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  •  Can You Demonstrate Some Critical Thinking? (4.00)

    Consider the actual incidents described in the article that drew the professor's ire. In these cases, the students expected her to treat their beliefs as valid, proper philosophical positions without any examination or debate of them. This is what she means by opinion - the students expected to stand up and be able to say "Plato is wrong because I believe X" and get marks for it.

    Her writing, especially about the "Thou SHALT KILL" incident, makes it clear that she'd have been willing to accommodate these students... Had they actually tried to find some sort of middle ground or, you know, justify their beliefs in any way, shape, or form. Instead, they expected her to simply accept and give them marks for unthinking recitation of Republican doctrine.

    If she did actually discourage students from participating in discussion, that would be wrong. But I've yet to meet a philosophy teacher that does that.

    Monsters think it's all right to be a monster, after all. - Hitherby Dragons

    by RHunter on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 08:21:41 AM PST

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    •  key point is this one (4.00)
      Students labor under the false presumption that philosophy is about the expression of "their" opinions and that all opinions are equally valid.

      This, I find, is what many people think about everything -- that debate is the expression of opinions, rather than efforts to convince using logic, rhetoric and evidence.

      Not all ideas are equal. This is the essence of liberalism -- that reason will lead individuals to choose better ideas for a given situation.

      •  Key Point - Precisely! (4.00)

        That is exactly what the issue is here. These students seem to have wanted marks for simply expressing their opinions, as if merely having those opinions made them valid positions against which there could be no argument or disagreement. The problem here is that philosophy - and, as you say, liberalism - says that this is not so. Fundamentally not so. For any position, its internal consistency, foundation, and construction must be defended through reason and rigor.

        Of course, in philosophy, this often winds up going around in circles, as different people work from different fundamental assumptions. But all this says is that there may be multiple "equally good" reasonable philosophies. (Of course, the entire philosophical process can be seen as an attempt to decide whether or not there are, and we haven't really managed to make any progress in 3000 years. Though we have produced an impressive number of reasonable philosophies.)

        Monsters think it's all right to be a monster, after all. - Hitherby Dragons

        by RHunter on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 09:01:05 AM PST

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        •  You aren't a professor, are you? (4.00)
          I've taught philosophy at a college about equally mixed between conservative and liberal, and almost all of the students do indeed conflate expression of opinion with philosophical discussion. They really don't like it when their pet ideas are shot down, and are inclined to think "who are you to judge the opinions of somebody else?" They want to say: it's true because I say so. At first they usually want this truth to hold for others, but they will usually quickly back down when challenged to assert that it is true "for me." In short, they veer wildly between dogmatism and relativism in a way that would be touchingly naive if it weren't so confused and ultimately destructive.

          So, what do you do? If you want to get the students to think (which means that you provide compelling critical challenges to what they say wihout coming across as too much of a tyrant) then you have to start by treating their effort with respect. You ask for clarification (and yes, you can use questions that are designed to lead students to see the contradictions in their views). You acknowledge what is reasonable in their view while pointing out problematic parts; or you can point out what would be perfectly reasonable if certain critical assumptions were true. And then you ask: on what grounds are those assumptions justified? What if someone else believes a different assumption? How can two adults resolve the disagreement, or is there no way?

          All but the most hard-core religious zealots can be brought to see weaknesses in their views, and if you haven't embarrassed or dismissed them too much in the process, most will actually respect you for it. If you're talking ethics, you will get down to some basic disagreements on premises that will not get resolved. But if you're in the realm of logic or epistemology, there is a great deal that you should be able to get students to acknowledge (teaching the scientific revolution is one of the most satisfying things I've ever done, and you can throw religious students all kinds of bones if you want to).

          I'm sure this professor has a tougher crowd than I did, but all that means is that she has a greater challenge and a greater opportunity to try to break through the wall of dogma and leap the pit of reflexive relativism.

          the spirit is restored by wounding

          by jd in nyc on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 02:45:44 PM PST

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      •  The Urge to Forget (none)
        that some ideas are better than others occurs most often when our egos are threatened.  Since the ego is the mind's device for preserving the self from the other, threats to the ego are threats to the self and must be vanquished.  If we hold an idea that logically is not the better or best idea and identify ourselves with it, we tend to defend the indefensible.  Usually irrationally.

