Friday, February 24, 2012

IRB Approval of Philosophy Courses?

I recently attended a seminar on IRBs (Institutional Review Boards) for Human Subjects Research. It was said that if students were doing any "research" in their courses involving human subjects from outside the course, this would likely need IRB approval. Sounds good, but I asked if this approval is needed even if the "research" is very informal, e.g., if students are presented with these sorts of assignment prompts: "Ask at least 3 people what they think about this topic," or "Ask at least three people what they think are common reasons to think p or not p (e.g., that doing X is wrong, that we have free will, that there is a God, etc." and so on: casual inquiry into what people think about philosophical issues.It was told that these potentially common learning activities might require IRB approval: it was pointed out that students might videotape their "research" and who knows what might come from that; perhaps people would somehow be harmed by being asked these sorts of questions.

I suspect that many philosophy instructors attempt to get students to do these sorts of informal surveys and/and, at least, encourage them to discuss class issues with people who are not in the class. My question, then, is whether anyone has encountered this issue and has done much to determine whether approval is indeed required for such activities, at least at their school. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The future of teacher education?

I'm pretty unsympathetic to the MacIntyre/Williams criticisms of modern moral theories (I think the Kantian/Korsgaardian has more than enough resources to do justice to ground projects/real human flourishing and I have significant doubts that society suffers at all from leaving behind aretaic theories of virtue) but there is still a lot of value in what Higgins has to say about the struggle to maintain a good, integrated life while participating in the practice of teaching.

In Chapter 8, we finally get to the bottom of what Higgins thinks teaching is all about: reflective questioning. Education, he writes, is "the ongoing conversation taking place in the space opened by the question of what best facilitates human flourishing; it consists of the implicit and explicit answers, described and enacted by those theorists, practitioners, and theorist/practitioners who feel called to join the conversation." (258) All education is necessarily concerned with human flourishing in one form or another, and assumes some account of what human flourishing is. (Also, for the record, don't miss his very insightful account of teachers surrounded by textbooks and tests suffering from "pedagogical Stockholm Syndrome" on p. 256.)

It probably goes without saying that this is a pretty romanticized notion of education.

Tittle on non-philosophers teaching applied ethics

Peg Tittle has absolutely no patience for non-philosophers teaching applied ethics. Is she right? Here's her case:

  1. "As far as I can see, business ethics taught by business faculty, ethics programs run by managers, and so on – any applied ethics taught by non-philosophers – is superficial at best.  First, following a code is just an appeal to custom, an appeal to tradition, which philosophers consider a weak basis, an error in reasoning..."

A Wall Street Education

I thought this might be of interest. From a controversial  blogpost by Ezra Klein:

"For many kids, college represents an end goal. Once you get into a good college, you’ve made it, and everyone stops worrying about you. You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills. After a few years of study, you suddenly find it’s late in your junior year, or early in your senior year, and you have no skills pointing to the obvious next step.
What Wall Street figured out is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, incredible work ethics and no idea what to do next. So the finance industry takes advantage of that confusion, attracting students who never intended to work in finance but don’t have any better ideas about where to go.
So it seems universities have been looking at the problem backward. The issue isn’t that so many of their well-educated students want to go to Wall Street rather than make another sort of contribution. It’s that so many of their students end up feeling so poorly prepared that they go to Wall Street because they’re not sure what other contribution they can make. "

And a response.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Department Facebook Page

One of the principal areas for improvement that our department honed in on as a result of our assessment survey was communication with majors. Majors rated the usefulness of our website and communication quite low. Our department has some challenges in improving on this point. First, our majors tend to take longer to complete the program, with many taking extensive breaks, and the college doesn't have a very high-tech or consistent way of helping us keep track them. For example, we can only see who has declared philosophy as a major but we have no way of accessing who has it as a double major, minor, or dropped out. Second, we are constrained with how we can change our website and the process for doing so is onerous. Finally, many students do not use their assigned college e-mail address. Therefore, the most obvious methods--an e-mail list or remodeling our site--are not good options to reach our majors.

