February 2009 Archives

JBFC: Why.

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Last week I pledged to (re-)introduce my love of my field and our topic into the room, and this week I spent a fair amount of time attempting to do that.  The idea was (and is) to be sufficiently contagious so that my students would be more motivated and therefore better positioned to take on the harder course material.

And it wasn't just me who thought the current topic is difficult.  I again used the one-minute paper approach at the end of class Tuesday to get a sense of where they're struggling, and this time I found much more sophisticated questions (which was nice) and much more agreement about what remained confusing.  Which is to say, pretty much every main point from Tuesday's session.  

Okay, so two things to accomplish this week, then—light a fire under them about philosophy and clarify everything.

This order seemed less tall the more I thought about it.  Many students were struggling to understand a philosopher's claim that the very nature of bodily experience (of a tickle or itch, say) defeats Descartes's claim that the mind and body are radically distinguishable.  It seems like a straightforward claim, but it's not, particularly considering what it's in response to.  Looking back, I see that on the first pass I focused too heavily on explaining the professional backstory—the professionalized conversation between academics—and not enough on the why. For example, I hadn't (publicly) asked why these authors still feel compelled to respond to Descartes some four hundred years later?  After all, he's not just dead, but very, very dead.  In fact, why think about this stuff at all?

So we went all the way back to the first drawing board, back to the why.  My students offered some interesting answers to the fundamental Why's, including the observation that perhaps some writers were professionally invested in being correct, and that's why Descartes must be wrong.*

But the answer I didn't get was the one I emphasized the most—namely, that all this stuff is simply crazy on its face.  For philosophers (and bunches of other people, too), very little space lies between puzzlement and wonderment, and it's this combination of admiration and astonishment that can get lost.  If you stop to think about it, much of the obvious and the mundane turns out to be anything but.  We're the rare kind of creature that has a body and a mind, has thoughts and experiences, can think and talk about things.  Why write and think and talk about these facts?  Because if you stop and think about them, you have to, and that's what we did (I think) for the beginning of class Thursday—stop and think, recreate getting hit by the wonder before we went back to the puzzle.

We then did go back to the texts, which went a little better, in no small part because I spent some time on my own in front of a blackboard working out how to make a map of the material that they could better navigate by.  Their midterm essays are due in roughly two weeks, so I guess we'll see more clearly how we're both doing.

Lastly:  Number of students who came to lunch with me this week:  3.  It's a start.

*That was the first answer, too, oddly enough, which strikes me as a little cynical coming from a bunch of freshmen.  But anyway.

JBFC: How hard is too hard?

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We're three weeks into the course, and the material is starting to get noticeably harder. I've done this deliberately, of course, but I worry whether I've calibrated correctly.  I want my students to be puzzled—even deeply puzzled—by what they meet in my class, but I don't want them to be defeated by it.  Is the material too hard?  Sure, they're smart and all, but am I nevertheless expecting too much of them?

The worry is not merely, as they say, academic.  Ask too little of them, and they're bound to get bored.  But, as psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi argues (and as I've mentioned before), provide challenges that dwarf the current skill levels of students and you trigger anxiety, which is no more productive than boredom.  The ideal, in other words, is to ladder them up to the really hard stuff by first giving them skills—recognizing and analyzing an argument in an approachable reading, say—and then by providing opportunities to exercise those skills in slightly tougher contexts, and then by helping them develop further skills, and so on.  A very strong argument could be made, I think, that this laddering up simply is what learning is.

Okay, so that's the ideal.  But this calibration problem has been somewhat tough to deal with given the nature of the course.  Since this is a Freshman Seminar, I've only got 14 students and their various skill levels to consider instead of 50 or 75 or 175, which makes settling on a level of difficulty a little easier.  But since this is a Freshman Seminar, I've got a classroom full of people still working out what it is to be in a Princeton classroom and part of this discourse community, which means I've got a lot of skill work to do.  Accordingly, I've tended to spend more time talking than I would in an upper-level seminar while still trying to have discussion drive the in-class work we do.  I've also been trying to model skills that I want them to use and then just plain telling them what skill we were just using.

But I've recently been reminded of one thing that I don't think I've done well or enough of yet this semester.  Like many spring semesters here at the McGraw Center, we're putting on what we call the Master Class in Lecturing.  The short course consists of a series of talks about lecturing given by some of Princeton's best lecturers, and then those who sign up for the course present mini lectures and receive feedback from their audience, including the faculty "master."  During a recent session, the invited lecturer emphasized the importance of communicating your love for the discipline, for what you're teaching.  As he so nicely put it (more or less):

"Students arrive with adolescent loves—they don't know what importance is, what depth is.  Their lives need to be changed, and if I'm not aiming to change their lives, then what's the point?"

Giving my students a clear reason to love what we're doing will no doubt encourage them to stick with what's hard, to find love in the work itself and therefore the desire to work at it.  In many ways, I suppose, that's what defines philosophy—the love of the puzzle itself and not so much the solution.

Next week, then, I will work harder at getting them to feel the love (as it were).  The week after that:  Changing their lives.

For those keeping track at home:  I again welcomed students to come to lunch with me.  Takers?  Still nobody.

JBFC: The other (student) minds problem

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Though I've taught for quite some time now, I still find myself surprised by the disconnect between what I think my students are thinking about and will react energetically to, and what they actually write and say.

Take today's class.  I had them read several (very) short articles on Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), a disorder where otherwise normal people want to have healthy limbs amputated.  The first assigned article is from the late 70's and presented a fairly dubious but provocative argument for categorizing the disorder as psychosexual.*  The last is from 2008, and the authors put forward a brain-based explanation, but their conclusion runs against some data collected in other pieces we read.  So we've got self-amputation, sexual deviancy, bizarre behavior in general, conflicting explanations, etc.  Just a lot of puzzling, wild stuff.  Who wouldn't want to talk about it?  Right?

