Monthly Archives: January 2009

Nudging faculty toward paperlessness

I was included on an email sent recently by the VP of our school’s student association regarding the newly implemented pay-to-print policy. The student association is not happy with the policy, and their reasons were good: it’s not so much that students want to print, but instead that their professors require them to print. The email was a reminder to me that, at least in this particular area, it’s not students who are resisting change.

On this note, I’m planning some faculty development for the spring semester related to the idea of paperless teaching. I need to do some brainstorming as to what this means. So here goes:

  • Readings that have, in the past, been photocopied and distributed, should be distributed electronically. There are some procedural challenges here, though. Digitization itself is increasingly easy. More and more, I think faculty members are getting things from online databases, so that no digitization is needed. When the original is on paper and needs to be photocopied, more and more of our copy machines have scan-to-PDF functionality. So faculty need some guidance on using this functionality.

    Where to upload things for distribution? This is one area where Blackboard has some real advantages. For one, Bb courses are set up automatically, and so there’s no real setup on my part. Access is limited to those enrolled in the class, which is (lamentably, perhaps) required by copyright considerations.

    In cases where faculty members use Blackboard to distribute readings to students, it should be made explicit that printing is not required. A brief discussion early in the semester regarding the readings and how best to approach them is a good idea in any class, and considerations of paper vs. non-paper reading could be part of that.

  • Assignments comprise another class of tree-killers. Faculty who adopt wholly online assignments like blogs and wikis for the pedagogical benefits get paperlessness as a bonus. More traditional assignments – essays, journals, and the like – can be collected electronically in a variety of ways: with a Blackboard Assignment, Turnitin (or SafeAssign or whatever it is in Blackboard 8), as attachments to email, as postings to a blog or discussion board (where privacy is not an issue). Faculty members might need a little bit of help dealing with the different kinds of file formats coming in, but many will already be used to downloading and viewing various kinds of documents.

    Grading these electronic assignments can be a little bit trickier. I personally like grading papers with the Track Changes feature in Word or Record Changes in or whatever. The big downside of this is that, in order for your students to be able to read your comments, they’re going to need this particular software, or at least a compatible reader – which is a dangerous supposition when you use commercial software like MS Office at a demographically diverse public university like ours. Tablet computers offer an alternative, especially for those faculty members who like to mark papers full of circles and arrows. The problem with tablets is the overhead, though – they aren’t cheap.

How are you trying to move away from paper in your teaching, or in your faculty’s teaching? How do you convince individuals who have been trained to use paper over their entire careers that there are practical benefits to going electronic? Is it even possible to move our current kinds of curriculum, which are so deeply rooted in paper, to the digital realm? Or will the change only happen when the course materials and assignments move away from the old paper metaphors?

Lessons learned on HDD replacement

I just swapped out the stock 80GB hard drive on my Macbook with a 250GB, 7200rpm model that I picked up from Newegg. The process was not all that smooth, and I didn’t get a ton of help from the internet, so I thought I’d try to earn a little bit of karma and put some observations here for Google to index:

  • There are good tutorials on this process to be found; here is the one that I used.
  • The EMI (electromagnetic interference) shield on the hard drive (which the just-mentioned tutorial calls the “bracket”) is a royal pain in the ass. The screws are Torx T8. As I am not a computer repair professional, I don’t keep every fricking screwdriver under the sun in my apartment. The screw holes in the shield are big enough that you can slide them over the head of the screws, and I thought to myself “Hey, why bother even taking the screws out? This thing can do its EMI-shielding without being attached!”
  • This was a mistake.
  • I slid the new hard drive into the bay with the EMI shield resting on top. Disk Utility did not recognize the hard drive. Since the shield was not attached to the HDD with screws, I couldn’t use the ribbon on the shield to pull the thing out. After about 20 minutes of messing around with some sticky tape and gravity, I managed to get the new, screwless HDD back out the of the computer.
  • It turns out that the reason that the drive wasn’t being recognized was related to the screws: they not only hold the shield on, but they act as guides to make sure that the disk’s connectors line up right. I managed to get one screw out of the old drive with a flathead screwdriver and another one with an Allen wrench. The other two were screwed way too tight to remove without the right tool. I put the two screws I had removed into the connector-end of the HDD, since that’s where the alignment really mattered. That did the trick – Disk Utility saw the drive.
  • As for data movement: I tried the Restore from Time Machine Backup feature on the OS X installation disks. It took about two hours, told me that it had been successful, and then failed to boot. The Leopard install program recognized that there was an instance of OS X on the drive, but I couldn’t boot into it (might have something to do with the fact that the old disk image had driver data associated with a different kind of HDD, I guess).
  • So I wiped the new disk clean and tried installing Leopard first and then using Migration Assistant to bring over my things. After running for about an hour and a half, MA got hung up with “Less than a minute remaining” for about an hour. A little Googling told me that this is fairly common (and might have something to do with printer drivers?). I shut down the computer (by holding down the power key until it shut off – the only way to get out of the MA) and rebooted, running through the OS X setup program again, except this time not importing any info.
  • The setup program created a new user account for me, but the old one, with nearly all my settings intact (minus the ones that were dependent on Leopard updates that weren’t included on the DVD), was still there.

