Wednesday, December 11, 2013

a request from the Spelman Philosophy Department

Spelman College's Prof. Shay Welch ( sends this appeal:
We're currently looking to find a philosopher, preferably a senior scholar, who is proficient in IBL [inquiry-based learning] effectiveness in the classroom and how such dialectics can be evaluated by the professor as a graded component.  This is part of our institution-wide Mellon funded Undergraduate Research Initiative project.  If you are such a philosopher, or if you know such a philosopher, please contact me. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

New Facebook page for Teaching Philosophy

Do you like the journal Teaching Philosophy? Now you can "like" it too — thanks to its newly minted Facebook page. The page will have announcements of new articles, calls for papers, and the like. There's also an entry for every article published — very useful, I think.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Teaching "the deliberate engagement of delay"

I very much enjoyed art historian Jennifer Roberts' explanation of why (and how) she teaches patience to her students. Roberts observes that nearly every feature of our culture encourages and rewards rapidity. But there are certain facets of objects and texts that can't be observed in a snapshot way, and that faculty should consider the temporal speed of the learning experiences they expose students to. We should, she argues, teach "the deliberate engagement of delay.":

Monday, November 18, 2013

How do we know whether our students learned what we wanted them to?

My department just got a small grant to work on assessment -- developing some mechanisms for working out what our students learn, and whether what they learn is what we want them to. The grant is for a pilot project that will focus specifically on two of our three large enrollment courses -- Intro to Philosophy (most of the students are first years, in Letters and Science) and Contemporary Moral Issues (most of the students are juniors and seniors, mostly from Business, or Letters and Science).  We're going to do focus groups with faculty who regularly teach each class, to discuss what the course objectives are and how they generally assess whether the students meet those objectives. Then, with those objectives in mind, we plan to design a pre- and post-test (to be given very early in the semester and very late in the semester), which we'll use in all sections of the course in question. We are not aiming to use this to evaluate the professors -- but to find out whether what the students learn matches what we think we are teaching them. Because it is a pilot, of course, we'll be testing and getting ready to refine the instrument itself.

We also plan to gather together syllabuses, assignments, and run focus group discussions around grading practices (eg, by getting faculty to read several artifacts and assign grades, and discuss why they gave the grade they did).

It occurs to me that some of our readers might have experience -- and might even have existing examples of pre- and post-tests that they use in Intro Philosophy or courses similar to Contemporary Moral Issues. Any and all input on how we should go about this is welcome.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Can a whole bunch of debt get you a better education?

For the past couple of years at City I have taught a section of the First Year Seminar required of all entering students. I enjoy teaching it because it gives me a chance to get to know my students well (the classes are smaller) and to help them adjust to college life. I have noticed that the profile of the entering students has started to shift towards students who are admitted to more selective private schools, but opt for City because they are unwilling to go into debt. When some of those students go to my webpage and find out that I attended a selective private college and taught for a few years at an elite liberal arts college, they come into my office to ask me, in essence, whether they made the right choice. These students are usually some of the better prepared students and they worry that they’re missing out on a better education elsewhere.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

5 kinds of questions

Maryellen Weimer introduced me to a handy framework I'd never come across before: the Andrews typology of questions types. Students respond well when questions come in a variety of types, so it seems smart to try to incorporate questions of these different types into the classroom.

Philosophical example
Direct link
Seeks an interpretation or analysis of something specific
What are the premises of Descartes’ argument for God’s existence in the Fifth Meditation?
Course link
Require students to take course information and link it to the text or other materials
Is Descartes’ argument for God’s existence in the Fifth Meditation a priori or a posteriori?
Students share a collection of ideas in preparation for classifying or evaluating them
What are some possible objections to Descartes’ argument for God’s existence in the Fifth Meditation?
Limited focus
Students are given options to compare or contrast
Which of Descartes’ arguments for God’s existence is more convincing: the argument from the Third Meditation or the argument from the Fifth?
Open focus
An issue is presented without alternative to solicit opinion of judgment
Are you convinced by Descartes’ argument for God’s existence in the Fifth Meditation?

Anyone have additional examples of these question types to share?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Mastery-based grading

At NewAPPS, Mark Lance makes a sensible point about one of the oddities of how grading is typically done at the college and university level: Students' grades are usually calculated based on the work they do across a course instead of based on the level of ability or mastery they've achieved by the end of it. This has the somewhat perverse implication that two students could end up with very different grades despite the facts that (a) each of them manifests the same level of ability or mastery by the end of the course, and (b) one of the students has, arguably, accomplished more in the course in terms of learning:

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Can we get students to read our comments on their papers?

