Friday, August 04, 2006

Rob Loftis: "Teaching Question Asking"

I had an audience of 15, which is good for the conference I am at, and filled the room. People asked me a lot of questions, and they were tough questions, and it made me somewhat defensive. I think that was productive though, at least for me, because it made me bring out a lot of my presuppositions. Towards the end, I started to give in to people's pushing, though, which also helped me learn from them.

More concretely: My talk was called "Teaching Question Asking in Philosophy Classes." I began by discussing two classroom games, one I learned from Laura R. and the other from Erin McC. Laura taught me to ask the students to bring a question to class every day written on an index card with their name and the date. I have been using these as inputs to various small group exercises, where students have to exchange cards and answer them, or analyze the questions in other ways, such as identifying their presuppositions, evaluating their relevance, etc. Erin McC taught me a game called quescussion, in which you have a discussion where every speech act must be a question.

I was pressed hard on the value of both exercises. Quescussion got the most criticism, especially after we played a sample game. Nils Rauhut talked about the kind of learner he was: when he asks questions, he wants answers, so he can ask more questions. How can all these questions without answers be valuable. I talked about how different exercises served different kinds of learners, and that not every student has to be served by every exercise. Quescussion is played to get students used to generating large amounts of questions quickly. I think paper writing sequences serve the very hungry student Rauhut was describing better.

Another seminar participant suggested that simply making people feel uncomfortable has pedagogical value. It forces them to think, and to sort of activate themselves more. I was tempted at this point to introduce a sexual analogy, so I did, because I love giving into temptation. If the answer to a question is like sexual release, then sometimes postponing the answer can improve the experience, heightening the pleasure and giving you a chance to explore more.

There was also the obligatory conversation about teachers as experts here, and I gave my pitch against what Freire called the "banking model" of education, and has been inveighed against by philosophers of education since Plato. I always liked the way Plato put it. He said that teaching is not like putting light into blind eyes or pouring wine into a vessel. It is like turning people to face the light.

Something similar came up with the discussion of small group exercises and the question cards. What do I say to students who ask why they are paying $25,000 just to talk to each other. For that money they should hear from the expert. My stock reply here is that they are not paying to be told the answers, they are paying to be put in carefully crafted situations where they are able to learn and grow. My new addition to this line of argument is that I don't want to do anything in the classroom that can be replaced by a podcast. If they just want to sit and listed to someone talk, they can download academic MP3s. The classroom must be something that can't be done on line.

Something deeper happened when I introduced the definition of a question that I got from Douglas Walton. I question is a speech act that introduces a proposition without committing the speaker to that proposition. Nils was good here, as well. He suggested that questions are not simply tentative assertions. They are expressions of desire. Perhaps, I said, they are more like commands, then, than assertions. Alexadra Bradner suggested that if questions are just tentative propositions, they aren't worth much. Why not just say what you mean then. This fed back to a complaint about the quescussion game: that no one was really asking questions, they were merely making assertions in question form. I suggested that questions could be replaced, in some artificial language, by numbers that follow every assertion and represent the speakers degree of commitment to the assertion. This, I thought, would still be a useful and good language game. Other people, though, seemed to think if questions are that uninteresting, we clearly do not have the right analysis of questions.

An older man whose name I did not catch suggested I read Collingswood. This is something that happens to me periodically, it seems, no matter what I am talking about.

A younger man whose name I did not catch told of a wonderful exercise he used with his students. He had them gather up all the kinds of questions they were asked in other classes, in order to see what made philosophy classes unique. It helped him learn about what his students were getting elsewhere and helped every learn what made philosophy questions unique. The same person also had a nice analogy to the comic arts. A good comic asks questions that make the ordinary seem strange again. Suddenly philosophy seemed like a Seinfeld routine: "What's up with material objects, anyway?"

That was very productive. I have things to mull over now. I'm logging off now to go mull. Mull. Mull. Mull.

4 comments:

KP said...

I really liked this post. I liked how frank you were in the beginning about getting defensive when asked tough questions after your presentation. Then that initial feeling went away pretty much, it seems, and you quickly realized how useful their questions and objections were. That's the process our students go through each semester, I think it's important that we remember what it feels like to be challenged, for good reasons, for the sake of higher learning.

I also like when you say this:

"My stock reply here is that they are not paying to be told the answers, they are paying to be put in carefully crafted situations where they are able to learn and grow. My new addition to this line of argument is that I don't want to do anything in the classroom that can be replaced by a podcast. If they just want to sit and listed to someone talk, they can download academic MP3s. The classroom must be something that can't be done on line."

