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Philosophy Labs: Some Recommendations (guest post)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 21/07/2021 - 8:00pm in

The “lonely-armchair methodology” is one way of approaching philosophy, but it’s not the only way.

In this guest post*, Joseph Vukov (Loyola University Chicago), Kit Rempala (Loyola University Chicago), and Katrina Sifferd (Elmhurst University) discuss an alternative, the philosophy lab, which they recently wrote about in their article, “Philosophy Labs: Bringing Pedagogy and Research Together,” in Teaching Philosophy.

(You can follow the authors on Twitter: @JosephVukov, @The_Kit_Effect, and @Ksifferd.)


Philosophy Labs: Some Recommendations
by Joseph Vukov, Kit Rampala, and Katrina Sifferd

Philosophers often adhere to what we could call ‘lonely-armchair methodology.’ Sit in your chair; or take a walk; or drink a coffee. Read related work to see what others have said; stew on an idea for a week or a month or a year. Then write it up. Send it off. Desk reject. Stew some more. Revise and resubmit. Stew some more. Accepted. Submit the proofs. Repeat.

That’s a tried and true model of doing philosophy. And it is a model that we follow a lot of the time. We’re fans of lonely-armchair methodology, and we see no reason to abandon it.

In a recent article in Teaching Philosophy, however, we argue this isn’t the only way to do philosophy well. In fact, we suspect there are myriad ways of doing philosophy well. We focus on one: philosophy labs.

Philosophy labs are modeled on labs in STEM fields. No, philosophy labs typically won’t need a budget for beakers or Bunsen burners. Rather, philosophy labs follow the model provided by STEM labs in bringing together researchers at various stages of development—faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students—to work collaboratively on professional-level projects. Philosophy labs are not merely independent studies or reading groups or research assistantships. They are instead research teams that include students and aim at professional goals: publications, fellowships, grant support, etc. Experimental philosophers have been using a lab-based model for years. We believe it is more broadly applicable within the discipline.

In a previous post at Imperfect Cognitions and in our article at Teaching Philosophy, we argued in favor of philosophy labs and explored the model using the framework provided by Positive Interdependence Theory. Here, we take a different tack, and provide concrete recommendations for setting up and operating a philosophy lab, and some reasons you might want to do so.

Prep Work

Setting up a philosophy lab doesn’t rival the complexity of setting up a STEM lab: no need to purchase $100K of equipment or wrangle with facilities administrators to secure extra space on campus. Still, some initial leg work is necessary. Here are some steps we recommend:

  1. Survey campus resources: many campuses offer resources that are easily incorporated into a lab. Each campus is set up differently, but these could include: funding for graduate research assistants, undergraduate research programming, independent studies, and faculty research support. Philosophy labs also provide a solid launchpad for external grant applications, and—if the lab is interdisciplinary—funding streams and administrative support available to more well-heeled departments. Our suggestion: get creative in finding campus resources that might be leveraged to support a lab on your campus.
  2. Determine the interests and goals of faculty and students: your interests and goals are likely easy to determine. They may include: more meaningful interactions with students, higher-impact research, external support, an expedited timeline for your research program, and so on. The goals of your students may be more variable: admission to law or medical or grad school, a position in top internship, or training in how to become excellent teachers themselves, for example. Philosophy labs, if they are to be genuinely collaborative, must serve the interests and goals of all members. You’d be well served by reflecting on these before setting one up.
  3. Disaggregate your research process: a well-run STEM lab divides work among its members. A novice undergraduate might get participants’ consent while an advanced undergraduate oversees a simple research protocol. Meanwhile, a graduate student and postdoc might run a statistical analysis, while the faculty PI begins drafting a manuscript. A well-run philosophy lab will resemble a STEM lab in its disaggregated approach to the research process. What steps such a process will include will differ from philosopher to philosopher and from project to project. For some of us, the research process includes translation work, for others, statistical analysis,  for still others, time-intensive database research, and for all of us, the careful review of relevant literature and polishing of prose. Faculty will need to take the lead in some of these steps. For other steps, however, a student may be perfectly capable. Setting up a lab requires an initial period of reflecting on your research process and identifying the essential steps. From there, tasks can be divided up and distributed to lab members.
  4. Identify partner disciplines: philosophy labs need not be interdisciplinary in their goals or membership, but lend themselves well to interdisciplinary scholarship. You would be served well to reflect on which disciplines might be relevant to the interests and goals of you and your students. One of our labs involved faculty from the psychology and criminal justice departments; another brought in faculty from neuroscience and biology. But another still might include history or classics faculty.

