Tag Archives: teaching

Planning an Introduction to Philosophy course

In April, I’ll be teaching an Introduction to Philosophy course at my alma mater, Cornell College. (Cornell’s academic calendar is called One Course at a Time, or the “block plan”, so that an entire course happens in the confines of three-and-a-half weeks. Thus the ‘In April’ bit.) I am really excited to be teaching at my very small and very dear Cornell, but I am nervous about the class itself.

I find the very notion of an “introduction to philosophy” course to be slippery and intractable. Philosophy is not like, say, Russian, where the first introductory course provides the pieces of knowledge (vocabulary, conjugation, stuff like that) that will be required in all subsequent courses. Philosophy has its own techniques and terms of art, of course, but they’re not the sorts of things that lend themselves naturally to sequential teaching, like in a foreign language (or math, or chemistry….).

The term ‘introduction’ seems apt in the case of philosophy, because the act of putting together and teaching an intro to philosophy course seems very much like the act of introducing more generally. If I want to introduce a visitor to Brooklyn, for example, I have to decide which of the things that I know about Brooklyn (which are too many to share in a short visit!) are salient enough, pleasant enough, relevant enough to include. The calculus depends not only on my knowledge of Brooklyn (the introducee) but also the visitor (the introduced). I want the picture of Brooklyn they get from my visit to reflect the way that I represent Brooklyn to myself, or at least a sort of idealized version of my own idea that will leave the visitor with pleasant memories of the city and a desire to learn more. And how I aim to develop that picture will change based on what I know about the visitor and his background knowledge.

So the trick is to do something similar with philosophy. The problem is that – like Brooklyn! – philosophy is vast and deep. Moreover (and here is where the analogy breaks down), in the case of philosophy it actually matters that the introduced comes away with a truly representative sense of what philosophy is like – at least, that is, insofar as the work of philosophy is independantly important. How do you select a reading list that is representatively broad without being vapid? sufficiently deep to represent the way philosophy is done without giving an overly narrow perception of the philosophical landscape? simplified enough to be approachable without overly caricaturing? relevant enough to the existing interests and knowledge of underclassmen without being pandering? And, given that there is no “right” way of making these decisions, how do you weigh each of these factors in the inevitable compromise that is represented by the eventual syllabus?

For me, it’s helpful to think about the different indexes one could use to organize and shape one’s course. These indexes are not mutually exclusive, but they must necessarily be ordered – favoring one index means making another index secondary, etc. Also, some of these indexes might necessarily be nested within others.

  • Chronology (eg 18th century)
  • Nationality/language
  • Great texts
  • Philosopher biography
  • Philosophical schools (eg empiricism, or utilitarianism)
  • Philosophical subfields (eg epistemology, or philosophy of language)
  • Topics (eg abortion, personal identity, truth)
  • Questions (eg ‘What is the nature of justice?’)

There are surely more, and different ways of carving them up, but this is a starting point.

In the past, when I have taught intro, my primary index has been philosophical subfields, with secondary index of questions and tertiary index of Great Texts. Thus I might do a unit on the philosophy of religion, which contains a section on proofs for the existence of God and a section on the problem of evil. In each of those sections, we read very well-known texts that represent different kinds of answers to the questions at hand. The next unit might be on ethics, with sections on virtues and on the goodness of acts, where we read Aristotle and Mill and Kant. And so on.

Clearly, this is not a terribly creative way to teach an intro class. From what I can remember, it mirrors closely the way that intro was laid out when I took it many years ago. But even though it is probably a pretty common approach, it is in many respects quite arbitrary. I try to take the Indian Buffet method – give just a taste of a couple different kinds of dish, and even the terrified diner might find something to latch onto. But the variety that constitues the strength of the buffet approach is also a weakness, as it threatens to give the newcomer an impression that the discipline is really a jumble of neato but otherwise unrelated questions. This is not indicative of the way that real philosophers actually do their work; that this approach is shallow means ipso facto that it does not display the best of what philosophy has to offer.

For this reason I find myself very drawn to an approach that takes a question or a topic as its primary index. A mentor of mine recently told me that he taught his most recent intro class as a sort of seminar on the topic of death, which involved both the reading of philosophical Great Works with a focus on death, as well as the introduction of texts that might not often be seen on a typical intro syllabus. This approach does not do away with the issue of arbitrariness – why choose death, after all? – but it does bump it up to a global arbitrariness, where once the overall topic of the course has been decided, the relevance of each reading to a cohesive whole is manifest.

