Thursday, October 19, 2017

How (not) to teach philosophy

I went into reading this blog post (by a non-philosopher) on how to teach Heidegger expecting the worst. I didn't find it, but I do think there are problems. The motivating question behind the post is how to apply lessons from The New Education to teaching a class on Heidegger (no more information provided on what from Heidegger is being taught, what the course is, etc.). Cathy Davidson, author of  the blog post and the book in question, champions:
innovators [who] are breaking down barriers between ossified fields of study, presenting their students with multidisciplinary, real-world problems, and teaching them not just how to think, but how to learn.  
So, how to apply this exciting, disruptive (yes I'm rolling my eyes) approach to philosophy? Davidson suggests the following:
  1. Identify twenty keywords in the essay by Heidegger that you are assigning for the class, giving one of these words to each of the forty students in the class. Their job is to write what they think the word means, and to bring this definition to class. They get credit for trying, regardless of whether they get it right, but not if they don't try. Each student reads their definition to the class, then they get together with the other student who had the same word, compare notes, and then jointly compose a definition they are both happy with. Then they read this to the whole class. You can then collect these written definitions and, if you want, give a lecture during the remaining time.
  2. Begin the class by having each student read aloud the one sentence from the Heidegger essay that "they are still thinking about," which they are to have copied out. That's it--this exercise (as far as I can see) is all reading and listening.
  3. Think pair share (I always want to add 'care' to the list somewhere): You ask a question and then give the students 90 seconds to write down an answer. They get into pairs and read what they have written to each other. Then they have another two minutes at most to talk about it and write down a revised answer. Then you go around the room and one person (chosen at random) from each pair reads their answer.
  4. Before they leave the class students have 90 seconds to write down either the one idea from the class that "will keep them up at night" or that should have been talked about and that would have kept them up all night. These are handed to the instructor at the end of the class.
In all of this you are not supposed to tell anyone they have got something wrong, but you can praise right or good ideas. 
Some of the problems that occur to me in connection with all this have to do with numbers. Heidegger is something of a keywords kind of guy, but not every philosopher is. What if there really don't seem to be twenty key words or phrases in the reading you assign? Another mathematical problem is that step 1 seems as though it could take up the whole class. The definitions are meant to be 100-200 words long, which is about half a page. So it could take one minute for each student to read their definitions. That's 40 minutes total. And they still have to pair up, revise, and read out twenty new definitions. I don't think there would be time for a lecture after this.

Perhaps more to the point, what if you want students to get more out of Heidegger's work than definitions of key terms? Or what if none of them get the definition right? Or the credit available (this work is not for an actual grade) is so negligible that significant numbers of students don't even try to get it right?

I don't mean to be completely cynical. Something like this, probably with far fewer key words, could be useful. And Davidson encourages people to adapt and experiment with her ideas. But there are serious problems that she seems to be overlooking.

I have actually tried something like idea 2. In a course on world religions, I had each student read out a passage from a religious text that had struck them and to explain briefly what they thought was interesting about it. It was pretty much a disaster. Students did not want to listen to each other's thoughts, partly because the thoughts in question were very often obviously insincere, the passages having been chosen simply to complete the required exercise. I don't do this any more.

Idea number 3 strikes me as facing related problems. Is 90 seconds long enough to answer any worthwhile philosophical question? Would Heidegger think so? And when an undergraduate discusses their answer with another undergraduate, aren't the blind leading the blind?

Idea number 4 could be worth trying, because it's good to know what your students are thinking or getting out of a course. But a depressingly large number of people saying that absolutely nothing from the class would keep them up at night is surely highly predictable. Actually, honesty about this might not be depressing. But lots of "nothing"s would make the exercise a bit pointless.

It is perhaps telling to see what Davidson expects this kind of thing to achieve:
I promise, you will never have a more alert, engaged, livelier class on Heidegger.
(Her italics.) As she points out, if students are not engaged they will learn nothing. That's true. But is engagement itself the goal of teaching? And would these exercises even work in that sense? Davidson promises that "we know" they will. But what works with one group of students, or when done by one instructor, or with one text, might not work with another. I haven't found this kind of thing to work with the material I teach to my students. I've also observed lots of other people teaching, and I have never come away thinking that I ought to try, for instance, think pair care share. That isn't just because of my grumpy cynicism. I simply have not observed the kind of lively engagement that Davidson promises.

Here's another possible benefit to the new education:
statistically, minoritized students will be represented and we know that can be life-changing
This is a fair point. There are reasons to try to get all students involved in class more or less equally, ensuring that discussion is not dominated by white men, for instance. But there are other ways to do this, such as calling on students who have not yet spoken in class or making everyone do a presentation of some fairly polished work (to avoid the blind-leading-the-blind problem).