How to Operate a Lab

  1. Ask students to apply: in our labs, we have found that a formal application process is crucial. Submitting an application selects for the most interested students, gives you a snapshot of a student’s background and skill sets, and gives the application more professional heft. Some campuses have infrastructure for a formal application process for student research, though we have found a less formal cover letter and CV submission to be sufficient.
  2. Hold regular meetings: our colleagues in STEM fields often hold weekly lab meetings. Weekly meetings may not be necessary. But regular lab meetings are essential to moving projects forward. And Zoom provides a convenient platform for members who are studying abroad or away for the summer.
  3. Assign tasks: you’ve disaggregated your research process, right? The next step is the painful one: assigning tasks you would have carried out yourself to capable students. Not all the tasks: that would be inappropriate, leave students in over their heads, and remove you from your own research. We have found, however, that students are fully capable of accomplishing large parts of the research process. At the same time, students may also pursue research-related projects of their own and get feedback from the lab group.
  4. Pursue concrete goals: one thing that makes a philosophy lab differ from a directed reading or independent study is its pursuit of concrete, professional goals, such as published commentaries or book reviews, funded scholarships, or the development of an article manuscript. What those goals are will differ from lab to lab, but without them, the lab loses the primary ends towards which it should be striving.

Reasons to Set Up a Lab

  1. A pedagogically-rich experience for students: as teachers, we pursue moments in which students own the pursuit of philosophical questions for themselves. Philosophy labs don’t guarantee those kinds of experiences, but in our work with labs, we have observed them with greater frequency. We also believe philosophy labs are based on best pedagogical practices, and refer you to our article in Teaching Philosophy for the argument.
  2. Attract students to philosophy: if you are like us, you regularly bemoan the relatively low number of philosophy majors at your school. We all would like to see more philosophy majors, both for the intrinsic goods that philosophy confers and also to help make our annual requests to the dean a little more convincing. But there’s a stumbling block to wooing majors away from rival departments. Other departments provide students with concrete opportunities as part of departmental life: biology students can work in a lab; business majors can pursue an internship; education majors can teach at local high schools. Philosophy majors are more rarely granted these kinds of opportunities. Philosophy labs provide one concrete opportunity for philosophy majors to pursue (no doubt there are others as well), and thus another reason to choose the major.
  3. Increased research productivity: allow us to describe one way a well-run lab might look. You, as the faculty PI, identify a potentially interesting research project and a tentative thesis. You assign some undergraduates to background reading. Two weeks later, they share a well-annotated bibliography. You read through it, and learn quite a bit. You hone the direction of the research. From there, a graduate student begins developing a manuscript. The draft hits a hiccup. You step in, and move the process forward. The grad student finishes the draft. You then hone it into something more polished.  The entire lab then reads through the draft, and an undergraduate identifies an important objection. You work it into the manuscript, along with a reply (formulated by the graduate student). The manuscript is finished. You submit. It is as good (or better) as something you would have developed on your own, and you were able to get it under review in half the time it would typically take. Generally, we have found that philosophy labs increase research productivity, without loss in research quality.
  4. Running a philosophy lab is a blast. Lonely-armchair methodology works but can be, well… lonely. Philosophy labs are many things, but they are definitely not lonely. If they are run well, and if you’ve selected excellent students, philosophy labs provide a meaningful experience for both faculty and students who are involved. Think of the best conversations you’ve had in the philosophy lounge. Then, make those conversations regular and add in the possibility of publishing the results, and you get a picture of what working in a philosophy lab can look like.

Should we completely ditch lonely-armchair methodology in favor of a more collaborative research? Easy answer: no. Moreover, philosophy labs are not for everyone. We believe, however, that the model we have described provides a valuable model for philosophical research and pedagogy, and would welcome broader implementation of it in the field.

[top image: Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Spatial Construction No. 12”]

 

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Brennan Wins $2.1 Million Grant to Study Markets, Social Entrepreneurship, & Altruism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/06/2021 - 11:21pm in

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Jason Brennan, the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Term Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, has been awarded a $2.1 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation.

The grant will support Professor Brennan’s project, “Markets, Social Entrepreneurship, and Effective Altruism.” He writes, “among other things, this grant will allow us to expand my ‘Ethics Project’ experiential learning activity to our entire MBA class for 3 years, seed the Ethics Project at other universities, fund student research in effective altruism and social entrepreneurship, and create a ‘Business Ethics in a Box’ toolkit and teaching materials for instructors.”

You can learn more about Professor Brennan’s work here.

Risky Business

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 21/05/2021 - 5:14am in

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As the coronavirus disrupts and displaces most aspects of our lives, most of the professions that support systems in society, especially ones that support our youth, have been strained. As the pandemic rages around the globe, it is impossible to ignore the value that public schools provide and the services provided for society. Hit most hard at this moment are the teachers that serve students from Pre-K up through higher education.

They allow parents to work and contribute to the economy. They support students with disabilities as they pursue equitable educational opportunities. They often serve as a source of stability for students that live in dangerous or precarious circumstances. Teachers work to help youth develop the social, emotional, and intellectual skills they need to move through life successfully. Yet even as we understand the value teachers play as in our critical infrastructure, there still is a negative public perception of teachers and teacher education and a need to re-valuing teachers.