I'm in the middle of grading papers. I started, a while ago, grading the electronic files using Word's reviewing capacity (track changes and comments). This results in i) it taking much longer, because I make many more comments and ii) my comments and editing being potentially useful because they are actually legible (which they never were before). So, this is potentially very good for the students. But: I have no idea whether they actually read the comments (especially because I make it fairly clear that I am not interested in what their grades are, only in whether they learn a lot, so very rarely get to listen to students who challenge their grades). I just had an idea: I could withhold their grades until they return the paper to me, with a response to every single comment I made. The comment could just be: "ok". I simply want a mechanism for making them read the comments. Has anyone else done this? Or does anyone have some reliable mechanism for making them read comments?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Flipping: Does it work?

When the notion of the 'flipped classroom' became popular a few years ago, I realized that I already was a 'semi-flipper': No, I didn't do video recordings of lectures beforehand (largely because I virtually never think of my class meetings as delivering a lecture). But I was doing a lot of what's associated with the flipped classroom:

  • being less the sage on the stage, more the guide on the side
  • using diagnostic techniques to identify gaps in student understanding that I then try to address
  • having students communicate more with one another than 'ping pong' communication with me
  • thinking of class meetings less as performances of my own knowledge than a series of activities united by identified learning objectives
All of this seems wise to me.

And now word has it that the flipped classroom may not work. Yes yes, it's only one study conducted in a far from typical higher ed setting (Harvey Mudd College). 

But I'm very interested to know about philosophy instructor's experiences with flipping. Those of you who've tried flipping the philosophy classroom:

  1. What are your specific flipping techniques or practices?
  2. Has it worked — and what's your evidence for that?
  3. If it hasn't worked, why not?
  4. What did you learn along the way?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Student participation: Why it pays to sweat the small stuff

No doubt student participation and discussion matter in all academic disciplines, but I imagine most philosophy instructors think they matter doubly in philosophy. Indeed, we may go so far as to say that learning in philosophy consists in mastering how to play a role in a certain tradition or practice of inquiry.

But how do we encourage student participation? In part, students participate because of the "big choices" we make as instructors: the content and curricular choices and so on. At the same time, plenty of small habits make a difference too — habits that, as Maryellen Weimer reminds us at Faculty Focus, stimulate and reward student participation. I decided to a self-assessment based on Weimer's observations, to see to what degree I'm following these tips about how to encourage participation.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"Teaching will be my lasting contribution to philosophy"

Over at the Smoker blog, Jaded Ph.D offers some valuable remarks about the relative importance of teaching and research and how this influence what we think makes for a good academic job. The post captures well why teaching is likely to have more impact (for most philosophers) than research. A good read -- and good comments to boot.

Teaching Philosophy, latest issue (36.4)

The latest issue of Teaching Philosophy is now available — lots of great stuff, including articles on discussing the nature of art, teaching values to Chinese students, and two pieces on critical thinking, including the debut article in our 'How to Teach' series. Do read!

(Information about how to access the journal is here.)

Monday, October 7, 2013

If students can't play, can they learn to philosophize?

I know I'm not the first person to notice how philosophy resembles a kind of high-level intellectual play. 

For one, philosophy can be playful. Philosophical humor, while sometimes a bit acid, can sometimes make a philosophical point more effectively than sober argument.

Second, philosophy is rule-governed, but shifts its rules midstream. To give one example: Plenty of philosophical disputes are about what evidence we have a for a given claim, and at some point in a philosophical dialectic, one of the parties will often claim that we've been employing a misguided standard for evidence (too strict, too liberal, etc.). The rules of the game can themselves be open to discussion. So just as children playing a game modify the rules as they go, philosophers often modify the rules of their enterprise as they engage in the enterprise.

Philosophy also involves a fair amount of role playing. Good philosophers attempt to anticipate how their opponents will react to their positions and arguments. This requires us to take on a role — to pretend we're someone we're not in order to fully participate in the philosophical enterprise.

A related point: Philosophy is imaginative. To entertain a counterfactual in philosophical settings is to attempt to envision the world as it is not and then work your way through the implications of that envisioning. 

Finally, at its best, philosophy has inclusion among its aims. It's an unstated rule of the best philosophizing that everyone has a role to play in its inquiry — and we should be reluctant to shape the inquiry in ways that exclude anyone from engaging in it.

