Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Why Teaching is No Fun

I've just finished preparing my Analytic Philosophy class for Spring. Teaching this course is a kick because I relive my philosophical youth, particularly when I reread papers from time time when Analytic Philosophy was young. I've been sneaking around the Web peeking at other people's syllabi for comparable courses and it seems that we all do what we like--I seem to like reading Russell more than most.

But the constraints imposed by the students I have to deal with and the System in which we operate make teaching miserable. In part it's because I'm female, physically unprepossessing and peculiar: if I don't work very hard to assert authority and display organization I will be treated as a buffoon--a funny fat little women, a figure of fun. Other faculty can afford to be laid back but I can't: I have to exert myself to the fullest to act "professional" since I don't "look professional." Once I've established myself, after a few class meetings, I can let go a little--in fact I sometimes let go a lot sometimes and enjoy myself, but I always have to work at maintaining order and structure. My appearance is against me and I don't have the social skills to "facilitate" discussions or use any of the gimmicks we're encouraged to try, so I lecture, keep strictly on track, and do everything I can to avoid the appearance of "disorganization."

But it's not just me. The System makes things difficult because the brute fact is that the university is both an educational institution and a screening agency for employment and admission to professional programs. I have to grade students, and because they know that they are there to get their credentials, I have to establish a clear scheme for assessing them and rigidly stick by it. This year, after agonizing, I've decided to grade them on the basis of a term paper and objective type quizzes to see that they're keeping up with the reading. I haven't yet decided how many quizzes or how much they'll count and here I have to figure in a number of factors: I have to weigh my own view that these quizzes are a waste of my time and theirs against their interest in not having everything hang on one term paper; I have to have enough quizzes and have them at set times to please students; I have to work at these quizzes to make them good, to see to it that they aren't a complete waste of time.

I wish I could give students collaborative projects but grading them is a hassle. I wish I could give them take-home tests: I have a stock of very clever, juicy questions and I'm interested in seeing how students answer them. It would be wonderful if students would get together and discuss these questions--that's what philosophy is all about. But they won't discuss them unless they're a graded assignment and if they are I have to worry about collaboration: what is legitimate and what isn't? what do I say to students who've worked on a question together and come up with substantially the same answer but where it's clear that one student engaged with the material and understood what was going on while the others parroted snatches of the solution without understanding it? Furthermore, because the university is an employment agency I have to rank students and get a spread of grades: I have to make sure that some students do badly.

So I'll give true/false and multiple-choice tests where students can't complain about the grades and I'll weight them heavily enough to please students who don't like writing essays. I'll restrict topics for the term paper and impose mickey mouse rules about it to make it harder for them to cheat. By the time students get their grades they'll be home on vacation and less likely to give me a hard time: they can't complain about the grades for objective type tests and they won't complain about the grade for their paper so I'll be off the hook. Pedagogically, this stinks. But I will do it so that I can get this crap off my back so that I have some chance to talk about Russell, Ayer and Quine, about Skepticism about the External World, Puzzle Cases of Personal Identity, Twin Earth and all the things that interest me and got me into philosophy in the first place.

I'm fed up with the whole thing. I love my field: I would gladly learn and gladly teach but the System makes it difficult. My son is now in college and convinced that faculty are out to beat up on students. I've talked to other students who believe that faculty really like to lecture, don't want to hear what they have to say, don't want to engage in discussion. Hardly. We're all of us caught in an evil net


Anonymous said...

What does a philosophy professor look like? I've had old, snaggle toothed men that wear the same blazer every day for years, kooky young guys, including one who wore a surgical mask everyday to protect him from germs, middle aged men acting "young" again, young women who acted like pupating old people...I don't think that your appearance matters nearly as much as you believe...Keat's First and Second Laws of Aesthetics, do not apply to philosophy professors,lol, truth preoccupies the alethic pole of the intellectual sphere and beauty the aesthetic pole and while each is admirable in its own way I don't think you need beauty to convey truth...

Anonymous said...

