz. (That's how I've set it up: Students have one opportunity to complete a quiz, and they can't just open up the quiz to peek at its content and return to take it later.) He wanted my help resetting the quiz so that he could do it again.

The next e-mail arrived at 7:22 this morning. The student (in that characteristically text message-y style) berated me for not helping him: '"didnt you get my email last nite? I was needing help w/the qiuz." The tone degenerates from there.

I'm carefully weighing how to respond to this student. Here's what I'd like to say:
I am not a customer service line. Yes, I'm willing to respond when students have problems like yours. In fact, when a student e-mailed me two days ago with a similar problem, I reset the quiz and the student completed it. But you don't have a right to 24/7/365 assistance. I give you more than ample time to complete this quiz — about 3 1/2 days in fact. You waited until the last minute to complete it. When you do that, you take on the risk that you will confront an unexpected problem of the sort you confronted. But that's why you should build in time for such contingencies. My responsibility is to be available, under reasonable terms, to help you. But I have the right to set some of these terms. And among the terms I set is that I'm not necessarily going to be available to help you 19 minutes before a quiz deadline. It's not my job to save you from the consequences of your procrastination, poor time management, or lack of seriousness about your studies.

Too harsh? Anyone else confront this sort of mentality among students?