There are several problems with this kind of approach, though. First is the obvious one: what topic do I choose? Ideally it’d be something that would permit the inclusion of at least some Great Works, and with a broad enough appeal to non-philosophers to convince them that it’s worth studying. A more fundamental problem that nags at me is whether this approach to an intro course is justifiable. Every course I ever took that was pitched this way, around a single topic, was an upper-level seminar type course. Does an intro course have the responsibility to be broad in scope? Or is it perhaps possible to have an appropriately broad list of readings centered around a single topic? Or – and this is my secret suspicion – is the concept of an introduction to philosophy class vague enough to be more or less meaningless, so that just about any kind of legitimate philosophy course might be explained away as an “intro” under the right kinds of circumstances?

I’d like to hear what some of my philosopher friends think about this dilemma (or maybe lack of dilemma, if I’m way off base). I’m also curious to hear what happens in other disciplines where the concept of an “introductory” course is just as inscrutable.

Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum: Is it desirable? Is it possible?

I’ll be attending THATCamp Columbus next month. A few days ago I blogged my session topic on the THATCamp site. I’ve reproduced it below for posterity’s sake.


I spent a few years as a graduate fellow in a Writing Across the Curriculum program, and in my current full-time position as an instructional technologist I continue to collaborate frequently with WAC. In the time I’ve spent in close contact with the WAC program, I’ve come to find great value in some of the principles that lie at its core:

  1. The ability to write is of central importance to nearly all fields of study
  2. The various kinds of writing that are valuable in different disciplines can only be taught by practitioners of those diciplines
  3. There is a close connection between the way one writes and the way one thinks, such that explicit focus on writing techniques can result in increased academic clarity in general
  4. These considerations demonstrate that the position of writing is too integral to academic study for the teaching of writing to be the responsibility of composition programs and English departments alone

WAC programs are then organized in such a way as to provide tangible support for the teaching of writing, in the form of lesson plans, faculty development, pedagogical resources, and so on. And WAC’s mission is explicitly pan-departmental: one of the central tenets of the WAC philosophy is that students will only really learn to write if writing is meaningfully integrated throughout the entire curriculum.

I want to take seriously the idea that the WAC point of view can and should be applied, more or less wholesale, to the teaching of digital literacy.

There are a lot of problems to be worked out. First, I’d like to explore the extent to which the argument behind WAC can be adapted for digital literacy. Different disciplines require different kinds of engagement with the written word; likewise, we should be prepared to enumerate the different ways that the disciplines will require digital fluency (ranging from software know-how to programming skills to content filtering to multimedia composition to comfort with networks). I’d also like to flesh out the kinds of concrete support systems that would be required to make a digital analog to WAC function, be it faculty development or technology-intensive sections or whatever. And there will be the problem of politics: how do you argue to reluctant faculty and administrators that digital literacy education is as important as writing education? Here too I hope that we can look to WAC for strategies.

Why punish plagiarists?

A recent post at the great philosophy teaching blog In Socrates’ Wake had a reader asking the audience whether, by not automatically giving a student an F for the course after plagiarizing a one-page assignment, he had “gone soft”. Simultaneously, I empathize with the instructor and I am baffled by why I empathize.

In the past I have taken hard stances against plagiarizers, stances which at the time made a lot of sense to me. Like the author and commenters at the ISW post, it seemed to me that plagiarism is the worst kind of crime and deserves the worst kind of punishment. In retrospect, this attitude seems ludicrous. There is a broad spectrum of actions one could reasonably take in reaction to a cheater, ranging from expulsion to doing absolutely nothing. Why is the transition from “hard” to “soft” to be found between failing the course and not failing the course, a consequence that seems to be pretty far toward the severe end of the spectrum?

To shed light on that question, it might help to think about this one: Why should students be punished for plagiarism at all?

Before thinking carefully about this question, it’s really crucial to remember that there are different kinds of plagiarism, and treating them all alike is like claiming that a candy-bar thief should be punished like Bernie Madoff. I want to know whether there is any justification for plagiarism being punished so harshly, so it makes sense to consider the most serious kind of violation. I take it that this would be a student who copies (buys, whatever) an entire paper and passes it off as his own. If any kind of plagiarism is going to warrant harsh treatment, presumably this will be it. Unless otherwise mentioned, then, this is the kind of plagiarism I’m talking about.

That said, let’s consider a few arguments one might give for why plagiarism is a punishable offense.

