I love teaching, and I’m always thinking about pedagogy and obsessing about how my classes are going, what my students are ‘getting out of’ our classes, and how they feel about what they’re learning or failing to understand. When I reflect on teaching, I come up with two ways in which I love it. On the one hand, I love that I get to teach for a living. Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am to be doing precisely what I set out to do when I chose this career path. Beyond my love of teaching, I realize that I love my students not for what they bring to the teaching experience (although, that’s of course true), but also in a very different way.
When I tune in to the news these days, there’s a nightmarish quality to many of the stories I read or hear. From the completely retro contraceptive and abortion ‘debates’, the assault on women’s reproductive rights, the immunization of doctors from the duty of reasonable standards of disclosure (this one’s for you, AZ), to the senseless murder of young black Americans and Afghan families. And, of course, the GOP assault on higher education and funding for public universities like the one my students attend. News like this makes me despair about democracy, not as such, but particularly when it yields policy that restricts human rights and funds unjust wars, and elects governors who devise naive budgets. Democracy is a terrifying business at times, or perhaps always.
The thing is, I love democracy just as much as the next person. Kind of like I love a good thriller, or at least for some of the same reasons. And part of loving democracy is loving the people who constitute a democratic society. This is often difficult to do, unless you realize that hating a person and hating an idea/ideology are two completely different things. This is a lesson that bears constant repeating in the classroom. Why do I teach philosophy students about democracy, ethics, inequality, civil resistance, human rights, and all the rest of it? Because I love them as persons and I want to be able to increase the number of persons whose ideas I also love. I want to decrease the number of harmful ideologies that people are taking seriously. Progress is not only about decreasing the number of despicable persons and policies in power, but also about decreasing the number of despicable ideas circulating as live political options. For me, this is a practical imperative for philosophy: the neutralization of harmful, ignorant, and discriminatory ideas in the public sphere. Hope for a better democracy is, for me, necessarily entwined with my love of teaching.
This is an important document: “The Adjunct Manifesto”. Spread the word, please.
(via John Protevi, who comments on the issue here.)
I love a good post on the link between philosophy and pedagogy. Jeff Bell has some insights on the link here.
Here’s a piece in The Chroncle about a new book, Academically Adrift, which paints a pretty sad picture about students coming away from their college years having made little or no advancements in complex, critical thinking. Here’s a snippet:
While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA, in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift. They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master. These findings are sobering and should be a cause for concern.
Read the article to get the gist of the findings. On the face of it, it would seem that this kind of empirical research would serve as an indictment of faculty. If students aren’t becoming better thinkers at school, then the faculty aren’t doing their job, right? Chances are that this is partly true. Practices like grade inflation and the watering down of expectations certainly do not help to stretch student brains. And, of course, there are simply bad teachers in the mix.
Other conclusions suggest themselves, however. Here’s one: we need to stop cutting the funding for the disciplines that teach critical, complex thinking. Anyone keeping up with the ongoing crisis in the humanities will read this article, or the book presumably (I’ve not a copy), and say, ‘That makes sense’.
A bright spot in all the darkness covering the humanities these days. Listen to this story on All Things Considered about LaGuardia Community College’s philosophy program.
According to this article, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has received a $20 million grant to fund their humanities programs (including $2.5 million for a chair in Ancient Greek philosophy!). Half of the cash is from the Mellon foundation; the other half is from the state itself. This is an unlikely award these days, as the article points out (and we in the humanities are reminded every day). The article closes with a paragraph that pithily summarizes the value of the humanities:
In prepared remarks delivered Monday, [Biddy] Martin [chancellor of UW-Madison] likened an education without the humanities to living without the benefit of memory, or of imagination. “We are, by nature, cultural beings. We are learners. Our cultural environment shapes us,” she said. “If we fail to understand how it shapes us, we forfeit our freedom and our responsibility to think about what we learn and who we are.”
Rubrics can seem both superfluous and bureaucratic. On one hand, they are these. On the other, they’re a great way to keep yourself honest and, most importantly, to clarify your expectations to your students, not to mention they provide something like a safety net for grading. If you can spell out precisely why your student has received a ‘D’ on their midterm paper, you feel confident delivering that ‘D’. All the better if you can point to the rubric to back you up. I’ve given in to the rubric and incorporated it into a guide I give to my students at the start of the semester, in which is spelled out everything they need to know about how to write and format a paper for my class. What I like best about it is that it has helped me clarify for myself precisely what I want to see in a paper. There’s comfort and accountability in that.
Rubrics can be written out as paragraphs, as I have done, or put into a table. I describe what an ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, and ‘F’ paper contain, what they ‘look’ like. If I were to put this into a table, then students who are comfortable decoding tables–because they’re math/science people, or visual learners, or work with Excel a lot–will perhaps find my rubric more friendly to their style. Where the table rubric may be different in form, I don’t think the content is improved by charting it in a table. What does change when the rubric is put in table form is its authority. What may come across as a list of subjective expectations now appears with an aura of objectivity. The student can trace with their finger precisely where their paper falls on the table, and therefore pinpoint the exact location of their grade. They are convinced that, yes, indeed, they deserve the ‘D’. This is the power of the rubric in table form.
The Chronicle has a more even-tempered assessment of classroom technology than my post of yesterday (now deleted).
I don’t know how well-known his site is, but Villanova’s John Immerwahr has for the past couple/few years been maintaining a wonderful resource over at Teach Philosophy 101. Check it out if you haven’t done so already. If you have suggestions, send them to John. He welcomes the input with swift, friendly replies.
Publishers selling textbooks for Introduction to Philosophy courses often claim that their books are “ideal.” The price is never ideal, however. What I’m wondering now is whether anyone has hit upon a truly ideal syllabus for this course. In my mind, an ideal syllabus would be one that uses primary source readings and whose evaluative component contains nothing superfluous, boring, tedious, or artificial. I’m less concerned about the evaluative exercises than I am with hitting upon a set of texts that work well. My guess is the the Meditations of Descartes and at least two dialogues from Plato will make the list. Of course, success will depend on the manner in which the texts are presented, but I’d rather know the texts which present themselves well.
A common complaint that I get from students is that older texts, like Kant for instance, are too dense. No surprise. Sometimes I’m asked, “Why don’t you just have us read the same arguments in a contemporary form, since there are scholars still working on the arguments today?” I always answer by telling them that I do not think they (i.e. the students) are stupid, that I believe they can comprehend the texts in question provided they take the time to do so. Sometimes I think that Hume is accessible, but the strange thing is that his language is not as easily navigated as, say, Anselm, whose logic is probably the obstacle to comprehension. Often this is a translation issue, the irony being that Hume is writing in English. Precisely because he’s not helpfully rendered in a readable English from Latin, Greek, etc., students have to contend with his foreign English. Berkeley, on the other hand, writes with fewer qualifications and circumlocutions, which is why I’m thinking of putting him on the reading list this fall.
These are just thoughts and I’m hoping some of you will offer up your ideal reading lists, if you’ve got them.