So I expected the class to light up, but the response was, well, okay.  Nearly every student did talk at some point during the 80 minutes, but I had to pull it out of many of them with questions, some of them eventually quite leading.  What's going on?

One way to get a little insight into what and how students are thinking when they sit around the table so quietly is to ask them.  Putting a little more McGraw advice into practice, at the very end of class I asked students to write down a lingering question or a point that seemed important but remained muddy to them.  The responses ranged from specific questions about today's subject (e.g., How can apotemnophiliacs think amputation will stop them from getting negative attention?) to more general questions about the course itself ("How will studying a scientific topic from a philosopher's point of view ... explain the union of mind and body?").  Good stuff for the most part.  Now I have a better idea what I should be sure to speak to, and how.

Near the bottom of the stack of these "one-minute papers," I came across one that ended with:

"This class keeps making me think.  It's uncomfortable at times."

So maybe things are going better than I think.

Note to future self:  The Discussion Board feature of Blackboard is a nice tool, but it works best when weekly posting is folded explicitly into students' course grade.  I told them that contributing to the board falls squarely within the "Participation" category (worth 20% of the total) — and some have contributed some nice thoughts and questions.  But it's not on fire, if you know what I mean.  Sometimes the route to deep learning has to pass through strategic-learning territory.

Also, as I promised/threatened in the course syllabus, I put out an open invitation at the end of class for anyone to join me for lunch at Wilson College.  Number of students who came to lunch with me today:  0.  Ah well, maybe next week.


JBFC: First day, first week

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Classes started this week, which meant facing the First Day.  It's always a tough day, in no small part because the students often walk in as total unknowns.  Will they talk?  Will they Facebook the whole time?

My start stress is a little more intense this semester because I'm teaching a brand new course.  Sure, I'm using some familiar readings, and I've written and presented on everything listed on the syllabus.  But I haven't put together these readings, ideas, activities, and assignments before in just this way, so I'm concerned about pacing and possibility.  (Can we, e.g., make it through three of Descartes's Meditations in one 80-minute session?  Answer:  um, no.)

But back to the first day.  We recommend that instructors use the opening day of the course strategically.  That is, it's tempting to cram in as much content as possible given the short semester, but students will likely arrive with a range of expectations and assumptions about the course and the instructor.  Spending a little time on expectations — both theirs and yours — can bring the class together around a common purpose.  Asking students about their expectations can also signal that they're participants and not merely passive vessels into which delicious knowledge will be poured.

Here's my approach:  I spend a little bit of time at the very beginning of the first class going over the course overview, which explicitly (I think, anyway) lists my expectations.  I talk a little about grades — they always want to hear about that — but I spend more time emphasizing my availability and how to get a hold of me.  I don't want to insult their intelligence or waste time by reading the whole thing, but I've found that students rarely read all that info themselves.  Highlighting parts of it in class, then, makes it important.

I also try to reward students who do actually bother to read the course info.  I insert jokes, weird asides, and odd footnotes here and there (as in the picture above), among other things.  This approach risks trivializing the info and maybe even the course, I realize.  Still, I think the risk is worth the reward of increased attention and interest.  I also like a fairly informal, conversational atmosphere in my classrooms, and I like to signal that preference not only by stating my expectations up front but via the way in which those expectations get stated.  We'll see how this semester's students react.  As of day 2, no mention.

After introductions (including answers to Why this course? and What do you want to get out of it?), I devote the rest of the first day to method.  Since I'm teaching a Freshman Seminar, I'm assuming that my students are very new to philosophical thinking and university discourse in general (even in their second semester).  We therefore spend about an hour reading a short article from the New Yorker by Michael Kinsley about opinion, ignorance, and intellectual piety.  Kinsley's argument is clear and compelling but not without controversy, and since it's about many Americans' belief that they have, as Kinsley puts it, a "democratic right to ignorance," students don't need any privileged knowledge to follow or to respond to Kinsley's case.

It went fairly well.  They talked less than I hoped but more than I expected.  I let the discussion go, and we wound up puzzling over the distinctions between opinion, belief, theory, and faith.  And in the end, I had what I wanted, which was the opportunity to point out that what we just did — namely pull out the argument in a reading and respond to it in kind — is what I'm going to expect of them (and of myself) over the course of the semester.  We'll have to come back to this expectation again and again, in word and in deed, but ultimately I think it was a good start.

Plus, I really love talking about all this stuff.  Next up?  Descartes and Really Old Texts.


(Note:  This is the first real entry in a new weekly series, "Just back from class," where we mull over our experiences in our own classrooms.  To quickly see all the entries in the series, click on either the "JBFC" tag over in the Tag cloud or the "Just back from class" category in the sidebar.  You won't see that much right now, but just wait.)

Introducing a new feature: Just Back From Class

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opendesk.jpgNot only do we research, think, and write about teaching and learning here at McGraw, we teach.  Last semester, Jeff Himpele (our Associate Director) gave a class in Anthropology entitled "Anthropology of Media."  This semester, I'm teaching the Freshman Seminar "Minding the Body," an interdisciplinary investigation into how we represent and misrepresent our bodies to ourselves.

Nothing focuses the mind and tests practices like an actual classroom with real, honest-to-goodness students.  We thought that it might be useful, perhaps for us more than anyone, to spend a little time each week discussing what worked and what didn't.  Along the way, we also want to hear about your own teaching experiences and what you make of them.

We're calling this new series "Just back from class."  The weekly posts will lean more to the informal (maybe even confessional) side, recorded in that heady time right after the chalk goes back into the tray.

Okay, so let's get started.

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