  1. Plagiarism is cheating, and cheating is unfair to the other players. I take ‘cheating’ to mean ‘breaking the rules’, which is unfair because everyone else has to abide by the rules. But different kinds of cheating are immoral in different ways. Cheating in golf, for instance, is wrong at least partly because my actions have immediate negative ramifications for the other players of the game: I take a stroke off of my game, and you are that much more likely to lose. In golf, what’s good for one person is necessarily bad for the other players (assuming they’re opponents – in fact, this might be a functional definition of what it means to be opponents). The same is not true of plagiarism. Unless you grade on a curve (a practice that a philosopher who is concerned with “fairness” would be hard-pressed to defend, by the way), one student’s cheating his way to an A when he otherwise would have gotten a D does not have a negative effect on other students in the class. You might maintain that students are obligated not do things that their classmates are forbidden to do out of abstract principle, a position that I can imagine various sorts of arguments for. But if the only thing wrong with plagiarism were that it was a violation of an abstract moral principle, it would take a very warped theory of retributive justice to justify such draconian punishment.
  2. Stealing is unfair to the person stolen from. Like in the previous case, “fairness” could be judged along two metrics: the practical and the theoretical. Stealing is often bad in a practical sense. If you steal my Charleston Chew, I no longer get to enjoy it myself. Therefore, :'( . Intellectual “theft” works differently, since the person stolen from hasn’t lost the use of the ideas. Of course, intellectual theft sometimes amounts to material theft, as when a breach of patent costs an inventor lots of money. And a parallel consideration might be at work when we talk about plagiarism in the academic community at large. If Dr X writes a great draft, and Dr Y steals it and publishes it, it could mean that Dr Y beats Dr X out for that Ivy League faculty position. Generally speaking, though, this is not a relevant consideration for student papers. Students – especially undergraduates – are neither publishing their term papers (much less their one-page, low-stakes assignments) nor using their papers to compete with others for jobs. The only situation where I can imagine real harm to the victim of classroom plagiarism is where the victim writes a paper with a great, novel idea or argument, the professor reads two or three plagiarized versions of the same argument before getting to the original, and as a result the professor is less impressed with the argument and gives a lower grade to the originator of the idea.
  3. Plagiarism devalues a degree, which is unfair to classmates. A bit different from the first consideration above, which is concerned more with a single game. This argument has more to do with iteration. If you cheat once and get away with it, other people will realize that cheating is possible; thus more people will cheat; and thus, somehow, everyone’s degree will be worth less; decreasing the value of a non-cheater’s degree through your own cheating is morally wrong; therefore cheating is wrong. (Andy Cullison lays out this argument here.) There are a couple things to notice about this argument. First, the mechanism by which the actual devaluing of the degree come about are not specified, and presumably they’d have to be abstracted away from in order to count out obvious counterexamples where the student could cheat, get away with it, and never let anyone else know about the cheating. Second, this justification for the punishment of plagiarism is less a moral indictment of cheating than of harming other people’s degrees. In the end, this might amount to the same thing, but it does not justify the kind of snooty self-righteousness that tints some instructors’ lectures on plagiarism, which suggests that plagiarism is akin to a mortal sin. As for punishment, you might argue in this case (as Mill does in his wonky “sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity” argument near the end of Chapter 2 in Utilitarianism) that a harsh punishment fits this crime even though the actual consequences of this particular action are relatively small (or non-existent) because the action has the potential to contribute to the weakening of a larger feeling of trust that is so manifestly important. It strikes me that this is the best reason considered so far for punishing plagiarists.
  4. Plagiarism is bad for scholarship/academia/the university. I’ve heard this sort of argument before: if everyone plagiarizes from everyone else, how will any new things be discovered? In one sense this rhetorical question is clearly overblown. Taken more seriously, you might grant that the posting of falsified or plagiarized material in, say, a journal of medicine could end up distracting scientists for several years, thereby diverting valuable research resources. But this argument does not extent to students, who are generally not doing original research, are not publishing, and are not in a position to affect the discipline either positively or negatively.
  5. Plagiarism is so frowned upon in graduate school and the professional world that students must be trained as undergraduates not to plagiarize. In other words, you might grant many of the points I’ve made above, which suggest that plagiarism at the undergraduate level is really not worth punishing in itself, but still think that punishment is prudent so that students are trained not to plagiarize when it really counts. I think there are a couple of limitations on this justification, though. First, it’s not obvious that plagiarism really is all that frowned upon in most of the careers that our students are going to end up in. If I crib the opening paragraph of an earnings statement I’m preparing, who cares as long as it gets the job done? I suspect that relatively few of our students end up in careers – academics, journalism, writing – where plagiarism really is so disdained. Second, I am highly dubious that scaring students shitless is a good way to train them not to plagiarize. If you want to train a dog not to jump on a couch, you use a rolled-up newspaper instead of reason; the same should not be true of students. Even if punishment – in the form of failed assignments, failed courses, or grade deductions – is part of the instructor’s arsenal, it should be proportionate with other, more humane teaching methods.

