Friday, August 26, 2011

A new direction for Teaching Philosophy

As some of you may know, I'm about to embark on a five-year term as the new editor of Teaching Philosophy. The previous editors (Patrick Boelyn-Fitzgerald, Michael Goldman, and the founding editor, Arnold Wilson) have left the journal in excellent shape. Teaching Philosophy has been published continuously since 1975, and is indisputably the most important journal in the world with respect to publishing research on teaching in our discipline. Obviously, I'm honored, though slightly daunted, to be taking over these responsibilities.

Let me share some tidbits with you about the journal:

First, we've created a new online submission management system that brings the journal's editorial procedures into the twenty-first century. We're using an excellent freeware known as Open Journal Systems. This new system will speed up the review process and help the journal get a better sense of who's submitting manuscripts, the acceptance rates, etc. It's very easy to use — just visit the site and register. We're always interested in top-notch material on teaching philosophy. Here are the criteria by which manuscripts are evaluated:
Submitted manuscripts are evaluated on the following basis:
1.    Argument/evidence: Has the author shown that the main claims or recommendations of the manuscript are correct or plausible?
2.     Usefulness to instructors: Would readers of the manuscript be able to make use of its claims or recommendations in their own teaching or instructional duties?
3.    Use of relevant scholarship: Has the author taken due account of the extant literature on his or her subject, either within the literature on teaching and learning within philosophy or within more general bodies of literature on teaching and learning?
4.    Organization: Is the manuscript readable, logical, and coherently organized, both as a whole and within its parts?
5.     Expression: Is the manuscript written in an engaging, accessible, and lucid style?
And of course, no journal can function without competent reviewers. So if you're interested in reviewing manuscripts, let me know or go ahead and register at the new site.

Second, Teaching Philosophy depends on subscription revenue in order to exist. That said, the journal is a terrific bargain (subscription info here): print subscriptions for individuals are only $33/year, and APA members can get an annual online subscription for $40. Members of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers receive free online access with their membership. Institutional subscriptions range from $86 to $234/year. I've had people tell me that departments often buy their own subscriptions and leave the issues in a lounge or office where people pick them up and browse. If you'd like to get a sense of what the journal publishes, here's a page with free access to a half dozen or so of our 'greatest hits' from the past.

Lastly, one of my aspirations as editor is to improve the overall scholarly quality of the articles we publish, and in so doing, foster a climate within philosophy that recognizes and rewards bona fide scholarship related to teaching and learning. The excerpt below comes from my application letter to the journal's editorial board and conveys what I have in mind.

TP is undoubtedly the best-known and most well-regarded journal devoted to the pedagogy of philosophy in the English-speaking philosophical community. Philosophers working in the scholarship of teaching and learning will find no better venue through which to disseminate their research.

Nevertheless, a review of the materials recently published in TP (2006-2010) suggests that the journal could serve as a more powerful catalyst for pedagogical innovation and improvement. The articles published during this period have tended to focus on:
·    Innovations in philosophy course content (novel topics, figures, use of popular culture)
·    Methods for teaching core philosophical skills (philosophical writing, logic, argumentation, critical thinking)
·    Distinctive approaches to classical texts or problems (Plato’s Euthyphro, the Socratic method, nature of religious belief and commitment)
·    Effective uses of pedagogical technology (software, learning management system tools, clickers and polling)
·    Ethics of teaching (plagiarism, grading)

Furthermore, the published articles typically approach teaching-related challenges in ways that reflect the intellectual dispositions characteristic of philosophy. They tend to begin with instructors’ firsthand observations about particular problems faced in the philosophy classroom; describe techniques instructors selected to address such problems; and rest the credibility of these techniques on instructor testimony of their effectiveness. In short, much of what is published in TP is applied a priori epistemology, scholarly efforts to improve teaching practice rooted in a picture of philosophy as a knowledge-building craft.

Such scholarship has definite merit and should always have a place in TP.  Because it begins with problems the journal’s readership is already familiar with, it is likely to be perceived as relevant and authentic. However, such scholarship also has clear limitations and does not reflect the current state of scholarship on teaching and learning outside philosophy. First, only a handful of articles published in TP are substantially informed by the growing and increasingly sophisticated literature within the science of learning. As such, many TP articles falsely imply that the problems they address must be addressed ex nihilo, as if there were no previous scholarly investigation of them. Second, readers are expected to accept the articles’ practical recommendations despite the absence of empirical evidence that the techniques or approaches described therein are effective.  Indeed, few articles in TP provide such empirical corroboration or even offer a baseline of student learning or achievement against which that effectiveness might be measured.