The role of a teacher is much more than filling up time during the day while parents and guardians are at work. The job of a teacher is much more than just conveying content knowledge and assigning grades. Teachers begin their careers as they care about the livelihood of youth and a desire to help young people thrive. Teachers are asked to wear multiple hats of educator, counselor, life coach, disciplinarian, and role model. Instead of lauding their efforts, there are some in society that seeks to demean or denigrate education as a profession. This may be a response to a field that is dominated by women. It may be due to efforts to demean efforts to strive for truth, understanding, and learning. Regardless of the rationale behind these attempts, teachers are increasingly underpaid and undervalued while other members of society heap expectations and responsibility upon them.

Teachers are doing one of the most important jobs in our community without the adequate support and compensation expected in other professions. The challenge is that this discussion boils down to a discussion of risk. Teachers are asked to scramble and imagine how to make the complex social, economic, and academic systems work in the midst of a pandemic. They are put at risk as they are forced to risk exposure to illness by entering a public building every day to provide in-person or virtual schooling. Obviously, there are no simple solutions to address these challenges and no simple ways to replace the caretaking role of schools and educators. Even with the tremendous value provided for individual households and society at large, like many systems that operate at scale, the decision will ultimately be an institutional one.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

The post Risky Business first appeared on Dr. Ian O'Byrne.

What Video Games to Play in a Philosophy Classroom? (guest post)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/05/2021 - 11:04pm in

“Video games and various scenarios they present can help us not only to better explain and understand philosophical issues and thought experiments, but more importantly, they allow us — although in a limited sense — to experience them as well.”

So writes Ivo Pezlar (The Centre for Science, Technology, and Society Studies at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Department of Philosophy at Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University), in the following guest post*, in which he discusses how he has used video games in his teaching of philosophy (he drew the illustrations, as well). A version of the post originally appeared at his blog.

What video games to play in a philosophy classroom?
by Ivo Pezlar 

Table of contents

Introduction

Philosophical issues have an annoying habit of sneaking up on us unexpectedly in the most unlikely of places and video games are no exception to this. Their interactive nature makes them, I believe, a great tool that can help us not only better explain and understand various philosophical issues but also to experience them.

To test this general belief I put together a dedicated university course on philosophy and video games. In this post, I share some video game suggestions and things I learned while preparing and teaching this introductory course.

Let us start with a motivating example.

Would you kindly…?

Is the ability to do otherwise necessary for moral responsibility? In the 1960s, Harry Frankfurt, the author of the popular book On Bullshit (2005),¹ argued that it is not. He came up with the following scenario:

Suppose someone — Black, let us say — wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily. So he waits until Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and he does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide to do something other than what he wants him to do. If it does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones decides to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do. Whatever Jones’s initial preferences and inclinations, then, Black will have his way. (p. 835)²

This might sound familiar to those who played BioShock (2007). To briefly recapitulate (spoilers incoming), in BioShock we play as Jack who finds himself in a mysterious underwater city called Rapture. Soon after arrival we as Jack are contacted via radio by someone called Atlas. Atlas then becomes our guide through the Rapture, acting both as our main quest giver and the narrator giving us various story expositions. Later in the game, however, we find out that Atlas is not really our friend and all his seemingly well-intentioned recommendations prefaced by the innocuous phrase “Would you kindly… do X” were actually triggers for post-hypnotic suggestions to do X, which Atlas put into Jack’s head. Thus, we were effectively only a puppet acting out Atlas’s desires.

Now, let us return to the Frankfurt’s scenario and replace “Black” with “Atlas”, “Jones” with our protagonist “Jack” and imagine that the “effective steps” take the form of an utterance of the phrase “Would you kindly…”.

In the situation described above, the answer to the question whether Jack is responsible for his “would-you-kindly” actions in the underwater city of Rapture seems clear. Simply put, Jack is not responsible for these actions, because he could not have done otherwise. The irresistible inner compulsion resulting from his hypnosis will not give him any choice — he has to obey.

But is this enough? If we cannot do anything else than some action X, are we automatically blame- (or praise-) free for X? Frankfurt disagrees. Imagine, for example, that Jack’s (ours) decision to pick up a weapon was already made long before Atlas wanted us to, that is, before the phrase “Now, would you kindly find a crowbar or something?” was spoken (thus, Atlas might have misjudged the situation and said the phrase unnecessarily). Most likely it was. Probably it was made around the time we as players picked up BioShock from a shelf in a shop or possibly even sooner. After all, BioShock is a first-person shooter (FPS) in its core and this is what we do in FPS games: we pick up weapons and use them. We do not need a hypnotic suggestion coercing us into acts of virtual action, we already want to engage in those. And this arguably holds not only for us as players but for Jack as a character as well. It seems reasonable to assume that in a hostile environment he — or anyone, really — would want to arm himself without needing any encouragement from an outside party.