We debated whether to create a blog or a Facebook page and ultimately decided going for the latter. The only reason being that students would have to either subscribe to the blog rss feed or manually check it every time they want department news, whereas with a Facebook page they would get news from the department on their friends feed. We just launched our Facebook page and are trying to get students to 'like' us. I've e-mailed my colleagues and encouraged them to send their students to the Facebook page. But I was wondering if anyone out there had advice on how to get an active community on a department Facebook page? What sorts of things should we post besides events?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dishing out the "compliment sandwich"

From a comment on a post at Philosophy Smoker:
I give my students the Jim Pryor line: I'm going to be 'lazy, stupid, and mean' when I grade their papers. So, I tell them, they better write clearly and precisely if they want to be interpreted fairly. The 'lazy, stupid, and mean' line is a neat little pedagogical tool to motivate students and make my expectations clear.  
But, I do take their papers seriously as attempts to do philosophy. When I leave comments on their paper - even if the papers are confused - I at least assume they tried to tackle the assignment, provide constructive comments, and then give them some version of a 'compliment sandwich' at the end:
(1) Here's something you did nicely; (2) Here's something you did poorly and/or can improve on; (3) Here's something to keep in mind going forward.
I like that: the 'compliment sandwich'. I do it too, but hadn't heard that name (though technically, it's more of a 'criticism sandwich', since the criticism is sandwiched between the compliment and the advice, but still...). I wonder about what psychology says about presenting feedback in this form — whether it sinks in, how it's received, etc. Does anyone else serve these sandwiches on student papers?

Higgins' Good Life of Teaching: The Self-abnegating Teacher

In my post I’m going to fast forward to Chapter 5 since Chapter 4 involves more ground-setting. I am sympathetic to the Taylor/Williams critique of Morality that Higgins continues to advance in this chapter. With that critique in hand, Higgins is able to show us that questions surrounding the aims of education and the practice of teaching become richer topics conceived of ethically than they are under a narrower conception of morality. However, I take issue with one of the underlying thesis that Higgins advances in this chapter. He argues that the focus on morality, to the exclusion of ethics, is at the core of why teaching is often seen as a helping profession that requires self-abnegating sacrifice from its practitioners, which leads to teacher burn-out. It is not obvious that a Kantian line, which seems to be Higgins’ paradigm for a morality focused view, doesn’t have the resources to explain what has gone wrong in the case of the caricatured burn-out teacher at the center of this chapter without putting the blame on the teacher’s shoulders.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Higgins' Good Life of Teaching: Arendt's Phenomenology of Practical Life

 In this post, I will almost exclusively describe rather than evaluate the content of the chapter, as it primarily is intended to lay the groundwork for a discussion of teaching in a later portion of the book. However, the end result of this discussion for Higgins is that a framework is provided which will help to construct a virtue ethics for the professions, connecting work with fundamental human needs and aspirations, as well as helping us to realize how we are shaped by our work practices.

In contrast to MacIntyre, Hannah Arendt hierarchically divides practical activities into the categories of labour, work, and action. Higgins notes that a discussion of teaching with respect to these categories will be addressed in chapter 7 of the book. In the present chapter, the aim is to reconstruct Arendt's account of seeking flourishing in the practical realm so that we may understand "how the practical life may comprise and compromise our search for a fully human existence" (p. 87).  Broadly speaking, Arendt argues that in the past, humans (some, at least) were torn between the contemplative life and the active life, or between vita contemplativa and vita activa . However, human life is now reduced to labour and the scientific/technological pursuits needed to assist labour.

