Thursday, 16 June 2011

Pedagogical methodology, or: 'teachin' proper like'

I've been thinking about education.  What with 'ole Tony Grayling opening up his new super school and all (but that isn't what I want to discuss, all I have to say on the matter is that I think it's pretty despicable).  Besides, I've been thinking about education quite a lot this year anyway.

Like many grad students I do some undergraduate teaching to help pay the rent.  I've just completed my second year doing so and I really rather enjoy it.  This past year I had a rather heavy teaching load, so I spent a lot of time thinking about how best to teach philosophy to undergraduates.  This will be the first of (possibly more than one) posts about various pedagogical conundrums I've come across.  One of the main such problems that I've encountered is finding the right balance between being supportive/easy going and being strict, like a pedagogical Muller yoghurt I couldn't quite balance the pleasure/pain ratio for my classes.

To elaborate, I like to keep the atmosphere in my classes pretty relaxed, I don't want to be telling students off and jumping on their backs.  This isn't because I want them to like me or anything like that (at least I don't think it is... I hope that isn't it).  The way I see it, it's more conducive to a productive class if the students feel comfortable contributing, and don't feel worried about how what they're going to say is received.  It's worth noting at this point that I teach mostly first years at the moment, so the main goal of the classes (to my mind at least) is to familiarise the students with philosophical method and how to approach topics in an intellectual manner.  This goal cannot be achieved if the students are  too intimidated to contribute.  As you may have guessed however, this leads onto my problem.

The price of being relaxed with the students is that they start to think it's acceptable not to do the preparation for the class.  When this happens I am left with two options.  First I can give them a telling off just like they would have got before coming to a school for big boys and girls, probably ensuring their future preparation, but also probably ensuring their future silence (and perhaps absence).  Second, I can let it slide, not hassle them, and they'll not hate philosophy, or class, and they can continue on their way to being comfortable with engaging with the topics, or maybe they'll just see that 'ole Banksy is a push over and doss from then on.

But this isn't the only problem.  If a significant portion of the group isn't sufficiently prepared then they aren't going to get much from a discussion of material they aren't familiar with.  So, do I spend time in the class bringing them up to speed?  Or do I just leave them to fend for themselves?  If I do the latter then they lose out.  "Jolly good!" you may say, but my job is to help the students get better, whether the little blighters deserve it or not.  If I take the former option then the few good students who really care about their studies and are prepared miss out.  It's no use to them to go over content they already know, what they need is to try out their philosophy muscles on the material.  Suffice to say this isn't fair.

I suppose what I'm trying to get at is a dichotomy between nurturing level one students or leaving them to stand on their own with a 'you're at university now, so tough luck'.  My original thoughts when I started teaching were very much of the latter persuasion.  I was an MA student and it is now my experience (of a whopping great 2 years) that MA students are the harshest teachers.  I guess the memories of being an undergrad are still too fresh... who knows.

These days I find myself being too laid back on under prepared students, not only is this unfair on the more committed students, it's not fair on the lazy ones either.  If they're going to get ahead then they need to learn to work.  But I don't want to take the 'flip' you attitude either.  I think you can only take that attitude if you have good reason to have that kind of expectation of the students.  I don't think we have that.  I don't think the current education system prepares students for university education, but that's another (significantly long) rant for another day.  I don't want to voice my general complaints about the education system today.  I only want to focus on my particular conundrum.  

I'm not willing to take either of these approaches, I want a method of running my classes that ensures that students work hard and also feel relaxed and comfortable so that they can actually focus on learning and not appeasing teachers.  So this is me acknowledging that I have this problem, I'm busily coming up with solutions to this for the next year but I'd love any feedback about how I can ensure the best balance in these classes.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Is there really reference?

*Disclaimer: Apologies if this post is a bit ramble-ish or absolutely devoid of intelligent content.  I wasn't very focused when I wrote it and I'm not in the mood to reread it any time soon.  So if it's terrible, please ignore it and try to forgive me.*

I've been thinking about reference.  I've been wondering if there really is such a thing.  This all started with a conversation with Michael Bench-Capon after his claim that sentences are not true in virtue of the propositions they correspond to, but in virtue of what they express as being the case, being the case (for details see his post on the particulars wear the pants principle).  This seemed strange to me, not least of all because whilst what Mike said seemed very sensible, it also meant that that whilst the proposition wasn't wearing the truth wearing pants for the sentence, it was still wearing some truth pants of its own.  The proposition 'snow is white' is still true even if its truth isn't doing anything for the truth of the sentence.  This looks queer to me, primarily because it seems that the appeal of particulars wearing the pants seems to be that we no longer need pants for propositions (resisting urge to make nudity jokes).  So I had a little ponder.

It's also worth mentioning that I've also been working on antirealism quite a bit recently, so I guess I'm generally in the mood for getting rid of things.