So, do we pick the wrench because we are told to (and we cannot do otherwise due to the presence of the post-hypnotic suggestion), or do we pick it up simply because we want to?

This distinction is crucial, Frankfurt’s argument goes, because if we pick it up because we want to (= our desires match Atlas’s), then we are morally responsible for all that follows, even though, strictly speaking, we could not have acted differently due to the presence of the trigger “Would you kindly” in our head.

Frankfurt’s hypothetical scenarios and the conclusions he reached from them were, of course, debated, but that is not important for us right now. What I wanted to show is that video games and various scenarios they present can help us not only to better explain and understand philosophical issues and thought experiments, but more importantly, they allow us — although in a limited sense — to experience them as well.

What did we cover?

In the course we covered five selected topics from metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. The topics were as follows:

1. Illusion and reality

Problems: How does perception work? What do illusions and hallucinations tell us about the way our senses operate? …

Video games are full of illusions: from faking mirrors and reflections (e.g., by duplicating the object to be reflected, flipping it, and placing it behind a semi-transparent wall) through hiding loading screens (e.g., behind prolonged elevator rides) to fabricating the number of the “Phew, that was close!” moments by making your last bits of health capable of taking more damage than the rest (or similarly, by making the last second of a match last longer than a second).

For the course, I chose the illusion of three-dimensionality of early 90s first-person shooters (FPS) such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992) that was achieved by a ray casting method. What is ray casting? It is a computer graphics rendering technique for representing two-dimensional (2D) data (video game world, map, level, …) as if viewed from a three-dimensional (3D) perspective. The basic idea is simple: Imagine the game world as a 2D grid (see the picture above), a colored square means a wall, a white square means an empty space. From the players position (the green arrow in the diagram) and based on their field of view (the orange cone), a ray is cast which travels until it hits a wall. Upon hitting the wall, the distance the ray has travelled is calculated and used to determine how high the wall should be drawn from the 3D perspective. Naturally, closer walls will be drawn taller and vice versa.³ I used this elementary setup — 2D world vs. 3D perception of it — for illustrating standard philosophical theories of sensory perception (naive realist theory, intentional theory, adverbial theory, and sense data theory).

2. Causality and determinism

Problems: What is causality? Can we have deterministic yet unpredictable universe? …

The unashamed use of the butterfly effect in Life Is Strange (2015) and Until Dawn (2015), both from the narrative perspective (e.g., in Until Dawn there is an in-game myth that butterflies carry prophecies of possible futures; in Life is Strange there is a city threaten by an actual hurricane caused practically by a butterfly) and the gameplay perspective (even miniscule decisions can have unforeseeable and drastic consequences later in the game), makes them an easy choice for discussing causal determinism and chaos theory. When examining David Hume’s approach to causality based on associative principles (roughly put, causality is our habit to expect that future will resemble the past), Baba is You (2019) seemed like a perfect selection due to its clever violations of our associations and expectations.

The main idea behind this puzzle game is that the game world is populated not only by ordinary video game objects (walls, doors, keys, lava pits, etc.) but also by “reified” rules of the game world itself in a form of “metaphysical” statements of the general form NOUN + VERB + PROPERTY that we can freely modify. For example, we might encounter a rule that states “WALL IS STOP” (declaring that we cannot go through walls). But if this rule is not present in the game world or if we turn it off (e.g., by removing the STOP part, thus making it a not well-formed statement “WALL IS”, and thus invaliding the rule), walls will lose their stopping power and we will be able to move freely through them. This basic mechanism of rule manipulation is then used to construct various puzzles. For example, we might be locked (seemingly) in a room with no key in sight. But then we realize that there is actually no WALL IS STOP rule activated in the game world, so we can just walk straight through the walls.

To contrast the semantico-metaphysical riddles of Baba is You with something more straightforward and predictable I chose Portal (2007). Its physics-based puzzles relying on expectable causes and effects seemed like a natural counterweight.

3. Mind, body, and artificial intelligence

Problems: What is the relationship between mind and body? Can machines think? …

This topic was unexpectedly a tricky one. There are a lot of video games dealing with various issues concerning sentient AIs (misguided or otherwise, for example, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (2012) with its Chinese room allegory), but the interaction between mind and body seems to be rarely explicitly examined. Especially when we approach them as two distinct substances in the tradition of René Descartes. The standard assumption seems to be that by “rewiring” the brain, we automatically reprogram the mind as well (see, for example, the Mass Effect series with its indoctrination mechanic). It almost seemed better to illustrate the mind–body issues rather from a non-science fiction perspective and go for a more “fantasy” video game such as Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (2010) or Murdered: Soul Suspect (2014) where the interaction between different “planes of existence” becomes a central game mechanism as we play as ghosts that have difficulties interacting with the physical world.

