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03/04/2013

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Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

Some questions:

First, you write that you require daily reading response-assignments. Can you give an example of such an assignment? Even better: can you give an example of a reading that you would assign that the reading response-assignment would be about?

Second, do you find that the daily reading response-assignments gets your students to read the material? I assume so; but do they *understand* it? Obviously, that question doesn't necessarily have a simple yes or no answer; but how much of it do they understand to your satisfaction? And how do you assess how much they understand it?

Third, you mentioned that you have students answer questions about your lectures. How do you do your lectures? Do you use PowerPoint? Any projection at all? Just a chalkboard or a whiteboard? Not even that? Do you have a sheet that students can consult that outlines the main points of your lecture as you're giving it? And regardless, do you post your lectures, or notes about your lectures, online?

That's a lot of questions! Sorry about that.

David Morrow

Thanks for sharing, Marcus. I have to disagree with #5 -- especially for junior faculty. There's always room for tweaks and improvement, of course, but I think that when you're on the tenure clock or racing to get things out before the next year's job market, having a "canned" course -- one for which the lectures were prepared in advance or are being reused from previous semesters -- is invaluable. In my own experience, I find that I can be much more productive, research-wise, when the courses are more or less fully prepared before the semester starts.

Marcus Arvan

Rob: basically, the students have the same assignment for everything they read. They are asked to (A) *briefly* summarize a philosophically important idea of their choosing from the reading, and then (B) *briefly* motivate a question or worry about it. I tell my students that I evaluate these assignments on several grounds: (1) is the idea they summarized actually important (rather than trivial?), (2) did they summarize it clearly and accurately, (3) is their question or worry about it clear, and (4) did they (briefly) provide any plausible motivation for it. I have them do all of this in *no* more than a half-page double-spaced (I emphasize being concise -- no wasted words).

Anyway, yes, I find that, *over time*, these assignments really get them to think about and better understand what they've read for the day. It's shocking to me how, at the beginning of my courses, they have no idea how to read this stuff, summarize it accurately at all, or motivate an objection (to a skeptical audience). The daily assignments get them to practice all of these things *daily* -- and so it's hard for them not to get better (especially since I'm pretty brutal on my grades -- and I give clear comments about what they did well, badly, etc.).

As to my lectures, yes, I use powerpoint. Sometimes I begin the class with a slide asking a question or two about the reading (e.g. "How did Philosopher argue for X?"), and then (perhaps) a question asking them to evaluate that argument. It's rare for groups to get all of the questions right, but it's a nice little competition, as we discuss the answers before I lecture. On days I do this, I often end my lecture with a slide asking questions about things I just lectured on (Example: "I just laid out Kant's argument X. (1) Motivate the best objection you can to X. (2) Explain how Kant might respond to your objection." Then we'll discuss their objections. Other times, instead of having them do a set of questions at the beginning of class and another set at the end, I'll sprinkle them out in the lecture.)

Finally, yes, I do post my lectures online. I've gone back and forth on the issue, but I've found there's no harm in my posting them. After all, my students can't just fall back on them, given the kind of work I expect from them.

David: That is a legitimate concern. It is nice to have a "canned" course or two. I didn't mean to advise entirely revamping lectures every semester, but rather, what you allude to: tweaking things here and there. How much time one can reasonably devote to teaching depends a great deal on one's situation (research job, etc.)

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

Telling the students what they did wrong on each daily reading response sounds incredibly labor-intensive. About how much do you write explaining what they did wrong? Or do you do this orally?

Also, about how long are the reading assignments you give? 5 pages? 20 pages? Like, do you assign the Groundwork? To intro students? (I find that my 400-level students have massive trouble with the Groundwork; I don't assign primary texts to my intro students.)

Rob Gressis

Oh, and I forgot to say: thanks!

Rob Gressis

Perhaps it would help if I told you where all these questions are coming from.

I teach at a large, state university, and a lot of my students, especially in introductory classes, do not have a lot of academic preparation, at least: not the kind that makes philosophy intelligible to them.

I find two things to be true of many of my students: (1) they will, if possible, not read the material I assign them; and (2) if they do read the material I assign them, they often have extremely defective interpretations, or even no interpretation, of what they read. (I.e., sometimes they'll tell me that a particular article, or a particular paragraph, is about something it's not about at all--say, they'll focus on one word they remember and think the paragraph is about that word; or, they will read it, but simply be unable (or unwilling) to tell me anything about what they've read.)

