Sunday, January 29, 2012

Higgins, Chapter 1: Work and Flourishing

I should probably start with an admission: so far, Higgins is preaching to the choir in my own case (I’m actually teaching a seminar on Charles Taylor this semester, so I find myself very sympathetic to Higgins’ way of organizing his discussion). Much of what he says resonates with me on a number of levels, particularly theoretically (in terms of ethics in general) and professionally (in terms of teaching). Since it's the first chapter of the book, my aim is not to be critical. Instead, I’ll simply summarize some of the key points of what I see Higgins’ project to be thus far (and it’s a big one) and then at the end of the post I’ll ask a few brief questions to get things started conversationally.

Humanities Think Tank

Those interested in reforming the futures of the humanities should check out the new blog, The Future of the Humanities: A Think Tank. It's overseen by Paul Jay and Gerald Graff, who have made a number of seminal contributions to this discussion, including a piece on "critical vocationalism" that I much admire.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Academically Adrift, the follow up

The authors of Academically Adrift (much discussed here last year) have released the findings of a follow up study concerning critical thinking, civic engagement, and post-collegiate employment. This looks like more good news for philosophy (if philosophy engenders critical thinking and civic engagement at least!) and bad news for business students:

One last reminder: The Good Life starts January 30

UPDATE: Chris tells me that those with access to library subscriptions to the Wiley Online Library can download the book section by section.

Well, most of us are already enjoying said life, but our online discussion of Chris Higgins' The Good Life of Teaching begins January 30. Here's my earlier introduction.

Added good news: Chris has indicated that though he wants to keep his nose out of our discussions initially, he'll do a guest post (a sort of 'reply to critics') once our discussion ends mid- February.

I hope everyone will buy the book and join the discussion!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Not all roads lead to oneself"

The most recent edition of the APA Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy (available here) reprints a newspaper piece by Brown's Felicia Ackerman. In it, Ackerman states a rule she applies to her courses:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Teaching Philosophy Conference CFP

A Call for Papers from the American Association of Philosophy Teachers:

Dear AAPT community,

We've extended the deadline for proposals for the summer conference to be held at St. Edward's University in Austin, TX from July 25-29.  The new deadline is Thursday, February 9 and details are in the attached document.   Please consider submitting a proposal - we'd love to see you in Austin!

And if you plan on attending the Central or Pacific APA meetings, the AAPT will be running workshops at each.  Details are at our website

Monday, January 16, 2012

Short Readings in Philosophy?

I tend to be in a favor of using short readings in philosophy. This is because, in part, my sense is that many student populations have an especially hard time comprehending full-length philosophical essays (Jonathan Bennett has made similar observations about reading comprehension in history of philosophy courses and has developed excellent texts to address that). Given my style of teaching, I think I am typically able to get a lot of student learning out of a very short reading so I prefer them.

With this in mind, I'd like to share -- with his and his publisher's permission - Russ Shafer Landau's 2 page section "Ethical Starting Points" from his The Fundamentals of Ethics (Oxford University Press) textbook. I've found this page useful at the beginning of the semester in ethics courses since it nicely identifies many moral views that most of already accept, and so it identifies some common ground or assumptions to work from (as well as critically examine as the course progresses).

Concerning this piece, I'd like to ask this: are any "starting points" anyone would like to add? Any that you'd like to remove? I'd like to also ask if there are other good short readings that anyone would like to share. Peg Tittle's What If? Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy is great in this regard - lots of 1 page or less readings -- but what else is good in the very short readings genre?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Avoiding the pitfalls of Service-Learning

I recently finished reading the manuscript of Meira Levinson’s wonderful book No Citizen Left Behind. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in K-12 education, equal opportunity, and the achievement gap. In one chapter, Levinson takes issue with service-learning because she thinks that it is often couched as a feel good apolitical non-partisan way of promoting caring and general moral concern in students without really grappling with the deep political questions of injustice and inequality. Students are able to volunteer, feel good about their contribution, but then move on without reflecting on how to confront deeper systemic and structural challenges.  She also argues that for minority students, the experience can be disempowering, especially when they are asked to engage in low-skilled menial labor. I think all of these critiques have some merit, and as I have been thinking of teaching my freshman seminar on Justice again with a service-learning component, I have been struggling to think of how to design my course to avoid some of these pitfalls. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Student writing, signposting, and 'no surprises'

I'm currently advising 22 undergraduate philosophy theses. No kidding!

Let me share a frustration— and an insight — I recently gleaned from a recent batch of rough drafts.

