Teaching round-up, part two

In the first post reflecting on this wild semester, I discussed a class that went from face-to-face meetings to Zoom meetings. I turned my other class upside down completely.

Understanding Science, as it happens, is the only thing I’d every taught on-line before. When I designed the course for Summer 2015, I faced up to some basic realities of the medium: Asynchronous interactions are best.

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Against compelling video in on-line class meetings

In the previous post, I lamented that most of the students didn’t use video in my seminar this semester. It came at a cost of making conversation and genuine interaction harder— and also of souring my own experience of the class meetings.

Commenters here and on Facebook consider the possibility of requiring or at least strongly encouraging students to turn on video.1 I think that adopting that kind of policy would be a mistake, at least for me. Here are some reasons why.

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Teaching round-up, part one

I got grades for Spring 2020 turned in today. The last face-to-face class meeting was March 10, over two months ago. I want to post a bit about how that went, just to think through it myself.

My pragmatism seminar required the least change. We had met every week in the department seminar room. That became a weekly Zoom meeting.

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Remote feelings

I’ve formulated and not written several blog posts about life in the time of Covid-19.

Last week was Spring Break, which meant that events didn’t quite register the way they would have done any other week. Being at home and not seeing students would have happened anyway. Now classes have resumed, such as they are.

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Irreconcilable differences

Last time I taught a seminar on pragmatism, I began to doubt that it made sense to see “pragmatism” as a movement and blogged about the fundamental differences between Peirce’s and James’ positions. I’m teaching pragmatism again, and the differences are even more salient this time.

What follows is a somewhat rambling discussion of differences between Peirce and James on method, on truth, and in their general outlook.

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Multiple choice allows for objective grading

The Introductory Philosophy Quiz has been on my website pretty much since the beginning, and it was a transcription of a quiz that Ryan and I had on the office wall. The following question occurred to me while I was proctoring an exam today, and I couldn’t resist adding it.

Select the best answer.

  • A. B is the best answer.
  • B. A is the best answer.
  • C. There is an instability between A and B; although it is not entirely satisfactory, the best answer is to select one of them randomly or arbitrarily.

Pragmatism texts

I’m teaching a seminar on pragmatism again this semester, so I’ve updated some of the texts in my pragmatism and American philosophy repository. My habits for using git are terrible, so lots of small changes got swept together in one giant update.

The big addition is LaTeX and PDF files for William Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief.” Although it’s in the public domain, I was unable to find an unabridged version anywhere on the net.1 So I spent some time today making one.2 Starting from OCR on a scan of the 19th-century original, I fixed the formatting, cleaned up the transcription, and whatnot. There may still be some errors, but it’s better than anything else I could find.

The update also adds the third lecture to James’ Pragmatism.

The end of revolutions

The last meeting of my Scientific Revolutions course was Monday. Following my usual last-day schtick, I put them in groups to reflect on what the course had been about. To give some context, here’s the blurb for the course:

Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of a “paradigm shift,” something that has become part of our general vocabulary, and his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions marked a shift in the way that people think about science. This course begins with the state of science studies before Kuhn: the way that historians, sociologists, and philosophers thought about science. Then it takes a close look at Kuhn’s landmark book. Finally, it explores some of the reactions and consequences that Kuhn’s work had for science studies.1

Their discussions start out with long, careful sentences. After enough of that, just for fun, I ask them to distill it down to a slogan or bumpersticker. Suggestions included “Elaborate yet absurd philosophical ideas” and “Philosophers; they have ideas about science”.

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The mysterious island

Deep within these grooves of Academe,
In quiet cubicles, white and bare,
Hunched homunculi strain and labor
(Like monks of old in cloistered cells
Balancing angels on needles’ points)
At tasks bizarre with tools outrageous
Through days and nights of anguish unrelenting.

Edith Eliot1
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Theory of knowledge done and gone

Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.

I just turned in grades for my Theory of Knowledge course. It’s only the second time I’ve taught the course, and it’s been more than a decade since the first time. I didn’t do any of the same readings, so it might as well have been a new prep.

From my point of view, the course was a grab bag of issues about knowledge. I didn’t have a narrative arch that held it all together. However, one of my standard last-day discussion exercises is to have students break into groups and try to describe what the course was about. One stage of this is to have them state the essentials in one sentence.

Here was one answer: “We looked at what knowledge is and how that knowledge can be applicable to everyday life, including skepticism about knowledge, whether context matters when understanding knowledge, and the relationship between ethics and knowledge.”

Here is another: “The course is about if we can know some things, how we might come to know those things, and when we are justified in believing said things (including the testimony of others).”

And a third: “Theory of knowledge addresses the skeptical challenge of explaining how humans can know anything by offering accounts of how knowledge claims can be justified.”

As they were working out their sentence, I overheard a member of the third group comment, “Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.” This struck me as being a fair summary of the course.

I structured the course around recent rather than historical literature. We read parts of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, and it was a big hit with students.

I feel like it would have helped to have an article that actually advocated for scepticism, but I’m not sure what the candidate would be. Without such a reading, it’s too easy to treat scepticism as a rhetorical bugbear. We can’t accept that (an author writes) because it would be tantamount to scepticism— but so what?

There were no topics or readings which students really hated. That’s good in one sense, but it doesn’t provide any guidance about what to drop. And I feel like it would make sense to swap some of the topics next time.

Only tenuously related to the post: The Salmon of Knowledge (Wikimedia Commons)