        But a little reflection (okay -- I know, I know) leads us to realize that if it weren't TRUE that some ideas are better than others, there would be no progress.

        If all ideas are created equal there is no reason to search for a vaccine against AIDS; no reason to explore space, no reason to study nanotechnology.  The error of forgetting that some ideas are better than others results in anyone's "solution" to a problem being as good as anyone else's.  And everyone know's that is not true.

        (Imagine Teletubbies w/ Pretzelhead Bush) Stay the course -- stick with inbreeding.

        by Limelite on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 07:25:33 PM PST

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    •  Philosophy Professors (none)
      are just as capable as anybody else of shutting down a discussion (I say as someone who comes from a family of them).

      Of course undergraduates think that philosophy is just a matter of their opinions. Thats why they are STUDENTS. The role of the professor is to guide them towards a more rigorous manner of thinking, not to get outraged at the fact that they haven't read any philosophy books yet. Reading this account is like listening to cops complaining about how dangerous their jobs are. I mean if you don't take well to danger become a CPA instaed of a cop. If you don't have the patience for the intellectual follies of sophomores maybe you shouldn't be a professor.

      Of course there are indefensible incidents that no professor should be expected to capitulate to (the student taking over the lectern for example), but  when they seem to come at such a high frequency I think its fair to ask some questions about the quality of the pedagogy being practiced.

      "Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories." -- Amilcar Cabral

      by Christopher Day on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 11:42:06 AM PST

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      •  Quality of the Pedagogy? (4.00)

        Have you been paying attention at all during the last four years? I think it's time to ask serious questions about the students' prior education. And I should note that the professor in question is not getting outraged at their lack of knowledge. Rather, she's getting outraged at their total lack of desire to correct that lack of knowledge, and expectation that demonstrating their lack of knowledge will get them full marks, and belief that, if it does not, they must destroy the professor in question.

        Also, you're assuming an awful lot. Why do you assume that this is anything more than a single incident that she felt passionately enough about to mention in her op-ed? Why do you assume that this is somehow a constant or frequent occurrence in her class? She makes it very clear in the article that the vast majority of students - even conservative students - make it through with no problem, but that some feel resentment over the fact that simply parroting Republican talking points will not get them a passing grade. The point of the article is to highlight the kind of student, and the actions of those students, that will be bringing suit under this proposed law, which you seem to approve of because... Professors need to learn to meekly avoid popping their students' bubbles or something?

        It's obvious that you also missed the recent article about Young Republicans in CA putting red stars on the doors of "communist teachers" and other similar incidents nationwide. Writing these incidents off as "bad professors" displays a startling level of lack of reading comprehension and critical thinking.

        Monsters think it's all right to be a monster, after all. - Hitherby Dragons

        by RHunter on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 12:47:19 PM PST

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        •  mixing issues (none)
          We all agree that the trend toward silencing teachers is ominous and outrageous. That is not what Day is taking issue with.

          He is pointing out that this professor seems to have lost her class, and unless it was truly filled with hard-core fundamentalists this need not have happened. There are ways you can get a poorly-informed, non-rigorous class to begin to see the light that is humanism. I agree completely that it is far more difficult than it should be, and that professors start at a deficit. But that wasn't questioned.

          the spirit is restored by wounding

          by jd in nyc on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 02:52:09 PM PST

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          •  Lost Her Class? (none)

            Provide evidence for this statement. She names a few problem students that had been causing problems for her, and describes incidents with them. She says nothing about the majority of her class turning against her. In fact, she says quite the opposite!

            Not surprising, my students had never considered what it would be like to be in Iraqi civilian shoes, to be occupied by foreign invaders. It was the first time anyone asked them to think about Iraqi families from an empathic angle.
            Most of them understood the connection between Plato's assessment of war and the fact that Iraq is the 2nd largest source of oil in the world

            Doesn't sound like losing her class to me. In fact, it sounds like she got through to many of them, save a few hard-line conservatives, who Day seem to be assuming are not just the majority in the class, but are in the right.

            And that is how this movement began--with the absurd notion that students' opinions, no matter how stupid or wrong those opinions may be, have as much validity as academic scholarship.

