Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Teaching 12 Angry Men

Update (3/25/13): I've fixed some of the links and cut out a request for help which is no longer needed.

So I'm going to show 12 Angry Men in my critical thinking class, but I'm extremely wary of the fact that simply showing a movie in class is a lot like reading the textbook out loud. To avoid this, I've decided to use a tactic called Guided Film Watching, where the students are required to fill out a question sheet while the film is going, and we stop frequently to discuss what has happened so far. Students have enough experience just sitting back and letting a movie sweep over them. I want them to practice working while watching.

The first resource I wanted was a simple character guide, so they can remember who's who and refer to them by number in discussion. A cursory Google search didn't turn one up, so I made one myself. I imagine that I'm not the only one who has looked for such a thing, so I am posting mine here, in hopes that it will show up for diligent googlers.

Second, I've decided to break up the movie into 15 minute chunks, and watch about two chunks a class for three classes, mixed in with discussions the movie, the nature of critical thinking, and Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief." Each chunk will have a question sheet. I've posted the full question sheet here. Questions for the first two chunks are below:

First segment

Chapter 1-3 on the disc, 0-15:46.

1. In the first minute and 13 seconds, the camera enters into the courthouse and follows a few people around. What do you notice about the way the courthouse is depicted? What do you notice about the people the camera follows? Why are we shown these people?

2. Starting at 1:47, when the camera pans over the jury, and going to 10:23, when the deliberations start, we get a chance to see the different jury members in a casual situation. Do any of them stand out to you? Who do you think will be a good jury member? Who won’t?

3. What reasons does Henry Fonda originally give for voting not guilty? Are they good reasons?

4. At 14:20 Juror 10 stands up and gives a speech about "them." "I’ve lived among them all my life," he says. Who is he talking about?

Second Segment

Chapters 4–5, 15:46–30:10

5. Starting at 15:46, the jurors start giving their reasons for thinking the defendant is guilty, starting with juror 1. Which of the jurors seem to have good reasons for their judgment and which don’t?

6. At around 21 minutes, juror 3 gives a speech about children and his son. What is significant about this speech?

7. At 24 minutes, Fonda gives a second speech about why he votes not guilty. Are his reasons different than the first time? Are they better?

8. At 28:50 Fonda introduces his own piece of evidence. Has he been holding back on the other jurors? What has he been holding back?
Some of the questions are long, but the students will have the chance to read them before the segment starts. If anyone stopping by is interested, I'd like to hear what you think of these.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Dog walking reality

I am a realist, in the minimal sense that I believe there is a real world that we all share and that we have only limited ability to control, whether we are acting individually or collectively. While walking the dog this morning, I puzzled over what exactly distinguishes that real world from all the fantasy worlds out there. I knew there are many literatures relevant to this issue, but I ignored them, because I was walking the dog.

The first thing I decided was that no one feature distinguishes the real world from fantasy worlds, and that all of the features used in the distinction exist in some degree in fantasy worlds. This means that an imagined world can at least appear to be more and more real as it acquires and strengthens the features it shares with the real world. This fact is just what we would expect, given all we know about people who get lost in novels, online games, and delusional ideologies.

So can I back this up? Well, let’s try some features that might distinguish reality from fantasy. (Do you think someone will be less offended if you leave dog crap on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, than if you left the crap on their lawn proper?) The obvious feature of the real world that is important is that it is out of our control. But imaginary worlds can be out of our control, too. The world of the Sims is constrained by what other players do and by the rules of the game. You might say that fictional worlds are different because all of the constraints on your actions can be traced in some way back to human agency. The other Sims characters are controlled by other people, and the software itself was designed by people. But not all pretend worlds are like that. A live action role playing game (where a bunch of nerds dress up in Ren fest gear and pretend to fight goblins) is constrained by the laws of physics. You might say that human agency is still at work here, because the players decided to use the real world. But this weak sense of human agency is also at work in the constraint on real world social activity. When Israeli and Palestinian diplomats negotiate over the fate of the West bank, their actions are constrained by the facts on the ground, but this is a result of the fact that they have decided to negotiate over this stretch of territory, just as the live action role players decided to play their game on the fair grounds out side of town.

(I was proceeding in a kind of transcendental deduction mode here, where I assumed that the distinction between reality and fantasy as we know it is possible, and then ask how it is possible. I was thus allowed to assume that we can distinguish real and fictional people.)

I said many features distinguish reality from fantasy, can I think of others? Yeah, containment. The real world contains the pretend worlds. The dreamer is sleeping in the real world; the movie is shot on a real soundstage. (I’m certain I’ve seen this point made in the philosophical literature, but I can’t think of where.) Of course, fictional worlds can contain fictional worlds, too. Think of Shakespearian plays within plays.

(At this point in my reverie, I was done walking the dog, and began riding my bike to work.)

Ok, so what do we have? The difference between the real worlds and the pretend worlds isn’t that the real world is constrained by things beyond human agency, but that it is more constrained. Further, the difference between real worlds and pretend worlds isn’t that the real world can contain other worlds, but that the real world is, as it were, the outermost container.

The possibility of the real world thus depends on a kind of convergence. As we move into containing worlds, we should also see less control falling to human agency.

(At this point, I had arrived at my office, and decided to write this down. The reasoning went very neatly here, so I am probably re-inventing someone’s wheel. Maybe someone can tell me whose?)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Times of War Are Funny

First, via Miss Vicky, this excellent mash up video of our Dear Leader singing "Imagine" and "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" Having W. sing "Imagine" is becoming its own little genre. This version is much better than the previous one I saw. Less dogmatic, more odd. And what's with all the Hillary footage?