Labour is required because we are embodied beings.  Much of what we do to feed ourselves falls in this category. The repetitive cycle of acquiring food, preparing food, eating food, and cleaning up, all done because of our biological need for food, is a clear example of labour. Work includes such things as tool-making, framing a house, designing a house, and building a chair. It is often engaged in to lighten our labour, though it creates more labour in the form of maintaining our homes, tools, and chairs. An architect and a construction worker are both examples of work, for Arendt. Action is an important though difficult concept, as Arendt employs it; it is also the "sine qua non of leading a fully human life" (p.101). In order to clarify this category, Higgins uses "deed", and explains it as something which contains meaning, is in some sense theatrical, and possesses singularity. The examples given are Jackie Robinson's taking the field for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947 and a juror convincing other members that they have overlooked an important piece of evidence. The former communicates without explicit speech, the latter is not mere words but also rectifies a potential injustice. Two general categories of deeds are promising and forgiving. We cannot predict the outcome of deeds in advance, nor can we predict that we will have the opportunity to perform a deed. Lastly, deeds are self-disclosing. They come from who we are, as individuals in a community. And they yield meaning for us and are connected to ends which we pursue for their own sake.

In the last section of the chapter, Higgins explores what all of this has to do with his construction of a eudaimonistic professional ethics. Arendt, however, never gives an example of a job or occupation that falls into the category of action. For her, every activity occurs in only one mode, either labour, or work, or action. Higgins offers two amendments which he takes to strengthen the account (and I agree). First, he states that some activities fall in all 3 of these categories. A chef at an excellent restaurant, will, in her occupation, engage in activities which fall in each of these categories. (This seems to me to be the case with teaching, but we'll see how Higgins deals with this in chapter 7.) The second amendment is that occupational activities are not merely social, they also possess an openness to others. We shape and are shaped by each of these 3 modes of practical life.

I must confess that it isn't entirely clear to me what the full content and significance of this second amendment to Arendt is supposed to be--so any help in the discussion would be much appreciated! Other than that, I look forward to how Higgins will situate teaching within the framework discussed and modified in this chapter of The Good Life of Teaching.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Higgins The Good Life: Worlds of Practice

In the second chapter Higgins identifies three domains of goods in which virtues are meaningful - moral traditions, individual life narratives, and practices. The web of connections among these give rise to our individual values and meanings. Practices are the main focus here, because his interest is in teaching as a practice, and Higgins distinguishes two sorts of goods internal to a practice. The first can be realized as a community, as when football fans watch an exciting and well played Superbowl. The second can be realized by a particular member of that community, which he refers to as 'internal goods located in the practitioner'. I find the discussion of goods and their interconnection with practices, life narratives, and traditions giving rise to meaning interesting and reflection provoking.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Professors, ideal versus typical

I'd be curious to hear reactions to a survey described by Maryellen Weimer. The survey asked college juniors and seniors to ascribe various characteristics to the "ideal professor" and to their experience of the "typical professor". Results below:

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Higgins' "good life" — and internal and external goods

Thanks to Chris for getting us started with a very lucid account of the overall project of Higgins' book.

Like Jim Spence, I have reservations about the philosophical background that informs Higgins' book: the ancient ethics/modern morality contrast is (I believe) is overdrawn. But rather than be drawn into a discussion of moral philosophy, I'd prefer to focus on Higgins' more immediate project of investigating the goods of teaching.

Figures like Macintyre, Williams, Taylor, etc., get the greatest attention from Higgins, but I think we can all agree that the intellectual progenitor of Higgins' investigation is Aristotle. I understand Higgins' aim as trying to identified the internal goods of the craft of teaching. (Higgins talks of 'practices' rather than crafts, but I'll overlook whatever differences exist between those notions here.) If Aristotle was right and every craft has an internal good (or goods) that define it and at which genuine practitioners of the craft must aim, then it seems reasonable to suppose that teaching, since it seems to be learnable, to involve the development of various human excellences, etc., would also be a craft with its own internal goods.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Learning from each other

Reading Higgins’ book has made me think more about teaching as a practice and our relationship to other educators as a part of that practice, which has been timely, as I recently organized a teacher development workshop for the numerous adjuncts teaching our Introduction to Philosophy course. This is the second time I’ve run such a workshop. I’ve been very preoccupied in running these meetings not to waste the adjuncts’ time and they are not required to attend in order to teach the course. Fortunately, I was able to secure some money from the Office of Undergraduate Education to pay the adjuncts for their time and our department pitched in for food and coffee, but I did feel at the end of the meeting unsure as to whether we should continue to have these every term.