One last reason to adopt Davidson's approach:
You have great starting places for your next lecture or discussion or assignment: you have a way to see what they understand, what they don't, what they are missing, what matters to them, what does or does not make Heidegger "count" in their lives, what they are passionate about.
This is another good point, it seems to me. Some form of Davidson's methods would be a good way to find out what students understand and what they don't, what they care about and what they don't. But that's a starting point, not an end in itself. With a philosopher as difficult as Heidegger I think you would have to do some lecturing, or whatever we want to call explaining to students things they don't already understand (since 'lecturing' is becoming a dirty word). And with a subject like philosophy, in which you want students to develop certain kinds of skills, I think you would have to have them do work that requires more than writing 150 words or speaking for a minute or so at a time. Which is all to say that ideas like Davidson's are worth listening to, but should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Why does any of this matter? Because the idea that everybody should be teaching in Davidson's kind of way is very widespread. And that means pressure, some subtle, some less so, is put on instructors to practice this kind of teaching, sometimes by people who understand work like Davidson's well, sometimes by people who merely think they do. Which means the world could use more critical thinking about such ideas. Which in turn means that the experience of instructors and the expertise of people in specific disciplines should not be ignored by colleagues from other disciplines, by administrators, or by assessment types.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

New music

I usually have an album or two of the summer, if not here then on my phone. But Saint Etienne being Betjeman-ish didn't seem to warrant a blog post, and Alvvays didn't release their new album until September. Now, though, there are a coupe of albums that seem worth spreading the word about. One, not quite out yet, is by Makthaverskan, who usually sound like an idealized version of Siouxsie and the Banshees but here sound more like Alvvays.

The other tests the hypothesis that the more people are like me the more I like their music. The Granite Shore are middle-aged Brits who have done a whole album of moaning about Brexit. Not very promising, perhaps, but I've had this song stuck in my head for weeks, and I like the rest of the album too. (Fun fact: Phil Wilson, formerly of The June Brides, is in the band, made this video, and once emailed me. End of brag.)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Why I write such terrible blog posts

[The title of this post is a reference to Nietzsche, not self-deprecation.]

At Digressions & Impressions, Eric Schliesser provides useful advice for anyone considering starting a philosophy blog. Here's his advice, in a series of short quotations:
  1. the first thing to reflect on is who are you, or do you imagine, writing for?
  2. The hardest problem is to figure out what persona you will project in order to connect with your audience given the ideas you want to discuss.
  3. You should really research different kind of blog providers--not just their fee structures, but also their permissible templates, the capacity of the templates to do what you want to do with the blog, and the explicit restrictions of speech they impose.
  4. The most important point about frequency is that it needs to be fairly regular--certainly while you are developing your blog and audience.
  5. write a good comments policy, so you can re-direct the aggrieved to it.
  6. it's good to set some rules for yourself about when you post and when you check comments (etc.)
  7. if you use a blog to develop new ideas or new interests, you run the risk of looking like an amateur or worse. 
This blog doesn't check too many of these boxes:
  1. I really don't think about this kind of thing much. Mostly I write for "people like me," whoever (or whether) they might be
  2. Ditto
  3. I use the one that was free and easiest to use. I have no regrets about that so far
  4. When I started I tried to post something every day. I haven't managed to sustain that, which is probably just as well. I do try to post something every week, and I don't mind posting trivial things (because it's only a blog) but I never post just for the sake of posting something. 
  5. I haven't done this, and haven't felt the need until recently. I delete spam and the remains of comments whose authors have deleted their content, but I haven't yet deleted anything else. Perhaps I should, but there's something to be said for not destroying evidence. It's also not clear to me whether not feeding the trolls is better served by deleting their comments (could that be a form of feeding?) or ignoring them completely.
  6. I don't do this, although I do sometimes avoid looking at the blog if I don't think I have time to reply thoughtfully to whatever comments might be there.
  7. I'm pretty sure I run this risk. Caring about how you look makes sense in a job interview, but it doesn't seem very philosophical. And I'm pretty sure that there aren't any great jobs that I would have been offered if only I hadn't written that stupid thing online.     
Schliesser's advice is genuinely helpful, I think, but mostly for people aiming to attract a big audience. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Winch on Understanding Other People

A revised version of the paper I was working on in the summer is now available here, for anyone interested. I haven't managed to take all suggestions into account, but I think it's at least an improvement on the previous version.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

God, virtue, and moral absolutes

This sounds good. Here's the call for papers:
I am currently organizing a conference celebrating the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth Anscombe's seminal paper "Modern Moral Philosophy." Our four confirmed keynotes speakers are:

Alasdair MacINTYRE, University of Notre Dame
Cyrille MICHON, University of Nantes
Rachael WISEMAN, Durham University
Jennifer A. FREY, University of South Carolina

While we, the organizing committee, have a preference for submissions from current graduate students, we will consider abstracts from anyone interested.

Please feel free to pass on this information to anyone interested in ethics, moral theology, political philosophy, legal theory, etc. More specifically, please consider spreading the word to departmental grad student lists. See here for details:

All presenters will receive a private hotel room for two nights during the conference as well as a small stipend of up to $150 to help defray documented transportation expenses. There is also a limited fund to further assist those who may be traveling from abroad. Such funds will be awarded upon request, based on availability. 