Several exceptions aside, the work published in TP is often theoretically underinformed, evidentially questionable, and methodologically unsophisticated. This is not, in my estimation, a failing on the part of TP’s editorial leadership, its reviewers, etc. Rather, it reflects the relative immaturity of the scholarship of teaching and learning within our discipline. A casual perusal of other venues for scholarly work on the pedagogy of philosophy (the APA Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy, the American Philosophical Association’s teaching-related sessions at its divisional meetings, the programs for the annual meetings of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers) confirms that, particularly in comparison with disciplines such as sociology, chemistry, or mathematics, empirically-informed scholarship of teaching and learning is nascent within philosophy rather than being fully established. Paul Witman and Laurie Richlin (“The Status of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 1.1 (2007), note that despite philosophy’s long history within the academy, it does not have a strong tradition of analytically informed teaching-related scholarship. Indeed, their remarks about the state of teaching-related literature applies to philosophy and to the scholarly work published in TP:

the bulk of articles published about teaching still fall into the category of “teaching tips,” advice provided based on personal experience: “This is what I did and everyone liked it.” This is not to say that the advice is not useful - it could be - but there is no way to know whether it is or not. 

TP can only publish work that is submitted to it, and unsurprisingly, little of that work satisfies the highest standards of bona fide scholarship on teaching and learning.

My vision for the journal is therefore to guide it toward being a genuinely scholarly venue, one in which sufficient context, evidence, and explanation are provided for authors’ conclusions. This is not to say that, under my leadership, only empirically-oriented work would appear in TP. Witman and Richlin’s dismissal of “teaching tips” aside, there should always be a place for teaching-related scholarship that highlights how instructors’ local knowledge of their teaching craft can lead to useful interventions in the learning process. Yet the success of philosophy as a discipline is deeply intertwined with its teaching function, and at a time when the humanities, and academic philosophy especially, are being asked to justify themselves to a broader public, it is vitally important that the discipline’s flagship journal on pedagogy showcase the discipline’s commitment not simply to teaching but to the evidence-based improvement of our teaching practices. TP should ultimately aim to publish scholarship on teaching that answers to the same rigorous, peer-reviewed standards that apply to philosophical scholarship generally.
In any event, I hope that ISW readers will check out the journal and become involved as a subscriber, author, and/or reviewer.


  1. Wow Michael, your analysis is really thorough and sets a significant agenda. You will be a great editor, congratulations!

  2. What are some of the most significant findings in recent empirical research into teaching? What's something (or what are a few things) that I, as a teacher who's never really looked into research about teaching, might find significant enough to realize I ought to be looking into that research?

  3. Anon -

    Big questions! Some places to start:

    1. The book How People Learn:

    2. 7 principles of good practice in higher education:

    3. How Learning Works:

    (The book Applying the Science of Learning is kind of a condensed version of How Learning Works.)

    4. Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do

  4. Christopher,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with most everything you say. I think W &R were exaggerating for rhetorical purposes: It's not that there's no way to know if the tip will (or did) work. It's that there's little in the articles themselves to certify that the tip will (or did) work.

    In trying to push TP in a more scholarly or 'empirical' direction, I see two components to this:
    (1) Are the 'results' of the teaching innovations that authors propose empirically corroborated in anything more than a testimonial way?
    (2) Are the results of the innovations empirically corroborated in that they are *predicted* by other already established empirical findings and claims?

    Let's call (1) direct corroboration and (2) indirect corroboration. You seem to be referring to indirect corroboration in your comment: what we know about active learning predicts the 'armchair' observation that games are conducive to student learning, etc.

    My observation is that much of what's published in TP lacks either direct *or* indirect corroboration. I'd be happy for the journal to publish work that has even indirect corroboration.

    You seem skeptical that philosophers can produce teaching-related scholarship with direct corroboration. I don't doubt it's challenging, but one of the key ideas in the SoTL literature is that anyone can do simple empirical work on their own teaching. An example: I give my students in section A one writing assignment and students in section B an assignment that I've altered in specific ways in order to test the usefulness of some innovation. I then look at grades, feedback I give, etc. on the assignment in A and on the assignment in B to see if the innovation was effective.

    That's 'baby' research, but it's perfectly legitimate.

  5. Hi Michael,

    My first comment seemed not to appear, but I just wanted to follow up and mention that I agree with what you say about direct vs. indirect corroboration, etc.

    I also think your suggestion about how to do simple empirical work is reasonable, although I guess I was worried about whether the philosophers will known enough of the relevant statistics to do even these simple comparisons (and without the stats, I share what I take it are some of W and R's worries).
    I'm also a little worried about the difficulty of doing good education research - are there any subconscious biases that effect my teaching if I expect that the innovation will or won't be effective? I assume that education and psych researchers have ways of overcoming these sorts of confounding variables, but maybe I'm exaggerating the extent to which these are real concerns. What little I know about social psychology doesn't inspire convince that I wouldn't fool myself in lots of ways.


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