Thursday, March 31, 2011

The unTwittered life is not living

We try our best to be a resource for those seeking answers to questions about teaching philosophy. But any questions about teaching philosophy that we can't answer should be directed to Socrates himself via  his Twitter account — or, well, maybe, this account.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Teaching bioethics and religion

I was in the campus coffeeshop the other day (they are serving much better espresso this semester and I want to encourage this) and I overheard a student describing a bioethics-type course he was taking. It sounded like a pretty typical bioethics course, but then he added that his professor devoted a good amount of time to explaining what people from different religions think about issues like cloning, euthanasia, and so on. I don’t do this in my course, for reasons I’ll cover in this post, but as I was sitting there I started to wonder why. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be an interesting issue for discussion. So I thought I’d bring it here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 2

This one's from Peter Markie, A Professor's Duties (Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), p. 147:
It is frequently said that ethics cannot be taught. Upon examination this assertion usually means that moral values cannot be forced down a student's throat, that no coercive tactics seem to work. The assertion usually masks an explicit effort to "teach" some specific moral value to a student — an effort that invariably fails. I generally take encouragement from such accounts because they tend to confirm that students are not mindless and demand to be taken seriously.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Academically Adrift part 6: Modelling the teaching culture on the research culture

The main structural explanation for the discouraging findings of Academically Adrift is the 'disengagement compact,' so eloquently described here previously by Becko. Students, faculty, administrators, parents, politicians, and the public have struck a bargain that, in light of the various incentives each of these constituencies is subject to, results in lowered expectations, diminished engagement, and of course, less learning. As Chris observes, with the possible exception of those rare learning-oriented students, none of these constituencies has much motivation to break this tacit compact.

And yet, to a last, we here at ISW have been bemoaning the disengagement compact and envisioning ways, at both the institutional and individual level, to resist or unravel the compact. (This strikes me as a theme throughout our AA reading group.) The fact that the teachers who post and comment here sense (and resent!) the presence of the compact tells us that, of these constituencies, faculty are most likely to find the disengagement compact a bitter bargain.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A good source for moral relativism

If you teach moral relativism in your ethics courses, as I sometimes do, you may share my frustration about appropriate readings on the topic — particularly defenses of relativism. We're all familiar with some critical work on moral relativism useful for undergraduates, James Rachels' being the best known. But I've found the non-philosophical sources on relativism (e.g., Ruth Benedict) just not intellectually rich enough, while some of the better known philosophical relativists (Harman, Mackie) are too sophisticated for students with little philosophical experience.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy"

The Public Philosophy Network is hosting a conference that I imagine will be of interest to many ISW readers. Details, as well as a call for proposals, below:

Philosophy Students Rock!

(cross posted at A Ku Indeed!)

On my Twitter feed, I noticed Stephen Law's post regarding the usefulness of philosophy as an undergraduate major. Law has some interesting graphs showing comparative scores on GREs, both of which I reproduce below the fold with some comments. The graphs show what I think some already know: with respect to writing and verbal scores, philosophy majors far outperform every other major (including English). When it comes to the quantitative portion, philosophy majors score better than all majors in the Humanities, better than quite a few in the sciences, but under the hard sciences generally. Overall, with respect to composite GRE scores, philosophy students are in the top of the field, if not constituting the very top itself. Basically: if you are looking to hire someone with outstanding critical, verbal, and written ability - and someone with strong quantitative ability - hire a philosophy major!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Study strategies redux

We've been talking a lot here about studying and study habits (testing versus studying, three proven study techniques, and Mike's awesome summary of study tips). Among the key findings of Academically Adrift are that students are studying less and that group studying in particular does not seem to contribute much to student learning.