I take away from these considerations that there are both moral and prudential reasons that justify the punishment of plagiarism. But the assumption that harsher is better that I so often see in instructors appears to me to be far off of the mark. Few would say that you should teach philosophy, or chemistry, or poliical science, or mathematics, by threatening and slapping students. Why teach intellectual honesty that way?

The ethics of Turnitin, or How I Learned To Stop Detecting Plagiarism

Yesterday I was feeling sorry for myself with regard to Turnitin and the like. I ended up having an interesting discussion with @LanceStrate, @mattthomas, and @KelliMarshall about the ethics surrounding plagiarism detection service. It got me to thinking about why it bothers me.

My gut feeling is this: Turnitin, SafeAssign et al make big bucks off of their database. More papers scanned means a bigger database; bigger database means (in theory) better plagiarism detection; better detection means (in theory) more value and more profit. Forcing students to relinquish their papers to this machine feels exploitative.


John Stuart Mill – Awesome Guy | cc licensed flickr photo shared by netNicholls

But I wonder why this bothers me. I have no problem feeding different kinds of information-gathering machines. Take Google. I use Gmail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, and google.com extensively. The more I use these services, the more information they gather about my online activities; bigger database means better ad targeting; better targeting means more value and more profit. My “stuff” – information about me, writing I produce, records of my activity, etc. – is not sacrosanct. I’m willing to give it up in some cases.

So what’s the difference? Most obviously, I am choosing to use Google’s products in a way that students are not asking to use Turnitin. I will grant that there are different levels of “forcedness”, as @LanceStrate points out. Students can opt out of a class, or out of school in general. And if instructors make the Turnitin requirement explicit in the syllabus on the first day of class (or earlier), students will be reasonably well-informed about what they will be “forced” to do. But no matter how you conceive of the spectrum of requirement, the fact remains that my use of Google is far freer than students’ use of Turnitin.

That a professor requires students to do certain things that they wouldn’t otherwise do is not, in itself, an indictment of the requirement. I doubt that my own students would write about the Nicomachean Ethics if their grade didn’t depend on it. But, in this case, I as an instructor am obligated to exercise my power in a responsible way. (Heavy is the head that wears the crown.) Requirements should not be arbitrary, but should serve the goals of the class and the best interest of the students. Requiring a paper on Aristotle has negative effects on students – it takes away from the time and energy they could be spending on other things that are valuable to them – and it’s my responsibility to ensure that these negative effects are outweighed by the benefits bestowed by such an assignment. A well thought-out term paper assignment will, in the long run, have positive utility for the student.

Is the same true for plagiarism detection? Are the negative effects of such technologies (being forced to enrich a corporate entity, losing control over one’s intellectual property, feeling a presumption of one’s own guilt in the absence of supporting evidence) outweighed by some benefits? It’s at this point in the thought process that the pedagogical implications of Turnitin should be considered.

