On-line course post mortem 
I just finished teaching my Understanding Science course as a four-week on-line course. My goal was to figure out what's involved in on-line teaching.

The level of student engagement in the course resulted from an alchemy of summertime, the on-line context, and the compression of a semester of material into four weeks. Since this was my first time both for teaching on-line and for teaching during the summer, I can't entirely separate these. There were students who had trouble logging on because they were traveling, however, and of course they simply couldn't have been traveling if the course had met face-to-face every day. Still and all, we covered almost as much material as I cover in a regular semester, and it all went pretty well.

I had an end of course survey which asked my usual questions: Which modules were indispensable, such that I should definitely include them next time? Which modules should I jettison in favor of something else?

For each prompt, I let them check as few or as many items as they pleased.

The results were somewhat surprising.

The module with the most up votes was Who counts as a scientist? (+15 to -1) I have them read about AIDS science in the 1980s, when activists disrupted drug trials, and I ask them to consider who were the experts in that situation. It's a topic I added to the face-to-face course a few years ago almost as an afterthought. A surprise hit.

The modules on gender and science also got a large number of up votes. We talked about underrepresentation of women in science (+13 to -0), the problem of invisibility (+12 to -0), and ways in which thinking about gender can change the content of science itself (+11 to -0). I was worried that some students might act as chauvinist trolls in the discussion forums, but that didn't happen. The discussions were some of the best in the whole course.

Two topics had as many down votes as up votes (+5 to -5). In both cases, I think it was because people didn't like the reading. For the module on scientific observation, they read Trevor Pinch's analysis of experiments to detect solar neutrinos. The science is somewhat abstruse. For the module on causal inference, they read Stephen Jay Gould on the history of IQ testing. It's history, so the text is just longer than most of the other readings.

Both of those topics are important, and students seemed to understand them after doing the work. So the down votes for each don't make me think I should cut them from the course.

Although the net vote was in favor, there were actually more down votes for the chapter of Mill's On Liberty (+8 to -6). As a surprising contrast, they were of one mind about Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief" (+10 to -0).

In general, students did a good job of engaging and discussing the material by scientists, historians, and sociologists. They had more trouble with the articles written by philosophers. I think that this is because reading philosophy is a distinct skill.

Scientists, historians, and sociologists tend either to present facts or argue for some conclusion. Those two voices are pretty easy to distinguish, and both involve advocacy for a claim that the author thinks the reader ought to believe.

Contrawise, philosophers don't just state a thesis and explain it. Instead, they state a thesis, make an argument for it, consider objections to their argument, provide rebuttals to the objections, and so on. The objections are things they write but don't ultimately mean to endorse. The rebuttals are things they write but only care about with respect to the objections. Sorting all that out is hard work.

What I do in a face-to-face class is try to help students sort it out, to help them navigate the text. I'm not sure what to offer as a substitute for that on-line.

I turned in grades today, so I can set it down for a while. But there were enough points at which I thought "Oh, I know what I should do next time" that I'm sure I'll teach this on-line again.

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Teaching covers 
We talked about covers today in my philosophy of art class.

To my surprise, a few students preferred the Otis Redding version of "Respect" to Aretha Franklin's. The students self-identified as fans of Otis Redding and were already familiar with the track.

I ran out of class time, so we didn't get to listen to the Cardigan's cover of "Iron Man". We did have time for Tiny Tim and the Brave Combo's cover of "Stairway to Heaven" and Dokaka's multi-track a capella version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", though. Both were polarizing. Some people liked them, others were horrified. Responses included: "This is soo cool", "Creative! But it was horrible", and "Tiny Tim scares me".

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Amalgamating ratings 
Although I haven't been following it closely, last year President Obama proposed rating universities using factors like affordability and graduation rates. TIME recently hacked together an example of how such a system might turn out for 2500 colleges and universities in the US.

The ranking is generated from just three components: graduation rate, percentage of students receiving Pell grants, and affordability (the inverse of cost).

The University at Albany comes in at a respectable 129th.

That showing depends on how the various factors are weighted, however, because UAlbany does not do as well given any of the components separately: 299th in graduation rates, 535th in Pell grants, and 277th in affordability.

The greater oddity is that none of these components indicate the quality of instruction offered by the institution. However, they might be as good a thing to base a decision on as alumni giving rates, which is a major component of the usual rankings.

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It was about Samuel L Jackson 
I made a comment in class yesterday that was a passing reference to Pulp Fiction. Curious as to whether the reference would make any sense to students, I asked how many had seen the movie. About a third raised their hands.

The movie was 20 years ago, though, before some of them were even born. There's one for the mindset list.

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What PhilArt can teach PhilSci 
In recent work, I have argued that, when thinking about natural kinds, we should distinguish the taxonomy question (which categories are natural kinds and which are not?) from the ontology question (what kind of being have natural kinds got?).

Familiar ways of posing the problem of natural kinds invite either ignoring one of the two questions or conflating the two. For example, finding natural kinds is described as carving the world at its joints. That answers both questions: A natural kind is a cut at the joints of nature, and its ontology is given by those joints.

Most approaches to the problem are guilty of this. Even some people who mark the distinction nevertheless argue that there is a single ontology to be given for all natural kinds.

I'm teaching a course on philosophy of art this semester, and we're just switching from talking about definitions of art to art ontology. And it occurred to me that the distinction which is rarely made about natural kinds is entirely standard in philosophy of art. The issue of definition is a question of what separates art from non-art. The issue of art ontology is a question of what kinds of objects art works are. Many authors pursue one but not the other. It is widely accepted that different art works might belong to different ontological categories even if there is a single, unified definition. Mutatis mutandis, this is just the taxonomy/ontology distinction.

It surprised me that, in this respect, philosophers of art have a clear and valuable distinction that parallels one philosophers of science need. I have written some papers in which I take lessons from philosophy of science and apply them to thinking about art, but I am happy to note that some traffic could go the other way.

I only came to distinguish the two questions in the course of struggling with Homeostatic Property Cluster accounts of natural kinds. As a result, I did not have the distinction clearly in mind when writing SENK. I came to realize its importance when writing the introduction and the conclusion to the book. As I'd put the point now: The first five chapters of the book are directed at the taxonomy question, but the final chapter is directed at the ontology question.

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