Here are a couple of other tidbits on studying I came across:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Academically Adrift Part 5: When College Education Absolutely Has to Work

 I had a surreal experience teaching philosophy once. I was applying for a temporary job and got invited down to give a sample class. It was an introduction to ethics class and the reading was chosen ahead of time (Epictetus's Enchiridion). And when I got there to teach the class, every student was on-time, patient, and ruthlessly prepared. They'd read all of Epictetus, written down questions about his position, challenges to his position, and connections to other topics in the moral philosophy they'd read so far. In class, after my brief introduction, there was a  mini-competition amongst students to see who could impress me the most with his or her preparedness and help his or her fellow students at the same time. It was incredible. I'd walked into a classroom at the United States Coast Guard Academy.

I didn't end up taking the job. The hours were too demanding for a grad student in the last stages of his thesis. But it was all I could think about when I was reading Chapter 4. I don't think college professors needed to be told that students are spending less and less time on studying and other learning related activities. But it's nice that Arum and Roska actually give us numbers. That 75% of student time is spent either socializing or sleeping tells volumes about the amount of learning one can expect. It's not the worst theory to guess that classes with "rigor" (basically extensive requirements backed up by a credible threat of doing very poorly in the class) work the magic they do because they give strong incentives to take a little time back from the 75% and redirect it to academic work.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 1

So I thought we might try an ongoing feature here at ISW: a series of provocative quotations about teaching presented (as Rod Serling might say) for your consideration, without comment but with comments invited. I encourage my fellow contributors to join in with quotes they find.

Just stamp it out

A lot of student work is bad philosophy. Some of it's not philosophy at all. That's where this device comes in handy!

What other time-saving stamps should we instructors have in our desks?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Academically Adrift Part 4: A Call to Arms

In all of the previous threads we've started on Academically Adrift, there's a common theme: the crisis in higher education and the need for us to wake up to it, analyze it, and figure out some solutions. Becko says that there's a "disengagement compact" (I like this phrase) in which parties are given incentives not to ask for, demand, or offer good teaching; Mike says that part of the problem is that we don't recognize the desperate need to institute virtues into the curriculum, and Jason, mindful of the crisis, wants us to be careful in our attempt to capture "good teaching" (it's not something that can be captured simply in quantitative terms), pointing out that we also need the humility to acknowledge that many undergraduate teachers simply do not know how to teach well.

That's a lot to chew on. To be honest (and I'm in agreement with all of their concerns), it's a bit depressing and overwhelming! The problems are so large and systemic that it's hard to imagine any way out. Below the fold, after a brief overview of what I take to be the main claim of the book, I want to move to a more empowering subject: how to take some stabs at fixing the problem. I don't have a lot of solutions, but I know where, as teachers, we need to devote our attentions: tenure and promotions procedures. Let's talk about them.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

ISW topping the charts

So the distinguished aggregator Alltop has ISW as one of its top philosophy blogs and news outlets. It's a distinguished group: Leiter Reports, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

So congratulations to our contributros, commenters, and followers!

Defending the Humanities Through...Philosophy of Mind?

(cross posted at A Ku Indeed!)

Today I had a conversation with some colleagues about how to define the Humanities and how to best represent it in a curriculum. These are always contentious questions to talk about, as there are multiple disciplines within the Humanities, each with its own content, its own mode of presentation and approaches, and each with its own methodology. So coming to agreement on such “umbrella” questions is not an easy thing to do.

As the day went on, I continued to think about it as well as about the crisis of the Humanities (it being, as time goes on, funded less, having fewer students, coming under more and more attack by the public as useless). At one point my mind shifted to a different topic: I started thinking about how my Philosophy of Mind course — in which we are reading David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind — was going. For a second I laughed a bit, thinking that the two subjects couldn’t possibly be more different. The gushy Humanities and the overly scientific and technical approach to consciousness grounded in property dualism, as undertaken by Chalmers. Then it struck me: maybe the two topics aren’t as far apart as I supposed. Wait, I thought...doesn’t Chalmers’ book provide us with an unintentional defense not only of the Humanities but also with a way of talking about its essence? No doubt, the connection is not without some faults and tensions, but it definitely made me think about subject in a different way. This is a long post, a bit rambly, and may not make total sense. If you can make it through, I'd love to hear your impressions of these inchoate thoughts!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Academically Adrift: Three Easy Questions; Three Not So Easy Answers