            (Not directly relevant, but it makes very clear what she's taking issue with. Academic scholarship, in this context, being actual philosophy.)

            Monsters think it's all right to be a monster, after all. - Hitherby Dragons

            by RHunter on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 03:24:19 PM PST

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            •  "conservatives in the right"? (none)
              Hardly. Look, I'm more or less a friggin communist. You can disagree with my analysis of the original article, but please don't accuse me of sympathizing with the political outlook of these students. My point is really a pedagogical one. Maybe I misread the original diary, but I don't think I did. One thing that comes through in the passage you quote is what is essentially and argument from authority -- that the products of acdemic scholarship have an intrinsically greater claim to validity than the casually held opinions of students. The problem with this is that there is a lot of crappy or wrong academic scholarship and sometimes the not particularly rigorously argued opinions of undergraduates are right. That this is a possibility is really a pre-condition of a respectful pedagogy. Everybody begins from the presupposition that their ideas are right. If you want to get them to think critically you can't fall back on the authority of academia as even an implicit argument.

              "Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories." -- Amilcar Cabral

              by Christopher Day on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 04:18:33 PM PST

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              •  I don't think (4.00)
                we have enough information on this professor for you to be criticizing her pedagogy.  She wrote:

                In this rather oppressive atmosphere, particularly if one lives in a conservative county, as I do, teaching philosophy is a dangerous occupation.

                I'm going to give that sentence more weight than you're according it.  I took undergrad philosophy classes at the highest tiered schools in my state (UC system).  Me and my fellow students were basically all nerds who wanted to learn philosophy.  So even if there were arguments based on diferring political mindsets, it was all done in good faith and with the common goal that we were there for philosophy.

                Recently I took classes a lower tiered school (Cal State system).  The students and teachers were rather different, especially in terms of their goals, their reason for being there.  I had one professor, on the first day of class, dismiss us after handing out the syllabus!  "We'll start the real class next time."  And the students were happy, not outraged, that they got out some 2 hours early.  

                This professor, however, doesn't even teach at a Cal State school, but at a small community college, in a conservative county.  My point is not to disparage community colleges, rather to note that I have no idea what it's like in her school, and since you say you teach at a progressive college, I'm guessing you don't either.  When she says it's a dangerous occupation, maybe that's not hyperbole.  

                Also, she's a woman, and as noted down-thead, just that fact can lead students to taking an antagonistical stance from the start.  I think we need to take that into consideration as well in understanding her situation.    

                •  Dangerous Situation (none)

                  To gain an understanding of exactly what kind of threat she's facing, track down the story about a College Republican organization in California (south CA, I think) going around putting red stars on the doors of "communist" professors. It was, I believe, part of an effort to get the college in question to withdraw tenure from those professors, and browbeat them into following the party line.

                  Monsters think it's all right to be a monster, after all. - Hitherby Dragons

                  by RHunter on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 08:31:27 PM PST

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            •  too quick (none)
              OK, I was too quick on the "losing her class." Maybe it wasn't the class in general, but a few people who she lost, enraged and then treated with public contempt. That was juvenile on her part (e.g., "What planet are you on?"), and I guessed that if there were these kinds of out of control conflicts with multiple students then she probably didn't come across too well to the class in general. But that was just a guess. My point is not to tell her she's a bad liberal, but to suggest a more constructive path.

              I had many discussions of abortion and all kinds of touchy ethical issues with students, some of whom were very much a part of the fundamentalist Republican base. I never got into anything remotely like the kind of shouting matches that she did, even though I pressed some of those kids pretty hard on their views.

              Just to give one example, I rather systematically dismantled arguments against abortion, though I also pointed out weaknesses in pro-choice arguments. The goal was to get everyone to think through their assumptions more clearly, and to understand why certain kinds of considerations matter (including the use of ethical rather than doctrinal religious justifications for laws).

              That's what an intro philosophy class is all about, IMHO.

