Sunday, November 28, 2010

75 tips for college students

The other night I got one of those emails from unknown students which just starts "Hey" and continues with some request (usually to be admitted to one of my oversubscribed classes). My immediate reaction is to ignore (that was my wife's advice) but this time I just decided to do something different. I wrote back explaining the over-subscription situation, and finished with this "By the way, you might want to address people you haven't met more formally in future: I don't find it irritating but many will" (which is a lie, I do find it irritating, but there's no need to tell her that). My original version had more verbiage in it, but my 14 year old (whose missives to teachers are like business letters) told me to take it out on the grounds that "she'll never do it again, but she'll be scared to meet you".

I was prompted to do this by Andrew Roberts' book The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education(see tip 53). The central idea of the book is that students need a map of how to get the most out of college, and that lots of them arrive not understanding key things. Why not just make it explicit for her?

In fact I don't currently have a copy of the book, because each copy I get goes to the next high school senior who walks through the door (which an alarming number of them seem to be doing these days). As suggested by this, 75 Tips would be a great Christmas present for the college-bound high school seniors and college freshmen of your acquaintance.

Roberts divides the book into 9 sections -- an explanation of how universities work; tips for choosing a college (upshot  - don't make such a meal of it, you'll like wherever you go pretty much); tips on choosing classes (including the sensible tip not to take more than a couple of classes with any professor -- because most of us have at most 2 classes worth of learning to impart) and on choosing a major; tips on being successful (including the excellent advice, too often neglected, to study with other people); on interacting with professors (don't address then in your first email with a "hey", go to their office hours (I always tell students this, and they say they have had experiences of being distinctly not wanted, and relax when I point out that if he really wants to get rid of you you can leave and he won't remember you), also, get to know at least one professor reasonably well, which, I should say, is brilliant advice but not entirely easy to follow at a place like mine); what to do with your extra-curricular time; whether and when to go to graduate school; and a final section explaining how professors behave and what incentives they are responding to (they want to research not teach, and teach graduate students not undergraduates -- a friend who recently graduated from an Ivy-ish institution told me that in his address to them on the first day of freshman year the Provost just told them that they should know that Professors would have no interest in them).

The tips are each easily digestible -- if you can't read the book you should maybe postpone going to college. My guess is that it will be read by parents more than students, but especially parents whose experience of college is 5 years or less (or none) would do well to read it to guide their offspring. But even those of us who know the college world well will only give at most half these tips to their kids, partly because some won't occur to us, and partly because others ("don't address a professor with "hey" in your first email to them) seem blindingly obvious. Apparently not.

I should probably disclose that the author sent me the manuscript completely out of the blue a couple of years ago (I've never met him) and I almost instantly gave him a good number of comments on it. There's one thing that I regret: the phrases "rape" or "sexual assault" don't appear in the index, and if I were giving comments now I would press him hard to discuss sexual violence on campus. But I was much less aware of the issue then than I thankfully am now.

By the way, the student in question did reply, almost immediately. She said "Dear Professor Brighouse, thanks for the tip, I will utilise it in future. Hopefully I'll be able to learn more from you in your class" which showed a willingness to learn and a slight cheekiness that I rather appreciated. Maybe I should give her the book. I have been very close to only a few undergraduates in my career, though I try harder these days (and my increasingly elderly demeanor seems to induce trust). I forwarded the exchange (stripped of the name etc) to a current undergraduate who is one of the handful whom I've known, and has known me, best (very well indeed), knowing she'd laugh, because after 4 years and numerous detailed email and personal conversations she simply can't bring herself to address, or even refer to, me as anything other than Professor Brighouse.

Crossposted at Crooked Timber

Open Source Teaching Materials

I recently ran across this article "Online Startups Target College Book Costs" in Bloomberg Businessweek. It discusses online textbooks and materials available for free download and for purchase at prices quite a bit lower than typical publishing. I wonder if anyone out there is familiar with this method of publishing and how well it might, or could, work for authors.
I presume this could work very well for students. For better or worse, at least many of my students access PDFs of readings on their phones and other devices. So this would just be more of that: although I do not like it, perhaps this is a trend that is irreversible and/or not worth fighting about.

My main concern is how well this would work for authors. A company Flat World Knowledge is mentioned in the article above; I could only find one philosophy or ethics book in their catalogue.

Some of my concerns (and some replies to my concerns) are these:

1. What kind of advertising / marketing would one get going this sort of route?

In reply, obviously there are tons of books put out by traditional publishers that get the "advertising" of being in a catalogue, sitting on display tables here and there, etc. but those books do not sell very much and fall stillborn from the press, so to speak. Maybe some higher-selling texts are often as a result of the authors' own marketing?

2. What sort of "prestige" or image is there with this route? How might publishing course materials in this way figure into tenure and promotion at various schools?

In reply, I do not know how the second question should be answered: perhaps it depends on the school, and I would hope that, at schools that are interested in teaching, they'd be impressed by materials that are designed to improve the learning process for students, by reducing costs and increasing accessibility in various ways. About the first question, I suppose it depends on what one cares about: if there's a way that e-publishing gets one's materials into the hands (and I-phones) of more students than many traditional alternatives, then, if that's what one cares, about, it likely won't matter if it's not with Oxford or whatever. Of course, if a major publisher can get the desired results, then one would want to go the traditional route: the problem there, of course, is that the costs seem to be higher than many students would like to have to burden.

3. What's the possibility for making some $ off a text?

In reply, I suppose many books don't make the authors any money, so the point is probably moot. But perhaps sales of printed versions would result in some money for the author, perhaps more than traditional routes due to the lesser overhead for e-publishing. And perhaps, following the contemporary music industry, perhaps there are alternative "business models" on which the main product is often acquired for free and money is made in other ways.

Here are a few of my questions. I wonder what other questions there are and what the answers should be. If anyone knows much about this method of textbook and teaching-material publishing, I'd appreciate hearing more about it. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Teacher Does What We All have Done, or Wanted to Do and Suffers the Internet Age

You may have heard of the viral video of a Cornell teacher reaching his breaking point: I wouldn't include it, but for two things: 1) it was mentioned in Newsweek, and 2) it went viral. It might be worth it for us to talk about it. I showed the video to my students today in order to encourage some discussion about respect in the classroom - in both directions.

I felt so awful seeing the video. I know that I have done that, or the equivalent. I don't think that I have done it recently, but certainly I did it early on in my teaching career. You know how it goes: there are some behavioral problems in your classroom, you bite your tongue, use the principle of charity, soldier on...until you break. And when you break, you break big. The break will happen on a day when you are tired, the students appear especially passive, you have spent your evenings and weekends grading, grading, grading, preparing, preparing, preparing and, well, we all know what happens next: that one thing that you may have been able to shrug off two weeks ago just sets you off.

I asked my students to compare this to the incident a number of months ago of a Jetblue flight attendant who lost it with a rude passenger and quit. The general reaction was "you go!" People supported his moment of lashing out in a way that people online have not with the Cornell teacher. Why? I am not asking that rhetorically - I think that the question is interesting and instructive. For example, if a student were to lose it in the classroom we have a whole (administrative) apparatus that would be operative in dealing with the situation. But passengers in a plane are not merely rude but positively disruptive. My own students noted that the in the course of being angry about disruption, the teacher disrupted the classroom.

I'm not condemning the teacher - not at all. I can't, since I know all too keenly the instincts that compelled him and that he wasn't able to tamp down that day. But neither do I think that his behavior represents the best judgment (I would hazard that he would not either.) But why do we celebrate the Jetblue attendant's reaction to rudeness and denigrate this understandable (but perhaps not justifiable) reaction to rudeness?

I ask this also because I think that we can learn from this as teachers. The one thing that my students agreed on was that no matter what was and wasn't rude or over the line, the teacher's reaction was ineffective. That's probably right. So. Here are the practical questions:

1) How do we deal with behavioral issues in the classroom - especially a large classroom? (I exempt myself here - I can say "call the student into office hours," but my classes are very small compared to many courses taught by my colleagues.

2) How do we think about education, students, ourselves in a way that can prevent that build up of resentment and frustration? Some degree is inevitable: our students are frustrated, and often quite rightly and often for reason that have little to do with us directly. We are frustrated, mostly because we want to do well, and to have some sense that we are doing well. But day to day, it is very difficult to get a sense from our own students that we are reaching them in any respect.

Perhaps this makes clear what an emotionally complex terrain the classroom is. We haven't talked about this much. Are there things we want from students that are misplaced (a sense of accomplishment) and are there things that they are expecting of us that are misplaced (a sense of approval)?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The humanities in crisis: Never was?

Michael Berubé at CT launches a salvo against the 'humanities in crisis' CW (responding to an interview with Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust by Tamron Hall). I hereby quote at length (and of course invite sage comments):
...students are “now making the jump to more specialized fields like business and economics, and it’s getting worse.  Just look at this:  in 2007, just 8 percent of bachelors degrees were given to disciplines in the humanities.”  So things are getting worse?  Really?  No, not really, not even according to the graphic MSNBC put up at the :13 mark (data source: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).  Go ahead, look at it again.  I’ll wait right here.  Compared to 17.4 percent in1967, yow!  We are totally in trouble!  … except that the decline was entirely a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, when the percentage dropped to about 7 percent.  And it’s been 8-9 percent for the past 20 years now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A 'fatal error' policy for student writing?

Fifteen years ago, the business faculty at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville adopted a 'fatal error' policy for student writing.  They first identified what they called eight fatal errors in student writing: misspelled words, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, errors in capitalization, errors in punctuation that obscure meaning, mistakes in verb tense or subject/verb agreement, improper or inadequate citation, and failure to conform to the assignment format.

Here's the policy:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Philosophical 'violence' as an alternative to physical violence

Gerald Graff's 'Hidden Intellectualism' (Pedagogy, 2001) is a meditation on how students' seemingly unintellectual interests (sports, etc.) can be an avenue to the development of their intellectual dispositions and talents. (That's one way to see the nascent 'philosophy and popular culture' movement, as encouraging people to see patterns of philosophical thinking in pop cultural objects.)

Aside from this, Graff remarks that argumentation is often marginalized in educational settings because it too closely resembles the very violence that educators and parents are trying to forestall via education:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Reply, by Martha Nussbaum

The following includes some thoughts from Professor Nussbaum concerning our recent discussion of Not for Profit. We appreciate her taking the time to read and respond to the posts.


Martha Nussbaum

I want to thank everyone who contributed to this Symposium, because I learned a lot from it, and I admire the thoughtfulness and engagement of all the participants.  Rather than answer each person one by one, I will now take up some themes that come up in several posts.

1.     The Humanities In America
My book concerns a worldwide problem.  This problem is certainly evident in the U. S., particularly in K through 12 and in state universities, which have recently suffered some alarming cuts (at SUNY Albany, to name just one notorious example).  But it is also worth insisting that the humanities are in a comparatively healthy state in the U. S., because of several unique features of our system.  First is its commitment to liberal arts education at the undergraduate level.  Although under strain, this commitment is holding firm, as liberal arts colleges see a marked increase in applications.  This system allows us to do two things at once: on the one hand, to prepare all young citizens for citizenship and life; on the other hand, to offer a more intensive training in one subject that in many cases will be preparation for a career.  In most countries of the world (Korea being the only exception I know) this system is absent, and students have to choose just one subject.  So, if they don’t major in humanities, they don’t do any humanities.  Our system gives us a fine answer to the parent’s first objection: their child can get a solid preparation for a career, while still also getting a broad-based liberal education.  If the parent doesn’t care about liberal education, we are entitled to say at that point, citizenship is for all, and we are entitled to require all young people to learn the skills it requires, whether this parent cares about it or not. 

The second feature of our system that I have come (slowly) to love is its embrace of private funding.  Private funding works to insulate the mission of our colleges and universities from political pressures, but it works only because of the antecedent commitment to liberal education – which means that bankers, CEO’s, and so forth have all studied philosophy and literature.  What I find when I talk to our trustees and donors is that people who have become wealthy remember with delight and love the time when they studied ideas for their own sake, talked about Plato with their friends, etc., and that memory keeps them committed to supporting those activities.  Politicians, by contrast, have perverse incentives: for their careers require them to show results before the next election, and this frequently leads to an instrumental conception of higher education, in which it is measured by its ability to help the state’s economy grow.   The system of private funding is made viable by our tax incentives and by social norms that attach prestige to support for universities.  Most other countries don’t have the structures that make our system work, and it would be difficult for them to start them.  

We must not be complacent.  Foundation giving to humanities has declined, during the past five years, from 17 percent to 14 percent.  So we must all work to keep our donors involved with campus life, creating interesting intellectual events for them and telling them about what we do.  I fear that a lot of us don’t bother to do this. 

Those who are in public colleges and universities need not despair, but your job is harder, because the people to whom you owe your livelihood have not been selected on account of any love of higher education or expertise in it.  So what you have to do is talk more, write more, just make a larger effort to show the worth of what you do. 

