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05/18/2013

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Kyle Whyte

I'd be curious if people had good stories about the "hide your view" approach. When you do that, the students seem to wonder what kind of person you are because you either get excited about everything or about nothing. The students don't really see anything distinctive about you as an individual or regarding your connection to the materials. My view is that showing your personality, for some, can definitely be an important way of getting through to students. In your case, Marcus, this involves even writing in the syllabus that you'll push hard for your views. For other people, their personalities may manifest differently. But unless it's natural for someone to always hide their views... I think it's a good thing to show, as much as possible, your personality via the views you actually support, especially why you are excited about those views and the tensions those views have with competing views.

Rob Gressis

I don't quite take Marcus's approach, but I don't hide my views either. Here's my situation: first, I'm very worried about the problem of philosophical disagreement. In a nutshell, I reason/worry: "jeez, any position I take has been advocated and criticized by philosophers much more philosophically capable than I am. Who am I, then, to confidently assert that one group of these philosophers (the ones who disagree with little, ol' me) is wrong, and the others (the ones who agree with me, of course) are right?" Consequently, I have very little conviction in my views.

That said, while I think that most philosophical positions have a lot going for them, I do think certain arguments for certain positions may be bad. So, I'll often tell my students, "I'm not really sure what's correct--though I have my suspicions--but I am sure that some arguments are incorrect." I then try to give examples of reasonable, and differing, interpretations of movies or TV shows they may be familiar with, and then I give examples of unreasonable interpretations of those same movies/TV shows to show them what I mean by reasonable and unreasonable disagreement. (Or I'll give examples from music: it's surely reasonable to find Tupac to be a better Hip-Hop artist than Jay-Z, and probably the reverse is reasonable too, but it's surely unreasonable to find Vanilla Ice better than either of them.)

So, I don't hide my lack of conviction (nor my reason for my lack of conviction), but I think another approach is possible. I've heard that the late, great Rob Clifton would hide his views by advocating fiercely for whatever view he was talking about that day. Students couldn't tell what his real views were because he did such an effective job of arguing for views he disagreed with. I'm not sure I've seen anyone use that model, but it sounds like it could be effective.

Marcus Arvan

Rob: I often find, in practice, that my approach leads me to doing something like what you say Rob Clifton did. I try to push as hard as I can for every position such that, while my views become clear enough in the end, I don't think my students can tell til the very end what my actual views are. Oftentimes I argue strenuously for views I consider to be wrong, and while I'm arguing for the view, I see my students nodding in approval. Then, when we ultimately demolish the view together, they typically see how their initial nods of approval were naive -- and so they become less naively accepting over time, which is really great!

AGS

Here are two reasons I tend not to share my own views with students in class:

1. I have seen it done badly so many times. From the class that presents philosophers in historical order until a few are reversed at the end so the the instructor can end the semester with the "correct" view, to the professor who while presenting what were admittedly poor arguments for both "A" and "not A" made it clear that there were NO good arguments for "not A" (a position many philosophers hold), to the professor who would make discussions irrelevant to his pet issue somehow turn into avenues for showing how wrong his detractors were, to a whole host of other issues. If I had ever seen this done well I might feel differently, but I've seen plenty of evidence that it can go horribly awry.

2. It provides a way out of critical thinking for students who would prefer to just be told what to believe. As a teaching assistant I once led a discussion on the pros and cons of libertarian vs. paternalistic forms of government. One very frustrated student raised his hand toward the end of class and begged me to just tell them which one was the correct view. He had no interest in thinking about the issues at stake. He wanted me to tell him the answer so he could write it in his notebook and leave. He (and several of his classmates) seemed to think that philosophers had already figured out the solution to this problem and that I was simply being cruel in refusing to tell him what it was. Giving him my own view (even with substantial arguments for it) would have reinforced his view that appeal to authority was the only way to arrive at truth. Almost all of my students that semester seemed unwilling to question authority or think for themselves in a way that I found to be quite disturbing. I could have told them that Objectivism was the only true philosophy and they would have believed me.

Rob Gressis

I think that 2 is a real worry--"tell us the answer so that we don't have to think"--but I think AGS is drawing two conclusions from it, one of which is wrong, and one of which is right. If I'm not mistaken--though I very well may be--, AGS thinks that this (1) reinforces a lack of critical thinking (which it does) AND (2) makes students think that the answer you give them is REALLY the right answer. But I don't think students draw that second conclusion. I think when they ask this kind of question, they're most concerned with what is the right answer on the test/essay, and not what is the right answer in real life.

I bring this up because I think a combination of (1) and (2) would be worse than just (1), but I doubt that that (2) happens much at all. (I'm not saying it never happens, but I think it's extremely rare.) So if you do reveal your own views, the damage you're doing is just (1), I think.

