Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Moral Responsibilities of Professors as Professionals

During the past academic year, I participated in a professional learning community centered around faculty ethics. We read and discussed Rights and Wrongs in the College Classroom: Ethical Issues in Postsecondary Teaching, by Jordy Roucheleau (Philosophy) and Bruce Speck (English). The book is concerned with academic ethics in the classroom.
The book deals with a variety of ethical issues, including academic freedom, neutrality and advocacy in the classroom, grading, faculty-student relationships, conflicts of interest, and professional conduct. One thing that struck me as correct in the book is that the majority of responsibility for ensuring that faculty fulfill their responsibilities as teachers falls on the individual faculty member. But when someone is failing to fulfill their responsibilities, it is the professional obligation of others to address the issue. Such "self-policing" is one of the obligations we have in our professional role, and we would rather do this than grant oversight to administrators, legislatures, or the public, primarily because we are the experts in our field and know what it means to fulfill our professional responsibilities. As the authors put it in their conclusion:
Laws and university policies are not suitable means for addressing most ethical concerns in college teaching, such as the fairness of grades, the appropriateness of assignments, the amount of energy dedicated to course preparation, or the quality of faculty relationships with students...Because teaching does not lend itself to external regulation, instructors have a particular duty to observe ethical principles in their teaching (p. 169-170).
The problem is that many things are hinderances to the reflection and effort required to observe such principles. Heavy teaching loads, increased research demands, increased use of adjunct faculty, and other factors make this more difficult.

There are many things that can and should be done to help faculty fulfill their obligations. One that often arose in the context of our professional learning community was the need for faculty to address this personally and to take responsibility for helping one another deal with our deficiencies. All of the members of our community knew of cases (directly or indirectly) in which faculty were failing to fulfill their teaching obligations in an adequate manner. And many of these were going under the radar, so to speak.

Do readers (i) believe they have a professional responsibility to address cases in which other faculty members are failing to fulfill their classroom obligations?; and (ii) have suggestions for cultivating a commitment to ethical practices in the classroom on a campus?

Monday, June 28, 2010

ISW: From infant to toddler

Yes, believe it or not, ISW is now a whopping three years old. Happy birthday to us!

Needless to say, I wasn't sure back when I did the first post here whether this endeavor would succeed. But I think by any measure, we have reason to be proud of what's happened at ISW:
  • 330 total posts by our 11 contributors, eliciting over 1,400 comments
  • over 4,000 unique visitors, with an average of 100 visits per week
  • visitors from 124 countries
  • 70+ followers, plus over 400 RSS and e-mail subscribers
And here's our 'greatest hits' (or at least those posts that have drawn the most comments!):
  1. Evaluating teaching credentials (September 2007, me )
  2. Business and ethics: A disconnect — Part One (July 2007, by John Alexander)
  3. Does philosophy provide any answers? (October 2007, by Mike Austin)
  4. Teaching pre-college philosophy (March 2009, by Jason Nicholson)
  5. Recommending students do what they shouldn't do (February 2008, me)
  6. A frustration: Evaluating reasoning vs. evaluating premises (January 2010, me)
  7. The reading brain (February 2008, by Becko Copenhaver)
  8. On Course, #1: Before the Beginning (The Syllabus) (October 2008, me)
  9. Reading student e-mails (January 2010, by Chris Panza)
  10. What's philosophy for, anywho? (September 2008, by Chris Panza)
Thanks to all our readers and our contributors!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Online reading group: Nussbaum's Not for Profit

ISW readers may remember that last year we did an online reading group here on James Lang's book On Course. We've decided to reprise that format, but this time the text is Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Nussbaum's book is not directly related to teaching philosophy, but the ISW contributors thought that, with so much pressure being put on philosophy departments to justify their existence in this period of economic stress, a discussion of the larger aims of humanities pedagogy is opportune.

So here's our plan: Each ISW contributor will be posting a long-ish entry on the book, with posts Mondays and Thursdays of each week, starting August 30. Please pick up Nussbaum's book and join our conversation! 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Philosophy in Middle School

This summer I've volunteered to do a few lectures for a summer scholar program (in its third year) at my university. The program basically invites to campus a number of local middle school students (7th and 8th grade) who (a) come from disadvantaged backgrounds and (b) have been identified as having solid academic promise. This is the first time I've worked with the program, so I'm starting from the ground up on how to approach the lectures and discussions. I've never worked with students of this age, so I'm looking for any suggestions any of you might have on a few key questions (I list two specific ones below the fold).

The first question concerns the advance reading. I'm slated to give lectures on the topic of authenticity from a philosophical perspective. A cool topic, no doubt, but I'm having a hard time thinking of a suitable short advance reading for students of this age to tackle. Does anyone have any ideas? Really anything will do - it will be pretty easy to construct a good discussion about the key themes on this topic starting from pretty much any advance reading source. I just can't think of any good sources! It doesn't have to be straight philosophy - could be anything, an editorial, a comic book, a short story, it doesn't matter. As long as it sets up the basic issue.

The second question concerns approach. These are 7th and 8th grade students. I've never worked with this age group. How would you approach a philosophical discussion with 7th and 8th graders? I have a 90 minute time slot to play with (I'll be giving the same talk/discussion four times, once with each boy/girl group from the two age groups), so time really isn't an issue (if anything, I might have too much of it!).

Of course, I'd be happy to hear any suggestions or thoughts you might have on those two specific questions, or anything else on the general topic.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The university as an 'ethics lab'

Jane Robbins has a gratifying piece about using universities themselves as ethics labs. In a professional ethics course, Robbins used UC Berkeley's recent decision to take DNA samples from their students as part of a 'first year experience program' as a case study.  Robbins had her students consider issues such as the possible conflicts of interest among actors within the university, the educational value of this program, student privacy, and the quality of the university's reasoning in defending the program. Robbins:

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How can we learn to teach better?