Submissions received by the October 1st deadline will receive full consideration, but we plan to continue considering applications until November 1st, or until all spots are filled.

Best Wishes,
Kevin M. Scott
University of Notre Dame

Friday, September 22, 2017

Augustine and Wittgenstein on the Will

I have a draft of a paper on this subject at Comments (or constructive criticism, anyway) are welcome.

Here's the gist:

In Wittgenstein: Mind and Will (p. 593) P. M. S. Hacker writes that:
one cannot will voluntarily, cannot will to will. But that does not mean that willing is like the subsiding of the thudding of one’s heart – something that just happens to one. What it means is that willing is not the name of an action at all. And to say that one cannot will voluntarily, or will to will, is not to say that it is beyond one’s powers, as wiggling their ears is beyond most people’s powers, but rather that it is senseless to speak of willing.
The last part of this ("it is senseless to speak of willing") strikes me as clearly wrong. And the idea that willing is not the same of an action seems pretty dubious too. At least it sounds like a claim that might be debated. And I don't think of Wittgenstein as being in the business of putting forward such claims. So the questions that motivate the paper, although I don't present it this way (maybe I should), are really: How has Hacker arrived at this point? Does his thinking match Wittgenstein's? And what, if anything, does this have to do with Augustine, whom Wittgenstein mentions in connection with some of the thoughts that Hacker is attempting to explain.

The questions I have about my paper are mainly these (in order of concern, from most to least):

  1. Do I misrepresent Hacker, Wittgenstein, or Augustine?
  2. Is what I say comprehensible and easy enough to follow?
  3. Is this of any interest? 

Scanlon on inequality

[Warning: this could become part of a series.]

T. M. Scanlon has some interesting thoughts about why inequality might be bad. In looking for reasons, though, I wonder whether he doesn't overlook an important idea: that significant inequality is intrinsically evil. "The great inequality of income and wealth in the world, and within the United States, is deeply troubling," he says. But he seems somewhat suspicious of this intuition, as if there is no way it could be a direct perception of injustice. That is, his response to the feeling that there is something wrong with great inequality appears to be that either we must be able to explain what is wrong with such inequality or else reject the feeling as irrational. But nobody would say this about, for instance, the feeling that murder is wrong. And it is very hard to explain why murder is wrong. ("It violates the right to life" is a restatement of its injustice, not an explanation of what makes it unjust.) 

I'm not suggesting that all inequality is evil. I accept Hume's point that ensuring strict equality would require totalitarianism. And overall utility is probably increased by an incentive system that requires inequality. But beyond a certain level (which is inevitably hard to specify) inequality certainly seems evil to a great many people. Why rule out the possibility that this appearance is not deceptive?

Scanlon does not explicitly do this, but it seems implicit in his essay. I say this partly simply because he does not explicitly consider the possibility that serious inequality might be intrinsically evil, but partly also because just when I expect him to consider it he goes off in another direction, as if refusing to confront what is right before him. Here are three examples:
Many people in the United States seem to believe that our high and rising level of inequality is objectionable in itself, and it is worth inquiring into why this might be so. 
The inquiry that follows focuses on such things as the ability of the rich to dominate news media rather than anything about inequality in itself.
[Some] reasons for eliminating inequality are also based on an idea of equality, namely that, as Singer puts it, “every life is equally important.” This can be seen as a combination of two ideas: the general principle of universal moral equality, that everyone matters morally in the same way, and the idea that, because all people “matter morally,”  there’s a good reason to bring about increases in their well-being if we can. 
If everyone matters morally in the same way why is this not a reason for eliminating inequality rather than simply increasing the well-being of the poor? Yet Scanlon sees it as the latter only, and this is part of the motivation he offers for a new inquiry into why inequality matters. What I'm thinking is roughly this: since we are all morally equal, we should all be equal in our standard of living. This argument, such as it is, could be criticized on various grounds, but it would not be plausible to object that, while it is a decent argument for improving the well-being of the worst off, it is not, as such, an argument for increasing equality. So far as it is an argument at all that's exactly what it's an argument for.

Finally, this:
It is easy to understand why people want to be better off than they are, especially if their current condition is very bad. But why, apart from this, should anyone be concerned with the difference between what they have and what others have? Why isn’t such a concern mere envy?
But why think that it is envy in the first place? Especially when we are thinking of comfortably-off people like me saying that the less-well-off should have more? A poor person who wants to trade places with a rich person might seem envious, but appeals for greater equality don't have this appearance. Unless, perhaps, one rules out a priori the possibility that equality itself might have value.

I wonder whether Scanlon and I have different ways of thinking about what it means for something to be objectionable in itself. When you accuse someone else of blindness it's always a good idea to consider the possibility that the mote and/or beam is in one's own eye. But it looks like he's missing something.