Don’t Assume Students Don’t Read

One day when I was grading reading responses, I thought over half the class didn’t read. We’re near the end of the term, and this seems to be a common assumption among people in instructional roles in universities anyhow. But, to avoid throwing out accusations without sufficient evidence, I acted instead on the assumption that a lot of students just didn’t understand the reading. Turns out my first assumption was wrong, and we in instructional roles need to slow down our assumptions.

The text was Kate Manne’s “Humanism: A Critique”. I think the piece is fantastic. It’s really clear, to me, and Manne’s arguments completely changed my position. In the article, she responds to the popular belief that cruel behavior can be explained by perpetrators dehumanizing their victims. She labels this view “humanism”, and then proceeds to demonstrate that it’s wrong. Dehumanization rarely, if ever, works as an explanation of cruel behavior. But this isn’t what the reading responses said she said. Instead, they said that she was defending humanism. They took a few quotes and examples to defend their reading, but the examples were those she was using to illustrate the humanist position. That is, they took her to be affirming what she was denying.

Here the laziest explanation is that the students just didn’t read. They probably skimmed the first couple of sections to get enough material to put together a response, and then forewent actually reading the piece. This is a pretty easy assumption to make given both of the following:

  1. The popularity of the assumption that students don’t read, and
  2. The common practice of academics of not reading. By this I don’t mean that we never read, but rather that with the amount of stuff we have to be acquainted with, often enough we pay some attention to the introduction and some selected passages, but seriously engaging with an entire text is often reserved for the more important texts to our own projects.

I think 1 is bad. I think 2 isn’t necessarily bad. I have over fifty books on my desk relevant to my work, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to give all of them a complete read. However, there’s a difference between myself and many of my students: I’ve been training for years in how to do that sort of thing! But moreover, I’ve also been training in how to read complex philosophical texts. It is in fact unusual how philosophers will say things we don’t believe, but rather just want to present to then argue against. So from this understanding, I came up with a second hypothesis: they did read, but the text was just not one that they were equipped to understand yet.

Assuming my second hypothesis was correct (though making sure my plan would still work out if the first were correct), I spent the next section with the text on the projector so we could take apart the structure of the piece. Before class, I highlighted the sentences that to me signposted what Manne is doing. We came up with an outline of the paper from reading the introduction, and then worked out how she started and ended each section. But the moment of revelation for me came when I put this quotation on the screen and asked the class what the first thing she’ll do in the body of the text is:

First, I try to convey the flavor of humanist thought in some of its most interesting and fruitful philosophical applications, over the course of section 1. After that, I will clarify the humanist position (in section 2), criticize it (in section 3), present an alternative, “socially situated” model for explaining the humanist’s target explananda (in section 4), and argue that these alternative explanations will often be superior to those offered by the humanist (in section 5, to close).

To me, and to most of my similarly-trained colleagues, this is obviously an outline of the article to come. To the class, figuring out what Manne would do first took a minute or so. This made it suddenly obvious to me that

  1. This is not a move most people are familiar with, and
  2. The form of the paper is also one people are not usually familiar with.

A couple of students even told me, despite my suggestions to borrow the form of the article (present opposition, then present problems with opposition, then present your own alternative), they find it hard to follow or understand. Which makes sense; what other genres use this? If you read a scientific article, almost every sentence will be in agreement with the thesis. If you read a story, unless it’s some stuff that’s hard to get into, the text of the story is what the narrator believes. We don’t often see several pages of examples the author ultimately is seeking to reject.

From this experience, I take two conclusions, one more specific, and one more general:

  1. Don’t so quickly assume students didn’t read. Designing lesson plans around that assumption when its false at best ignores important learning opportunities, and it’s also fundamentally failing to treat students with respect.
  2. Reading complex texts is hard. It’s a skill that has to be developed before it can be performed. Assigning difficult readings without spending any time teaching the class how to do those readings is just setting the class up for failure.
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Some Study Notes for Intro Philosophy

I’ve been posting about my TAing intro philosophy. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) As the class is approaching the first exam. I made a list of questions, which I realized is a fairly useful list of basic questions on a few major philosophical topics, so I’m posting it here.

  • *Logic*
    • What is a valid argument? A sound argument?
    • What kinds of things can be true?
    • How do you identify a valid or sound argument?
    • What is, and in what cases do you use: deduction?
      • induction?
      • inference to best explanation?
      • hypothesis testing?
    • What makes something true?
  • *Epistemology*
    • What is knowledge?
    • What are the kinds of opinions?
    • What things can be knowledge?
  • *Mind*
    • What is the mind/body problem?
    • What are physicalism and dualism?
    • What’s the difference between property and substance dualism?
      • behaviorism and functionalism?
      • identity theory and functionalism?
    • What is the main objection against physicalism?
    • What is the advantage of property dualism over substance dualism?
      • functionalism over behaviorism?
      • functionalism over identity theory?
      • property dualism over functionalism?
      • functionalism over property dualism?
  • *God*
    • What are the three traditional omni- properties associated with God?
    • What is the Argument from Creation/Cosmological Argument?
    • What does actually show?
    • What is the Argument from Design?
    • What does actually show?