I found it to be about the same when I taught (not philosophy). The closest to a working compromise I found was to have a nice, comprehensible, non-threatening and "fair"-looking program for the majority, and then some ad hoc things going on for the small minority of learners who were actually there. I would engage the learners as the situation dictated (allowing and/or suggesting special projects or alternative paths), and just punch everyone else's ticket. It was not hard to find the learners as the semester went on.

Through no virtue of my own I had an easier time with the appearance thing -- slightly above average height, bearded, and a veteran who could act ambiguously (or not) threatening if necessary. Shouldn't have been good characteristics for a teacher, but they were.

I was once asked by a student "why we had to learn this irrelevant nonsense" (they were a bit more polite than that, but that wase clearly the sense of it. I actually extemporized for about 10 minutes on the idea that the content of their learning probably made no difference, but that as up-and-coming middle-class types, being able to follow sometimes-ridiculous instructions independently was going to be a skill they needed to have. There was a bit more to it than that, but again, that was the essence.

God help me, they ate it up, and got very tractable after that.

Evil net? To some degree. Perhaps more just a system where lots of people who really don't want to be "educated" are forced to pretend that they are.

In any case, I'm out of it now. Good luck to you, and thanks for the opportunity to rant a bit.

Some Other Anonymous Guy

Anonymous said...

One other thing that I tried, which worked fairly well for me.

To give essay questions on tests, I would have a test with three or four essays and five or six short IDs. A week before the test, they would get a list of eight or so essay questions and about 20 short IDs. All items on the "real" test would come from the list. The questions were moderately difficult, and I told them (and did, for the first test at least) that since they had the questions, I would grade like the Wrath of God. They found that "fair", and apparently worked hard on what I wanted them to. The trick is to write the questions to make them think about the right things. They'll try to snow you into giving the answers of course, but that's not hard to handle. :)

Anyway, just a thought.

That Same Other Anonymous Guy.

Anonymous said...

How many analytic philosophers can dance on the head of a pin?

Zero...analytic philosophers can't dance...

great blog, though.

H. E. said...

Ah, the why-do-we-have-to-learn-this-stuff question I get every semester teaching our required baby logic class.

Answer: (1) because it will improve your LSAT scores (documented fact), (2) because it will make you better at math, (3) because it will make you better at anything that demands organization, rigor, and puzzle solving--and that is power. What's hard to get across is that the game isn't "training" or learning recipes for doing specific tasks.

It's probably hard for academics to address the concerns of most students because we're self-selected--we're the ones who like this stuff.

Matt Zwolinski said...

Is it a documented fact that learning logic improves your LSAT score? Or is it a documented fact that the ability to do well in logic correlates with an ability to do well on the LSAT? I've always had the essence that logic is, by and large, "unteachable," and so I rather suspect the latter.

H. E. said...

Matt, you researched this and provided our data. What do you think--and why?

I think it helps a little but mainly it's a matter of self-selection because one course isn't nearly enough. I'd guess also that if you put students through the whole routine--either a philosophy major, or a computer science major, it would do the trick. It's just a particular way of thinking about things and there's no magic recipe or shortcut.

In principle, you could implant a chip in people's brains or find some recipe but we haven't got it and--granting your post hoc ergo propter hoc point--the best way how to do is making students take courses in logic, computers and various things in math.

Anonymous said...

if I don't work very hard to assert authority and display organization I will be treated as a buffoon--a funny fat little women, a figure of fun....I have to exert myself to the fullest to act "professional", since I don't "look professional."Ah, but you play the fiddle, and if that doesn't get you credibility, what can? Besides, everybody knows there are no fat people in California.


H. E. said...

Good to touch base again! This is a fine, valid argument--No Californians are fat, I'm a Californian therefore I'm not fat--with much of the a priori umph of the Ontological Argument so I'm greatly encouraged. In fact I'm so encouraged that I'm skipping my workout at Women's Fitness World today since I've always preferred theft over honest toil.

English women, according to something I read, are the fattest in Europe (Italians are the slimmest). We'll be back in Swindon for August--always most encouraging. I hope you're working on Kreutzer--and don't forget the scales and arpeggios.

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