These analogies between philosophy and play are why I feel a bit haunted by Peter Gray's astounding and wonderful piece on the decline of play among children.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"The primary postulate of American education"

Daniel Willingham's review of Amanda Ripley's book The Smartest Kids in the World is so laudatory that it makes it sound like a must read for any American educator. Ripley compares U.S. education to three nations whose educational systems are widely recognized for their quality: South Korea, Finland, and Poland. The success of these three nations makes the usual explanations for the U.S.' struggles look weak: poverty is high in Poland, we spend more money on K-12 education than they do, etc. This is not to say it's all peaches and cream in these three societies. The South Korean system is widely derided for producing stressed out, miserable, uncreative kids.

But what unites these systems is a cultural expectation: "an expectation that the work will be hard. Everything else is secondary." In contrast, Willingham proposes that among the "primary postulates" of American K-12 education is

a propensity to learn is innate, instinctive and therefore inevitable. That, in turn, means that it should be easy. This assumption is pretty much the opposite of the one Ripley assigns to South Korea, Finland, and Poland. ...Many Americans seem to think that it's not normal for schoolwork to be challenging enough that it takes persistence. In fact, if you have to try much harder than other kids, in our system you're a good candidate for a diagnosis and an IEP. 
I start teaching again for the fall term tomorrow. No doubt many of the students I teach this term will exhibit just the sort of attitudes we'd expect them to exhibit given that they've been shaped by an educational culture ruled by this postulate: fear of failure, the tendency to blanch in the face of even modest academic adversity, little attention to the time management needed to make persistent effort possible, the belief that a "full-time student" can put in half-time effort, a disinclination to seek help.

In short: Ripley's onto something.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Seeking teaching tips from philosophers

David Gooblar is soliciting teaching tips from college instructors, and philosophers in particular, for his new site Pedagogy Unbound. It's an elegantly designed site: He has links to tips organized by topic (Discussion, Academic Honesty, Making a Syllabus, and lots more). Many of them are taken from what I think of as classic recent sources on teaching and learning (Lang's On Course, Angelo and Cross' Classroom Assessment Techniques, etc.), others are "homegrown" from the contributors. David's looking for tips from contributors, so please don't hesitate to help him, and your fellow teachers, out.

Monday, September 23, 2013

CFP: AAPT Conference on Teaching Philosophy

The American Association of Philosophy Teachers

The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University
Collegeville, Minnesota
July 30 - August 3, 2014

Proposals for interactive workshops related to teaching and learning philosophy at any educational level are welcome.  We especially encourage creative approaches to workshops or or panels on:

    •    innovative and successful teaching strategies
    •    professional issues connected to teaching
    •    how work in other disciplines can improve the teaching of philosophy
    •    engaging students outside the classroom
    •    innovative uses of instructional technologies
    •    the challenge of teaching in new settings
    •    methods to improve student learning

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Call for Nominations: Teaching Fellows


The American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT) seeks devoted, excellent teachers to serve as 2014-2016 AAPT Teaching Fellows. Teaching Fellows will be acknowledged in Teaching Philosophy, receive a small stipend ($500), and serve a two-year term August 15, 2014-August 14, 2016. During this term, the fellow will pursue a personal project that furthers the teaching of philosophy. This project may include mentoring newer teachers, blogging on the AAPT website, facilitating teaching and learning workshops, or other activities. Most fellows will have the opportunity to deliver a plenary address at the biennial AAPT conference at the end of their term.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A note to Teaching Philosophy reviewers

I wanted to say thanks to all those who've volunteered to review manuscripts for Teaching Philosophy. (And for those who haven't, here's where to sign up.)

I also wanted to give one bit of advice: A couple of those who've signed up as reviewers have e-mailed me asking why they've not been select to review any manuscripts. In all likelihood, the answer is simple: You did not select any reviewing interests when setting up your profile. When selecting reviewers, I generally look to those who've expressed some interest in a manuscript's topical area. But if you do not indicate any reviewing interests, I'm not likely to select you as a reviewer. So I'd encourage anyone who hasn't done so to edit their profiles to include reviewing interests to do so. Reviewing interests can be subdisciplines (environmental ethics, ancient philosophy, logic, etc.) or pedagogical concerns (student writing, testing and evaluation, teaching and technology, etc.). Thanks!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Cheating: Authoritarian versus design approaches

One surprising conclusion I've reached about students is that many of the behaviors they engage in which seem irrational to us often look very rational from their point of view. Take reading assigned material, for instance. We know full well that many students don't read regularly (and a few don't read at all). No doubt this is shortsighted, but from the average student's point of view, not reading can look pretty rational in the circumstances from a cost-benefit point of view. If you lack the background knowledge to complete the reading, have been given little help in preparing to read, have few strategies for dealing with tough texts, find reading alternately boring or anxiety-producing, cannot discern a connection between reading (or reading carefully) and subsequent academic performance, and can nevertheless pull decent grades without reading regularly, then ... well, why read?

