Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Defining 'Philosophy'

I wonder if anyone out there has a good definition or characterization of philosophy that is ideal for teaching and/or public-relations (such as interactions with non-philosophy faculty) purposes. It's easy to characterize philosophy in the negative ("it's not science or social science, but empirical results can be relevant..") and by "pointing" ("philosophy addresses these topics... all of which are philosophical topics.." [thanks!], as well as by mentioning a few common methods or activities (conceptual analysis, identifying and evaluating arguments, etc.), but I wonder if anyone out there has something worked out that they think is a very good definition or characterization. Thanks!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Putting the brakes on extra credit

Since my spring quarter is winding down, I thought we might revisit an issue Nathan raised a few years ago: extra credit.

With a few weeks left in the term, I'm getting lots of requests from students for extra credit assignments. Typically, this is motivated either by their having done poorly on previous tests and assignments, or in some cases, not having done them at all. Students are hoping I'll provide an assignment or task to help them augment their grades in my courses.

I have a simple policy concerning such requests: No (for reasons outlined below the break).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Quotable Teacher, installment 7

"A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary."  (Thomas Carruthers)

'Faculty Focus' blog

Just wanted to key people in to a blog that I think is really excellent: Faculty Focus. One of its organizers and contributors is Maryellen Weimer, one of the very people working on teaching and learning. The blog addresses more than teaching and learning, but a lot of the topics it addresses have been topics of interest here at ISW. Some representative posts:

Anyway, there's a wealth of valuable material there, so do check it out!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Teachers: you don't get to be human."

Blogger/agitator PZ Myers reminds us (not that we needed the reminder!) that we teachers are human. What angers Myers is not simply that teachers' human idiosyncrasies are often what make them good teachers, but that these idiosyncrasies can be their professional undoing:
Even now, it stirs a little outrage in me, that teachers get judged not by the quality of their work and their positive effects on their students, but how well they fit the conventions of the most closed-minded members of the community, by people, even, who despise good educations that raise kids to think independently. 
In any case, a spirited and passionate read!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What "participation" means

Hi, folks,

With the posting of course grades at the end of a term comes the opportunity to have conversations with some students about things that they might have overlooked earlier in the semester. Recently, Chris, Adam, and (somewhat) I were talking about one such example: the meaning of "class participation".

I'll stick to discussing my own experiences. Invariably, at least one student will express surprise at a low participation grade by pointing out, "But I attended every class meeting!" or "But I talked a lot!". In the syllabus, during the first weeks' class meetings, and occasionally throughout the semester, I emphasize that those behaviors are neither necessary nor sufficient for good participation (or for a good participation grade). Instead, I emphasize and evaluate other things as part of my conception of (constructive) participation.

For instance: do your comments demonstrate that you've done at least some of that day's readings? Do your comments build on others' comments in some (respectful) way? Do you sometimes refrain from commenting, knowing that sometimes, being a good participant in a discussion means letting other people talk? If you're too shy or anxious to talk during class, then do you use other means -- such as the class's discussion forum online -- to raise comments and questions that demonstrate your engagement with the readings/concepts?

Key to my participation assessments is a brief conversation with each student about their participation, at least two or three times during the semester. (Surprisingly, that doesn't always forestall the "but I talked a lot!" complaint at the course's end. Even more surprising is that I'm surprised.)

How do you assess/grade students' participation, if you do? How do you define "participation" in the first place?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Teaching Research

This last semester I finally came up with a series of assignments that taught students how to do independent research over time over the course of the semester. The research project culminated in a final research paper of five to seven pages (revised once) and a class presentation of ten minutes. Both the final papers and presentations were very successful.

Here is the set up for the assignment: students choose their own research projects, within the rough limits of the course topic. Their research must use multiple sources not assigned in class. Beginning about week three or four, I assigned a series of nine or so smaller assignments, due about every other week or so:

1. Three Possible Research Topics
2. Research Report and Research Plan (what have they done to come up with their topics, and what plan do they have to begin research, e.g., meet with a research librarian).
3. Research Topic and Research Report
4. Research Report: Incorporating Quotations and Citations (at least three in-text citations, at least three in-text quotations).
5. Annotated Bibliography and Research Report
6. Revised Research Report Topic
7. Research Project Precise
8. Revised Annotated Bibliography
9. Revised Research Project Precise

I should also add that I scheduled two class times for the whole class to meet with a research librarian to learn more about how to use the library and about how to distinguish reliable from unreliable sources.

Why did this work? Well, first, the course was capped at nineteen. I know that many folks don't get this opportunity - but maybe a stripped down version would work for courses with up to thirty-five students? Second, I was able to give feedback quickly because my feedback was directed primarily to their research rather than the mechanics of their writing (we worked on this using short three to five page papers throughout the semester). Third, it asks students to do research the way we do: slowly, over time, with much rethinking and revising of the project.

The quality of the papers was much higher than usual. In addition, the writing was far more fluid and sophisticated. Most happily, the papers incorporated citations, quotations and research in an intellectually honest and insightful way. They learned that writing about a topic informed by the literature is not the same as paraphrasing or summarizing and that one can write an original paper that reflects one's own work even while incorporating the work of others.

The presentation was key. It takes up a lot of class time - ten minutes each meant that I had to devote about five instructional hours just to presentations. They presented after their first draft but before their second draft. The presentations were excellent. Because students chose their own topics, they were eager to share their findings with the class and eager to hear what others did. The presentations also forced students to think more explicitly about the structure of their papers. The final drafts were substantially revised (a rare event) and were revised because the students had really rethought how to present their arguments and explanations.

An all around success! Have others used a similar method or other methods to encourage students to do research? Pitfalls? Successes?

Monday, May 2, 2011

The best thing to ever come from Ithaca?

I've been thinking a lot lately about how students take notes. I've observed that some students take no notes at all in my classes — almost certainly a bad idea. Overwhelmingly, most students take duplicative or passive notes: If I write something on the board, students write it in their notes (but nothing else). What students don't seem to do with notes is use them to organize their thoughts and critically interrogate what they're being taught.