2.     Humanities Teaching Today
Like Harry Brighouse, I think that the humanities need to examine themselves and to ask whether they are playing a role that is worthy of what they can offer to democracy (and to individual lives).  Not surprisingly, most participants focus on philosophy, where I believe that teaching is relatively good and things are in a relatively healthy state, though even here there is room for improvement. If we turn to literature departments, however, I believe that we do not always find there the respect for rigor in argument that we ought to find, and we often do not find the idea that opposing positions deserve respect and sympathetic scrutiny.  I think that the American public believes that we all demonize conservative positions and engage in indoctrination for left-wing ideas.  When this challenge has been posed to me (as it was by several of the callers on a recent C-Span Book TV show), I insist on the way in which we teach respect for argument and form communities of cooperative endeavor across political and ideological lines.  I believe this to be true of many if not most philosophy departments, and it is certainly true of the University of Chicago Law School, where I spend most of my time, and where there are real conservatives to be confronted, as is more rarely the case in philosophy.  But in literature departments I so often see opposing positions demonized and not engaged with seriously, and I think this is a grave failing of our culture. 

Another failing might be the teaching of skepticism, but that is not one that I frequently see in philosophy teaching in the areas I know best (moral and political philosophy).  In fact students come into the classroom with a naïve sort of relativism, believing that to assert  a definite position is to denigrate people who think differently.  And then, if things go well, as they often do, they learn the difference between mutual respect and relativism, and they learn how to conduct a respectful argument with people who think differently.  They learn that having a position does not mean insulting someone else, because there is a way of putting forward one’s own position (by persuasive argument) that is not insulting but deeply respectful.

It may well be that people who listen to Fox News don’t think that they want this sort of respectful argument, but if they think again, they will see that democracy requires it for its survival.  In a nation where dissent is demonized, democracy is at risk.  

As for the suggestion that tenured professors shy away from teaching undergraduates, leaving that crucial task to overworked graduate students, that, again, does not correspond to my experience.  Our Core courses that involve philosophy (Philosophical Perspectives and Human Being and Citizen) are taught in twenty-student sections about 95 percent of which are led by full-time faculty, many tenured.  (Our administration requires departments to staff a certain number of sections of the Core, and if this were done inadequately, the department would suffer.)  Nor is this sort of dedication a feature only of privileged institutions.  My former graduate students teach in many different types of institutions, as the job market dictates, and they are all deeply immersed in undergraduate teaching.  Where undergraduate teaching is not adequately staffed, we should certainly protest, but I think that the public is often under a misconception about the professioriate, thinking that we all dislike teaching, and we need to set this straight.   Jason Nicholson is right: we must hold ourselves to a high standard, and teach humanistically.  Where we don’t, we’re selling the humanities, and our students, short.

3.     Critical Skills and Substance.

Certainly our students need more than Socrates: they need the cultivation of imaginative capacities, and they need to develop related virtues.  How much of this is the job of the philosophy classroom.  On the whole, I am with John Stuart Mill in his wonderful Inaugural Address as Rector of St. Andrews University.  Mill says that higher education prepares people for citizenship, and citizenship needs the virtues, but not every part of the cultivation of virtue is the job of higher education.  We have to rely on young people getting a certain formation of sympathy in the family and the schools, and university education will best be conceived as dialectical, showing the merits of the various philosophical alternatives and the arguments that support them.  Of course when one has written things one can’t avoid having students know that one has positions, but then it is especially important, while showing the reasons why one has espoused a position, to encourage extremely strongly arguments on behalf of the opposing position, and students who are drawn to those positions.  A classroom all too easily becomes hierarchical, and students can be afraid to diverge from the instructor’s known views.  So empowerment of the opposition (whether it be utilitarianism in political philosophy or noncognitive views of emotion in philosophy of emotion) has always been one of my biggest efforts as a teacher. 

But Mill made a further point, with which I also agree (and it’s closely related to Mike’s list of suggestions): universities may and should engage in “aesthetic education,” by which he means an opening and expansion of the imagination and the emotions through contact with works of poetry and fine art – but one might also include those works inside a philosophy curriculum, as Mike proposes.  While developing the critical faculties, we can and should also cultivate the discernment of emotions and a type of flexible perspective-taking.  This will become indoctrination only if it is not accompanied by critical challenges and rigorous argument.

Well, enough said.  Let us carry on the fight wherever we are, by getting out there and talking to parents, trustees, and politicians, and by giving our students the painstaking genuinely humanistic instruction they deserve.  

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010

The future of the humanities: Dollars and nonsense

More news from the 'future of humanities' front: Cornell president David Skorton is aiming to launch a nationwide campaign on behalf of the humanities, including a plan to "hire more than 100 humanists at various career stages over the next decade." (Dear Dr. Skorton: You can find my CV and other information here. Thank you, and I hope to hear from you soon.)

No doubt the humanities could use the efforts of an Ivy League president. It could also benefit from thinking outside the economic box. Two ideas along these lines: