Sunday, August 05, 2007

Teaching the Text

Today I'm working on my Analytic Philosophy course for Spring 2008. I always prepare well in advance and tweek over weeks or months. But this time I'm starting very early because I've decided not to use a text book. I'm be assembling articles and linking them to the class website.

I feel a little guilty about this--even though what I'm doing is legal--because it undermines the textbook publishing business which provides publication opportunities for faculty. Publishing a textbook anthology is one of the best ways, for junior faculty especially, to get vita entries--while swatting up on the literature in a field. But still, this is the tail wagging the dog: the purpose of publication isn't to pack academics' vitae. Tailoring research programs and restricting information in the interests of getting publications or grants to pad vitae or selling books, is lousy. It perpetuates a system that needs to change.

Why am I setting up the course this way? I suppose because I'm sick of teaching to the text. Before I could count on students to have good internet access I spent lots of time and effort looking for the least worst anthology. Apart from logic, I never use non-anthology texts: the basic unit of philosophy is the journal article, and besides if I used a textbook I wouldn't know what to say. If the textbook is good, if it reconstructs all the arguments and objections so what is there for me to do besides paraphrase? If it's lousy, I don't want it.

With anthologies however I've never really wanted to use more than a third of the articles at most and always wanted to use at least as many that weren't in the book. We all have notions about what a field is like and how a given course should be taught, what the essential articles are, what problems we find most interesting and what articles excite us: no collection of readings is ever entirely suitable. So in the old days I'd put articles on library reserve, xerox articles or create course packs--a miserable business--and more recently, link readings to my class websites. Now I'm just going to link everything: why not?

It's been a kick putting together this course because I'm absolutely free to do it right. It made me realize how constrained I was in the past, feeling that I had to do a sufficient number of articles from the text to justify students' buying it, using articles that I didn't think were the best ones on the topic because they were in the text, always compromising, slogging through articles that didn't really interest me, organizing my course to fit the book. I makes me wonder how high school teachers, required to work through curricula mandated by their school districts and teach to standardized tests manage. As far as I can see, given the students they send me, they don't--because their knowledge is wasted and because they don't have the autonomy to teach properly.

Nowadays there's a move to get us to assimilate downward to that model instead of freeing high school teachers to do what we do. The view is that we're overpaid, underworked bums who waste time and money taking long vacations, dreaming and propagandizing students with politically correct bs. Well, I've written 5 papers this summer, four of which are currently out at journals, and (a different) four of which are going into a book. And I've spend a good deal of time preparing my courses and websites for fall and spring 2008. That's what I do on my summer vacation: I read articles, I prepare courses, I write and I participate in a reading group to critique my colleagues' research. That's what we all do. I wanted to be an academic because my goal was to have a job where there was no line between working and not working, where I could in effect live over the store and work all the time, and that is what I do.

The general public doesn't see it that way. They want faculty to punch the clock, teach to the text, and do drudge in order to avoid wasting the tax payers money, as they see it. That's a waste of talent, effort, knowledge and the expensive education we get--and the financial sacrifice we make for this autonomy, to do research and teach. Mercifully I teach at a private college and I'm not under pressure to punch the clock, teach to the text or teach to the test. I can put everything I've got into my teaching, as well as my research, and do it right.

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