  • Is Turnitin good at detecting plagiarism? My experience says: Not really. While Google’s database doesn’t include as many student papers as Turnitin’s, Turnitin is in turn pretty awful at identifying plagiarism from the open web. Thoughtful reading and Googling has been more effective for me. I’d like to see data on the larger trends, though – for example, what percentage of student copying comes from the open web (Google’s domain) versus for-sale paper databases.
  • How much harm does “plagiarism” really do? This is really the more important question. Even if it turns out that Turnitin is very, very good at plagiarism detection, there is very little benefit from the software’s use if it turns out that plagiarism, as defined, isn’t really that harmful. This question is tough to answer, though. For one thing, there are lots of different kinds of plagiarism, certain kinds of which are more harmful than others. A student who copies a paper wholesale from Wikipedia is doing more harm than one who synthesizes a coherent paper from a bunch of different sources, or one who fails to cite a paraphrased argument. Surely the second and third students are getting more out of the assignment than the first. Furthermore, I have an untested gut feeling that the most harmful types of plagiarism – where a student steals wholesale – are easier to detect without using Turnitin, since they’re more likely not to be even approximately in the student’s voice or level of expertise. If this is right, then it might be the case that Turnitin is most necessary for the least harmful varieties of “plagiarism” – varieties whose ethical implications, some might argue, ought to be reassessed in light of how new technologies are affecting knowledge creation. (Too big a topic to address here, but you get the idea.)
  • Are there less troubling alternatives to Turnitin? Let’s grant that Turnitin is very good at detecting plagiarism, and that plagiarism is hugely pernicious. All things being equal, if we could avoid plagiarism by means that have less of a downside, we should choose those other means. In my experience (again, I have no comprehensive data to back this up), the answer is yes, there are far better ways. @KelliMarshall suggests assigning unique paper prompts, making plagiarism more difficult. I’ve found that the scaffolding of assignments – such that students write early, write often, and write in a low-stakes milieu – is extremely effective at lowering the tempation to plagiarize. To be more specific: When students are writing in journals or blogs – spaces where they are not harshly graded – and when their formal assignments allow students to pull from and build upon the ideas that they’ve already put to paper(/bits), cheating simply doesn’t happen very often. That initial moment – when a student sits down at the computer the night before the due date, not having written a single word, not knowing where to start, and copying out of desparation – is averted altogether. In the semesters I’ve used blogs and structured assignments in this way, I’ve had to deal with plagiarism maybe once per semester (out of 70+ students writing hundreds of papers). Another thing that’s worked really well for me is having frank discussions with students about why plagiarism is so demonized in academia in the first place (perhaps this conversation is a little more justified in an Ethics course). When they understand the motivations, and are not simply handed seemingly (and perhaps actually?) arbitrary rules about the Evils Of Plagiarism, they’re more likely to grok.

On balance, then, it seems to me that there is very little, if anything, to be gained from Turnitin et al that cannot be gained through other, less harmful means. Now I have to work up the guts to start sending links to this post whenever a faculty member asks me how to do plagiarism detection! But I suppose my lack of intestinal fortitude is a topic for another blog post.

On the communal v. the individual student voice

On Thursday afternoon of this year’s Open Ed conference, a challenging contrast began to emerge between the approaches to student writing being espoused by the various speakers. First was Gardner Campbell and Jim Groom, who delivered a talk titled No Digital Facelifts: Thinking the Unthinkable About Open Educational Experiences. (This and other links go to Ustream recordings of the talks – they’re well worth your time, if you weren’t able to attend in person.) Gardner’s message echoed some of the familiar strains in Jim’s talk from the previous day, putting forth the idea that instead of herding students together into a single platform of our choosing, we should be giving them the tools and knowledge to be creators and curators of their own digital identity. (See this post at bavatuesdays for some of Jim’s thoughts on “a domain of one’s own”.) Gardner pushed this line of thinking a step further, suggesting that students literally become the sys admins of their own web space. Not only should students be able to move outside of the institutional platforms to develop their digital selves, the argument goes, but they should be free to choose and maintain whatever platform they’d like, without the different but perhaps equally cumbersome constraints of free/commercial platforms (like wordpress.com and others).

Now, before I start talking about where the tension arose, I should point out that while there’s something very right about this idea of Gardner’s, there’s something arbitrary about it as well. He suggests that we conceptualize something like cPanel as a meta-framework for the construction of identity. But why stop there? If cPanel > wordpress.com because of cPanel’s additional freedom to maneuver, doesn’t it follow that it’d be better to give each student a virtual machine with a bare OS on it? Or maybe for them to build their own kernel from assembly code, which would truly provide the most software freedom? The obvious reason is that at some point the tradeoff is no longer worth it: what you gain in freedom by dropping down a level of abstraction is not worth the extra effort you’d need to master the medium. And I’d argue that as time goes by, and software both advances to higher levels of abstraction from the raw code and at the same time becomes more useful, the calculus of determining the ideal level of abstraction is constantly in flux. To echo a discussion from this year’s THATCamp: while it might be the case that most students would benefit from learning some HTML and some basic programming today, it’s likely that there will come a point at which it’ll no longer worth the trouble; this, in much the same way that you don’t need to know assembly code to qualify as a computer geek (in most circles?!). A GUI like cPanel might be the right meta-framework for most students today, but we should constantly be reassessing this conclusion.

