Category: Teaching (page 1 of 2)

Responding to Egoism

I’ve been teaching ethics since 2006, and just about every semester I teach the problem of ethical egoism. In short, that problem is: Why should I do what’s right if it’s not in my self-interest. To me, this is THE central question in ethics. Continue reading

New Job: Texas A&M University-Kingsville

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve accepted a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, starting this fall. I’ll be joining Jeff Glick and Emil Badici as the philosophers in the Department of History, Political Science and Philosophy.

Making the Case for Philosophy: #theDress edition

tumblr_nkcjuq8Tdr1tnacy1o1_500By now you’ve probably seen #theDress and have strong views on what color it is (white and gold).  Don’t worry, this post isn’t exactly about the dress. There’s already been enough discussion, including on the philosophical issues.

Instead, I want to draw your attention to something related, something that we can use to help explain to students what philosophy is and why it’s worthwhile. It has to do with the fact that most cultures in human history couldn’t see the color blue. Or to be more accurate, they did not recognize it. Naming and recognizing blue is relatively new.

imgresJules Davidoff (Goldsmith, University of London)
conducted experiments with the Himba tribe in Nambia. These people have no word for blue and do not distinguish it from green. So when presented with this image, Himba tribespeople typically couldn’t pick out which square was a different color.


However, they have a lot more words for green than we do in English. When shown this image, they could readily pick out the different square. Can you?

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 3.58.34 PMTo be honest, I had a hard time picking out which one was different. I had a guess, then after 30 seconds or so changed my mind. In the end, I got it right in the end, but wasn’t easy. I’d likely have missed it completely if not asked to find one that was different. (Follow the “most cultures…” link above to see the answer.)

I plan on using this example as part of my start-of-term lecture this fall. The point is that we already can see plenty of distinctions easily. But there are plenty that we miss too, simply because we don’t have the words or concepts at hand to notice them. Part of what philosophy does is (a) inform you  about important distinctions you’ve not seen before and (b) teach you how to make new distinction on your own.

Toolbox and K-12

toolbox_logoLast Friday Michael O’Rourke and I presented the Toolbox Project to the Kellogg Biological Station’s GK-12 Bioenergy Sustainability Project.
This project is Michigan State’s program (funded by the National Science Foundation) that puts Graduate STEM students in K-12 classrooms. We got to hear about some of the exciting experiments on bioenergy sustainability that they are doing with the kids to help teach how science is done (as opposed to just conveying scientific findings).gk126

Michael and I presented the Toolbox methodology and ran the grad students through an abbreviated Toolbox Workshop. Since the graduate students come from a variety of STEM fields, what their doing is a kind of interdisciplinary endeavor, albeit pedagogical instead of research. We had them complete Toolbox modules on the purpose of science and confirmation and then dialogue on those topics. As we hoped, a variety of views were expressed. As they talked, several of them verbally expressed that articulating their assumptions about science grew harder as the dialogue proceeded. This was precisely our goal, as we believe it will help them as science communicators.

After the presentation and workshop, we discussed with the grad students the possibility of using the Toolbox method for facilitated dialogues in the classroom (with modified, easier prompts) or for training K-12 science teachers. Both ideas were well received and the grad students gave some great feedback and ideas. Both of these would be exciting new avenues to expand the Toolbox into and we may have updates next term on our efforts.

Teaching with the Toolbox

As I mentioned here before, I’m spending this year as a postdoc researcher for the Toolbox Project toolbox_logoin the Philosophy Department at Michigan State. I’ve come up with a new, pedagogical application for the Toolbox. The basic approach of the Toolbox can be applied to just about any philosophy course, and I will do so when I (hopefully) return to the classroom next year. It should build engagement, provide an initial overview and introduction to material, creates dialogue, and allows for a new kind of assessment.

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Logic Joke

I wanted to start of my logic class this semester with a good logic joke. Logic can sometimes feel dull and boring to students, so setting a humorous tone from the start of term can be helpful. So I told them this joke, which is a modified (and more morally and socially acceptable version of another you may know). Feel free to steal it.