Additionally, I emphasize: I advise writing down responses to the study question, or at least verballizing answers. One of the most common mistakes people make is just looking at these and thinking “I know this,” but philosophy tends to lead people to thinking that while studying, and then having no idea what to write when it’s time to write.

TAing Intro Philosophy Pt. 3

Previous Posts: Week 1Week 2.
In week 3, the class turned to argumentation. This again left me a fair bit of freedom, since the skill is broad and will be useful for the whole quarter (and in general). On the other hand, I had to run this section six times (instead of my usual three) since two people were out of town, so I made it something fairly repeatable, and by the sixth time through it was pretty good.
The first half of the section was spent reviewing Deductive Arguments. Students were instructed to on a sheet of paper, write down a true, simple sentence, such as”40 million people live in California.” Then they constructed  sound arguments for them. E.g.
  1.     If the census data is reliable, then 40 million people live in California.
  2.     The census data is reliable.
  3.     So, 40 million peple live in California.
They wrote them, paired up and shared with each other, and then a few people shared with the whole group. In each section some people seemed to have trouble, so after a few minutes, I revealed the general form
  1. If X then Y.
  2. X.
  3. So, Y.

Then, I explain, the task is just to put in an appropriate X and Y. Understanding seemed nearly universal at this point, so I moved on to constructing valid arguments for false conclusions. I had them each write a false, simple sentence, such as “Skittles are made of chocolate.” Then I had them each construct a valid argument for it. E.g.

  1.     If all round candies are made of chocolate, then Skittles are made of chocolate
  2.     All round candies are made of chocolate.
  3.     So, Skittles are made of chocolate.

They notice that 2 is false, but the argument itself is valid. Because 2 is false, the argument is unsound. They repeat the pairing and sharing exercise, this time a bit faster since the routine is established, and then we moved on since understanding seemed solid.

One of the readings was Linda Zagzebski’s “Caring and Epistemic Demands”. Of the several they had to read, it was short, simple, yet interesting and applicable. Here I made fuller use of my ability to put in quotes from the texts. For instance:
Caring about many things is not only natural, but is part of any life we would care to live. But if we care about anything, we must care about having true beliefs in the domains we care about. (69)
I ask, what does this mean? Is this true? Then I have them each write down something they care about, followed by the beliefs they must care about being true as a result. For instance, I offer,  I care about my students understanding this material. As a result, I care about truly believing what LZ’s argument is, where and when section meets, etc.
I’ll call a belief that is governed by a concern for truth a conscientiously held belief. (69)
I asked what two demands does conscientious belief places on us. Admittedly, I overestimated how intuitive the argument is, and nobody quite figured out what I was going for. By section three or four I had learned to quickly move on to the next quote:
First, there is a demand to be conscientious in whatever beliefs we have in that domain, and second, there is a demand to acquire conscientious beliefs in the domain. (69)
Here I asked them to add to their papers what actions they have to take as a result about caring about certain beliefs of their being true. For instance, since I care about my belief in the time/location of class being true, I checked the university’s online portal for class information. It’s rather obvious stuff, but it forces students to get into the mindset of breaking things down into simpler parts.
Around this point I had still half the time left, but the next part of the argument turned to a generality, and used harder grammar in the process. That is, LZ argues that we all, in virtue of caring about things, care about being good informants to others. And to argue for this, she uses language difficult enough to put a paragraph on the wall and ask students to spend ten to fifteen minutes working together to break it down into an argument (in the style of the first half of the section) . This proved to be a very fruitful exercise. The quote:
Among the things we care about is caring that others care about what we care about, which means that we care about their having true beliefs about what we care about, and we also care to some extent about what they care about. So we care about being good informants to others. We want the ability to convey true beliefs and not false beliefs to others. (71)
I broke it down, in color:
  1. We care that others care about what we care about.
  2. If we care that others care about what we care about, then we care about their having true beliefs about what we care about, and we also care to some extent about what they care about.
  3. If we care about their having true beliefs about what we care about, and we also care to some extent about what they care about, then we care about being good informants to others.
  4. So, we care about being good informants to others.

Download slides.

TAing Intro Philosophy Pt. 2

Last week I continued running sections for introduction to philosophy. We had, in theory, read Bertrand Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy.” I say “in theory” because in reality when I asked my students who had done the reading, not many people raised their hands. Turns out the bookstore hadn’t actually gotten the book in, yet.
No problem, though, really, since I put the important text in my slides. I got tired of having to find things in books because I’ve noticed in discussions that usually by the time everyone has gotten the text out and found the spot, the person sharing has already finished reading. Between that and just losing people spacing out when we turn our attention to the text, it’s easier for the screen to just have the text ready.
I first posed the questions “What is the main point of this text?” and “What argument is given for it?”. The argument goes:
  1.     Philosophy is to be studied only if there is some value derived from doing so.
  2.     There is some value derived from doing so.
  3.      So, philosophy is to be studied.
The first premise is essentially the challenge posed by the imagined interlocutor. Since nobody really has a problem with 1, the main challenge is arguing for 2. I needn’t go into detail here on how he does so (see the link above), but I did challenge the students to then argue against it. I imagine that’s the only time in their academic careers they’ve been asked to provide reasons to leave.
We spent the most time then discussing whether the goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body. Discussions took off on their own pretty quickly.