OK, so back to Thursday afternoon’s tension. The session following Gardner and Jim’s was led by John Maxwell and was titled Thinkubator: Wiki as CMS/LMS. (Actually, sandwiched between the two was a fricking awesome demo by Grant Potter of some work he’s doing with virtual worlds – but I’ll gloss over it for the purposes of this post.) John has been doing amazing things with the wiki, related to his research, to organizations he’s been involved with, and – most germane here – to his courses. He conceptualizes the wiki as a place where students – especially graduate students – learn to work in the way that scholars work. (John, I’m going to fill in some points you left unsaid here, so please tell me if I’m borking.) While it’s of course true that individual scholars maintain their own voices and perspectives, there is also a voice that emerges from a community of scholars who are writing about the same things, publishing in the same journals, editing and reviewing each other’s work, teaching in the same departments, etc. In one of the best one-liners of the conference, John pointed out that students get practice in developing this kind of communal space in kindergarten and in graduate seminars – but not in between. Multi-authored wikis are, by their very nature, communal spaces. Thus, when students do their work on a wiki, they are learning the sociology of group work and of their discipline at the same time that they’re learning the subject matter of the course.

So here’s the tension (which John himself articulates very clearly in his own reflection on the talk). The Campbell/Groom angle is that students are better served by stewarding their own spaces: emphasis on the individual voice. The Maxwell angle is that students learn about how scholarship functions by authoring together in a space like a wiki: emphasis on the communal voice.

There is a sense in which the tension might be fundamental, going to the heart of what we want our students gain from our classes. If the point of education is to shape students’ individual agency – to make them sys admins of their own souls (?) – then it makes perfect sense to make them sys admins of their online selves. If the point of education is to develop the next generation of scholars (or, if we want to take the point further, the next generation of society members), then the wiki approach might be more sensible. Insofar as there is a real conflict here, it might run even deeper than the purpose of education, but to the purpose of knowledge production itself: is it more important to foster and encourage each individual’s idiosyncratic “truth” scheme or our collective movement toward Truth?

From a practical point of view, the tension is probably not so stark. A student with a developed voice and identity is more likely to be able to step back and envision his or her place in communal spaces; and someone who is comfortable participating in shared knowledge development will be better equipped to develop his or her own particular point of view. But the contrast with respect to educational technology policy remains. A wiki setup like Maxwell’s is homogeneous and centralized, while the Campbell/Groom arrangement is various and distributed. I wonder how much of this is a technological accident, though, and to what extent the phenomenal qualities of Maxwell’s method can be superimposed on the Campbell/Groom architecture. What I mean, very roughly, is that we might envision a new generation of software whose underlying infrastructure is essentially distributed and customizable – respecting the agency of individual student-sysadmins – while communal spaces, rich with the versioning and community feature of wikis, can emerge at the higher levels of abstraction. I’m not smart enough to envision what this might look like in detail, but in theory it might preserve some of the educational advantages of each approach.

What do you think? Is there really a tension between the two approaches? Does the underlying technological model you choose for classroom work rule out certain rhetorical models, or does it just make some a little harder to attain?

Hub-and-spoke blogging with lots of students

Inspired by some of the blog posts that have recently come through my reader on the topic of classroom blogging, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring. In particular, I wanted to respond to some of the concerns raised in the comments to Mark Sample’s post regarding the “hub and spoke” method, where students maintain individual blogs that are linked through the teacher’s hub blog. Can this model work with a large number of students?


Not quite drowning | cc licensed flickr photo shared by Jaako

Over the course of several semesters using such a model in Intro to Philosophy and Intro to Ethics classes, I’ve hit on a couple of techniques that have made it easier to deal with somewhere between 60 and 70 students (from two sections of the same course) blogging roughly twice per week. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

  • Groups – On the right hand side of http://boonebgorges.wordpress.com, you’ll find a link to the blog of each student in the class. The links are organized into groups of five or six students each. The students’ first assignment at the beginning of the semester is to register for a wordpress.com blog and to email me its URL. As these URLs land in my inbox, I number them 1-7 (in sections of 35 or so students, seven seemed like the right number of groups). The blogroll is then split into groups, using Wordpress’s link categories.

    In practice, the groups serve several purposes. First, membership in a group give individual students a more focused and manageable reading load. That’s because the syllabus requires students to read only the blog entries of their group members. As the semester progresses and students get to know each other, their blog reading (as evidenced by, among other things, the scope of their commenting) increases dramatically, but this is self-motivated rather than required. Second, focused groups mean that each student has a guaranteed audience. If all students were assigned to read all blogs, then only the most popular blogs (or those appearing first in an alphabetical list!) would get regular readers and commenters. Groups make sure things are more spread out. Third, dividing the class into blog groups provides ready-made groups for in-class work as well. I’ve found that the camaraderie that forms in a blog group (see these comments for an example of what I mean) translates very nicely into in-class work, and vice versa.