Marcus Arvan

AGS: I wouldn't be surprised if people make those mistakes. Still, I think they are avoidable, I take great care to avoid them myself, and I think to the extent that they can be avoided, the overall benefits of honest inquiry outweigh the costs.

First, on (2): I tell my students that they are *not* to think that they are to simply "agree with me", and I grade them accordingly on essays and other assignments (i.e. I do not reward reproducing lines-of-thought that I have defended; rather, I reward persuasive, *original* lines of argument whether they agree with my position or not). In short, I place a premium on critical thinking even though I don't hide my views.

Which brings me to (1): I don't present "the answer." One of the things I try to make clear is that I think some arguments seem more defensible to me than others, but that there are few truly definitive arguments and there is room for reasonable disagreement. Second, I'm also of the general persuasion -- particularly in ethics and political philosophy -- that a number of disparate views often contain an important *grain* of truth, and thus, that there is something to be learned from almost every theory or argument (even in those cases where the argument is ultimately bad or otherwise unsuccessful in my view). So, again, when I share my views, it is almost never in the vein of "here's the correct answer" but rather: let's look at *everything* we've covered and try to pull out different "grains of truth" we appear to have discovered along the way as a class. And again, I encourage my students to continually question these "grains of truth", much as I have over the course of my career. I almost never accept any argument or theory as the definitive truth, and am always willing to consider new arguments, update my views, etc., in light of further inquiry. I try to pass this perspective onto my students as well.

AGS

Rob: You may be right that in most cases it is only the lesser damage (1) that is at risk, and it is certainly helpful to have the distinction clarified. It is possible (even likely based on other conversations) that in the case I mention the student would have accepted my answer as the Truth about the issue (2), but I am certainly not ready to say that this particular experience is a common one. I would say that some students do seem to easily fall prey to the "cult of personality," and it does seem that a charismatic teacher who is vocal about his or her opinions could end up creating disciples rather than critical thinkers.

Do you think concern (1) alone is enough to make sharing your own views with students a bad idea across the board?


Marcus: You've convinced me that you are able to incorporate your own views into teaching in a way that avoids many of the worries I have. It would be an interesting thing to see done effectively. I'm not sure that I've ever witnessed it at the undergraduate level. Which leads me to still wonder if this is a technique that would work for everyone or even most people. Perhaps this is better formulated as a question: Is incorporating your own views into classroom discussion a technique that you think works for you (or some group of people similar to you) or is this a technique you would recommend that everyone (or the vast majority of well meaning people) adopt?

Rob Gressis

Hi AGS,

I think (1) is a serious worry. That said, I also think something Marcus wrote in the OP is a serious worry too, which is that if you don't take a side, philosophy can come across as lifeless. So, I think you have to pick your poison.

An additional point is that some ways of teaching are just more natural to us than others. I'm a pretty confessional guy to begin with (I know, I probably shouldn't have told you that), so I find it unnatural to conceal my views. I think doing so would make me a worse teacher. But I can easily imagine others for whom revelation would make them worse.

Marcus Arvan

AGS: I have no idea whether it would work for everyone, or even for most people. All I've tried to do is give my reasons for doing it, and my ways of avoiding the pitfalls you mention. My experience --n and I can only speak for me -- is that when I do it well, it seems to make the classroom a much better place.

I might also add, since you mentioned professors who seek disciples, that I really despise that sort of thing. I've known some philosophers like that, and I have no desire to be among them. If I had a student who wanted to be my disciple, I might turn them away. I like people who have the courage to think for themselves, and I'm probably the hardest on students who write like they're merely trying to "take my side."

Dan Dennis

I don’t say ‘here is my view’ but when I teach ethics it will be fairly clear what my view is. However when teaching Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Religion I try to appear neutral, because in those areas people may pidgeonhole you and not take what you say seriously if your position is other than the one they are already committed to. They may also end up attacking you rather than the view.

I always encourage dispute of the arguments currently being discussed in class – and emphasise that these are issues that bear upon how the student lives his life, and so issues upon which he needs to make up his own mind on, rather than this being merely a sterile academic subject.

When teaching ethics I always emphasise that it is the most important of all academic subjects – because it is concerned with the question of how to live one’s life. And I show that it governs how I go about living my life. This helps engage and liven up students…

I also find it helps to stop regularly to take questions. There is no point in giving a lecture and then only take questions at the end because once a student fails to understand something he may not follow what comes next. Having the discussions peppered throughout helps to keep students engaged ebacuse they are interested in the to and fro of the questions, and may be activiely thinking about what to ask , and how they would answer questions asked…

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