Thanks to Michael for the kind, and humbling, introduction. I hope it won't seem like a cheat, but I thought I'd devote my opening post to a reading recommendation. The reason is that Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need--and What We Can Do About It is one of a handful of books that I'd like everyone in my profession to read, and frankly if I hadn't read it I probably wouldn't have accepted ISW's invitation to join up.

The reason I read Wagner's book has nothing to do with what I found so valuable about it. I was preparing a talk for teachers at a local high school on educational equity, and I knew that one of the teachers was obsessed with the "achievement gap" between American and foreign students, so wanted to learn more about it. And, indeed, Wagner is very clear about the kinds of things that our schools (and colleges) could be doing better for even our most advantaged students -- in particular failing to create opportunities for higher order cognition, and structuring their learning to produce the traits and skills that will serve them well in a global  economy (in this, and other respects, it is a nice complement to Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities which we'll be discussing later). He includes a nice, and in my experience quite accurate, critique of the AP History exams (I don't think my colleagues in English all agree with me, but AP English seems much better at eliciting the kind of curriculum in which students learn things that are valuable).

But what really grabbed my attention was his description of what he does at the Change Leadership Group at Harvard.
The Harvard program is focused on k-12 teaching. At its core is a workshop, in which groups of teachers (most of whom are unacquainted with one another previously) discuss videos of other teachers teaching in the classroom, led by Wagner or one of his colleagues. The aim is to develop a language for discussing instruction -- and to come to some sort of interpersonal agreement on standards of practice. Like most teachers, his participants have spent very little time observing other teachers do what they do, and are not practiced in rigorous detail-oriented discussion of what works and what doesn't. Initially the reactions to what they are observing are very diverse -- there is no agreement about whether what is being done is good or bad teaching. But over the course of the workshop the participants develop a common understanding, and a language for expressing it.

The idea is simple. If teachers were engaged in mutual observation and had resources to discuss what they were seeing and doing, they could begin to learn from one another, thus improving their practice. To use an analogy that Wagner doesn't use, it's like learning a musical instrument. You learn by watching and listening to others, noting what they do, mimicking it, practicing endlessly, subjecting your practice to your own critique and that of others, in the light of continued observations of others who are better than you are (or who are better in some particular way that you can improve). I suppose there are musical geniuses who learn some other way, and no doubt there's a handful of teachers who are so naturally gifted that mutual observation wouldn't improve things, but that's not most of us. Reading Wagner, for the first time, I started to see how it could be that we could improve our teaching collectively, by deploying the kind of inter-subjective scrutiny of our efforts that we already apply to our research (you never publish anything unless it has been scrutinized by at least one other person, and you aim to get it scrutinized by as many people as feasible before committing it to publication).

My wife consistently points out to me that the schools which actually adopt Wagner's process as part of their ongoing professional development are quite unusual -- they tend to be schools in which teachers have a fair amount of discretionary time, and which are pretty well run. Not like most. But research universities with undergraduate colleges within them, and small liberal arts colleges do seem to me to have the conditions in which a program like this could profitably be adopted.

The other natural worry about the Wagner method is whether the group is, in fact, learning the right things. Are they harnessing individual insights to develop group wisdom, or individual prejudice to develop an unquestioned orthodoxy? What they are not observing within the group is whether any students are actually learning anything which is, after all, what actually constitutes success in teaching.

Learning is hard to measure, and it's especially hard to measure the aspects of learning which really matter (the development of skills, enthusiasm for, and long-term retention of the material). In college, at least in the humanities, we make no effort at all to gauge learning --- we reward students for and celebrate their performance rather than their learning. We don't even have common interpersonal standards for what counts as quality performance -- we grade our own students' work, not one another's, and rarely sit down with a set of papers and discuss with one another what we value in the papers (and what we don't).

So there's a leap of faith in adopting a model like Wagner's, based on confidence in i) the capacity of the people involved for judgment and ii) the deliberative value of interpersonal discussion. I'd like to see something like Wagner's model adopted in a few places, ideally alongside some experiments in aligning standards and curriculum across classes within particular departments. Anyway, I'm recommending the book, and curious whether anyone knows similar models operating in higher education. I'm aiming to pilot a program not completely unlike Wagner's among a multidisciplinary group of faculty this coming Fall (see here) and will report on what we do.

(Cross-posted, as many of my posts will be, at CT)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Steppin' up to the mic, part 8

Been a while since the ISW contributor list expanded, but we're very pleased to welcome Harry Brighouse to our roster of contributors. Harry's a name that is probably well known to many of our readers: He contributes over at Crooked Timber, and I've made mention before of his contributions on grade inflation, advising students about law school, how philosophy is perceived by other disciplines, and some in-class exercises about justice and the family. These contributions only scratch the surface of Harry's work. He's written some fascinating work on democratic theory, educational reform, educational privatization, and school choice. I anticipate he'll bring a most welcome 'big picture' perspective on philosophy teaching to our humble blog.

Web cheers for Harry!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Getting beyond "dissing"

This informative article by Joan Goodman got me thinking about respect. I think most philosophy instructors would agree that they teach (and teach about) respect. In ethics courses, respect might be an explicit target of philosophical inquiry: what is respect? What sorts of conduct display it, etc.? Is it earned or inherent? More generally, respect is a kind of intellectual virtue, and even if we don't make it explicit, we attempt to model it and teach it by example.

But Goodman's article reminds me of a conception of respect that students sometimes have and which is problematic in teaching: intellectually at least, respect involves agreement with another's view (or short of that, praising another's view regardless of its actual coherence, persuasiveness, or other intellectual merits). Anything that doesn't exhibit this respect amounts to "dissing."