I’m teaching PHIL 102, Introduction to Philosophy, Jan-April 2018. I have taught this course many times before (and have blogged about it; see here for posts about the course), and I keep revisiting it and renewing it because I’m never fully satisfied. This year I’m focusing my changes in large part on the question of how best to use class time. See the previous post for some general reflections on that.
Below are some problems I am seeing in PHIL 102 that lead me to wonder about my use of class time and whether I should change it.
It’s often not engaging to watch someone talk for long periods of time
Even when a lecture is engaging, if it goes on for long enough, it can become boring. And not just students spend time distracting themselves from such things with electronic devices; I’ve seen faculty do it too (and I’ve been known to do so at conferences where papers are read during sessions that I’m just not that into…listening to someone read a paper can be deathly dull).
Instead of only asking students not to be distracted by things on their devices (which I do for the sake of other students getting distracted around them), I want to reduce the amount of time they are passive and thus easily distractable. I’m not saying it isn’t good to practice paying close attention to something for longer periods even when it’s not the most entertaining in the world, but I don’t think the blame should be only on students having a short attention span when they get bored in class. Sitting passively listening to and watching someone talk for long periods of time just often is, in my view, boring. I want to acknowledge that and spend more time asking students to do things.
I am too much in the centre
When I spend a great deal of time standing in front of a large class giving lectures over slides in the background, the signal that sends is that I am the expert imparting knowledge students are to drink in. Don’t get me wrong–this activity is important sometimes, and I do have more expertise than most or all students taking a philosophy course for the first time. I am imparting some of my knowledge, but in my view (and I believe this is widely shared) philosophy is not just about learning what someone else has to say, though you do need to have some of that kind of knowledge to do philosophy well. It’s also about learning how to critique arguments, those of others as well as one’s own, and to contribute to discussions of philosophical issues in a way that helps move the conversation forward towards some kind of resolution.
In addition to providing space for students to learn how to engage in critique and how to effectively participate in philosophical discussions (orally and in writing), I want to de-centre myself a bit more because I learn a great deal from students during classes. It’s not just for the sake of providing them practice, but also because they have useful contributions to make to philosophical conversations.
But the more I stand in front, front-and-centre, the more I could be giving off the message that it is my view they should be paying attention to, that what they are there to do is to learn what I am saying and be able to repeat it back. If much of the class time is like that, it wouldn’t be surprising if students want to focus on things like “what do I need to know for the exam?” rather than “how can I use what we have learned to address a problem or do some activity?”.
I don’t mean to suggest that 90% of our class time is spent with me lecturing in front, but I still think quite a bit is, maybe too much. PHIL 102 usually has two, 50-minute “lectures” and one, 50-minute “discussion” per week. TA’s often run the discussion meetings, so the “lecture” meetings are when the faculty has the chance to do the majority of the “teaching.” As a result, I tend to focus more on lecture during the “lectures” than I might otherwise, wanting to “get certain things across” to everyone in the same way.
It’s possible, though, to take some of that me-in-the-centre stuff and move it outside of class, such as through videos where I do some of the lecture material or explain instructions for assignments or how to practice certain skills, and want to get the same message to all students (with the caveat that I need to be mindful not to simply add more time to students’ out-of-class workload but balance the new out-of-class activities with less other out-of-class activities).
More specific issues
Students sometimes struggle with reading texts outside of class
Many students struggle with trying to do the readings on their own, outside of class. This is not surprising or strange–some of the texts we read are complicated, some are written in a style that is not entirely clear to 21st century ears, and philosophical writing can be quite different than most of the writing many students have encountered in their secondary education classes.
So if I ask them to do the reading on their own, and then they come to class and I explain it to them, and they are having trouble doing the reading on their own, what is the most likely result? They stop reading on their own? That seems a rational response, especially given how many classes and other responsibilities many students have, on top of having to get used to the new atmosphere of university (for many students in my first-year course).
What to do? I’m thinking of using some class time to have students work through difficult texts together and come up with ideas in groups about what the main arguments are. Groups could share their ideas with another group, or with the larger class, and we can decide together what we think the text is saying. Then we can approach it critically.
Somehow I need to set up the in-class activity so that reading the text ahead of time is necessary for doing it well. It’s not very effective when engaged students have to be in a group with others who are not keeping up in class or doing the readings, so the engaged students end up doing everything. Something like the idea of “readiness assurance tests” for team-based learning could possibly work here.
Taking useful notes on philosophical readings can be difficult
This is related to the above point, of course; if they aren’t motivated to do the readings outside of class, and if those readings are challenging, then it can be difficult for them to take effective notes. Yet, having effective notes on the readings can be a big help when writing essays or studying for exams. Essays are usually better if students understand the texts more deeply than only getting what is said by me or others during class time.
It would be useful for me to spend some time talking about reading and taking notes on philosophy texts, and providing them with a way to practice doing so. This might encourage them to do it on their own, outside of class. I’ve considered requiring students to submit notes on some readings, at some points during the class, but the large size of the class and the lack of time for TAs or me to read all of those makes it very difficult.
Here is a nice list of suggestions for students when reading, marking up texts, and creating summaries of philosophical works: How to read philosophy, on the Falasafaz blog. And here is a video based on that blog post, with a little more advice, by Christopher Anadale. These are things we could talk about and practice in class.
It is also possible to get peer feedback on some note-taking practice…see below for one way to do it.
Many students could use more practice writing
One thing that came out of the student evaluations for PHIL 102 last time I taught it (see my reflection on those) is that students wanted more help in writing essays. I give a lot of written advice, and students engage in peer feedback on writing, but it might help if they could have more practice writing somehow.
One thing to do, and that students have said they want, is to create opportunities for rewriting essays. That is in the works for January (it’s something I’ve done in the past but somehow have gotten away from and shouldn’t have). That takes place, rightfully, outside of class time so students have more time to reflect, draft, re-draft, edit, etc.
Another thing I’m considering is opportunities for students to practice writing, and get feedback from peers, during class time. This would provide immediate feedback and could lead to questions being raised by students that they wouldn’t have otherwise thought of until they were outside the class. This way they can get some of those questions addressed in the moment.
There is a new tool at UBC called ComPAIR that could be useful for doing this. It allows students to type in some text in response to an assignment (could even be as long as a whole essay) and then each student compares two responses by others to say which they think best fits the parameters of the assignment. They can also provide feedback to the original author. This can all be done anonymously. I wouldn’t have them write whole essays in the tool during class time, but maybe something like a paraphrase of an author’s argument in a section of their text, or a sample introductory paragraph for an essay the student is going to write, with a sample thesis statement…or the like.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the relevance of philosophical texts to one’s own life
I am a sucker for ancient texts. I love teaching works by Plato, Epirucus, Stoics; and I’m going to add one or two works from ancient Chinese philosophers next time too. It can be especially challenging for some students to see why we should be reading texts from over 2000 years ago. But they do have value or they wouldn’t still endure, and I do think they have relevance.
I could tell them what I think that relevance is, or we could work together or in smaller groups to gather their ideas on this question. That is better not only for keeping attention in class as noted above, but also because they know a lot more than I do about the relevance of these works for their own lives (or lack thereof).
I’ve managed to brainstorm a few ideas for how to use class time in PHIL 102 outside of lectures, to address certain issues I’d like to ameliorate in this class. Time to create a weekly plan and put these and similar ideas into it to make sure it happens in class! If I remember, I’ll share that plan here on my blog when it’s ready.