              In some moods I am capable of loudly complaining about many of the same attitudes that this professor did. She hit the nail on the head with some of her comments about how these kids go wrong. But I also think she could use a little more self-understanding to see how she may be unnecessarily provoking highly aggressive responses from students.

              the spirit is restored by wounding

              by jd in nyc on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 04:23:31 PM PST

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              •  Too Slow (3.50)
                I had many discussions of abortion and all kinds of touchy ethical issues with students, some of whom were very much a part of the fundamentalist Republican base. I never got into anything remotely like the kind of shouting matches that she did, even though I pressed some of those kids pretty hard on their views.

                I've had to deal with conservatives a lot - working in IT, many of my coworkers fancy themselves brilliant libertarians, never mind the kinds of people I saw in schools. Let me say that you did not get out of this through skill. You got lucky. You got to deal with conservatives that were not frothing at the mouth loonies. If you'd had to deal with the real wingnuts, that technique would not have worked. You'd merely have drawn more trouble and fury from them, as you'd have shown weakness by admitting a potential fault in your own beliefs, something they believe cannot exist if beliefs are "right".

                Note that, if you read the article, you'd see that she admits that she was wrong to mock the student who claimed there were no civilian deaths in Iraq. However, I don't think there was a better way to deal with that. She effectively drove home to her class that philosophy had to be grounded in facts. And from the sounds of it, that student was angry merely because she'd questioned Bush's wisdom - and I've seen that happen far too often, caused by such minor things, to think that she could possibly have brought up the matter in any way that would have avoided it. That student probably honestly believed that, and I contend that such basic denial of reality makes philosophy impossible.

                She's provoking aggressive responses from these people because she's asking them to question their beliefs and assumptions, an essential prerequisite to philosophy. If you don't believe that that can cause such violent reactions, even if approached diplomatically, then you need to read up on cognitive dissonance.

                Monsters think it's all right to be a monster, after all. - Hitherby Dragons

                by RHunter on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 08:24:39 PM PST

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                •  Oh, Please (none)
                  That was a silly lecture from you. I'm very well aware of both the concept of cognitive dissonance and the practical reality of it. The fact remains that I taught all kinds of tricky subjects to a wide range of students (admittedly at selective universities) and never once took a stance on religion and conservative ideas that was other than critical. Respectful, but critical. And as a result, I never had a student try to take over my class, never got into a verbal war with a student in which we expressed our mutual disdain for each other, etc.

                  I was teaching Just War Theory as the Iraq war began, and pointed out how little justification there appeared to be for it on standard ethical grounds. What I didn't do was tell the kids they were idiots if they thought otherwise. What I did do was point out how little evidence there was for justification on the grounds of immanent threat, and how if Iraq counted then many, many other nations constitute immanent threats to each other and war would be very easy to "justly" wage, which is not the kind of progress a civilized world should be making.

                  I've seen cognitive dissonance in my students, and I respond by pointing out what I think is sound in their reasoning, but also identify the assumptions that they haven't justified and why there are problems remaining. There is nothing weak in this, nor does it appear weak when you speak as articulately and as authoritatively as I do. Don't forget that you've never heard me speak.

                  My tactics don't work on everyone, but there is no tactic that works better when you are dealing in a face to face encounter. I'm all for sarcasm and scathing broadsides in writing and in the media. Those more strident modes of communication have their place, but it isn't the classroom.

                  If you understand cognitive dissonance, then you really need to realize how to get around it. There are actual tactics for dealing with it. Don't bang your head into the damn wall!

                  Finally, let me be frank as you were with me. I am sure that my "getting out of this" was in large part due to skill. I take it from your non-answer earlier that you have never taught, at least not at the college level. If so, you don't know what it's like to lead a class and bring them to places they didn't know existed a week earlier, places which they often resist getting to know or to take seriously. There is an art to it. I acknowledge that she probably had a rougher lot to start with than I did, but I do not at all concede that there was no better way for her to deal with it than the way she did.

                  (PS, you wrote that if I'd read the article, I would know that she admitted she was wrong. Is this the comment you meant: "All right, I confess to being a tad bit sarcastic." That is not an admission of error.)

                  Anyway, take one last shot if you want. This argument has been played out, I think.

                  the spirit is restored by wounding

                  by jd in nyc on Tue Mar 29, 2005 at 09:29:07 PM PST

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                  •  Check Your Assumptions at the Door (none)
                    I'm very well aware of both the concept of cognitive dissonance and the practical reality of it.

                    No, you think you are.