Or, perhaps even better, you might try to focus on the technical side of video games and illustrate the mind–body problem via the difference between game world objects (e.g., walls, trees, enemies) and their hitboxes. What is a hitbox? It is an invisible shape (most often rectangles in 2D games, blocks in 3D games) surrounding a video game object (typically as closely as reasonable) and used for collision detection computations, i.e., for determining when two objects touch each other (see the picture above). To put it roughly, we can view hit boxes as the res extensa of the video game objects. Without them, there is nothing “physical” about them and they cannot interact with other “physical” objects: If an enemy doesn’t have a hitbox, we cannot hit it.

4. Free will and moral responsibility

Problems: Do we have free will? Is free will necessary for moral responsibility? …

Issues about moral topics and free will are quite popular in video games at least since the days of Ultima IV (1985). After that almost every role-playing game (RPG) worthy of its name tries to engage with moral ambiguities, or at least with moral dilemmas. For the course, however, I wanted something that would explicitly tackle the question of free will (of the player) and determinism (of the narrative) and make a game out of it. In short, I wanted the The Stanley Parable (2011). The basic idea behind The Stanley Parable is that it breaks (among other things) the standard video game trope of a main quest giver/narrator. Typically, in a video game when the main quest giver tells us to do X, the story of the game does not move forward until we do X. To put it differently, we cannot disobey the main quest giver in any meaningful way. In The Stanley Parable, however, we can disobey the main quest giver and instead of X, do Y or nothing at all. The quest giver does not only take notice of this (to his own frustration) but also comments on it. Sometimes he even addresses us as players directly, thus breaking the fourth wall.

For the topic of moral responsibility, I wanted a video game involving some form of manipulation of the player by some other non-player character (NPC). There were more games to choose from (for example, System Shock series, Prey (2017), and others), but BioShock (2007) seemed the most fitting choice (for reasons why, see the beginning of this post).

5. Personal identity

Problems: Who or what am I? What transformations can I undergo and still be me? …

A player character with amnesia is a popular trope in video games. It comes with a “Who am I?” intrigue virtually for free and more importantly it puts us as a player and us as a video game character in the same starting position. This way we can ask the NPCs the most mundane questions about the game world (for example, “What is this town I am living in?”) and not come out as a complete buffoon. Yet even tropes can be tackled in fresh and exciting new ways as was recently shown, for example, by Disco Elysium (2019). In this course, however, I wanted to focus on the question of personal identity over time. More specifically, on the question of personal persistence: When do we become a person and when do we cease being one? For this purpose, SOMA (2015) with its brain-scanning, body-swapping, mind-copying themes and gameplay seemed like a clear winner. Without exaggeration, it is basically a playable thought experiment probing various topics from the philosophy of mind.

For example (spoilers incoming), SOMA can be a great tool for not only illustrating but also experiencing the fission problem. The fission problem is one of the puzzling consequences of the approaches to personal identity based on psychological continuity. Simply put, the worry is that on this account of personal identity we can come up with scenarios introducing “new” persons that are psychologically continuous with us (via, e.g., hemisphere transplant, brain scanning and copying, etc.) and thus personally identical to us. In other words, these scenarios effectively split your person into multiple ones. And this is exactly a scenario we can experience from a first-person perspective in SOMA. In a certain point in the game, we are tasked (or rather our in-game character Simon) to transfer our mind from one body to another. The transfer is carried out successfully, but the results are not exactly what Simon had expected: His mind is not transferred to a new body but rather copied, with the original mind still residing in its original body. Now, the “new you”, the new Simon, has a choice: Do you keep the “original you” alive or do you attempt to secure the uniqueness of your psychological continuity with whatever it entails?

Final remarks

The video games discussed above are just a few examples that were used throughout the course and many more can be added (for example, Unavowed (2018), System Shock series, Deus Ex series, Witcher 3 (2015), Papers, Please (2013), The Talos Principle (2014), Planescape: Torment (1999), and others). And the same goes for philosophical topics as well.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I believe there is an untapped potential between philosophy and video games and I hope I managed to convey here some of the reasons why I think so. Finally, I’d like to express great thanks to the students of the course “Philosophy in Video Games” whose feedback will help to shape future iterations of this course.

Do you have any suggestions for other video games or philosophical topics they can help to illustrate, explain, or experience? If so, please let me know!

Notes

¹ Harry G. Frankfurt. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

² Harry G. Frankfurt. “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.” The Journal of Philosophy 66, no. 23 (1969): 829–839. https://doi.org/10.2307/2023833.

³ For an excellent in-depth look, see, e.g., Lode Vandevenne. “Raycasting.” Lode’s Computer Graphics Tutorial (website), accessed May 7, 2021, https://lodev.org/cgtutor/raycasting.html.

Choice Student Comments on Your Philosophy Courses

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 11/05/2021 - 10:39pm in

Student evaluations of teaching have their problems and limitations, but if they allow for comments, at least there’s a chance that you’ll come across a helpful observation, a bit of appreciative praise, an amusing insult, or even potential advertising copy for your course.