For we instructors, seeing our students as (admittedly flawed) rational actors can make us better teachers. In the case of reading, say, we can make reading a more rational strategy by not 'covering' the reading in lectures, designing assignments that reward careful reading, filling in gaps in students' background knowledge when necessary, and so on.

This observation — that how we teach and the learning environments we create make certain student behaviors rational from their point of view — was in my mind as read this interview with James Lang, the author of a recent book on academic cheating.

Lang puts his main point very nicely:

Monday, September 2, 2013

Why (in part) teaching is emotionally laborious

Teaching is hard work. Most of you probably know that. But as time goes on, it becomes increasingly evident to me that teaching is emotionally difficult work.

This piece by Kevin Brown illustrates some of the reasons why teaching is emotionally taxing. Most of us like instant gratification. For the most part, the gratification that comes from teaching is at best long term, if it comes at all:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Research productivity and teaching quality: No correlation!

There's a good bit I agree with (and a bit I disagree with strenuously) in this piece by Edward O'Neill. O'Neill takes up an issue we've engaged at ISW in the past: is it possible, from a pedagogical perspective at least, to know too much about one's subject — can expertise make you a worse teacher?

O'Neill notes there's some evidence for an affirmative answer, but overall, if knowledge is measured by research productivity (which I concede is a questionable assumption), there appears to be no correlation between subject knowledge and teaching effectiveness. O'Neill notes that this finding upends some central assumptions about higher education: 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

PLATO awards for K-12 philosophy teaching

The Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) is sponsoring three awards for K-12 philosophy teaching. Details about the awards, including eligibility and nominations, are available here.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Would philosophy be better off divorcing the humanities?

We've had lots of discussion here about the place of philosophy within education and the place of the humanities within higher education. I'd like to focus for a bit on the place of philosophy within the humanities.

I've long thought that philosophy's classification within the humanities was an uncomfortable one. Many philosophers have told me that they don't think other humanists understand the aims of their work. And I often find that I can convey the significance of my research more readily to scientists and social scientists than to my supposed humanistic cohort.

Philosophy is an intellectually diverse discipline, with many different strands within it. But much of what philosophers do doesn't seem to fit with how the humanities are perceived, even by academic humanists. Consider this statement of what the humanities are from

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The importance of teaching: "Majoring in the professor"

There are plenty of reasons why philosophers should care about the quality of their teaching. There are narrowly prudential reasons obviously. Your ability to find or retain academic employment can depend on the quality of your teaching. There are also broadly prudential reasons too. Treating teaching as a worthwhile and engaging endeavor makes it possible for teaching (which, let's face it, is (a) what earns most of us our pay, and (b) what we spend the majority of our professional hours attending to) to be a central and rewarding part of your professional identity.

But there are also collective reasons to teach effectively. This piece in the IHE provides evidence for what I suspect most university faculty already notice: Students' academic interests are malleable, and the discipline they choose to study often turns on the instructor who firsts introduces them to it:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Learning orientations and political bias

Later this week I'll be joining fellow ISW'ers Jennifer Morton and Harry Brighouse for a conference on "Education: Ideals and Practices." It looks to be a great event, and I thought I'd share my paper with our readers. I'd welcome any feedback you might have. The paper draws on a fair amount of empirical research about learning and personality, but it was motivated by my own observation that students' political beliefs map onto personality differences that shape how students learn.