Last week a new neighbor moved in to the house across from mine. As one does with new neighbors, I went over to meet him and we got to talking. He asked what I did, and I told him I was a professor. When he inquired what I taught, I said, “Logic.”

He was curious and said, “Logic, what’s that?”

“Let me give you an example,” I said. “Do you own a lawnmower?”


“Well, I infer from this that you know how to use your lawnmower.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Well, I infer from this that you learned how to use your lawnmower by reading the instruction manual.”

“Right again.”

“So then I can infer that you know how to read.”

“Of course.”

“There you go. That’s logic.”

My new neighbor was impressed. A few days later, he was talking with some old friends when he mentioned that one of his new neighbors was a logic professor. His friend then asked, “Logic, what’s that?”

My neighbor, full of confidence, said, “Let me give you an example. Do you own a lawnmower?”


“What are you, illiterate?”


Making the Case for Philosophy: Part 3 – Tweaking the Curriculum

In this series, I’ve been discussing how we can better make the case for philosophy in order to increase enrollment in philosophy courses and the number of majors. So far, the focus has been on how better to market philosophy and what the benefits of philosophy actually are. For the final entry in the series, I’d like to propose that we consider modifying the nature of the courses we offer to undergraduates to increase interest.  Continue reading

Making the Case for Philosophy: Part 2 – The Benefits of Philosophy

Of late, there has been a significant uptick in the attention people are paying to the decline of the humanities. (See the recent NY Times article summarizing much of what has already been reported elsewhere.) There are fewer and fewer students interested in majoring in the humanities, including philosophy. There are, justifiably, many who are worrying about who or what are to blame. Perhaps the Great Recession scarred many incoming students (and their parents) into the false belief that the humanities aren’t marketable and will lead to financial ruin. Lee McIntyre presents a compelling argument that, at least for philosophers, it our own fault. While there are likely to be a host of causes for the decline of the humanities in general and philosophy specifically (and not necessarily all of them bad), one of the biggest problems, I believe, is that for too long we haven’t done a very good job articulating the benefits of a philosophical education. If we’re to have any hope of improving our position in the modern academy (and ensure the continued existence of philosophy programs), we’d better fix this mistake and fast. Joblessness is no long just for philosophy majors. Useful people are starting to feel the pinch.

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Audience Response Systems in the Classroom

Audience Response Systems (ARS) are various technological means for audiences (or more specifically students) to respond to questions or pose questions during class. You may have heard of “clickers” which are hand-held remotes used to convey student responses to faculty questions. Since most clicker systems usually required a classroom to be wired for them to work, some web-based alternatives have emerged that let students use their laptops, tablets, or phones.

keypadI’ve been intrigued by these systems since their effectiveness at increasing student engagement was first demonstrated to me at a teaching seminar at the University of Colorado. With an ARS, a professor can do a quick poll, and in less than a minute find out how many students comprehend the material just discussed. If they get it, move on. If not, go over it again or have the students break up into groups and teach each other. Students definitely engage and learn more. And instructors have a much better idea of how much students understand during class.

Every year I consider using a web-based ARS (as I’ve never been in a wired classroom). But every year I come up against the same questions: (1) Will every student have access to a device; (2) can I justify adding costs to the students for this interactive feature; and (3) will allowing the use of laptops, tablets, and phones end up distracting students more than helping them? I’m curious about your thoughts.

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Term Ends, but with Sadness

(Originally published Dec. 11, 2012)

The fall term is over. It’s been a very busy one, and there were many interesting and exciting things to report. But I can’t now, though maybe later. I found out on Monday that one of my students was hit and killed by a car over the weekend. She was only 19. The class felt odd and empty with her empty chair this morning during the final exam. Though some students already knew, I didn’t have the heart to tell the whole class before their final. But I did tell them afterwards. What a terrible, tragic way to end a semester.

In memoriam, Jessie Winterholler.

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