Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Conducting Small-Group Discussions in a Large Room

Applicantus asks:

Fellow smokers, I need a bit of teaching advice or some help brainstorming. My class will be taking place in a very large classroom where the chairs are pinned to the floor. I was planning on quite a bit of small group discussion during class, but that would now be a challenge. Or will it? How realistic will it be to ask students to turn around in their chairs and discuss with those seated behind them? How many at a time? This is a medical ethics class, and so I was planning on many case studies. (The reason I only found it out now is that the classroom was being renovated and last year the chairs were not bolted to the floor in that particular room; it is now much fancier, though not very conducive for my purposes - and it's too late to change rooms, since I have 80 students).

Any thoughts?

--Mr. Zero

Monday, August 30, 2010

I Really Like My Job

I worry sometimes that this point gets lost in all the political kvetching and bitching about the workaday bullshit we professional philosophers endure: This is an awesome job. One thing I find especially gratifying is that several of our best undergraduate majors are products of my intro courses. Now, I don't teach many courses in the upper division, so I didn't have much to do with their subsequent growth. But it feels good anyway.

--Mr. Zero

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Couldn't Have Said It Better

In comments, anon 1:57 writes,



--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Atlas Shrugged versus Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Our recent discussion of Ayn Rand got me thinking about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This is because although it is sometimes claimed that many students are influenced to become philosophy majors by reading Rand, I was never a Randian; I was first motivated to study philosophy in part because I read Zen when I was in high school. I'd never been exposed to the most important questions in epistemology and value theory before, and I thought the narrative was compelling in its own right. (So what? I was in high school.)

I wonder if Pirsig and his book make for an apt comparison case for Rand and her novels in the context of philosophy encyclopedia inclusion. The book is pretty popular (though not as popular as Rand's most popular works), and the views Pirsig articulates in it have a relatively large following, if the number of zany internet websites is a guide. Of course, Pirsig's actual views are sophomoric, deeply unsophisticated, and are therefore taken seriously by literally no one who has a Ph.D. in philosophy. (They're not, right?) And when I reread it between college and grad school, the book also seemed to me to be way, way off in its interpretations of various historical philosophers, such as Socrates and Kant--as a history of philosophy it seemed to me to be remarkably terrible. But Rand's views are unsophisticated and naive, and I read somewhere that she mangles Aristotle pretty bad. But I don't think anyone would argue that Pirsig or Zen... deserve articles in the SEP. Right? So, what gives? Maybe Pirsig's mistakes were more basic, and his followers less influential in the public policy sphere.

--Mr. Zero

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ayn Rand & Derek Parfit

A funny thing happened over at Leiter yesterday. There was a discussion about the Stanford Encyclopedia: someone emailed Leiter complaining about the worthlessness of the subject matter of some of the most recent articles, e.g. Ayn Rand. Leiter's correspondent thinks that Ayn Rand (in particular) is unworthy of inclusion in the Stanford Encyclopedia, and wonders what the SEP is coming to.

So anyway, this person Tibor Machan chimes in to this discussion, and says,

I have been impressed and influenced by Rand and have done reasonably well in the discipline and find the effort to purge her disgusting--how many thinkers I might purge if I just went by me gut reactions, like that commentator appears to have done! (Habermas, Derrida, Lyotard (?), Parfit, and a whole bunch of funsterists/sophists posing as serious philosophers. Give me a break. Let a million flowers bloom and ignore the snooty bunch!

The funny thing is, I kind of agree with this, overall. I side with the commenters who think the SEP ought to cast its net widely, in case I ever need a quick, accurate overview of otherwise worthless "philosophical" set of ideas. But then there's this weird inclusion of Derek Parfit, whom I did not realize had much in common with Habermas, Derrida, or Lyotard. Hmmmm.

It didn't take long for an anonymous commentator to come to Parfit's defense:

Judging by his comment above, Tibor Machan appears to think that Ayn Rand is vastly superior to a number of other philosophers, including - of all people - Derek Parfit. At the very least, he suggests that the case for excluding Rand from the SEP is *on par* with the case for excluding the work of Parfit (!).

This is not the place to discuss the merits of Professor Parfit's writings. I will simply note that Machan's assessment of the relative merits of Parfit's work and Ayn Rand's work is surely the the most bizarre and preposterous claim that has ever been made on this blog.


So Tibor Machan replies:

So I read that "Machan's assessment of the relative merits of Parfit's work and Ayn Rand's work is surely the the most bizarre and preposterous claim that has ever been made on this blog." We are to take this on faith, I assume. Well, I have studied Parfit's work--Reasons and Persons, in particular--and it is pure funsterism, sophistry: Because something is logically not inconceivable (that, say, we are all nations or teams, not individuals), it becomes a serious philosophical thesis. Give me a break. Just because someone is clever it doesn't make him or her philosophically astute! (At least is looks match his style!)

I don't know about you, but I found this exchange to be extremely fun. Say what you want, Atlas Shrugged is not philosophically on a par with Reasons and Persons. And if the main, representative thesis you took away from R&P is that "Because something is logically not inconceivable..., it becomes a serious philosophical thesis," then you were not "studying" it (as Mark Silcox points out in a later comment). And luckily for us all, Ayn Rand and her writing style are extremely sexually attractive. Also, what is funsterism? I googled it, but Google thought I was spelling it wrong.

--Mr. Zero

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sometimes I think this cycle never ends

We're less than two months from the fall JFP. It seems to me that this year will be about the same as last year. I don't think things will be worse--the financial situation at my school has not deteriorated in the past year, at least. But although I've heard rumors that the recession is officially over, I don't think things have really improved or anything. From where I sit, things look no better now than they did a year ago. I am anticipating a very tough job-market season in which not many searches are cancelled, but in which not many searches are conducted.

Anyways, that's my prediction. What say you, Smokers?

--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Late Withdrawals

This has happened at least once a semester since I took this job. A student who has been underperforming all semester--turning in half-assed homework assignments, missing a lot of class, earning failing grades on exams--realizes suddenly that he or she is going to fail the class. But it's after the late withdrawal deadline, so there's no simple way to get out of it. So they write me an email or come to my office and ask me to give them permission to obtain a late withdrawal.

Now, it's really not in my power to simply grant the late withdrawal. It is in my power to let the dean know that, in my view, the student has a legitimate reason for the withdrawal, and unless I do this, the dean will not normally consider the student's request. But it's not as though the dean acts on my say-so. It's the dean's prerogative, and I can't imagine that my input would count for much.

I am nevertheless asked to grant late withdrawals all the time, and since it's university policy to grant late withdrawals only in cases of extreme extenuating circumstances (or it ought to be), I always ask what the extenuating circumstances are. In several cases, the extenuating circumstances have been, "I will fail the class unless you let me withdraw." These student thereby demonstrate incomprehension of the meaning of the expression 'extenuating circumstances.' One time the student told me that since the university has already taken her money, the F on her transcript would be a "double punishment." I mean, where to begin?

My guess is that most of this stems from a pervasive It Doesn't Hurt To Ask mindset. But in typical cases, the student is persistent--making several requests over the course of days or weeks. And I've had a couple of students send me borderline belligerent emails, or go over my head and complain to my chair about this. I like my job a lot, and although I have been compelled by these experiences to reflect upon the justification for assigning grades and holding students responsible for their academic performance, overall I find this aspect of it really, really annoying.

--Mr. Zero