Peer-Review in Intro Philosophy Papers!

I am really happy to report that I will be working with the University of Iowa’s Writing Center to set up a peer-review component of my introduction to philosophy course this spring!

The Writing Center has a Writing Fellows program in which honors students are trained to give feedback on term papers across the curriculum. They then give comments on rough drafts of two longer paper assignments. They do not grade assignments, but only provide feedback and tutoring on the papers.

The program is such that the rough drafts of longer papers are turned in at least two weeks before the final due date. This gives Writing Fellows time to read papers, provide detailed comments, and then meet with students to go over their papers. Then students have a chance to revise their papers before the final drafts in a focused manner with helpful guidance. (To that end, I actually gave students just three weeks from the submission of their rough draft to the submission of the final version.)

Though I will have to judge by the results, I expect that this program will benefits all parties involved—my students, the Writing Fellows, and me as a teacher:

  • This will help my students improve their writing in light of comments and give them the task of writing like I suggest they do—as if they were explaining philosophy to a peer without any philosophy background—by supplying them with such a peer.
  • This program also focuses my students’ attention on the revision process. Good philosophy often takes multiple drafts. This program makes revising earlier writing part of their grade (rather than submitting a paper only to never return to it, which perhaps makes the experience of reading feedback from me, say, less fruitful).
  • This program helps Writing Fellows by giving them more experience giving feedback on peers’ writing—and exposes them to philosophical content, to boot!
  • This program helps me in delivering guidance for paper feedback to others, and in collaborating with undergraduates.
  • This also incentivizes me to design a more detailed paper rubric—which will no doubt assist Writing Fellows in giving helpful feedback, assist my students in understanding what I look for in longer papers, and assist me in grading with more focus.

So this program seems like a win for everyone. I thank my colleagues, Professors Carol Severino (Director) and Megan Knight (Assistant Director), for providing me and other faculty at the University of Iowa, plus our students, with this golden opportunity.

A Group Exercise from my Intro class

I meant to post this two months ago: my 20 intro students do a group-work exercise in which they split into three teams. The goal was to most accurately depict what is going on when we perceive, according to the theory of Russell’s Problems Chapters 1-3. So they needed to depict:

  1. A perceiving subject
  2. A physical object causing a perception
  3. A sense-datum that is the object of perception

The idea was to have them get a handle, visually, on the appearance-reality distinction in Russell’s view, and to compare the appearance (sense-datum) with the reality (physical object) in that theory.

Then, after each group worked, they drew their team’s picture of Russell’s account. Then the other teams got to critique their competitor’s picture. The winning team got donuts! So not only did they get an incentive to talk to each other, but they got an incentive to critically compare the text with their competitor’s drawing.

The results of this group exercise were terrific. The discussion was student-led and lasted the whole class. I will definitely do this again next semester. As a bonus, I have included the pictures below.

Academics: Read Your Institutional Histories!

I am reading Stow Persons’ 1990 The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century: An Institutional History. (Persons was a professor and chair of the University of Iowa’s history department from 1948 to 1981.) The book actually starts with the university’s founding in February 25th, 1847. I bring this up because reading this book was deeply rewarding and gave me a geological view of my home institution – a sense for how it came to have its present shape, and a sense for how the current challenges the institution faces are ones that have been around since the beginning. I would strongly encourage academics wherever they work to read their institutional history, if it has one. (This is not a given, and it is a great service to the University of Iowa that Persons wrote this one.)

My home university has historically had an intrastate rivalry with Iowa State University. The University of Iowa was set up as the state’s academic institution in 1847. Its chosen location of Iowa City was sensible, as this was the territorial capital. But the choice was “unfortunate” because it was not as central in the state and because the fact that Johnson County was a “wet” county—one that permitted saloons and alcohol—caused some citizens to keep their children away from the university for fear of their moral corruption (Persons, pages 2-3). This is rather similar to the modern fretting about students being taught by “liberal professors” and the bills that propose hiring “conservative professors” in response.

Further, the University of Iowa’s emphasis on liberal arts education caused folks to lobby for a separate agricultural college on the grounds that “students educated at a university would not deign to dirty their hands at honest manual labor” (page 2). But despite the ostensible divorce of the liberal arts at the University of Iowa and technical training at Iowa State University, these two both competed for students and state funding, fighting to establish themselves as the premier with graduate and undergraduate programs that were duplicated—contrary to the legislature’s explicit charter, but in accordance with the wishes of partisans of and stakeholders in each institution (pages 75-76). (The alleged problem of “duplication” was arguably not a real problem anyway (pages 76-77).) This is a theme that was taken up by the Iowa’s Board of Regents in 2014.

The recurrence of these themes in the modern university is what is striking to me. There were problems then with state funding, just as there are now. The state would not even fund the construction of a university library, despite the state education board’s repeated requests for the allocation (pages 79-80). This tidbit is accompanied by a rather amusing and horrifying description of the working conditions at the university library: the librarian describes summers with “unbearable heat in the reading room”, the heating being constantly too high or low in winter, and the windows without any screens, which allowed “hordes of flies which keep the Librarians employed in such unprofessional tasks as arranging new sheets of fly paper” (page 80). This is not so different from the biannual switching from cooling to heating in the English-Philosophy Building, though I happily have no need for fly paper.

There was also an athletic scandal which resulted in a one-month expulsion from the University of Iowa’s athletic conference in January 1929:

…athletes had been given commissions for the sale of yearbooks; athletes were being subsidized from a slush fund; athletes had been permitted to draw on an illegal fund to make payments on tuition in arrears; and the registrar had failed to certify the eligibility of athletes as required by conference regulations. (page 98)

Such athletic scandals, sadly, are with us today.

The most remarkable thing to read about was the development of various colleges and departments, the introduction of a Graduate College, a college of business (“College of Commerce”), and the varying degrees to which the administration worked with, or ignored, the Faculty Senate. It gives me a different view on the present day challenges, how longstanding they have been, how they were overcome (or not) by past academics, and how the institution arrived at its current structure and curriculum. It gives me some respect for the current structure to see its origin story. And it gives me some hope that our present challenges are not new, and have been overcome in the past.

What should philosophers teach in quantitative reasoning courses?

Most philosophy departments offer some logic course that satisfies a mathematical, quantitative, or formal reasoning general education requirement. My university describes their quantitative and formal reasoning requirement as follows:

To help you develop important analytical skills, these courses focus on the presentation and evaluation of evidence and argument, the understanding of the use and misuse of data, and the organization of information in quantitative or other formal symbolic systems.

Given that these are quantitative and general education requirements, what should we, as philosophers, teach in these courses?

Almost all of these courses choose topics from the following categories:

  • categorical logic (square of opposition, categorical inferences)
  • categorical logic (diagrams)
  • informal fallacies and reasoning
  • propositional logic (proofs)
  • propositional logic (truth-tables)
  • propositional logic (tableaux)
  • inductive and causal reasoning, including causation vs correlation vs explanation
  • probabilistic reasoning, including the probability calculus

Most of them, in my experience, do not proceed to quantification theory. Perhaps the thought is that this much content is too difficult for this level (but categorical logic is an easier, albeit more cumbersome, way to teach universal and existential reasoning).

So: given the quantitative reasoning aims of “organization of information in quantitative or other formal symbolic systems”,  which of these should we select?

I think that categorical logic should be struck from this list. Categorical reasoning is too unwieldy to be justifiable, even if the diagrams are fun. Formulas need not have the categorical form, and they should not be forced into it, even for pedagogical purposes.

Propositional logic, on the other hand, is woefully inexpressive. But it is a useful tool for teaching transferable analytical skills using syntactic and semantic methods. I cannot sing the virtues of proofs, tables, and tableaux too highly for imparting the analytical habit of mind.

What about informal fallacies? I say that they should be struck. They do not, first, teach any analytical skills. They do help one identify mistakes in reasoning, which may then be leveraged to evaluate arguments and assess the use (or misuse) of data. But they do not in themselves demand much development of analytical skills. They are just labels that bring out faulty reasoning more clearly.

Also, they can be introduced and taught in a week. Familiarity with them is the only real virtue of teaching them. Informal fallacies do not seem to be worth assessing using multiple choice tests or projects outside of class. That seems to be more about testing our ability to remember the names of fallacies—which is not a useful thing to teach—as opposed to sharpening our wits so that we can catch mistakes in reasoning.

If we are concerned to teach one to reason well—to cultivate the analytical habit of mind—then it seems to me that we are better off teaching inductive and causal reasoning, plus the probability calculus. These do cultivate active analytical thinking in a way that passively identifying fallacies does not.

So I will be minimizing or leaving out informal fallacies altogether in my critical thinking class! I am quite excited about what the results will be.

What 30 Terms Should Every Intro Phil Student Know?

In thinking about my syllabus for introduction to philosophy, I was struggling with the fact that most freshman college students have not encountered philosophy before. Many professional philosophers are fighting this trend, like the good folks at PLATO and the Iowa Lyceum (and Utah Lcyeum, Western Michigan Lyceum, and SoCal Philosophy Academy).

I came up with the idea of giving them a list of roughly 30 philosophical terms that every introduction to philosophy student should know. I also am giving them an exam on those terms around week three. I am curious: what are your roughly 30 terms that every first-time philosophy student should leave your course knowing?

I won’t share my list because, first, my list is geared slightly towards what we will read in the course, and second, my list might bias the answers. Some terms are fairly easy: they should know what an argument is, for example, and they should probably know what ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology are. That leaves a lot open.

So what would go on your list?