Here's the abstract:

Anti-Conservative Bias in Education is Real — But Not Unjust

Conservatives commonly claim that systems of formal education are biased against conservative ideology. I argue that this claim is incorrect, but not because there is no bias against conservatives in formal education. A wide swath of psychological evidence linking personality and ideology indicates that conservatives and liberals differ in their learning orientations, that is, in the values, motivations, and beliefs they bring to learning tasks. These differences in operative epistemologies explain many demographic phenomena relating educational achievement and political ideology. Systems of formal education thus disadvantage conservatives, especially in the later stages of formal education. Conservatives are therefore ‘selected against’ in the process of formal education, not due to their values or ideology but because their learning orientations are not especially conducive to academic success beyond a certain point. However, because the bias against conservatives in not ideological in origin, a case cannot be made that conservatives are victims of institutional injustice. This bias against conservatives in formal education could be mitigated were the purposes of formal education radically modified (the education of the military class in Plato’s Republic serves as a model). But such a model of formal education would ill serve the needs of modern, industrialized, information-driven societies.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Latest issue of Teaching Philosophy: philosophy in high schools

The latest issue of Teaching Philosophy is available electronically. It's a very special issue: Guest edited by Mitch Green and Jana Mohr Lone, it focuses on teaching philosophy in high schools. Those of you engaged in high school philosophy teaching will, I hope, find valuable advice in these articles. Those of us working at the college and university level should gain a new appreciation of the challenges and rewards of working with this population. Do check it out!

Unequal Classrooms

I thought some of you might be interested in my opinion piece over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. I'm on vacation, so haven't been able to follow the comments but I'm looking forward to reading them when I get back.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Great Little Story about Cheating

"Ultimately the problem, both then and now, was an education system that made pupils’ futures contingent on their ability to regurgitate information. In that kind of system, with so much pressure and competition, perhaps cheating is the only sane response. Michael Gove wants more learning by rote, tougher exams and more competition between pupils in British schools. Which probably means more cheating, too. "

And, of course, we are seeing the same problems in the US.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The second smartest person in the room?

I very much enjoyed this letter to Janet Napolitano, the recently appointed head of the University of California, from Berkeley faculty member Michael O'Hare. I won't comment on the significance of the head of homeland security being appointed to lead a system the most indelible recent image of which is security officers wielding pepper spray against student protestors.

What I really liked was the pithy way O'Hare summed up the state of college teaching:
For the most part, we are teaching students how to be the second-smartest person in a room with one person who knows the truth, but no-one in the big world pays for that skill: you get paid to be good at finding new truths, and making other people smart.
O'Hare's description resonates with my picture of what is often thought of as a "good student": someone who knows how to echo the instructor, but is completely helpless when given the autonomy to investigate things on their own. In my article on intentional learning, I call these performing learners:

Friday, July 5, 2013

Becko's big shout out

So turns out one of ISW's own, Becko Copenhaver, has been named teacher of the year at Lewis and Clark College. Congratulations (obviously!) -- and check out a video and interview with Becko here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

3 questions about asking questions

I suspect we all agree that questions are at the heart of philosophy.  I was therefore struck by Maryellen Weimer's report of a conversation she had with a colleague about the use of questions in the classroom.
The conversation started with concerns over the quantity and quality of questions students ask—those earnest questions about what’s going to be on the exam and gently demanding queries about what the teacher “wants” in almost any kind of written assignment. Those questions are important to students, but they certainly are not the questions of curious learners nor are they the type of questions that motivate learning and intellectual development. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

More advice to students: How to write a #$%* essay

Following up on Monday's advice to students about how to talk to professors about their grades, James Lenman offers students the following invaluable advice concerning essay writing:

How to Write a Crap Philosophy Essay: A Brief Guide for Students

  1. Always begin your essay along these lines: “Since the very dawn of time the problem of free will has been considered by many of the greatest and deepest thinkers in history.”

Monday, June 24, 2013

Free advice to students about talking to professors about grades, part I

I just finished my grading for the term, and as is typical, a number of students approached me as the term wound down to discuss their grades and how to improve them. These discussions generally focus on these two concerns:

  1. Students want to improve their grades by having me change the grading standards or expectations in some ways.
  2. Students want to improve their grades by performing better in class.
In my experience, students often handle these discussions poorly, especially in regard to concern 1. Here I have some advice for students about concern 1 — I'll save advice about concern 2 for another post.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Do you teach ....?

Teaching Philosophy is introducing a new feature to each of its issues. The journal will be publishing articles entitled 'How to Teach...' Each article will be an overview of how to teach one of the standard courses in the philosophy curriculum. The basic motivation for these articles is to help those who have never taught courses in a given area of philosophy prepare to teach such courses, as well as giving those experienced in teaching courses in a given area different models for courses in that area.

We already have an article scheduled on how to teach critical thinking. In the next few years, I hope to publish 'How to Teach ...' articles on the following courses:
  • ancient philosophy
  • modern philosophy
  • the Continental tradition
  • Asian philosophy
  • logic
  • metaphysics
  • epistemology
  • philosophy of science
  • feminist philosophy
  • bioethics, medical ethics, health care ethics
  • information technology ethics
If you might be interested in writing such a piece, please contact me: mjcholbi*at*csupomona*dot*edu.

