Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Teaching in groups

[UPDATE: thanks to dmf this post is now being discussed over at the Daily Nous. If you want to read some very interesting responses to the use of group work in philosophy classes head over there.]

I often wonder what the point of classes is. Not just rhetorically, but actually, the idea being that if we know why we have classes then this might help us do a better job with them. (I also sometimes wonder in the rhetorical sense, because when I was an undergraduate I was actively discouraged from attending lectures and yet many classes are so large that lecturing is more or less inevitable.)

The point, it seems to me, is for students to interact with an expert on the material they are studying. They get to ask questions about assigned readings that they did not understand. They get some kind of (possibly very short) lecture on this reading so that if they only think they understood it they will be corrected. They get to ask questions about the relevant issues, and probably some kind of lecture on these issues. And hopefully some kind of discussion of the issues will either happen of its own accord in the process of all this or, more likely, will be made to happen by the teacher. The point of this discussion being to get students to think more, more carefully, and in a more informed way, than they otherwise would, about either issues that matter or issues that it is somehow useful to think about. (For instance, an issue might not matter in itself but debates about it might be historically or politically important, or it might be an issue debating which is thought to develop certain intellectual skills. Nothing turns on whether the weights in the gym are up or down, but moving them up and then down again can be very beneficial. If there is an intellectual equivalent (a very big if, of course) then academic work, including discussion, might well be it, or at least an ingredient of it.) Ideally this will all happen in a way that feels natural to the students, so that it connects as seamlessly as possible with the rest of their lives. Then discussing ideas, asking questions, reading, and otherwise exploring the world intellectually can become greater parts of their lives.

I think its apparent unnaturalness is why group-work feels so wrong to me. As far as I can tell, though, it's becoming the norm. See comments here and here, for instance, and the reference to "structured activity" here. (And while you're at it, see this comment for some of the problems with group-work.) I'm also going by what I've seen other teachers do--increasingly it seems to involve group-work and student presentations. So, why do I think this is so bad?

The first thing to say is there is a real problem of ambiguity and possible misunderstanding here. Not all lectures, or things that people call lectures, are the same, and not all group-work or structured in-class activities are the same either. The second thing to say is that I'm not defending lectures. I think they are largely a waste of time. When I was an undergraduate we were told not to go to lectures on the grounds that you can learn more, and more efficiently, by reading. Lectures were presented as a remedial option. I think they can be useful in this way, and when my students just seem lost I do resort to lecturing. But I see it as a sign that some failure has occurred, not as a go-to option. Enough about me though. On to complaining about other people.

Here are problems with group-work that I have observed or heard about multiple times from students:
  • the members of the group (unless the group is the whole class) do not include an expert on either the topic for discussion or the assigned reading on it, so mistakes can go uncorrected and misunderstanding can be increased (if plausibly, confidently, or charismatically defended) 
  • there can be a tendency for everyone in a group to want to get along and agree, so that diversity of opinion (which is sometimes healthy and at least indicative of independent thought) can be replaced by a kind of groupthink, in which the better (or better-supported) ideas by no means always win out
  • neither every student nor even every group engages in the exercise seriously or at all (policing can help here, of course, but is not likely to be 100% effective, and brings its own problems simply by making the teacher take on the role of police officer)
  • groups can be dominated by loudmouths (although they might also be more comfortable environments for some students to speak in)
  • the whole thing can feel like a waste of time
The first of these problems is probably less serious at more selective places. If everyone in the group has a decent grasp of the issues, ideas, facts, etc. then the wisdom of the crowd might drive out individual kinks of ignorance and misunderstanding. But if enough students have not done the reading, or not done it carefully, or done it but without sufficient comprehension, then trouble lies ahead.

The problem of the whole thing feeling like a waste of time could be addressed by explaining why it isn't, but this would require being able to do that. It might be enough to say, "Trust me, the discussion will be much better afterwards." But why should students trust the person who says this? If they are an expert on philosophy, what do they know about educational psychology? And, in fact, what proof is there that discussion is valuable, let alone group-work intended to improve discussion? I think discussion is part of the examined life, but there's no evidence to support that claim. There might be evidence that it helps with remembering facts, but if it does, so what? Memorizing facts is not what the liberal arts claim to be about. It certainly isn't what philosophy is about, anyway.