To some degree, this makes sense: philosophy is unlike anything they read in their day-to-day lives, or even unlike anything they read in the rest of their college classes or in their previous high school classes. Consequently, they don't know how they're supposed to read it.

But to another degree, it can be frustrating. I will sometimes, in class, put a single sentence or paragraph on the board, and ask them to think for a while and write down, to themselves, what they think that sentence or paragraph means. And often, what they think it means is very far off from what I think it means (and I think my take is usually much closer than their take).

Consequently, I find it difficult to assign primary readings with any expectation that those readings will be read or, if read, understood. Perhaps I just don't have enough faith in them, or perhaps I'm expecting too much of them. Both those things are probably true, for my colleagues often assign texts to intro students that I think are fiendishly hard (Aristotle, Kant, Spinoza) and don't report any problems.

Incidentally, I've used lots of strategies: daily reading quizzes (they don't work unless I tell them some possible questions I may ask ahead of time; and when I do that, the students just read the sections necessary to answer those questions, or they just look at the answers--prior to taking the quiz--of the students who have discovered the answers); me lecturing on the material in great detail before I have them read it (in that case, they simply look at their notes on what I said, or they look at the notes I post online, and read that instead of the article); small group discussions about the material (often, the students think they've got the right answer to the questions in about 30 seconds, and spend the rest of the ten minute period talking about other classes, movies, etc.); and so forth.

It's all rather frustrating. I try to get my students to learn this stuff, and I really do care, but it seems pretty hopeless at times.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Rob: I don't have much time to respond today, as I'm fiendishly busy. But here are a few brief remarks.

--First, I have to admit that a lot of my strategies might not be feasible for your situation. I myself have found that teaching small classes vs. big classes requires very different strategies. That being said...

--How long my reading assignments are depends on the material. If it's something like the Groundwork, I'll assign maybe 5-8 pages at a time. If it's something like On Liberty, I'll assign an entire chapter at once. It really depends.

--Grading the daily assignments *is* time-intensive, but I find it's worth it. I just give brief remarks like, "No, Mill defends the *opposite* of the position you summarize", or "You need to give some (brief) argument to better motivate your question -- such as...[I briefly suggest an argument]." In other words, my comments are pretty brief, but give the student a good idea what they did wrong and need to do better next time.

--Sometimes the students interpret the text completely incorrectly in their daily assignments...but they tend to get much better at it as the semester goes along. At the beginning of the semester, my students are mostly as you describe (completely unprepared for philosophy). But having them do daily short assignments at home and then answer difficult questions in class with groups in *combination* work wonders. Both sets of assignments require them to start reading closely, testing their interpretations of texts not only against mine but their fellow students' interpretations as well.

--I tried reading quizzes in the past, but they were a total disaster, for basically the reasons you give. They just don't understand a lot of what they've read. In contrast, having them just try to summarize *one* important idea correctly (and then motivate a worry about it) -- which is what I require -- has the following benefit: even if they don't understand 99% of what they've read, they have some incentive to try really hard to understand *1%*...and over time their ability to understand that 1% translates into a much better ability to read and understand the other 99% (I can't begin to tell you how the overall ability to read and comprehend philosophical texts improves in my students over the course of a term. Really getting them to see what a *close* and careful reading of a single idea requires eventually gets them to read that way in general! Though it *does* take a lot of time. It can be 3/4 through the semester before things start to "click" for a lot of students -- but still, seeing the switch flip for most of them is, I think, an achievement).

--I too found that *untargeted* group discussions are unhelpful (and end in 30 seconds or so). Instead, my questions (e.g. "How does Mill argue for X on page ZZZ?") require them to pull out their text, talk about it for a while, and then write out an answer -- all of which takes a significant amount of time (sometimes upwards of 20 minutes). Initially, I worried that students would hate spending so much time working in the classroom, but they actually enjoy it. I realize this is only possible in smaller classes.

Anyway, I wish I could write more to you about this now, but I gotta run. Got lots of grading to do! ;)

Lee Braver

I use a similar assignment, though I assign fewer of them (around 5-6 per semester) and make them longer. The description is here:
http://www.apaonline.org/documents/publications/v04n2_Teaching.pdf

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