Below the fold are additional guidelines for the 'How to Teach...' articles.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shaking things up in history of philosophy courses

A reader asks:
Just yesterday I started teaching a summer course on early modern. We read Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant (with a few others mixed in here and there). The problem is, there are only six students. And we meet for two hours and fifteen minutes each day, five days a week. My experience with modern has been that the default class is the lecture, with an active back and forth mixed in throughout. I don't think this is ideal generally, but more importantly, I think it could lead to a very dull next four weeks. Do you have any advice on how to make a small history course (designed for first-timers) more interesting? Any help would be appreciated.

Anyone have any ideas here? My experience echoes the writer's. In history of philosophy courses, the central goals (textual exposition, grasping the main doctrines and arguments, etc.) are challenging on their own, so students have to lean heavily on instructor expertise. As a result, the 'punctuated lecture' tends to emerge as the default format. What might be some techniques to shake things up and keep the classroom experience fresh and lively?

Employing a student to criticize my teaching

Whenever I describe the following experience to colleagues they tell me I should write it up. So. Here it is:

In Fall 2007 I taught a freshman seminar for the first time. The topic was Children, Marriage, and the Family, and students also took two, thematically-linked, classes in other departments together. The design is there are 20 students (in fact I've had 21 each time); it might be worth knowing in what follows that nearly all of those students have been women which, I am told, is a result of the subject matter. I had, up till then, very little contact with first or second year undergraduates. My regular large service class, although perfectly suitable for freshmen and sophomores, is under-supplied, so upper-class students nearly fill it up before the others get to register. And I usually teach upper level courses for majors otherwise, which, again, mostly contain juniors and seniors.

So teaching first years was a big challenge. Lecturing them is absurd. But I had no discussion-prompting skills, and no knowledge of what the students would know. I was uneasy all semester long for lots of reasons, and never felt entirely on top of things. And I felt particularly inadequate because I had just read Our Underachieving Colleges. It certainly got better, and I had a (then) graduate student who is a much more skilled teacher than I am visit a few times, partly for recommendation-writing purposes, but mainly to get her help.

I taught the same seminar again in Fall 2010. That summer I had one of my semi-regular meetings over tea/coffee with Emma, a 2007 student, who by then was a Nursing major, and with whom I had talked a lot about the classes she was taking during the intervening time. She, knowing I was going to teach the class again in the Fall, asked whether there was anything she could do to help.

I knew immediately what I wanted her to do.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

American Association of Philosophy Teachers workshop Saturday, June 1 in Atlanta

Saturday, June 1, the summer workshop of the American Association of Philosophy teachers is meeting at Morehouse College, Atlanta. Below and here (  ) is a tentative schedule of events. All are welcome! Please pass the word on about this event to your networks. Thanks!  The schedule is below.

Correction: an earlier version of this post mistakenly said 'this' Saturday, which was incorrect at the time of the initial post. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Fostering Community in the Classroom

Last week I had one of those teaching days that puts a spring back in your step and reminds you that teaching is a wonderful part of the job. The funny thing is that this moment had very little to do with anything I did, though I want to understand the conditions that facilitated it so I can nudge my other classes in this direction.

My philosophy of education course has been a bit of a struggle this term. There are a wide range of students in that class in terms of philosophical background, writing ability, and general engagement with the topic. Discussion at the beginning of the term was often sluggish and superficial. However, last week my students had a frank and open conversation about higher education, its aims, what they were actually getting out of it, how it might be reformed, and about the history of our institution in general (the reading for the day was a journalist’s take on the history of City College). What was remarkable about the discussion wasn’t only the breadth of ideas and the depth with which students approached them, but the genuine appreciation students demonstrated for each other’s contributions. I find that students are often reluctant to really listen and engage with each other, and want the professor to take charge of the classroom and tell them what to think. But this class was markedly different. Students talked about how City’s admissions policy was critical to bringing more students like themselves to college and why being exposed to students from such different backgrounds was an important part of their education. It was interesting hearing students really bring to light how they saw themselves fitting into the college’s diverse community and genuinely acknowledge what other students in the classroom contributed to their education. Intellectually, this class was remarkable because students were building on each other’s ideas, asking good questions, and thinking critically about their own education. I was merely an astounded facilitator.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

When is copying not plagiarism?

