2008 04 23
Notes on Punctuation

If you don’t know it (as I didn’t) go read Lewis Thomas’ short essay Notes on Punctuation.

Ok, maybe only if you are a colossal nerd. But aren’t you? Really?

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 03 01
Teaching trick

Posted by in: Teaching

Cool. I wish now that I had done that when I was teaching.


Howls of outrage (4)

2007 01 02
This hurts you more than it hurts me, but unfortunately it still hurts me

Posted by in: Odds and ends, Teaching

After the plagiarism fiasco of the Spring 2006 semester, I resolved to spend a lot more time in class discussing plagiarism, and making very, very clear that the penalty for plagiarism in my class would be failure in the class, at a minimum. My hope was that doing this would a) stop students from plagiarizing; and b) stop me from feeling awful if I did have to fail students for plagiarism.

I have discovered that both a) and b) are false, though the rate is down from last semester (from 5 out of 23 students to 2 out of 50). Still, some people are apparently just so fucking stupid that there really is nothing – nothing, at all – that you can say that will stop them from acting like an ass. And I still feel awful failing them, even though I know that they deserve it. I was hoping I would get some pleasure from righteously smacking down the little sinners, but no such luck. I think part of it is that I want people to like me, and it’s hard to pull that off while you’re failing them, but it’s also just that I keep thinking of how much time they’ve wasted. Ugh.

Howls of outrage (3)

2006 11 13
I’m in ur skoolz, corrupting ur kidz

I’m not aggressive about my atheism, but all the same I don’t see a good reason to keep it a secret from my students. This is partly because in class discussions it sometimes helps to make my own commitments clear. For example, there are contexts in which I will assert moral views that only make sense to some students if I also have religious assumptions, and I need to make clear that not only do my views not depend on religious assumptions, but in fact I lack those assumptions altogether.

I try to be careful here: In some situations, it can be an abuse of power to assert strong claims about controversial topics to people who may not feel in a position to challenge them. And religious views are among the most deeply personal that people have. But this is a reason to take care to frame my own views in an unthreatening way, not a reason to stay completely quiet about them. There is also, I admit, a bit of an agenda here: Atheism gets a really bad rap in the U.S., and a great many people seem to think that atheism is equivalent to nihilism, since without God we lose any reason to be good or to hope. It seems to me a reasonable response to this to gently but firmly explain why this is nonsense, whether or not God exists.

So I’m not proselytizing and I’m not staying completely quiet. Still, I think it would be dishonest for me to claim that I don’t think this will have an effect one way or another on my student’s beliefs. I think that in the long run exposure to decent and intelligent atheists has a generally corrosive effect on some of the worst reasons for believing in God (social pressure, fear of nihilism, etc.). And to that extent I do think that really conservative religious parents have a good reason to fear the effect I might have on their children.

(Joke in the title explained here.)

Howls of outrage (9)

2006 08 26
Advice on my advice

Posted by in: Odds and ends, Teaching

Another semester is about to begin. I’ll be teaching Classical Greek Philosophy (PDF) and Moral Philosophy (PDF) this semester. The former I’ve taught twice now already; the latter not at all.

The demoralizing rash of plagiarism cases last semester led me to decide to spent a lot more time this semester talking about the issue. I thought the discussion would also be a good opportunity to talk to students about writing in general, and to this end, started the summer with the hope of producing a little pamphlet on writing. Along the way, I got seriously sidetracked by my dissertation – damn thing – and the result is that I’ve only managed to produce a seriously pared down pamphlet . . . and it kinda sucks. The worst part is that I’ve had to cut out a planned section on common writing mistakes. Eh. What can I do? I’m really trying to finish my fucking dissertation.

What I’d like to know is whether this (PDF) is worth handing out at all. If it is, do you see any easy improvements I could make to it? Grammatical and spelling mistakes are, of course, especially embarrassing in a document with this purpose, so extra gratitude to anyone who can spot them.

UPDATE: I’ve revised the document, depriving most of your (helpful!) comments of their original context.

Howls of outrage (15)

2006 05 27
After a lackluster performance all semester, did you really think that I would think that you know what the word “bacchanalia” means?

Posted by in: Odds and ends, Teaching

I’ve had a rash of plagiarism incidents this year, culminating in an especially bleak Spring semester, and it’s put me in a really foul mood. A few thoughts about this.