[from an ad for Wolcott’s Instant Pain Annihilator]

Take a moment to share a favorite student comment or two—positive or negative—from your courses from the past few years.

I have a hunch that there will be a surprising number of references to headaches in what philosophy professors take to be positive comments—a student recently described one of my courses as “brain throbbingly challenging,” which I count as a win—but maybe some other patterns will emerge.

 

Some Results from the Teaching Philosophy Online Survey

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 08/05/2021 - 1:15am in

Recently, Thomas Nadelhoffer (Charleston) conducted a survey of those who had taught philosophy courses online over the past year. What did he learn?

There were around 360 respondents (the exact number varies from question to question). Here are some of the results.

About two-thirds of the respondents had never taught an online course before:


Question: Before the pandemic, had you ever taught a course that was either partly or fully online?

The most common format of online course adopted by the respondents was a fully online synchronous course:


Question: Which of the following formats for online teaching did you adopt? You can select more than one answer.

A majority of respondents found that teaching online required more time and energy compared to teaching in person:


Question: How much time and energy did teaching online require during the semester/quarter relative to your normal in-person courses?

Most of the respondents had low expectations for how well teaching online would go:


Question: What’s the best way to describe your expectations before you started teaching online?

Afterwards, how favorably instructors viewed teaching philosophy online varied:


Question: Now that you have taught online, do you view teaching philosophy online more or less favorably than before?

Instructors were also asked to judge their confidence in their ability to effectively teach philosophy online:


Question: Based on your experiences, how confident are you in your ability to teach philosophy online in a way that is engaging and effective?

The survey asked, “What do you think are the biggest challenges when it comes to teaching philosophy online?” This was an open-ended question, but it appears that the most common answers concerned keeping students attention and engagement during class meetings, and fostering active and thoughtful class discussions.

It also asked, “If you were to give advice to someone who was about to teach their first online philosophy class, what would it be?” Here are some of the responses (some of which have been lightly edited):

  • Default policy for synchronous online classes: students’ cameras should be on.
  • Make use of visuals occasionally, but don’t have them staring at slides the whole time. Your face is much more engaging than your slides.
  • Use breakout-sessions and activities to get students in contact with each other and to discuss the material.
  • Be even more organized and clear in explaining what students need to do than you think is necessary.
  • Familiarize yourself with all the relevant technology and resources.
  • If your course is small enough, set up individual appointments with all students and get to know them. 
  • Design group projects in which students must get to know some of their peers outside the classroom.
  • For a synchronous class, it might be better not to post recordings of your classes. I posted every class recording my first semester online, and I regretted it for two reasons. For one, it was time consuming to process and post the recording for each meeting, and the time spent posting recordings slowed down my grading noticeably. Second, if the students know that they can easily watch class later they are more likely to skip class with the plan to catch up later, but then they often don’t get around to it.
  • Scaffold the class as much as possible, getting materials and assignments up before the semester begins.  Effective teaching requires a lot more outreach outside of class time, which cuts into planning time.
  • Make a point of calling on students who attend class with their video off. The students who join by audio only are more likely to become disengaged. I have a natural tendency to call on students that I can see. I began posing some questions specifically for those who had their video off, either opening a question for that group of students, or calling on specific video-off students by name. It upped participation from this group. Also, sometimes when I say, “This next question is for those of you with your video off,” there would quickly follow a pop-pop-pop of a handful of videos turning on!

You can view all of the results here. Further comments, suggestions, and discussion welcome.

Three of Wesleyan’s Graduating Philosophy Majors Earned Their Degrees While In Prison

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 07/05/2021 - 7:30pm in

This month, the first group of seven incarcerated men will be graduating from a recently created program at Wesleyan University with their Bachelor’s degrees. Three of them—Michael Braham, Clyde Meikle, and Andre Pierce—will be graduating as philosophy majors.


Clyde Meikle

The work to make this happen started 12 years ago, and involved several institutions, according to Lori Gruen, professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University. She writes:

In 2009, a group of Wesleyan undergraduates, with supportive faculty, created the Center for Prison Education (CPE) and began a pilot offering Wesleyan courses for credit in Cheshire Correctional Institution, a maximum security men’s prison. We admitted 18 students and offered 2 courses a semester. After the two-year pilot, we expanded the number of students by admitting new cohorts every other year and started offering more courses. In 2013 we began offering courses at York Correctional Institution, Connecticut’s women’s prison. In 2016, we partnered with Middlesex Community College to allow students to pursue Associate’s Degrees. And in 2019, Wesleyan Faculty and then the Board of Trustees approved a non-residential Bachelor’s of Liberal Studies

Professor Gruen, who is one of the faculty involved with the CPE, notes that at Wesleyan, philosophy majors can choose a general philosophy track or a social justice track. Both tracks require ten courses, two of which must be advanced seminars, and two of which in the social justice track must be from outside of philosophy, but relevant to the student’s social justice focus. She says:

Michael, Clyde, and Dre are completing the social justice track. I was able to offer two advanced seminars, one on the “Social Contract” in which students read Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Mills’ The Racial Contract, among other readings. The second seminar was a philosophy “proseminar” in which students were exposed to a variety of different areas of philosophy. I arranged to have five philosophers come into the prison over the course of the semester: Lewis Gordon (Connecticut) taught about existentialism, Sally Haslanger (MIT) taught about metaphysics, Lisa Guenther (Queens) taught about phenomenology, Jason Stanley (Yale) taught about philosophy of language, and Diana Tietjens Meyers (Connecticut) taught about aesthetics.  Since 2010, I have taught an additional five courses on topics in social and political philosophy and ethics. My Wesleyan colleague Tushar Irani has offered two courses in ancient philosophy.


Andre Pierce and Lori Gruen

In an email, Professor Gruen expressed curiosity about whether there have previously been many (or any) incarcerated students in the U.S. who have earned Bachelor’s degrees in philosophy. Readers?

She adds:

I could not be prouder of the philosophy students, and there are hopefully going to be more philosophy majors in the years to come. They have worked really hard and bring remarkable insights to philosophical texts and their own philosophical writing. I know I have become a better philosophy teacher as a result of my experiences in the classroom with them, and all of the incarcerated students I have worked with.

You can learn more about Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education here.

Some related posts here.

Teaching Philosophy Online: A Survey

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 30/04/2021 - 12:54am in

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a lot of experience with online teaching. What lessons are to be learned from it for online teaching in the future?


[another scintillating Zoom session]

Thomas Nadelhoffer (College of Charleston) is taking some steps to find out, and has created a brief survey to collect some relevant information. He writes:

Like many departments around the country, mine is discussing which policies (if any) we should adopt concerning online teaching moving forward. Since there is a dearth of evidence on teaching philosophy online, I thought it made sense to collect some preliminary data about the experiences of as many philosophers as possible. The survey just takes a few minutes, so I hope people are willing to take it.

I will make the findings publicly available once I am done collecting them. Perhaps others will find the survey results useful for the purposes of discussions at their home institution.

You can take the survey here.

The “How” of Teaching Will Forever Change…We Now Need to Change the “Why”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 02/04/2021 - 3:49am in

Tags 

teaching

As more and more adults are vaccinated against COVID-19, it appears life will slowly get back to normal.

Many K-12 schools have moved to a modified face-to-face or hybrid schedule with some students remaining solely online. Higher education is a mix of the same as some students, faculty, and staff are choosing, or being required to head back to campus.

There is a certain sense of excitement as we believe that we can safely enter public spaces and interact with others. There is a collective exhale as educational systems are thankful that we can get back to normal.

The challenge in this is that normal wasn’t working for everyone. The coronavirus upended our societies and systems. It exacted a heavy toll as we lost loved ones while spending months sequestered in our own homes. The rhythms of life in educational systems have changed drastically.

The truth is that the coronavirus also presented us with an opportunity. The global pandemic peeled back layers of our society and showed where the faults exist. This time has laid bare many of the weaknesses and inequities in society. Hopefully, we’ve learned something from this. If our focus is on getting back to normal…we’re missing an opportunity.

Acceptable

Some things went well as we think about the impact of the coronavirus on our educational systems from Pre-K up through higher education. The “How” of teaching will forever change…now we need the “why” to also change.

In some instances, a concerted effort has been made to focus more on digital and hybrid pedagogy. We’ve allowed spaces for creative uses of some educational technologies. Educators have been provided with the latitude to experiment and reinvent systems, albeit out of necessity. This examination has caused a rethinking of online and offline pedagogy to make the learning process more student-centered, innovative, and flexible.

In some instances, educators have moved beyond replicating a physical class or lecture as a digital facsimile. Digital, collaborative tools have been used to examine opportunities to support collaboration, engagement, inclusive pedagogy, and personalized learning. Academic seat time will make way for purpose-driven learning. We can only hope that traditional notions of attendance will drop, and a focus on engagement will grow. Assessment and evaluation will focus on meaningful hybrid learning.

For many, the wall of text in our classrooms is coming down. Educators often privilege peer-reviewed information that has been published in traditional formats. This means that the most valued text in classrooms is standard academic English that is printed in books, textbooks, journals, and magazines that we can hold in our hands. Educators are increasingly seeing the value of multimodal information (image, video, audio, hyperlinks, infographics) to support learning retention and accessibility. This is key for English Language Learners, special education students, and kids with attention difficulties.

Online teaching is no more an option, it is a necessity. Online learning, remote working, and e-collaborations tools have taken off. In this same vein, we’ve re-examined our use of time, and the desire to hold regular face-to-face meetings, sometimes for the sake of holding meetings. Expectations for flexibility, differentiated assessment, and rhizomatic integration will expand.