Sometime ago (just after the 2001 general election), I was listening to a senior adviser to Tony Blair at a non-academic public policy conference. He started saying some things that were quite critical of the promises New Labour had made, and implemented, in education, and I found myself, at first, thinking how sensible and well-thought out the criticisms were. Then, I started thinking that I recognized the language in which they were couched, and, eventually, realised that the reason it all sounded so good was that it had been taken, more or less verbatim, from something I had written. My first, momentary, response was to be irritated by this—but, once I remembered where I had written it (the cover story of a magazine that was distributed widely at the previous Labour Party conference) I was, simply, pleased. Of course, he is not going to cite me in a speech, and if you write in that sort of venue you should be hoping that somebody like him will take your words and ideas and make them their own.

If an academic had done that, I would have remained irritated (for about 20 minutes, I imagine, I really don’t care that much), and I think that it would have counted as plagiarism. If a student did the same thing I would regard it as serious academic misconduct. But in the context it seemed just fine.

I remembered this during a discussion with a grad student recently.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Grading anonymously

The folks at NewAPPS are having a worthwhile discussion of the merits of anonymous grading: its capacity to counteract the halo effect, how to deal with work that you can associate with a student anyway, etc. I've used our university's LMS for anonymous grading and found it to be a welcome reform. Do check the New APPS discussion.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Organizing in-class debates

Students often request that I organize formal in-class debates. I usually demur, largely because my past experiences have been fairly negative. Most students do not participate, and those that do are those who tend to participate in in-class discussion anyway. The result is simply an in-class discussion with the chairs rearranged.

However, last week, I organized a formal debate in my moral philosophy course and it went well. I'm trying to diagnose why it went well so that I can replicate the experience — but I'm also interested in what techniques others have found helpful in organizing such debates.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Scrambling their argumentative eggs

Being able to extract arguments from philosophical texts, especially historical texts, is a central philosophical skill. But it's one that (in my observation) students struggle with immensely. The reasons for this aren't hard to discern: You have to understand the words. You have to understand the sentences within which the words appear. You have to understand the larger setting of the text in which those sentences appear. You have to see those words as having an underlying logic. Etc.

Yet extracting arguments from texts is the core philosophical skill. So how can we help students do this? Here's an idea I've used recently that I hope might help.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Teaching strategies that illustrate the employment value of the humanities

Reader Brian Domino writes, asking for examples of pedagogical strategies that :

I am a member of a “Valuing the Humanities Task Force” at Miami University. Like many  other folks, we’re working to show students the value of studying the humanities. It occurred to me that while both alumni in business and humanities faculty extol the “real world” skills that the humanities teach, our students might not realize that they are learning useful business skills in humanities classes because most of us do not identify when we are teaching particular skills. For the past year, I have been a member of a several nursing search committees. In their teaching presentations, the candidates almost always stated clearly “Now we’re going to learn to think critically. Let’s begin by defining it.” I am wondering whether doing something similar in humanities classes might not help our students more clearly see the value of the humanities, and you came to mind as the best person to ask for some help.
I would like to collect teaching strategies that could be shared with faculty members in the humanities to do this. For example, I no longer ask students to write “concise summaries” but instead couch the assignment in “real world” terms: Imagine that your boss has asked you to summarize these articles. She’s a busy executive, so she needs the summaries to be crisply written, but she’s counting on you to inform her of the important points. Failure to do so could make her look bad in a meeting, and cost you your job.” I am also experimenting with using grammar and writing web sites that focus on how writing well is important in business (e.g., “10 flagrant grammatical mistakes that make you look stupid”).
 I do think it's an excellent idea to point concretely at examples of humanities tasks that exemplify the kinds of things employers desire. One thing I sometimes emphasize is that in order to master a skill at level n, you actually have to practice it at level n+1. So employers desire people who can read and synthesize complex texts. But it's almost inconceivable that an employer would ever ask a student to read and synthesize a text as complex or forbidding as Kant. So the high level, n+1 thinking we do in the humanities classroom can be preparation for the n-level thinking required in the workplace.

But does anyone have suggestions or examples for Brian, of teaching strategies we can use to show students that humanities education is vocationally valuable??