                    What I didn't do was tell the kids they were idiots if they thought otherwise.

                    Neither did this professor. She pointed out that they could not justify the war and their opposition to abortion as moral absolutist positions. They exploded at her. This type of conservative self-ids very strongly as moral absolutists.

                    I've seen cognitive dissonance in my students, and I respond by pointing out what I think is sound in their reasoning, but also identify the assumptions that they haven't justified and why there are problems remaining.

                    Then you haven't dealt with serious cases of cognitive dissonance. Doing this to someone with a serious case would result in an even more violent reaction.

                    If you understand cognitive dissonance, then you really need to realize how to get around it. There are actual tactics for dealing with it.

                    Yes, and those tactics involve getting the person spitting mad and then letting them stew.

                    I take it from your non-answer earlier that you have never taught, at least not at the college level.

                    Wow. It's amazing how many unfounded assumptions college professors are making these days... Perhaps I simply don't like giving out personal information online? Or didn't notice the question?

                    Monsters think it's all right to be a monster, after all. - Hitherby Dragons

                    by RHunter on Wed Mar 30, 2005 at 05:42:46 AM PST

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                    •  just terrible (none)
                      I should resist responding, but can't.

                      How would you know if I understood cognitive dissonance well or merely thought so? In fact, I've studied it quite a bit and told you what you don't appear to know: there are well-known techniques for getting past it so that people get less defensive under the stress of self-contradiction and can more easily adopt new views. This is a well-understood field.

                      I pointed some of these technique out to you and you never acknowledged them. Getting a person mad and letting them stew is NOT a good idea unless you have first gained the person's friendship or respect, and even then most people don't know how to finesse it. What research on cognitive dissonance are you reading that indicates enragement is a good way to overcome it? Please share if you actually have information. If not, shut up, because you don't know what you're talking about.

                      Finally, you make a basic error in your last response, common among college students. When I wrote that "I take it from your non-answer that you have never taught," I was pointing to a conclusion, not an assumption. I did not start with this belief, but first came to it after reading the first post I responded to. Then, when you didn't reply that you did teach and kept going on in what I regard to be a mostly ignorant way, I was more confident of my conclusion.

                      Note that I'm not saying you are a college student, just that you made the same mistake I've seen many times in them. And since I've got a Ph.D., you must respect my views even when I insult you and accuse you of thinking something stupid, right? In fact, according to your view, this is a great way to get you to see how stupid you are. Isn't that the principle you're defending here?

                      How well is it working on you? Look at how I've asserted authority on the basis of my Ph.D. in Philosophy and dismissed your views, and notice what reaction that caused in you. The professor you're defending did the same thing to her class. Still think it's a good idea?

                      I believe you find yourself in a paradoxical situation right now, my son. Sadly, I think you're too worked up to recognize it.

                      the spirit is restored by wounding

                      by jd in nyc on Wed Mar 30, 2005 at 06:12:38 PM PST

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                      •  folks, step back a minute (none)
                        It's all fine and good to say these whiny conservatives might have been handled better, whatever. But keep in mind that now they are living in a country where in the very near future they will be able to to VERY MUCH MORE than just whine. They will be able to exact legal terrorism, probably with the help of numerous overly-encouraging republican foundations, against any professor who looks at them funny. They will be able to financially destroy people.

                        The conservative side has become the ideal home for bullies of all sorts, and incidents like those described in this post, which could be dismissed or forgiven in the last 20 years, must now be taken more seriously in the context of new McCarthyism.

                        •  you surprised me (none)
                          I thought this discussion was only being read by RHunter and I, since it had long since slipped off the main page. I definitely wasn't doing it for public edification at this point.

                          Anyway, I completely agree with this comment:

                          The conservative side has become the ideal home for bullies of all sorts, and incidents like those described in this post, which could be dismissed or forgiven in the last 20 years, must now be taken more seriously in the context of new McCarthyism.

                          My original intent wasn't to dismiss them, but to suggest a constructive way to prevent them in a classroom setting. Nothing I said had anything to do with a general political approach to the problems we face or the kinds of social policies that would counteract them.

                          the spirit is restored by wounding

                          by jd in nyc on Wed Mar 30, 2005 at 08:39:59 PM PST

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