The biggest problem, though, has to do with the suggestion made here that such activities feel forced and unnatural. They are, after all, forced and unnatural. They involve the teacher's going from being a resident expert there to help students in his/her area of expertise to being a classroom manager, manipulating students for their own good. Class is no longer (if it ever was) a place where a conversation takes place between people who (at least might) care about ideas and books. It is now a place where learning is facilitated. Of course the change is not from black to white, but students seem a bit more patronized in the new way of doing things, and the ideas (literature, arguments, whatever) being taught seem a bit more remote from life, a bit less like things that anyone might actually care about when off duty. It seems a shame to me.

Having said all that, I am a strong believer in doing what works, and I think that if we're qualified to judge work in our areas, as we (professional teachers) surely are, then we can also judge when a discussion is going well or not, and whether it is going better or worse than past discussions. So if a little bit of group-work really does improve discussion then I'm all for it. But there is a downside that should not be completely ignored. And I don't think that group-work should be done just because it's the latest thing or because it helps fill up the time we are required to spend in class (as I suspect is sometimes the case).

No doubt a thousand grumpy old men have said much the same thing before. What I hope might be new is the ethical angle. Patronizing and manipulating people should be avoided as much as possible. And there is a great evil in the world that might be called 'management' (or 'bureaucracy' or 'assessment' or whatever you like to call it), replacing freedom, individuality, and spontaneity with various systems of control. There is, it seems to me, a real danger that classroom management might be part of this problem.        

Friday, October 17, 2014

The concept of prayer

In case you don't always read everything at Jon Cogburn's blog I thought I'd draw your attention to the comments on this post. Thomas Carroll makes good points, in response to some of which Jon mentions Carroll's new book, which looks like essential reading. In the introduction Carroll writes:
The approach to reading Wittgenstein on religion advanced in this book is a variation on the ethical-therapeutic interpretations developed by Stanley Cavell, James Conant, Cora Diamond and Stephen Mulhall. 
Sounds good to me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Philosophers' Carnival #168

The new Philosophers' Carnival is here, featuring A Bag of RaisinsJon Cogburn's Blog, and this blog, among others. Thanks to Tristan Haze for the link.

On my post ("The Truth in Relativism") Tristan writes:
It's not clear to me from the post what the scope of the relativism is that he has in mind (is he talking about the subject matter of philosophy? or all subject matter?), and I don't find myself resonating with much of it.
I've added some links to the post that might help clarify what I'm talking about, but I'll try to say a little about it here too. I had in mind a very general kind of relativism, what Russell calls "the view which substitutes the consensus of opinion for an objective standard." This view might be held with regard to ethics, say, or to anything else. It seems to me that it can seem that we really have nothing to go on but the consensus of opinion. Don't we decide both matters of empirical fact and ethical questions in this way? (I'm not saying that we do, or don't. I'm saying that it can seem this way.) And maybe everything else too. (Some people seem to talk as if they think this way, at least.) Hence the consensus of opinion is the measure of all things.

But I think that a better measure of opinion than taking a poll is looking at what people actually do. And this includes the way they use words. So step one towards an improved version of relativism is to judge matters of fact, ethics, or whatever it might be by how people ordinarily talk about such things. What is called a fact, what is called right, and so on. (And the "and so on" ought to cover a wide range, including what people actually do as well as what they say they think they ought to do.)

When we take this step we should see that 'right' does not mean (is not used synonymously with) 'considered by the majority to be right' and that 'fact' does not mean 'generally regarded as a fact'. If the consensus of opinion is our guide then we must speak with the vulgar, and the vulgar speak like realists. But they don't mean the philosophically objectionable things that realists mean. So we must speak and think with the vulgar in the sense of not reading philosophical mistakes like platonism into ordinary language, despite the learned temptation (compulsion, almost irresistible tendency) to do so. We must understand, that is, that language does not have--in itself--the metaphysical implications that we think it does (and that, therefore, it really does have, though only for us, not in itself ). So step two is rejecting anything that it would make sense to call relativism and going back to ordinary ways of talking, but rinsed free of the problematic philosophical entanglements that we had found there.

The more I write about this the more convinced I am that it's right but also the more I think I'm just repeating Wittgenstein. (By which I don't mean everything Wittgenstein ever wrote.) So I don't mean to take credit for ideas that aren't mine. But I don't mean to saddle Wittgenstein with my mistakes either. If this sounds like a (crude, blog-post) version of Wittgenstein then good. Perhaps I still haven't explained what I mean well enough for anybody to be able to tell though.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Philosophical training (and rankings)

In all the talk of rankings there are often references to good philosophers and the good training that they give to their students. This seems silly.

I don't mean to reject completely the idea that some people are better at philosophy than others. I am better than any of my students, if only because they are just starting out. I have had enough philosophical education and teaching experience to be qualified to judge what grades their work deserves, for instance. (Even though no two philosophy professors are likely to give exactly the same grades to every essay in any given stack of papers.) And there might be some geniuses so great that they are clearly the best philosophers of their age. This does not seem to be true right now, but it might have been true at some times. Still, the idea that we can compare ethicists with logicians, say, and objectively find a member of the former group to be better or worse than some particular member of the latter group in every case seems absurd. Even within the set of ethicists, who you regard as better is likely to depend on who you think is closer to the truth. It is possible to respect the knowledge and skill of someone with whom one disagrees, but it is easier when you agree. Utilitarians are likely to think more highly of Peter Singer, for instance, than non-utilitarians do. And presumably no one would think that we can sensibly rank philosophical positions. Any ranking of philosophers who have PhDs but are not as great as Kant or Plato is not going to be purely a matter of personal taste or conviction, but these factors will muddy the waters so much that the ranking would have little value.

And then there is the question of training. The best athletes and musicians do not always make the best teachers. The same is likely to be true of philosophers. And graduate school in philosophy is not really a matter of going through a period of training anyway. Most of the time you are on your own reading (or not), not being coached. You might well be put right on this point or that in a seminar or by a comment on a paper, but there isn't a lot of this, as I recall. You learn various arguments and positions, and you sharpen your ability to defend your own positions and attack others. But there isn't so much intense sharpening that a dull mind will become an expert in just a few years. A good adviser can help you a lot, but good philosophers need not be very attentive advisers. Mine was, but you couldn't tell that by reading her publications or looking at her CV.

Ranking philosophers seems a bit like ranking football players. You can't really compare a striker with a defender, and even if Ronaldo stands out from almost everyone else, the rest of the pack (as long as the pack is suitably defined) is much of a muchness. If players were ranked, the 13th ranked player would be unlikely to be significantly better than the 23rd player. Numbers like these are meaningless. To then think that if you study with the 13th best you will improve more than if you studied with the 23rd is to compound the mistake. Philosophy professors provide reading lists and a kind of model of how to do philosophy, but the demonstration might not work particularly well in every case.

Which is all to say that I think there is something very problematic about ranking graduate programs in philosophy. This has been said before, and perhaps is obvious. But it's funny how seriously rankings and pedigree are taken. If you graduated from a good program you must be good because of the great training you will have received. It's easy to think this way. I think it's very hard to justify it though.

I do think it's good that there is information about graduate programs available online. When I was looking for a place to do my PhD in the 1980s I asked an American friend, who named what he thought were the top ten universities in the USA (without special regard to their philosophy programs), and D. Z. Phillips, who told me about some people in the States who had recently done work that he admired (not all of whom taught at PhD-granting institutions). I decided not to apply to Illinois because I wasn't sure that Peter Winch would stay there. So I applied to the University of Virginia (because Cora Diamond was there) and Rutgers (because Rupert Read went there, and he surely knew what he was doing). It worked out for me, but I was pretty ignorant. I never even considered Pittsburgh, for instance, which would have been a good place given my interests. (Although I might not have got in, of course.) So I'm glad it's easier now for people to find out who is where, who does what, and, to some extent, which places are considered better than others. But quality, being so subjective, matters mostly because you don't want to go somewhere that guarantees you will never get a job. I know there are hardly any jobs to get any more, but that's no reason to shoot your prospects in the foot unwittingly. Which leads me to think that information about which places are especially good for certain types of interest and a placement ranking is all that's needed. If there must be rankings by overall quality or reputation, let there be as many as possible so that both what consensus there is and what wide disagreement there is are apparent.  

I'm tempted not to bother posting this because it all seems obvious or at least familiar. What is interesting to me is the combination of just how obvious at least some of it is and just how often it is (or at least appears to be) ignored in practice.    

UPDATE: This (a comment by Helen De Cruz) seems relevant to the above:
Unsurprisingly, the philosophers' beliefs (theism, atheism, agnosticism) predicted to a significant extent how strong they thought these arguments were. It's no surprise that philosophers who were theists thought the arguments for theism were strong, and that the arguments against theism were weak, and that the opposite pattern held for atheists. Correlations between religious belief and perceived strength of argument were quite strong, e.g., an r score of -.483 for the cosmological argument. If argument evaluation is objective, how can we explain these strong correlations?
Perhaps there is some flaw in her work, and perhaps a similar pattern would not be found among ethicists or philosophers of language, say. That is, maybe philosophy of religion is a special case. But I suspect it isn't. And I suspect that her findings are significant. There might be widespread agreement about who the top one or two Kant scholars or people working in x-phi are, but a) objectively evaluating Kant or x-phi seems to be a hopeless task, and b) below the very top, differences in ability are likely to be so small that they are either invisible or easily obscured by subjective noise (pedigree, personal acquaintance, etc.).

If I think about Wittgenstein scholars I can easily think of several who are neither definitely in the top two nor merely part of an indistinguishable mass, so perhaps I'm exaggerating. But something like the following categories seem to exist: the one or two people who I imagine are the most sought after for anthologies, conferences, etc.; ten to twenty big names whom it would make no sense to try to rank against each other; a mass of other people who are more or less indistinguishable from one another in terms of objective merit; other people who work on Wittgenstein but are basically unknown, perhaps because they have not published anything yet. The second category (the top ten-to-twenty) might turn out to be larger than I think if I actually started naming names. Anyway, I think that just about every Wittgenstein scholar who teaches at a PhD-granting institution probably belongs in this category. And the best scholars are not necessarily the best teachers or advisers. So anyone wanting to study Wittgenstein (and the point goes for anything else you might want to study) would be better off looking at how Wittgenstein-heavy a department is than at how highly ranked its one Wittgenstein scholar is.              

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sean Wilson's new book project

Sean writes:
I am seeking feedback on the enclosed proposal. I wonder if people think it looks like a viable project? Would the thesis of such a book interest you? Basically, the book is a bit personal: it's based upon an intellectual transformation that I went through and how I came to see the fields of political science, law, and philosophy so differently. The premise is that Wittgenstein did this to me. But the important part is not that -- it is: (a) what this "new thinking" is; and (b) why it is important for other scholars to think this way. The enthymeme here is that the fields of law, political science and philosophy need more Wittgensteinians.
The proposal is here.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The truth in relativism?

[This post is a follow-up to this comment and subsequent comments here and here. Knowing this won't make what follows crystal clear, but it might help.]

Bertrand Russell writes (about Plato's political philosophy):
Two general questions arise in confronting Plato with modern ideas. The first is: Is there such a thing as "wisdom"? The second is: Granted that there is such a thing, can any constitution be devised that will give it political power?
"Wisdom," in the sense supposed, would not be any kind of specialized skill, such as is possessed by the shoemaker or the physician or the military tactician. It must be something more generalized than this, since its possession is supposed to make a man capable of governing wisely. I think Plato would have said that it consists in knowledge of the good, and would have supplemented this definition with the Socratic doctrine that no man sins wittingly, from which it follows that whoever knows what is good does what is right. To us, such a view seems remote from reality.
That seems right. As does this:
It should be observed, further, that the view which substitutes the consensus of opinion for an objective standard has certain consequences that few would accept. What are we to say of scientific innovators like Galileo, who advocate an opinion with which few agree, but finally win the support of almost everybody? They do so by means of arguments, not by emotional appeals or state propaganda or the use of force. This implies a criterion other than the general opinion. In ethical matters, there is something analogous in the case of the great religious teachers. Christ taught that it is not wrong to pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath, but that it is wrong to hate your enemies. Such ethical innovations obviously imply some standard other than majority opinion, but the standard, whatever it is, is not objective fact, as in a scientific question. This problem is a difficult one, and I do not profess to be able to solve it.
The first of these passages raises a question about what a philosopher might be. Surely not a lover of wisdom if wisdom does not exist. The first sentence of the second passage points out that the consensus of opinion is against the idea that the consensus of opinion is the standard of truth/rightness (i.e. the idea that I think of as relativism). In other words, as is well known, simple relativism undermines itself.

Rejecting platonism in favor of something like relativism leads to the idea that there is a standard other than majority opinion, but not an objective fact of the kind found in science. I think this is right. And it suggests also that philosophy is, or at least perhaps might be, the teasing out of this kind implication and the clarification of its not being an instance of various kinds of mistake (such as platonism and relativism) despite appearances to the contrary. This "something like relativism" rejects views that "seem to us remote from reality" and that "few would accept." Not in a superficial way though. It does not, for instance, simply take platonism and then substitute the consensus of opinion for an objective standard. That would lead to a conservatism that few would accept. Instead it investigates our language from the inside, looking not so much at opinions as they might be reported to outside observers but at what we say and would say. And we can know what we would say because the 'we' in question includes us. Of course sometimes we might be divided, and then one can only speak for those who think like oneself, but this need not be a big problem in many cases.

This is what I mean when I say that relativism properly thought through leads to ordinary language philosophy. I can't say that I have properly thought this through myself, though, so I could be wrong. Or it might have been said much better long ago. Or both.