STEM and STEAM will gain more appreciation. The focus on technology in our lives and opportunities to support learners in these fields will gain much more attention. These seeds will take root and flourish. This is also true for the health sciences.

For some, parent-educator collaboration was strengthened by necessity. Often times in our schools, there is a disconnect between what is happening in the classroom. There are a variety of reasons for this challenge. As the coronavirus disrupted our lives and shut down parts of society, parents had the opportunity to sit by their child and peer into the classroom. In my home, my partner and I took turns helping our children with schoolwork, while also bonding over the development of some life skills. This may not be true for all, but it was one ray of sunlight in our existence over the last year.

Individuals saw more opportunities in immersive technology, gaming, and e-sports. Not only did weekly family Zoom calls become an occurrence in our home, but also the opportunities for gaming online with friends and family. As we were less likely to hang out with others in public, some individuals were more likely to game online and consume content with others.

Needs Improvement

Many more things did not go well at all and provide us with an opportunity to reinvent teaching, learning, and assessment.

Connectivity has become more important than textbooks. Access to the Internet has been shown to be not equally distributed across society and unacceptable for many learners. The digital divide may widen the gaps of inequality. Educational institutions must build resilience in their systems to ensure and prioritize access for students, faculty, and staff.

Infrastructure needs to be so strong that it can provide unhindered services during and after the crisis. Infrastructure is the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. A robust information technology infrastructure is a prerequisite for online learning. For our learning systems, this infrastructure needs to be so strong that it can provide unhindered services during and after a crisis. We need a high level of preparedness so that we can quickly adapt to the changes in the environment and can adjust ourselves to different delivery modes, for instance, remote learning or online learning in situations of pandemics such as Covid-19.

Mental and physical health has suffered greatly during the pandemic. Our learning institutions often serve as a safety net for large portions of our society. Students from Pre-K up through higher education have access to services from food to mental health, to social attachments. For some students, school is the one safe space they go to each day. Many individuals (I’m speaking for myself) struggled with a more sedentary lifestyle during the pandemic. Creating digital facsimiles of physical classrooms also creates an expectation they sit with computers all day in Zoom or Google Meet sessions.

Data privacy concerns will draw greater interest as learning environments are increasingly targeted. K-12 institutions will see more high-profile school breaches. Attackers will capitalize on distance learning. Districts will grapple with data privacy and sustainability.

The effectiveness of online learning may vary amongst age groups. In watching my two children adapt to online learning, I’ve noticed that for children, a structured environment is required. Learners, especially younger ones get more easily distracted. For students in my higher ed classes, there are also challenges in remaining focused when expected to keep their camera and mic on for most of the day as they sit engaged. To get the full benefit of online learning, there needs to be a concerted effort to provide structure, while going replicating a physical class/lecture through video capabilities. Instead, we need to develop a range of tools, skills, and practices that promote collaboration, engagement, reflection, and autonomy.

In many of our institutions, we are forced to practice online learning and prove that students are getting the same value as if they were face-to-face. The truth is, this is something we knew was coming. We knew a virtual pivot to online and hybrid learning models was needed. Things would have been different if we have already mastered these pedagogies. Time lost in learning the modes could have been spent on creating more content. We shifted to emergency remote teaching, and it is better late than never. The pandemic surely has accelerated the process of online learning even while many schools continue to focus on traditional academic skills and rote learning, rather than on skills such as critical thinking and adaptability,

We’ve seen an increase in the rise of proctoring, and surveillance technology tools to serve as “solutions.” Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, and chatbots will become critical to student engagement. Technology will help educators gain insight into student needs. With the influx of new technologies, there are many advantages to the use of each of these tools and platforms. The concern comes when products are brought wholesale into our usage without understanding their practicality, rationale, ethos, infrastructure, and data terms of use.

A new normal

During this crisis, we have no other alternative other than adapting to dynamic situations and accepting change. In this, much has changed in the how of teaching, learning, and assessment. Some of this has been positive. Much more has been negative.

With all of this innovation, we need to think critically about the educational sector and reinvent the why of teaching as the how changes.

We also cannot focus on binary discussions about all (or none) students benefiting. As with all things in life, there is nuance in many of these decisions. False dichotomies brought us to this point. They should not dictate future decisions.

Photo by Marian Kroell on Unsplash

The post The “How” of Teaching Will Forever Change…We Now Need to Change the “Why” first appeared on Dr. Ian O'Byrne.

Book Review: Coaching and Mentoring for Academic Development by Kay Guccione and Steve Hutchinson

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 27/03/2021 - 9:00pm in

In Coaching and Mentoring for Academic Development, Kay Guccione and Steve Hutchinson make the case for mentoring and coaching as key to building a learning culture in higher education, exploring how coaching and mentoring programmes can be embedded to provide learning opportunities as well as support and growth for academic and research staff. Jo Collins welcomes this invaluable and timely book for … Continued

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