1. The difference between student-quality prose – even good student prose – and the prose found in published material – even lousy published material – is usually substantial. Obviously I have no way of telling how many cases of plagiarism I’m actually missing, but I have a sense that when you have a case, you usually just know. When a student cuts and pastes a paragraph from a web page into a paper, the jump from lousy to passable to lousy is so sudden and jarring that it’s like driving from a dirt road onto a newly paved highway and then suddenly back again. When the whole paper is ripped off, it probably still needs a bit of editing, which is usually done poorly enough to provide the tip off.

2. Some student plagiarists seem to think that changing a few words here and there, or adapting, or loosely paraphrasing most of the plagiarized material is going to help them. It doesn’t. I can still tell. A nice turn of phrase will slip through, a way of putting things, a grammatical choice – and then it’s just a matter of figuring out the source.

3. Speaking of figuring out the source, what the fuck is up with plagiarizing from the internet? It certainly makes my job easier, but it’s also just mind-bogglingly stupid. In the bad old days, substantiating a plagiarism charge – unless the instructor got lucky – was usually a matter of spending a few hours in the library. Thanks to internet-inspired plagiarism, I would say that my average hunch-to-confirmation time is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 seconds. (But that’s the average, which is skewed a bit by a few really tough two or three minute jobs.)

4. Speaking of mind-bogglingly stupid, what the fuck is up with the assumption that I’m too stupid to notice the plagiarism? I’m not just disappointed and upset at these cases. I’m also insulted. What’s the matter with me that people are assuming they can pull this kind of shit in my class?

5. Speaking of what’s the matter with me, I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that I must be doing something wrong. Next semester, I think I’m going to spend a lot more time talking about plagiarism, what it is, and just how seriously fucked you’ll be if you get caught doing it in my class. I think I’m also going to spend more time talking about the writing process in general, both because I want to eliminate anxiety about writing as a contributing cause of plagiarism and because I’m getting tired of seeing the same damn mistakes over and over again.

I’m putting together a little booklet of advice about this stuff in the next while. I’ll post it here in case anyone has any suggestions.

Update: Edited for coherence.

Howls of outrage (7)

2006 03 26
Grammar advice

Students often write this sort of thing:

If a person/individual [blah, blah, blah], then they [blah, blah, blah].

The problem, of course, is that “they” is plural, yet it’s referring back to “person” or “individual,” both of which are singular . . . Or is “they” necessarily plural? It’s pretty obvious that the word is undergoing a shift in usage now which allows us to take it as either singular or plural depending on the context. The problem is that I’m not sure at what point I ought to stop correcting this in student papers. In favour of correcting it:

1. Part of my job is to teach standard English. If employers and newspapers and so on continue to regard it as an error, then it’s my job to make sure that students know how to write with that in mind. If they choose to ignore the rule, that’s their business, but I need to ensure that it’s a decision, and not simply the result of ignorance.

2. I can’t help it: The singular they just looks hideously ugly to me.

In favour of just giving up and going with the flow:

1. It’s obvious why this shift is occurring: it’s awfully convenient to have a gender neutral singular pronoun that refers to a person, since the traditional thing to write here is “he.” The alternatives aren’t great: “She” gives most students the willies, and anyway, we often want to make a gender neutral point. “he/she” or “s/he” and “he or she” are both ugly and often lead us into long-winded formulations (“then he or she will want respectively his or her . . . [blah, blah, blah]“.

2. Because of #1, I look forward to the day when my own linguistic intuitions gradually yield to the singular they.

3. The shift to the singular they really does seem a natural one. Only stuffy people like myself or old people avoid it in spoken English these days, where it’s incredibly common. I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist, so I’m not about to elevate my own knee-jerk prejudices about the singular they into some silly pining for the good old days of the English language.

So . . . if a person wants to be sensible about this, what should they do?

Howls of outrage (41)

2006 01 26
Too cool for school

Well, well.

Students think their lecturers are stuck-up, disorganised, unpunctual, unfunny, badly dressed and too desperate to be “hip”, a poll suggests.

The responses from 648 students found many thought academics were “snooty” and had “objectionable facial hair”.

But an Association of University Teachers spokesman said lecturers and students had a “healthy relationship”.

The survey, which asked students to vent their grievances, was published in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Students complained that academics failed to turn up to lectures – and assumed that undergraduates were lazy.

Academics’ “inadequate” essay feedback and poor information technology skills were also criticised.

The poll suggests that many students find their lecturers’ attempts at being trendy insufferable.

One said: “They pick up ‘street’ information from the media and decide they understand today’s youth. It is pathetic to talk about these things to us in the hope of seeming knowledgeable and cool.


But that’s in Britain, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. I’m sure it’s a completely different story this side of the Atlantic.

Just joking. The bit about trying to be hip reminds me of my grandmother. My grandmother told me at least a dozen times while I was growing up about a prof of a friend of a friend of a friend’s child who (in the late sixties) was alleged to have said on the first day of class, “Hey, let’s just hang out and rap a little.” My grandmother never related this without a) mentioning that he was an American; and b) shuddering in horror, pursing her lips, asking if I could believe it, and so on. In addition to the fact that I’m not cool and know it, this edifying tale has also helped to mold me into the uncool lecturer that I am today.

On the other hand, a stuffy lack of humour sucks too. And I find it irritating when lecturers are deeply hostile to any attempt to liven up a lecture with a joke or two, as if that’s some sort of soul-destroying compromise with the rabble. Fucking twits. If you’re not funny, that’s fine, but don’t try to make a virtue out of it. My attitude on this was actually shaped by my grade 11 English teacher, who, though a jerk, gave damn good lecture. He would speak for 20 minutes or so, very well, and then just as my attention and energy was starting to flag would suddenly shift gears and relate an anecdote or say something funny before resuming. No attempt to be funny in a hip way, of course. The timing was everything. No matter how engaging the subject matter, it’s difficult to concentrate for long periods of time without a break. The little laugh or distraction provided was like a small course to cleanse the palate in between the main dishes of a feast. I’ve been trying to work that rhythm into my lectures ever since I started teaching.

Howls of outrage (5)

2006 01 09
Introduction to Classical Greek Philosophy

Posted by in: Odds and ends, Teaching

Here’s the syllabus to the class that I’ll be teaching this coming semester at Hunter College, in NYC. It’s a modified version of the syllabus I used to teach the same class, Introduction to Classical Greek Philosophy, last semester. I had a really good time with the course this last semester (fantastic students, a decent course plan), and I’m really excited to teach it again this semester, mainly because I think I can do it much better this time.

Most Introductions to Classical Greek Philosophy take you from the Pre-Socratics to the Hellenistic period to Neoplatonism. And most tend either to focus on metaphysics and epistemology, or, more ambitiously, actually try to cover ethics in addition to these topics.

My class does cover a fairly broad stretch of Greek philosophy, but it really isn’t a survey class. (I really short-change the Pre-Socratics, for one thing.) I don’t think that a satisfactory introduction to a subject, especially a philosophical subject, needs to be in the nature of a survey. It seems to me that often you can give just as good a sense of a broader subject by drilling down carefully into one part of it, so long as you communicate some of the connections to the rest of the subject as you go along. There’s a lot to be gained by the survey approach, but I avoid survey classes if I can because it seems to me that there is too high a risk of giving a superficial (and so often misleading) sense of everything you touch on if you touch on it too quickly.

So, after a quick initial bow to curricular requirements (Xenophanes, whom I enjoy teaching, and Heraclitus, whom I do not), the course spends almost all of its time on three texts on ethics, which we read through more slowly than we would be able to in a survey course: Plato’s Gorgias, (large parts of) Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and (the first four of the five books of) Cicero’s On Ends.

The disadvantage here is that my students don’t learn about metaphysics and epistemology in the period. This can be a slight problem if they go on to courses which presuppose some of that background – though almost all of these courses will re-cover the relevant material anyway. At any rate, it is undeniable that my approach leaves out a large area of philosophy which is both worthwhile and intrinsically interesting. Still, I think there are enough advantages in my way of teaching the class to make is one perfectly legitimate way to introduce students to Classical Greek philosophy. (And I notice that very few people who teach M&E heavy versions of the intro class worry about leaving out ethics, though it seems to me just as fundamental a part of the subject. What’s up with that?)

I think a good class tells a story. That is, it picks a few core themes and follows them carefully through a variety of different texts. In this case, I’ve chosen to try to tell a story about Greek ethics, which is concerned with happiness (eudaimonia) and various candidates for it and possible contributors to it, such as pleasure, virtue, and friendship. The texts for this class are wonderful by themselves (though Aristotle is tough going for newbies), but it’s really when they’re read together that students can start to draw connections and see strong contrasts in the various treatments of a few core subjects. I try to stress these connections in the lectures, but this semester I’m adding one innovation that should help to cement this. The final take-home exam asks students to trace a theme through a few of the philosophers we’ve looked at. And they’ll get the take-home exam on the first day of class, so that they can read the texts with the theme they’ve chosen in mind (I’m continuing to call it an exam, rather than an essay, since it should be a bit less formal than an essay, and because the deadline is absolutely fixed). Shorter assignments on particular texts, on the other hand, are intended to help students practice reading shorter stretches of text and explicating them clearly.

In the past, one weakness of the classes that I’ve designed is that they put so much emphasis on close reading and explication that there’s little time left to encourage creativity or even to get students to practice explaining their own views. This syllabus begins to address that worry by asking students not just to write about a theme like pleasure or virtue in the philosoiphers we’ve read, but to try to explain which philosopher’s views seem most plausible to them.

Anyway, hope it turns out! (And let me know if you find any typos please.)

Update: Ahhhh, substituted Democritus for Heraclitus. That’s going to work much, much better.

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 08 13
Lemieux on Adesnik on teaching evolution in the schools



A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 03 21
The Socratic Method

Posted by in: Odds and ends, Teaching

This is a very interesting discussion of the Socratic Method of teaching. The author illustrates the Socratic Method by teaching a class of children binary math, and then makes some sensible general observations about the method.

As the author points out, the Socratic Method is extremely demanding on an instructor. It takes an awful lot of thought and preparation – far more than a lecture, in my experience. And when it goes badly, as it can, it can be a real drag. But it can also be exhilarating for the instructor, and very rewarding for students.

Via Mirabilis.

Howls of outrage (6)

2005 03 05

Moral relativism keeps rearing its ugly head in my seminar on Aristotle’s ethics. I wrote up a quick note for my teaching blog, which I might as well post here too, in case anyone finds it interesting:

I notice that a lot of people are attracted to the notion that the truth about morality is relative. As I understand it, the idea seems to be that we have different, and often incompatible, opinions about morality, and no way of resolving these differences. I have a few quick observations about this view.

1. When I ask students to explain why they’re attracted to this view, they often say something like, “Well, I might believe that something is right, but then discover that someone else has another way of looking at it — and then I realize that it’s more complicated than that.” But that observation doesn’t seem to support relativism at all. Rather, it seems to support the (perfectly sensible) view that the truth about morality is incredibly complex, that our view of it may be partial and imperfect, and that other people have a lot to teach us. But those points assume that there’s a truth of the matter. Relativism, by contrast, denies exactly that.

2. Other students have pointed to the diversity in our moral views, especially throughout human history, to justify relativism. Just let me very briefly point out a few things:

a) Mere diversity doesn’t by itself suggest that there is no truth of the matter (or, what seems to come to the same thing, that the truth is merely relative to each person). Over time, there have been a diversity of views about whether the earth was flat or not, but no one seriously thinks that it is just a matter of opinion.

b) It’s worth distinguishing between different sources of moral diversity. A lot of our disputes about moral issues are actually disputes about the facts. E.g., we disagree with Aristotle about slavery. But Aristotle’s view of slavery depended to some extent on a very flawed view of the facts (he thought that some people are “naturally slaves”). So it seems possible that if Aristotle hadn’t been confused about the facts, he would agree with us that slavery was wrong. If we notice that many of our moral disagreements depend on non-moral assumptions, we may come to see that there is considerably less specifically moral disagreement in the world than we originally thought.

3. The real worry here seems to be that we have no objective method of sorting out disagreement. And this worry is compounded by the observation that human beings are often deeply biased and unable to see beyond their own prejudices. It would take a lot of work to address this deeper concern to anyone’s satisfaction. So I’ll just say that there obviously is a problem here, but perhaps not a fatal one. To make any progress on the problem, we would need to think harder about exactly what is meant by “objectivity” in this context. Before we can see whether we ought to be disappointed in the deliverances of moral reflection, we ought to ask what would satisfy us. If moral reflection were more like science, would that bring it closer to being objective? How is moral reflection like, and unlike, scientific research? How do scientific researchers, who are after all humans with prejudices themselves, manage to reach objective results? (If they fail to do so, then it looks as though the problem is not with moral reflection as such, but rather with any sort of human inquiry.)

4. Many of my students seem attracted to moral relativism because they associate it with tolerance. The idea seems to be that if I remember that there’s no truth of the matter about morality, then I won’t judge other people. If we think that there’s a truth of the matter, we’ll end up dogmatic and judgmental. And that may lead to persecuting people.

I respect the motivation here, but I think this is thoroughly confused. For one thing, taking other people seriously seems to require that we consider the possibility that they might be right, even about moral matters. And that’s exactly what I can’t do if I don’t think there’s any truth of the matter.

Moreover, there seems to be a big difference between thinking that there is some truth of the matter about moral questions and thinking that it is easy to find out the truth about morality. I might well conclude that there is some truth about morality, but that it is very difficult to figure out. And that might encourage the proper humility and tolerance of other people’s views, since it’s entirely likely that they have something important to teach me about morality.

Notice also that tolerance seems to be a moral attitude. That is, the basic motivation here for accepting relativism seems to arise from the belief that it is (really) morally good to be tolerant. But it isn’t clear to me that a relativist can explain why tolerance is a good thing, since she is committed by her relativism to the view that it is only a good thing if I think it is a good thing.

5. I have to admit that I just don’t believe most students when they say that they are relativists. So much of human life — both human action and sentiment – seems necessarily bound up with making (apparently objective) moral judgments, and that commits us to morality in an especially deep way. People say relativistic things in the class room, but as soon as some asshole cuts them off in traffic, they’re back to making moral judgments. Of course that doesn’t mean that we’re right. But it does suggest that we take a good hard look at whether these commitments can be defended before we simply throw up our hands and walk away.

As I said in class, this isn’t a meta-ethics class, so unfortunately we won’t really be going into these sorts of problems. But I don’t want you to think that philosophers are completely stumped by these problems. We have a lot to say about them. It’s just that we don’t have time in our class to look at what they have to say. I can keep you busy all summer long if you’re looking for extra reading.

Nada (0)

2004 08 17

Whenever someone sets out to parody political bloggers, the result usually plays on the tendency of bloggers to carp ceaselessly about the inconsistencies of their political opponents. “You said X about Y and not-X about Z – and that shows you are a mindless boob without any sense of shame in your own very obvious inadequacies,” gives a sense of the general form, I think. Responses to such criticisms usually either dilate on the even grosser inconsistencies in the work of the critic originating the dispute – with special attention to the question of how that critic can possibly carry on with life after these inconsistencies have been revealed – or attempt to explain why exactly X is appropriate for Y and not-X for Z.

Much silliness has gone on under this general rubric, but I think it’s important to see that the form of the argument here is perfectly serious. True, to show that someone else is a hypocrite is, sadly, not enough to defend yourself from the charge. And true, to show that someone else is not, by their own principles, entitled to make a criticism is not enough to reject the criticism itself. But let us not, because these things are true, miss the less obvious fact that a lot of very serious moral reflection proceeds precisely by moving back and forth between different cases and testing and refining the moral principles we call on to justify our judgements about these cases by noting possible inconsistencies in our responses to them. So the substance of a lot of political blogging of this variety may be quite lacking in perspective or proportion, but the basic form seems to me just fine.

Professional philosophers are just as likely to miss this as anyone else, as far as I can tell. Or at least they are in the classroom when they teach applied moral philosophy. That is one main theme of my essay How to Teach a Class in Applied Ethics. If you haven’t commented on it, I would love to hear your thoughts. I head into the classroom soon, delusions and all. Don’t miss this chance to set me straight. Or to call me an obnoxious, raving hypocrite who is apparently oblivious to the massive extent of his deep, deep intellectual, personal, and moral failings.

Nada (0)

2004 07 28
Mixed Metaphor Watch

Posted by in: Teaching

I’m not especially happy now. I’m a bit under the weather, and busy grading papers, moving this week, and fretting about my unfinished thesis. But then there is this, from a student paper, to brighten my day. Savour it while I cut blogging to an absolute minimum for a few days:

[The author in question] shows us the wrongness of this judgment in terms of logical reasoning and claims that argumentation must shift from target in order to find a fertile territory where argument reasoning is free from stumbling upon established assumptions.

Ah yes, a clear image forms in my mind . . .

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 07 07
Why care about that?

I’m serving as a teaching assistant for a summer course called “Contemporary Moral Issues”. This past week was our first, and I think it went reasonably well. Anyone who has ever taught an introductory ethics class knows that the first order of business is always to try to cut through some very popular excuses to avoid thinking hard about ethical issues: relativism, egoism, nihilism, scepticism, and so on. I call these excuses, but in my experience students actually come to these objections to moral reflection through some peculiar mix of genuine philosophical perplexity and sheer laziness. Specific proportions vary.

I have a lot to say about these matters. For now, though, I just want to note a common weakness in the way that ethics is often introduced to students.
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A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)