Upon reading the last batch of their rough drafts, I was struck by how even the best prepared, most knowledgeable, most conscientious students gave very little explicit guidance to the reader as to how the overall argumentative strategy of the paper unfolds. Broadly generalizing, the students' papers tended to have structures like this:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Don't lecture me

Another great radio piece by Emily Hanford (I caught the end of what I assume was just part of it on the NPR afternoon news show on Sunday) here (audio and transcript both there). She reports the research on the effectiveness of lectures in prompting actual learning: not much. Anyone reading who lectures must listen to/read it.  A long excerpt (followed by some comments):

Lecturing was the way just about everyone taught introductory physics. To think there was something wrong with the lecture meant physics instructors would "have to really change the way they do things," says Hestenes. A lot of them ignored his study and kept teaching the way they always had. They insisted their lectures were working just fine. But Eric Mazur was unusual, says Hestenes. "He was the first one who took it to heart." Mazur is a physics professor at Harvard University. He came across Hestenes's articles in 1990, five years after they'd been published. To understand why the articles had such a big impact on Mazur you have to know some things about his history. Mazur grew up dreaming of becoming an astronomer.

"When I was five years old I fell in love with the universe," he says. "I tried to get my hands on to every accessible book on astronomy. I was so excited by the world of science." But when Mazur got to university, he hated the astronomy classes."It was all sitting in the lecture, and then scribbling down notes and cramming those notes and parroting them back on the exam," he says. "Focusing on the details, focusing on memorizing and regurgitation, the whole beauty of astronomy was lost." So he switched to physics. It wasn't as heartbreaking for him to sit in a physics lecture and memorize things. Mazur eventually got a Ph.D. in physics and a job at Harvard University. Like most Ph.D.s, Mazur never got any training in how to teach.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Critical vocationalism" as the future of humanities

At IHE, Paul Jay and Gerald Graff have an excellent (albeit somewhat long-winded) articulation of a vision of the humanities they call "critical vocationalism".  Needless to say, this is the vision that I myself favor. I'd be interested to hear people's reactions to this piece. A few choice quotes to convey the flavor:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jumping on the accreditation bandwagon/boondoggle

On my campus, accreditation (or alternatively, the threat of de-accreditation) carries political weight. Programs and departments seem to get additional resources or support if they can persuade someone in power that unless they receive said resources or support, they won't be accredited or their existing accreditation is jeopardized.

Now, I don't have any particular axe to grind against accrediting academic programs. In professional areas in particular, where it's expected that students' education will prepare them to be competent professionals, it makes sense to have organizations of competent professionals determine whether a program can (or will) succeed in preparing students. Accreditation amounts, in effect, to peer review for academic programs. Indeed, I'd be frightened if there weren't accrediting bodies overseeing (say) medical education.

Monday, January 2, 2012

How to Respond to Student Evaluations

In the next weeks we'll be receiving student evaluations from last semester. We've had much discussion here about evaluations and whether and to what degree they are empirically valid instruments for assessing our work as teachers. I take that for the most part, they are not. But we still receive them, we still read them, and we still need to find a way to read and respond to them, even if they don't do the work that the system takes them to do.

So, what are the benefits and pitfalls of reading evaluations? Perhaps thankfully, I don't get my evaluations back until well after they have been submitted to the administration. This allows me the appropriate amount of time to detach from the particular class, or semester, or whatever stressors that could impede my ability to read them in a way that could be productive. If your institution is different, one piece of advice I would give, then, is: sit on them for a while if you can. Distance can be helpful.

I tend not to read evaluations as evaluations. That is, I tend not to read them as a portrait of what kind of teacher I am. I tend to read them in terms of student experience. In other words: what were their expectations? If their expectations were reasonable, how did I meet them? If the expectations weren't, how might I incorporate more teaching about course goals, more teaching about what particular assignments are designed for, etc. Reading them in this light allows me to be less defensive and to evaluate whether and to what degree I can address what students report in a way that is better on the whole. For example, the last time I taught Philosophy of Language, several students responded that they would like me to give them my lecture notes. I think that this is unreasonable. But! I can meet them half-way: perhaps some handouts on technical terms, etc.

This approach is particularly helpful, I think , when writing teaching self-assessments for review. By approaching student comments as data about how the students are experiencing the learning environment rather than as data about what kind and quality of teacher you are, you are better able to communicate what you want to accomplish as a teacher, rather than reacting. Let's face it: students can say some pretty hurtful things. But even those hurtful things can be dealt with in a productive manner without giving up rigor, high expectations, and a sense that you are responsible for a context that has student learning at its center.

Reading group: Higgins, The Good Life of Teaching

Happy New Year to our readers and contributors.

Following our very successful reading groups on Academically Adrift, Not for Profit, and On Course, we are now planning a reading group on Chris Higgins' The Good Life of Teaching.

Higgins' book is more philosophical than the others, promising to offer a conception of the practice of teaching (and of professional ethics in general) that focuses on teachers' self-cultivation. Higgins is particularly interested in how to make sense of teaching as a self-interested endeavor in light of how teaching is often classified as a "helping profession."

So our plan is to being the reading group on January 29. Our contributors will be posting regular entries on the book through the end of February. We hope that everyone will find this group enlightening and join in the discussion.

Buy the book: Wiley, Amazon (including Kindle), BN (including Nook)