  • “In the blogs” and classroom integration – When my students first started blogging a few years ago, I would make a habit of finding a few posts that caught my eye before most class sessions to discuss with the class. Bringing the blogs to the center of the classroom experience does a couple of things: it highlights good student work (I try to talk about everyone’s blog at least once per term), it creates the impression that the blogs really are a crucial part of the class, it’s a good way to revisit issues that went either unexplained or underexplained in the previous session, and it makes future blog posts better when blog authors believe that their work might be discussed in class.

    Since I was going through the process of picking out and making notes about interesting posts anyway, I figured I might as well make my notes available to students before class. So I started writing “In the blogs” posts, digests of what caught my eye that day, and a brief description of why. I’d generally try to post this at least twelve hours before the class session where the posts would be discussed. After a few weeks of doing this, I noticed that many students had actually read the posts that I blogged about (though I didn’t require it). Comment counts on those posts also tended to be a bit higher.

    Near the beginning of the term, I deliberately overdid it with In the blogs, in order to give students the sense that the blogs were really significant intellectual spaces and important to the class. See, for example, digests from the beginning, the middle, and the end of the semester.

  • RSS and grading – The purpose of the blogs in these classes is to give the students a space for reflection that they take seriously (publicness does this) but that is low-stakes enough to allow for risk-taking and experimentation. Thus my pass-fail grading: if the blog post is on time, and demonstrates even a modicum of thought, you get full credit. The happy byproduct of this arrangement is that a close reading of every blog entry and comment is not necessary. Early in the semester I try to read every post relatively carefully and comment on most of them – largely so that I can model the kind of thoughtful but not-too-formal commenting that I’d like the students to adopt – but as the term progresses the community generally takes care of itself pretty well. By the end of the semester, I hunt and peck my way through the blogs at my leisure, much like the students do.

    I used Google Reader to keep track of the students’ blogs, so that at the end of each blog grading period (every two or three weeks, I think), I could scan back through the feeds to see that they were on time. Comments work in a similar way: I subscribed to the comment feed of each blog, and at the end of every grading period would scroll through the comment feeds, keeping a tally of comment authors (this makes comment counting a bit more time-consuming than post counting).

Requiring such prolific blogging with so many students is not for the faint of heart (or, perhaps, for those with a 5-4 load), but I’ve found that some of these techniques – and especially the general rule that doing a lot of work early in the semester means that a self-sustaining community will develop – make the job much more manageable.

Parsing the box

My friend Matt blogged this morning about how the concept of the Learning Management System is misguided. I agree with the gist of what he says there, but there are some ways in which I think that the anti-LMS rhetoric can be easily overgeneralized. The metaphor of the LMS as a “box” is telling: quite unpleasant indeed, but somewhat ambiguous in just what the problems of the LMS really are. From my point of view, there are different ways in which LMSs function like boxes, and not all of them are equally bad, or at least not bad in the same way.

First, there is the sense in which LMSs fossilize a certain teacher-centered model of learning, preventing both the instructor and the student from pursuing a different kind of learning model. In this sense, the box keeps people enclosed, and this does indeed seem like a bad thing.

Second, the box keeps other people out – this is the box’s tendency away from openness. LMSs are by and large closed to people not directly involved in the class. Generally speaking, openness is a worthwhile thing to aspire to, but surely it must be granted (by anyone who takes seriously the idea of teaching our students the intricacies of identifying and reacting to audience) that there are some classroom scenarios in which pedagogical goals can only be met in a closed space. Aside from this pedagogical consideration, there are more legalistic reasons for wanting a walled garden – the reproduction of copyrighted materials for educational purposes, for example. Now, I realize that there are ways to replicate this feature of the LMS outside of the LMS proper, ways that make closedness optional. Moreover, I think there’s a tendency on the behalf of many educators to default to the closed system out of fear or laziness, and this tendency should be challenged. Yet there remain some cases where the closed boxiness of the LMS is – at least in theory – something to be desired.

Third, the LMS is a box in the same way that this is a box, bringing together a bunch of popular material into one relatively convenient set. The purist will always argue that you’re better off buying the individual albums, that there’s so much richness you lose when you lose the context of the record. But the purist already owns every Zeppelin album and thus has already gone through the learning process, while the intended market for the box set has not. Likewise, the WP purist will always argue that Wordpress (or whatever the pet tech happens to be) is so much better than the bundled version. Like the Zep purist, the WP purist will almost always be right about the superiority of “the real thing”. But the purist is a geek, and speaks from the geek’s point of view. For the non-geek, there are lots of practical reasons to prefer the ease and convenience of the box. And even the staunchest purist would never wish to deprive the neophyte of Stairway to Heaven just because the neophyte doesn’t want to buy every Zeppelin record.