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Approaching the dreaded 'I deserve a better grade' conversation

No one looks forward to that conversation with a student seeking a better grade. Maryellen Weimer at Faculty Focus has some good advice. Most centrally, she's emphasizes being open to the student's case for a better grade and figuring out how to make the enterprise a learning experience for both students and instructors. I appreciated these remarks in particular:

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Students Making Comments about One's Appearance

I'm not sure if there is much to say about this, but I wonder how others deal with students making comments about their appearance. Sometimes I have students who comment on whether I have new shoes, my hair is different, they like my shirt, etc. The comments are never really offensive or hugely inappropriate; if they came from a friend I wouldn't think twice about them. But sometimes they do throw me off and make me feel self-conscious, especially when they are made at the beginning of class. I try to dress as uncontroversially for class as possible, plain pants, button-down shirt, "sensible" shoes. So I think part of it really just is student's curiosity about me as a person and trying to have some sort of more personal interaction. So, I'm not entirely sure if I should stop it by saying something about it or just ignore it as they are not made with ill intent.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On Assessment

Philosopher Steven Hales recently published an article at the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Who's Assessing the Assessors' Assessors?" There is much worth thinking about here. In my experience, most faculty find outcomes assessment to be at best tedious, and are suspicious of the need, methodology, and even the motives for it. According to Hales, this sort of assessment is an "epistemological quagmire," and concludes that "the mavens of outcomes assessment do exactly the wrong thing—they pretend to have some other method that is the royal road to truth when, prey to the same doubts, it is no more than the path to ignorance."

I think the philosophical points raised by Hales are compelling, though it is the case that at least some faculty do not grade in such a manner that can be characterized as an accurate assessment of the work and progress made by a student over the course of the semester relative to the course objectives. It seems pretty clear that outcomes assessment is here to stay, such that relying on grades given by faculty will not stand alone as a method of assessment. However, Hales has offered a strong case that outcomes assessment over and above course grades is deeply problematic.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Experts as teachers, revisited

About two years ago, I asked in this e-space whether knowing too much about a given subject might be an impediment to teaching that subject. In other words, is expertise sometimes a barrier to teaching effectively?

I hypothesized that it can be when mastery of the subject comes too easily (making it difficult to relate to those who struggle to master it all) or when the instructor is simply "too close" to the material to be able to conceputalize it through more naive eyes.

Turns out that there's something to this worry: Experts in a given subject often have what some researchers call a "pedagogical blind spot" for that very subject.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Monday, February 25, 2013

Prompting the "learning emotions"

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop put on by Linda Nilson from Clemson University. The aim of Linda's workshop was to identify teaching techniques that, based on extant research on learning and cognition, enhance deep learning, retention, and retrieval.

There was an abundance of rich material in her workshop — some of which I may post about at a later date. But I wanted to share a particularly intriguing suggestion Linda offered concerning the "learning emotions."

Monday, February 18, 2013

Playing Cards and Structured Participation

Inspired by this post over at Faculty Focus on using playing cards to divide students up into groups, I decided to get myself a set of playing cards. Instead of using them for group work, however, I use them to make sure that everyone in class participates. I give each student a card at the beginning of class. The first time a student participates they hand in their card. I keep track of the ones I'm missing, so, as the end of class approaches, I start softly pushing the students who haven't participated by saying things like "My three of spades is still missing." or "Where did my four of hearts go?" This is a great activity to run on the first few days of class as it allows most students to feel comfortable participating and it creates an open class environment.

The new twist I took on this recently was to use it to have every student practice distinguishing their own ideas from their reading of the author. I had encountered difficulty with this in many papers. Following the philosophy of They Say, I Say, a very useful book to teach first year students college writing, I came up with a list of templates such as:

  • X argues that… but I disagree because…
  • X proposes that … but X overlooks the assumption that…
  • Philosopher X doesn't explicitly say that P, but it seems to me that he's assuming …..because...
  • X’s point that …. connects to the larger issue….
  • X’s example that …. also shows that…
I first discussed with students the importance of paraphrasing charitably, of making their own contribution, and of distinguishing between the two.I then asked students to participate using some version of the "X argues... I think..." structure.  I gave them a handout with a list of templates, though I encouraged students to use their own as long as they clearly paraphrased someone else's position first and distinguished it from their own contribution. Somebody else could be either the philosopher we read or a student in the class. This led to some nice back and forth between students in which they had to paraphrase each others contributions in order to make their own contribution. Some students had difficulty doing this at first and I would help them out as they talked. Student had also written a one page reading response for that day. I had students use the last 5 minutes of class to reread their responses before handing them into me, and underlining the parts of it in which they could have done a better job of distinguishing their own position from their interpretation of the author we read. By the end of the class, I think the point of the lesson was clear to almost everyone and I'm hoping to see some improvement in their papers.