Thursday, September 25, 2014

turning point

I’m in a book club on campus discussing a book about the situation of first-generation college students. Among the things we talked about were the different attitudes first generation students tend to have about college education and the work they have to do in classes. Among the issues was that we as faculty have expectations about the appropriate valuing of and attitude toward coursework, and our first-generation (and poor, working-class) students come with a different set. For instance, when I assign an article to read for class, and say that I expect my students to read and prepare to discuss the article in class, I mean that they should read carefully and work to understand the text. I say this specifically to them, too. But they approach the text in a way of their own, maybe at the end of a 6 am-to-midnight day of work, school, and family responsibilities. At that point, they don’t have much time or attention to devote to a complicated philosophy text, and at best, they skim through it.

On a drive home from Stockton to Turlock, Lauren and I talked more about it. She said, brilliantly, that my students reading these articles is like me reading Husserl in German. German is a foreign language to me, and I’m not fluent in it. Reading Husserl in German is slow and painstaking. I have to look up many words, stop and restart sentences, sometimes practically translate the whole thing rather than actually read it. Not only is the philosophical language foreign to my students, sometimes the text is also in a language foreign to them.

Now, I understood this implicitly, but the explicit statement is helpful for knowing what they’re going through. Plus, I knew immediately, telling them about this would be help my students understand not only that I empathize, but more importantly, what their relationship is to these texts, and what kind of work it may take to read them.
So I have had this conversation with three of my classes. I emphasized the need to go through this slow process, indeed its indispensability, and my eagerness to go through it with them. I said I believe they take a couple different strategies to reading that are unhelpful: giving up, and skating over passages they didn’t understand. In both cases, my assigning the articles achieves nothing.

I offered a different strategy, like the one I take with Husserl. I go as slow as I need to. I look up the words as I go, rebuild each sentence, then a whole paragraph, and often re-read passages four or five times before moving on to the next part. Today a student said that she does the same thing with our articles, and although she finds it frustrating sometimes, in the end she understands them, and it seemed obvious this provided meaningful satisfaction to her.

I challenged my classes to read this way, as much as they can, and that this was how to prepare for class. I also said that if they came to a passage in an article that they didn’t know how to get through, it was worth our time to stop there and work on that passage.

Every semester, each of my classes has a turning point—a single class session that changes everything about the class. It demands attention of even profoundly disaffected students who typically prefer to sit through classes simmering in contempt. For the students who are willing and already buying in, it turns everything upside down. It’s a class session outside of ordinary classtime. If I were into that kind of thing, I’d want to invoke Mircea Eliade and say that this class happened in sacred time, but it might do to relate it to Thomas Kuhn and say it’s a form of revolutionary science, a paradigm shift. The class session always turns reflection on what is going on in the class itself. The discussion is directly and provocatively about how they do or don’t do their work; how they relate to philosophy, to other classes, to each other, and to me; and about their responses, desires, and fears about the class, about learning, and in some way, really, about life. The class shivers from the unexpected candor and the openness to whatever happens next. It’s exhilarating and feels weirdly risky and naughty, and I can’t predict the outcome.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

a couple notes about teaching difficult texts, part 2

Yesterday I wrote about teaching using small group discussions, as part of trying to get at some reflection on reading aloud in class and how that’s going this semester. I feel like there’s more preliminary to say.

I have my classes read difficult material. I write it into my syllabus. I tell my students so in class. “You will read things you don’t immediately understand,” I say. “Expect to have difficulty. When you do, make notes about it. Ask about it in class, because I promise you, everyone in the room will also have difficulty. You might feel shy about it, or like you’re the only one. Trust me: you’re not the only one.”

I explain that their responsibilities are to read assignments prior to class discussion, to look up unfamiliar words and ideas, not only in an ordinary dictionary, but in specialized reference works related to the field, and to take notes and ask questions about the articles. I start every discussion of an article by asking for overall questions, or clarifications of particular words or passages.

I have three justifications for my choices of reading assignments. The first is pedagogical, the second is disciplinary, and the third is political.

The pedagogical justification is that the course is supposed to develop critical thinking skill. The ability to analyze and critique complex material and ideas can only be developed by reading complex material presenting complex ideas. I sometimes set up an article in advance by explaining something about the author’s way of thinking (e.g., “Peter Singer is a prominent ethicist, most known for writing about vegetarianism and animal rights”), or by providing guiding questions on the reading (e.g., “Why does the Clarke conclude that Baby L’s parents did not have the right to demand treatment?”). Sometimes I don’t provide any set up, but just remind my classes that they should come to class with their questions. Sometimes I have them bring a written question.

The disciplinary justification is that philosophy courses should involve reading philosophers’ own writing, as much as possible. It would be much easier to read a synopsis of Onora O’Neill’s article on paternalism and patient autonomy in medicine, but there’s no substitute for reading O’Neill’s own writing. Philosophy is in large part a tradition of texts. The article by O’Neill is a splendid example of the style of British-trained academic philosophers: abstract, concise, and universalizing. Taking a philosophy class ought to expose a student to stuff like that.

The political justification is that articles written in academic and professional journals are in a coded language that excludes most readers, and this exclusion should be resisted by learning as much as possible to break the code. Professions are proprietary about their knowledge bases, and this serves to legitimize their claim to expertise, and their power and authority. In teaching ethics, I’m always aware that almost all the messages my students have ever received about ethics have been pronouncements by authority figures. It would be a cruel irony if an ethics class taught them to replace one set of authority figures (churches, family, cultural hegemony) with another (ethicists).

Again, I tell my classes about this. None of these agendas are secret. I also refer back to them frequently.

Summing up the situation, I give my students difficult things to read, and explain why I do so, and what I want them to do with these things, and why I want them to do it. We spend most of our class sessions digging into the reading material and the ideas presented. We then expand on that into the broader implications of those ideas. An approach I use very frequently is small group discussion in which each group has an assigned question (usually) and is responsible for responding, based on the text. While they give those responses in class, I take dictation, and sometimes adding my own notes, or prompting them to add more. Their responses then become the basis of a second round of discussion involving the whole class, before I correct, clarify, and try to deepen the response. I then ask the class to take a step back to consider how the whole discussion, and the texts under discussion, bear on an issue or topic. In that way, we move from interpreting details of some particular passage of an article, to the whole article, to connecting it back to the overarching theme of a unit of the course. 

This semester I've restructured my classes completely, so that we begin with a plainly described "situation" in which ethics and ethical questions matter. In Bioethics, it's the Ashley Treatment. In Professional Ethics, it's long-term effects of head injuries in professional sports. Each article gives another bit of nuance or another way to think about the situation, sometimes but not always directly related to the situation itself. When we return to the overall situation, I try to help my students synthesize ideas and rethink their initial reactions. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

a couple notes about teaching difficult texts, 1

We read some tough stuff in my general education Professional Ethics and Bioethics courses, ranging from overstuffed academese to extremely dense philosophical reasoning. I tell my classes at the start of the term that the reading will not be like a textbook, is not written for a general audience, or even a college-student audience, and that they will have to work to understand. Most of my students have difficulty with it. Each student fails to understand at least one significant article or key concept in an article.

My impression is that my students' default strategy when they have difficulty reading is to pass over the difficult passage, or even skip an article altogether. Some prefer to read the article abstracts (when present). They wait for me to tell them what the article was about. If this has been a successful strategy in their schooling, it may be because they have been rewarded for attending to the teacher's explanations, and not for working out what a complex text means. It may be a more canny strategy, expressing a desire to expend least effort to obtain a completed degree requirement.

I attempt to block that strategy, because key goals of my courses are to help students develop their abilities to analyze complex texts and to follow and critique complex reasoning. In short, I am trying to provoke them to do the opposite of what appears to me to be their basic go-to approach.

One of my counter-strategies is challenging them directly, by playing devil's advocate to a position taken by an author and asking for its defense, or by suggesting that the author is trying to trick them into believing something they shouldn't. I want to suggest to my students that they need to protect themselves against charlatanry, or act in self-respect and not accept something told to them by an authority. This is low-stakes, and I guess works to encourage about 1/4 of students to take up the task.

Another counter-strategy is requiring that each student discuss the texts and ideas of articles in detail, in papers they write. Obviously this is high-stakes, and as a motivation to read and analyze, fails overall. I don't remove this requirement from papers, though, because it's justified intellectually. I know that requirements motivate students, at least to comply with the letter of them, but I also know my students have wildly disparate ideas about what it means to "discuss" the articles, let alone "in detail." Still, this does motivate the most grade-anxious.

A middle-stakes counter-strategy is small-group discussions about textual passages. I break the class into groups of 3-5 (depending on class size and numbers of questions or passages), and give each group a question regarding an assigned reading. I instruct them specifically to go back to the article text, find the relevant passage, explain how it answers the question, and then prepare an answer to present to the whole class. They take notes on this discussion, as a group.

There's a lot going on in this activity. I can't control all of it, even if I wanted to. The students interpret their task, keep themselves on the task, interpret their question, interpret the text, compose an answer to what they interpret the question to mean, and, I hope, question themselves and one another about their interpretations, about the text, about their question, and about their task. It could have a self-recursive aspect, in other words.

The questions range from broad, highly conceptual or applicative questions (e.g., "How does the author's idea of 'best interest' help explain what's at stake in the Ashley Treatment?" or "What is 'horizon of ability?'") to very textual (e.g., "What does the author mean by 'the best interests of an incompetent person are simply speculative?'"). I think both poles of this range are important. Most group discussions include some of each.

Students respond in various ways. Some groups present detailed written answers that the groups spokesperson reads from their notes. Some groups misunderstand absolutely everything about the task. Some groups are clearly unprepared. That all shows up when they present. I believe all the students can easily hear the differences.

Although I often reflect on my own responses, I have never set down for myself any sort of guidelines or rules. Here's what I think I do.

As groups present, I take dictation, typing on my laptop connected to a data projector. I type verbatim, or a close paraphrase, under the typed question they are answering, in a Word document. I type whatever they say, for good or ill, whether they have really followed the prompt or not. I do not scold individual groups for failing to be prepared or for missing the point of the task or question or text.

I do, however, correct them, in one of several ways. One approach I take is to open the floor for other comments or responses. I imagine that if other students point in the direction of a more accurate understanding, it sounds different than when I do so -- by which I mean, it may motivate and encourage differently. It also makes more students at a time responsible for doing this work. It also provides a chance for other students to try out their interpretations or to express their own difficulties.

Another is to correct them directly, which I often do when a group has gone terribly wrong. Often I highlight the text I just typed from their discussion, and delete it from the Word doc, while beginning to explain how the response missed the point. Often I go back to the text, and read it aloud, and then open the floor to ask what it means. Often I break down an individual sentence or phrase, or even a single word, to try to show how the meaning of a passage, and thus a concept, is constructed by an author. By doing this, I try to demonstrate how they could themselves do that work while reading, and I hope that my students hear a meaningful and satisfying connection between that analytical reading work and answering the question I asked for the discussion. I also give them the meta-remark that this is the kind of reading work that is sometimes required.

I have mixed results. Maybe there's too much going on in this activity. I like complexity, though, and I also believe these discussions almost always lead into the best, most productive class sessions. I have two main dissatisfactions, about which I'll write more later. First, these group discussions, while they can bring groups of students together, also divide students, into what I'll call for short intellectual haves and have-nots. Students who are following and diligent sometimes help bring around those who are not, but often the students who are successfully doing the reading work are impatient with those who are not. Second, classes, groups, and individual students, vary in their focus and effort, for a variety of reasons, and so group discussions are inconsistent. Two sections of the same course have very different experiences and rates of learning based on this, and a class or group culture starts to emerge that reinforces either productive or unproductive habits.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

is the “Steven Salaita Case” about academic freedom?

Steven Salaita was offered a tenured professor position at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to teach American Indian Studies. He resigned from his position at Virginia Tech to accept the offer. Salaita’s provocative anti-Zionist comments on Twitter were then brought to the attention of administrators and members of the board of directors of the University of Illinois, leading to the withdrawal ofthe offer of employment. (Some have referred to this event as his having been “fired” by the university, but he never was employed by the university.) No one has denied that his comments on Twitter were the reason for withdrawing the offer.

In the heated discussion of the case taking place through media (especially social media), in communication to and from the university administration, and within other organizations, academic freedom has been evoked. The withdrawal of the employment offer has been characterized as a violation of Salaita’s academic freedom, and has been defended on the basis of protecting academic freedom from Salaita’s mode of expression and/or views.

To what does academic freedom apply? Those evoking it to protest or defend the university’s action seem to agree that academic freedom applies in the case of comments made on Twitter. Why would that be? Does academic freedom cover expressions made outside of academia? Or is Twitter use by an academic de facto academic expression? Is there a standard of judgment to rule expressions in or out of the academic field? Twitter posts, by definition 140 characters or less, do not conform to conventions of academic writing or other expression, though perhaps a series of posts would, if used as a (rather awkward) publication medium. Since academic expressions generally involve engagement in reasoned discussion under prescriptive rules for coherence, relevance, evidence, etc., a single post (and perhaps especially an inflammatory post) expressing an opinion is not a strong candidate for inclusion in this field.

If so, then it seems academic freedom is being applied outside the field of academic expression. How could this be? Two possibilities are that academic freedom applies to some not-yet-defined field of expression broader than the academic, or applies to a person rather than to expression. Some of the protesters’ phraseology (“Salaita’s academic freedom was violated,” e.g.) suggests the latter. To what persons, for what reasons, does academic freedom apply? In the case of Salaita, it would seem to apply to him because of his status as a professor. In other words, the academic or non-academic forum or substance of his expression is not relevant, because his expressions should be protected by academic freedom simply because he is.

To reiterate, Salaita’s academic freedom is in question just because he is a professor. Yet he was not a professor at the University of Illinois, and was not a professor at Virginia Tech, indeed not a professor anywhere, when the offer of employment was withdrawn. I am being precious here: he was not a professor in the narrow technical sense that he was not then employed in that capacity. Obviously, professor is a title as well as an employment status. This line of reasoning leads to a messy, vague conclusion. Salaita’s academic freedom is in question if professors have academic freedom just because they are professors, and if that applies to the person and not primarily to their expressions as professors (or to the forum or substance of their expressions).

So, let’s say that academic freedom applies to professors. Who are professors? Now I wonder just how precious I was being before, since being a professor depends on having or having had an employment status as a professor. A professor is a college faculty member who is eligible for tenure or has tenure; a professor could also be anyone who teaches at a college, but colleges and universities deny tenure eligibility to 75% of those who teach, which would make this a rather peculiar way to draw the distinction. In that case, what a college instructor says, in class or in an academic journal article, following the standards and practices of academic expression, would not be protected by academic freedom because the instructor is not a professor.