There are lots of reasons to want to rid oneself and one’s university of the LMS. But just because LMSs are, on balance, pretty awful doesn’t mean that everything about them is awful.

<3 Research and teaching <3

I’ve been reading the comments on this post at Brian Leiter’s blog (via Sympoze). It’s been exhausting on several levels. If you read a few of the comments for yourself, I think you’ll understand why.

Together at last - via <a href=Of particular interest to me is the explicit invocation (here and here, among other places) of the distinction between research and teaching, and between departments where one or the other of these practices is emphasized. What’s the connection between the two?

Practically speaking, someone who wants to do philosophical research and is not independently wealthy must, in the vast majority of cases, teach as well. Likewise, someone who wants to teach philosophy to undergraduates must, in the vast majority of cases, go through a very research-centric graduate education and, if he wants eventual job security, engage in research for the purpose of publication. Are these connections de jure or merely de facto? Are there principled reasons why there should be such intricate links between teaching- and research-based careers, or are the connections the result of historical and economic accident?

I thought I’d try to articulate some of the ties between teaching philosophy and doing philosophical research. Feel free to jump in if you can think of any more.

Why researchers must teach

  • The most obvious explanation is that philosophy (alas!) doesn’t pay: original philosophical research typically doesn’t make the NYT best-seller list, and the market for philosophers to the royal court is depressingly lackluster. Universities need people to teach philosophy, and practicing philosophers are a captive work pool. If this were the only explanation for why philosophers teach then we would certainly say that the combined vocation is an economic accident.
  • I’ve had a few classes in graduate school that were built around a draft of a book being written by the professor. The class works like a testing ground for the draft. The philosopher thus gets to use his teaching in order to advance and improve his work. So this is a reason why teaching might be useful to a practicing philosopher.
  • More generally speaking, it might be argued that teaching – including the process of explaining something you know well to a bunch of people who don’t know it all that well – enhances one’s own understanding of, and ability to articulate, what one knows or believes. This explanatory skill is important for the writer of philosophy.
  • Philosophical researchers presumably care about the health of the discipline of philosophy, and in particular the future health of the discipline. The future of philosophy is dependent on future philosophers, and future philosophers come from the general student pool. Thus philosophers have a vested interest in making sure that at least these students get a decent philosophical training. (The big premise here is that philosophers care about the discipline as a whole. I wonder how true this actually is.)

I might note in passing that these last three reasons explain why philosophers ought to want to teach, while the first reason explains why philosophers are required to teach. If the benefits gleaned from the “ought to want” category could be guaranteed in a different way, then it’s hard to see how there is any necessary connection between research and teaching in this direction.

Why teachers must research

  • In order to teach effectively, you must have a certain mastery of your subject (or, at least, there has to be a certain differential between your mastery and your students’). Mastery in philosophy comes down to the ability to read texts, understand problems, construct arguments, and so on. These skills are best developed through the kinds of research that philosophers do. So research is good job training.
  • One of the reasons why philosophy is taught widely is to locate and train the next generation of philosophical researchers. Instructors with no knowledge of how philosophical research is done won’t be able to spot potential philosophers and hone them for the field.
  • More broadly, doing philosophy in a classroom is not really that different from doing philosophy in the armchair. You’re still reading those texts and still constructing those arguments. The practice of teaching philosophy might be a somewhat watered-down version of “real” research, but it’s not fundamentally different. If you want to be able to teach philosophy, you need to be able to do philosophy, since teaching and doing philosophy are essentially the same thing and, you know, the indiscernability of identicals. (The immediate problem I see with this is that teaching old arguments is crucially different from developing new arguments, at least from the point of view of the teacher’s epistemic states. Contributing something new to the debate, as researchers do, is generally something altogether over and above the argumentation that is done in classrooms.)

It’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion from these considerations. All things being equal, the more de jure connections you can point to between philosophical research and philosophical teaching, the more justified the de facto connection between the two vocations becomes. On the other hand, it remains an open question whether there might be other models for philosophers: a way for individuals to do research outside of the university, a way for individuals to teach philosophy without the rigors of a research-based education. Since people come to philosophy for different reasons, wouldn’t it make sense to have different career paths?