All in all, replacing the hard drive was probably one of the most bitchin and gnarly experiences of my life. Good luck.

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?

Hard work and distraction: together at last

I just read this piece by Mike Elgan. Elgan’s argument is that hard work is dead in an age where we have Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. to constantly and effortlessly distract us.

There seems to be a mistake in this reasoning. If all that’s changed from now and the golden age of hard work (whenever that might have been) is that we have more media for distraction at hand, what follows immediately is that people were less distracted in the good old days. But to say that someone is less distracted doesn’t suggest anything about their “work ethic” without some meaty assumptions.

The lack of distractions (or, to put it in more neutral terms, the lack of alternative avenues for your attention!): this sounds like the very definition of boredom. But boredom – a state you find yourself in – isn’t directly related to how hard you work – a choice you make. It’s true that boredom might drive you to devote your energies to something in the way that exemplifies a good work ethic, but on the other hand it might not, and you might end up staring at the wall as I so often do. On the flip side, someone who is never bored (i.e. is constantly distracted) might well be working very hard all the time. Anyone who tries to keep up with their feed reader knows how hard you have to work to maintain a respectably high level of distraction.

More importantly, though, the assumption that there is something holy about the work ethic of our grandparents is off. Work ethics are not inherently valuable; they only derive value from their products. Thus, for example, a writer’s work ethic is valuable because of the things that she writes, or even the kind of person she becomes as a result of this work ethic. But things like good writing and being a good person are, as philosophers are wont to say, multiply realizable, and while it’s true that the supposed tunnel vision of our forebears sometimes resulted in the kind of work that is independently valuable, it doesn’t mean that equally good or better work can’t come out of more distributed, “distracted” processes.

Isn’t it at least conceivable that, for instance, an obsessed Twitter user might write a poem that is not only as good as a more “focused” poet, but one that would be impossible without something like Twitter?

This is not to say that I don’t think total focus is not valuable. I do think, however, that distraction can have value too, or at least that the question is an empirical one.

Necessary smarm

I just finished drafting an email to be sent to faculty, inviting them to use our Movable Type blogs in their classrooms during the Spring semester. Writing these sorts of general-audience appeals is tough. The language we’ve used in the past has felt kind of smarmy and usedcarsalesmanesque to me. Check out this Incredible program we’ve got going on! Imagine all the Amazing things you can get out of it! And boy, do we Provide Support! I tried scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch, but gave up and used a slightly modified version of the old pitch.

My discomfort with the whole thing comes from a couple sources. For one, I don’t particularly like the idea of selling the technology. The blogging initiative is housed within the Writing Across the Curriculum program, and with good reason – student blogs are only valuable insofar as they provide some benefit to the goals of the course, which usually ends up having something to do with writing. So there’s a sense in which I’d like the email to say “Do you want your students to accomplish academic goals x, y, and z? Here is a tool for you!” But this kind of pitch feels disingenuous, making the tech tool sound like a magic elixir that will simply, you know, “get the job done”.

At the same time, if I scale back the rhetoric and talk in more measured terms about the kind of benefits that students might get from blogging, I’ll probably limit my audience. Faculty members get a ton of requests to try new things, and if my request is riddled with conditionals and hedges, it’s not clear that it will shine through as something worth doing. The only people who will be persuaded by that kind of talk are people who are already warm to the ideas I’m pushing – the “low-hanging fruit”, as a colleague of mine once called these faculty members. And while there’s nothing wrong with this low-hanging fruit, I want to broaden the base of bloggers a bit each semester.

In the end, I rationalize the smarmy sales pitch to myself as follows. The point of the pitch is to get them in the door, thinking about what blogging is, and maybe giving it an earnest try in their classes. The benefit for their teaching, if there is one, will make itself apparent, regardless of whether this benefit is as Incredible and Amazing (or perhaps totally Different From) what was “promised” in the original pitch. I don’t think this makes me cynical, I think it makes me pragmatic. Or at least I hope so.