Anyway, to my thought.  If we are still committed to propositions wearing truth pants (even if they aren't the sentences truth pants), maybe we can do away with truth for sentences altogether.  Maybe sentences are just utterances of sounds backed up with the intention to communicate certain thoughts. (which relates to a proposition that the speaker has in mind)  Once they are out there, vibrating in the air, whoever hears them can interpret them as they will, associating them with a proposition that they think it corresponds to.  Now, the relevant proposition can be either true or false, but what the speakers get from it will entirely depend on which proposition they associate it with.  The sentence doesn't refer to anything, this way when you say 'father Christmas never existed', meaning the rotund bearded chap from the coca cola adverts, and I think you mean Saint Nicholas, there is a perfectly legitimate failure of communication.  This failure has nothing to do with failure of reference, because there is no such thing (for the sentence at least).  We are simply thinking about different propositions.

So sentences don't refer, and they aren't the kinds of things that are true or false.  They are just attempts to latch onto propositions.  Maybe this would help with some problems of reference that crop up now and again.

Apologies again if this is nonsense, maybe I'll reread it some time when I feel like it and either re-write it or delete it.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Philosophy and science

I've been thinking about the relationship between philosophy and science.  More specifically I've been thinking about metaphysics and science.  More specifically still I've been thinking about how that relationship affects me.  Now, I don't know much about science at all.  I have very modest GCSEs in the sciences and as a child was of the opinion that I just couldn't do them (turns out that I think I would have been quite good at them if I hadn't been so lazy and negative, but that's another rant for another day).  As a student I discovered philosophy, and metaphysics.  I fell in love with it and specialised in it at the earliest opportunity.  In my sheltered metaphysical bubble I happy worked away on universals, possible worlds, and conceptual analysis, blissfully unaware that a significant proportion of the academic world considered the discipline I was training myself in to be... well, bull.

Now that I'm a grad student my horizons have been widened a little.  I'm still a metaphysician, but I know plenty of scientists, and work in a department with a lot of philosophy of science going on.  I am now very aware of the disreputable nature of metaphysics, though I have never encountered a reason that didn't make me lose some respect for the person giving it.  But enough of that, this post is not going to be a rant by me defending a field of philosophy that I am clearly very biased towards.  You don't want to read that, and I don't want to write it (if you do want to read that I'm sure you can google someone else's views on the matter).  What this post is about is the position I've found myself in now that I've been thinking about this.

I've been thinking about this quite a lot actually.  The reasons people given against metaphysics (or even more ignorantly against philosophy as a whole *cough* *Hawking*) haven't convinced me that metaphysics is bunk, but what they do highlight is that some of it is done badly.  Now, just because some people do something badly doesn't mean that what they're trying to do is bad.  If you think that it does then I really don't know what to say... except perhaps to recommend that you sit and think about it for a while (and don't come back to this post until you realise that you're wrong).  However, there is badly done metaphysics, and it looks like one of the reasons that some of it is done badly is a lack of awareness of the science related to the issues being investigated.

Obviously not all metaphysics needs to take scientific theorising into account.  For some enquiries it just seems irrelevant.  But with my work focusing on essence, it looks like I may be one of those metaphysicians who falls within the group that needs a little scientific awareness.  Herein lies my problem.  As I see it I have three options.  The first is to ignore this fact and go about my life as a metaphysician, and if people call me up on it then just patronisingly smile and remind them that they're not being sensitive enough to the philosophical issues.  The second is to try to take science into account where it seems to be relevant to metaphysical endeavours.  The third is to put it off, recognise that it is relevant, accept that I can't do that, and reassure myself that I've do it one day. 

Obviously I don't think option one is appropriate.  If I did then this post would clearly have a very different tone.  Option two appeals to me the most (seemingly being the most intellectually responsible action to take), but there is a problem.  As mentioned before, I don't know science.  I mean, sure, I probably know more that the average person who doesn't know about science, I like popular science stuff and have an okay grasp of that, but that just ain't enough.  If I try to do metaphysics that is scientifically informed it isn't enough to just learn a bit and have a stab, lest I risk falling prey to that most venomous insult in the philosopher of sciences arsenal: "Thinking that because I've read the wikipedia page I know about quantum field theory" (or whatever).  But what is the alternative?  I'm a grad student in philosophy, I don't exactly have the time to get degrees in physics and biology.  

It seems that I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't.  Which is a shame, because I don't want to be damned, I'd much prefer to not be damned if it's all the same actually.  So I guess I have to plum with option three.  I'll continue to plug away at my scientifically uninformed metaphysics for now with the promise to myself that in the future I'll somehow learn the science I need to do metaphysics without being branded a 'GCSE chemistry philosopher.' 

Of course there is another option, just stick to the parts of metaphysics that go too far beyond the scientific data and to which it is irrelevant...  But how do I know which ones they are without the appropriate knowledge?