I weigh attendance quite heavily for the reasons you describe here: what we do in the classroom cannot be easily duplicated outside the classroom. My classes feature lots of in-class group work too. My motto is "learning by doing". They will likely forget who Kant, Mill, and Aristotle are, or at least forget who said what, probably several months out of the course. I frequently run into former students, and I always good naturedly quiz them. They never remember facts about particular philosophers! What they DO remember are the methodologies we practiced, IN class.

Maybe you'll find this helpful, maybe you have done something like it: I have taken to calling attendance, on the syllabus, "Classroom Practice". And it counts for 20% of their grade. For a class that meets twice a week, they lose 10 points each time they miss a "practice" session. That's the strategy I used last semester, and it worked so well then, I am doing it again this time.

Wonderful blog you've got here. I second many of the commentators here in saying it is wonderful that you are willing to share your resources with other teachers. I saw the post by the anonymous student who was mad that his/her teacher had copied your questions, rather than make up her own. What that student does not realize is that back in the day, junior teachers used to get lots of resources from senior teachers. They were passed hand to hand, then modified over the years to become one's own. Two things have changed since then. One, there are more adjuncts who do not have easy access to senior teachers & colleagues, which makes the sharing and collaboration aspect of teaching communities nearly impossible for a "freeway flyer" teacher who runs from one school to another. I'm an adjunct. The resources and ideas I've found online have been a godsend. They don't necessarily save me time, because I spend lots of time adding to them and modifying them. What they do is give me ideas. Teaching ideas don't occur in a vacuum! Second, the Internet simply makes that process--the same sharing of materials process that's always gone on--more public.

Whoa, this is a long response, eh? Anyway, awesome stuff. Keep it up!

KP said...

I really liked this post. I liked how frank you were in the beginning about getting defensive when asked tough questions after your presentation. Then that initial feeling went away pretty much, it seems, and you quickly realized how useful their questions and objections were. That's the process our students go through each semester, I think it's important that we remember what it feels like to be challenged, for good reasons, for the sake of higher learning.

I also like when you say this:

"My stock reply here is that they are not paying to be told the answers, they are paying to be put in carefully crafted situations where they are able to learn and grow. My new addition to this line of argument is that I don't want to do anything in the classroom that can be replaced by a podcast. If they just want to sit and listed to someone talk, they can download academic MP3s. The classroom must be something that can't be done on line."

I weigh attendance quite heavily for the reasons you describe here: what we do in the classroom cannot be easily duplicated outside the classroom. My classes feature lots of in-class group work too. My motto is "learning by doing". They will likely forget who Kant, Mill, and Aristotle are, or at least forget who said what, probably several months out of the course. I frequently run into former students, and I always good naturedly quiz them. They never remember facts about particular philosophers! What they DO remember are the methodologies we practiced, IN class.

KP said...

(continued)

Maybe you'll find this helpful, maybe you have done something like it: I have taken to calling attendance, on the syllabus, "Classroom Practice". And it counts for 20% of their grade. For a class that meets twice a week, they lose 10 points each time they miss a "practice" session. That's the strategy I used last semester, and it worked so well then, I am doing it again this time.

Wonderful blog you've got here. I second many of the commentators here in saying it is wonderful that you are willing to share your resources with other teachers. I saw the post by the anonymous student who was mad that his/her teacher had copied your questions, rather than make up her own. What that student does not realize is that back in the day, junior teachers used to get lots of resources from senior teachers. They were passed hand to hand, then modified over the years to become one's own. Two things have changed since then. One, there are more adjuncts who do not have easy access to senior teachers & colleagues, which makes the sharing and collaboration aspect of teaching communities nearly impossible for a "freeway flyer" teacher who runs from one school to another. I'm an adjunct. The resources and ideas I've found online have been a godsend. They don't necessarily save me time, because I spend lots of time adding to them and modifying them. What they do is give me ideas. Teaching ideas don't occur in a vacuum! Second, the Internet simply makes that process--the same sharing of materials process that's always gone on--more public.

Whoa, this is a long response, eh? Anyway, awesome stuff. Keep it up!

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Hi Karla. Thanks for stopping by.

Your comment about students remembering methods only rings true for me. I once had a conversation with a student, only a few months after the class had ended, who insisted she took a logic class from me, when in fact it was an ethics class. She said she loved the class, and learned a lot from it, but that it must have been a logic class, because it was all about being rational.