Question 1: What is the CLA

The CLA is the “Collegiate Learning Assessment” of The Council for Aid to Education and is the primary tool for the findings of Academically Adrift (AA). The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) is a national, nonprofit organization established in 1952 designed to advance the corporate support of education, to conduct policy research on higher education, to improve the quality of and access to education, and to conduct research on and promote policy reforms related to education. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) is a national attempt “to assess the quality of undergraduate education by directly measuring student learning outcomes.” The CLA is a performance-based assessment model, developed by CAE, that directly measures the quality of learning in undergraduate education “that all of the major stakeholders - university administrators, faculty, students, parents, employers, and policy makers - can use as part of their evaluation of academic programs.” The CLA is in many regards a considerable resource for gathering information regarding student learning.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Socrates gets a makeover

So as you can no doubt tell, we have a new design here at ISW. It's been a collaboration, but Adam very kindly took the lead. We humanized ol' Socrates, with a more expressive rendering. Readers, let us know your thoughts!

"The average academic seeks to avoid exposure"

There's been a lot of traffic and activity at our humble little blog lately. But evidently, there's chatter afoot doubting the merits of academic blogging. (See Critical Animal and Progressive Geographies.)

Alex Reid at Digital Digs makes an intriguing case for the fearlessness of blogging:

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Academically Adrift, Not for Profit in NY Review of Books

I can't exactly recommend Peter Brooks' review of the two books we've recently done reading groups on here at ISW. It strikes me as cranky and out of touch, and in the case of Academically Adrift, dismissive and careless in its reading:

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Academically Adrift Part 2: The Moral Function of the University

One of my initial responses to Academically Adrift (AA) was a form of despair. It is the feeling I’ve had at times in the classroom as 30 faces stare back at me (or at the ground, or at the cell phone they’re trying to hide under their desk) when I ask a question about the assigned reading, and it appears that at best a handful of students have even attempted to do that reading. It is tempting to become cynical, or bitter, or to simply throw up our hands in resignation. But if we desire to pursue excellence as philosophy teachers, we need to overcome these temptations. And one way to do that is to take on what seems like an even more monumental task than encouraging students to work—we may need to attempt to help our students become better human beings.

If Aristotle was right that one’s childhood is very important with respect to the task of embodying virtue as an adult, then some of the points raised in AA paint a bleak picture. Students who come to college primarily for a social experience and career credential may not see the value in grappling with difficult ideas and concepts, reading at least 40 pages a week and writing longer papers. Why undergo the sometimes painful and often difficult process of developing intellectual virtue when the point of college is to obtain a credential and have some fun? If all of the involved parties are supporting this approach, to varying extents, it will be that much more difficult to change the mind of the student to the extent that he or she engages in the necessary behavior for growth in intellectual virtue and critical thinking skills.

There are other issues in play here, as the authors of AA point out. Many PhD’s see themselves as independent professionals and are not concerned with advancing any particular institution, i.e. there is a lack of institutional loyalty which can be problematic. Related to this, according to Arum and Roksa a primary incentive driving faculty research “is a quasi-religious commitment to embracing research as a ‘vocational calling’" (Kindle location 289). The motive is not financial reward, at least for many and perhaps for most faculty. Clearly this is the case for philosophers, as our work very rarely populates any best-seller list. Perhaps we ought to take teaching to be a part of this calling as well. I won’t pursue this more here, given a previous discussion at ISW.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Those who can CAN'T teach?

So we're all familiar with the dismissive remark, "Those who can't, teach." I gather Socrates put the lie to that idea long ago.

But Worst Prof Ever argues (sort of) for the opposite: expertise in a field is not only no assurance of being a good teacher, it tends to make for worse teachers. Her proposal: