Debriefing * science

Wed 12 Dec 2012 03:34 PM

The last day of classes for the semester was yesterday. I was teaching Understanding Science (an intro to science studies course) and Philosophy of Science (a survey for advanced undergrad and grad students). As is my usual practice, I asked students which topics I definitely should include when I teach the course again and which I should omit. This is partly to focus their attention on which topics were substantively rewarding and which not, but I also take it into account when revising a course.

To me surprise, there was not a groundswell of dissatisfaction for any of the topics in either course. This is somewhat reassuring to me, because I have taught both courses many times now. I have made piecemeal changes to them over time. Although every change was meant to make them better, I often feel as if the syllabuses have become patchwork monsters.

Understanding Science

I required them to pick exactly one of the approximately dozen topics to keep and one to jettison. Only two topics garnered more than four votes in either direction:

6 students voted YAY for the bit about scientific observation; they had read Trevor Pinch on the observation of solar neutrinos. Admittedly, I primed them a bit. It is one of the few things from early in the semester that is going to be on the final exam, and I explained this by saying that I thought the concept of externality that Pinch introduces is really important. That probably just made it salient, though, and could just as easily have made students vote against it.

10 students voted BOO for the one-day exercise on the analogy between theories and maps. In discussion, it was clear most students voted to nix it just because I had demanded that they vote to nix something. The bit on maps, unlike all the other topics, failed to follow from the one before it or lead into the one after it. So nixing it seemed like it would do the least harm.

There were some of the topics which I tried for the first time this semester. To my surprise, some students identified the new things as their favourite parts. Moreover, they articulated pedagogical reasons for their preferences:

I began by having them read Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief" to pose the question of why we should want to think scientifically at all. Several students who hadn't taken any philosophy before thought that this was a good first exposure.

We also covered the role of AIDS activists in shaping medical research during the late 1980s. This was the part that most showed science responding well to a complicated social dynamic.

Philosophy of Science

I initially allowed students to vote YAY or BOO for as many topics as they liked, and the YAYs handily won. The vote was even 8-4 in favor of the two week unit on Bayesian confirmation theory that I tacked on at the end.

One student said that they wished we had spent more time discussing theories of causation. So I put that to a separate vote, and proposal carried 16-3. This indicated some dissonance, because more time on causation would necessarily displace one of the existing topics.