Second, via Lizardbreath at Unfogged, this letter to the NYT book review.
To the Editor:

Reading Dexter Filkins’s review of “The Looming Tower,” by Lawrence Wright (Aug. 6), I was both concerned and outraged to learn that the “cave-dwelling madman” Osama bin Laden is, in fact, only six feet tall. Since the horrific attacks of Sept. 11 I have naturally assumed, like many Americans, that bin Laden was 6-foot-6 if not taller. This shocking revelation has forced me to radically reassess my views on 9/11, the war on terror, the Bush administration, the liberation of Iraq, and Islam, which is caught between the rock of tradition and the hard place of modernity. No longer do I consider bin Laden to be an invincible Goliath-like demagogue. Now that I know his true stature, I think we should move on to pressing domestic concerns.

Lt. Col. John Petzen, Ret.

Sun City Center, Fla.
As LB points out, very Monty Python.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

More Joey at the playground

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

As you like it

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Joey at the playground

Joey Update

I've been neglecting cute joey stories in favor of cute caroline stories. My excuse is that stories about children who can talk lend themselves more to the blog format.

The big news in the world of Joey is walking. Last week, he started standing up on his own, without pulling up on anything, and then taking three stumbling steps toward the nearest parent before falling on his face. More recently, his three steps have been smaller, but he has retained his balance during them. Last night, he took six or seven solid steps, straight accross the kitchen, to get to his mother.

When he reaches you, he throws his arms around your neck like a Cure song and gives you a big long hug.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The worries of a three year old

Caroline: Daddy, what if a bear ate me?

Me: I'd be sad.

Caroline: What if a bear ate me, but then I just got caught in its throat.

Me: Well, then I'd reach in and pull you out (szchoom!)

Caroline: What if a bear ate me, and I got stuck in his throat, but there was a latch on his mouth.

Me: Then I'd open the latch (flip!) and pull you out (szchoom!)

Caroline: What if a bear ate me, and I got stuck in his throat, but there was a latch with a lock on it.

Me: Then I'd call a locksmith (ring!) and he'd open the lock (pop!) and I'd open the latch (flip!) and pull you out (szchoom!)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The World of Adjuncts

from the web supplement to Jobs for Philosophers
*24. (10 possible positions advertised) MARIST COLLEGE, Poughkeepsie, NY. The Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Marist College invites applications for adjunct positions teaching Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, or World Views and Values starting in the Fall of 2006 or the Spring of 2007. MA in philosophy required, Ph.D. desirable. Teaching experience desirable. Deadline for submissions is August 1, 2006. Applications considered immediately and until all positions are filled. Please note that the remuneration for these positions does not by itself constitute a living wage; it can serve only as a supplement. Please submit a CV and letter of interest to: Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Marist College, 3399 North Road, FN 221, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601. (SW06), posted: 07/18/06.

I am very tempted to translate this ad like this:
We have a standing need for ten people to teach a intro level course which we clearly require of all our students. We have decided not to hire tenure track faculty to fill this need. Instead, our business model will require that we use adjuncts to provide the basic services we offer with the budget we are willing to spend. And we have no intention of paying a living wage.
Is there any reason I am wrong?

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

For the last two weeks we've been looking after a frog for one of the co-op kids, X . X. has cleverly named the frog "Frogger." Frogger turns out to be really cool. You have to feed him live bugs, which turn out to not be so hard to catch, and if you wait patiently after you put the bug in his aquarium, you can see him zap it down. He eats almost any kind of bug, but seems partial to big dragonflies and spiders, which are especially easy to catch.

Frogger's big problem is that the glass walls of the aquarium throw off his sense of depth. The one time I saw him try to nab a bug, he leaped boldly into the air, extended his tongue, and went “PLAM!” into the glass wall of his home. His tongue formed a little pink blob on the glass next to the green blob of his body. Poor Frogger.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

BSG live blogging

Kara just found a crashed cylon ship, opens the door, and finds out it has no pilot. "Are you alive?" she says to it. This is the same line that Number Six, in her various incarnations, gives to humans she encounters. In the opening miniseries, she says it to the human representative waiting at the space station where they hold negotiations right before the cylons begin their genocide of the human race. After asking the human representative if he is alive, she kisses him, and then the cylons kill them all.

Funny how the civilian leadership is more willing to use consequentialist, cost-benefit analysis decision making than the military. Of course, the issue is whether to abandon a pilot.

Teigh is saying they should quit. Therefore they shouldn't. Do they ever let him be right?

Now Kara is sucking on a red, bloody cylon oxygen pipe. I assume the writers loved putting her in such a gooey environment. Is she pressurizing the cabin by plugging a hole with her foot?

I guess Teigh is right this time. I mean, even though Kara lives, Teigh is right.

Credits: there's a guy who's first name is "bear"

Molly: it's just a whole list of people with better jobs than me. [except I meant better jobs than I have, or whatever; perhaps this is an illustration of why I am only marginally employable. --m]

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Dear Professor Loftis,

I'm writing to let you know our decision on your submission to Environmental Values, 'The Theragatha Model of the Aesthetic Appreciation of Natural Environments'.

Based on the referees' reports, we would like to accept the paper for publication, subject to revision. The referees feel that it is a very strong paper, and one that will make an original contribution. Please use the comments in the attached reports to guide your revisions. In particular, the referees agreed that your discussion of disinterestedness in aesthetics needs some critical attention and could be further
developed given some recent discussions of the topic.

When you have completed your revisions, please send the paper to the same editorial address as your original submission.
I'm really impressed with how quickly Environmental Values got back to me. Now I need to go look at the referee's comments.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Good thing Joe Strummer didn't live to see this

A lot of people have blogged about the National Review's ridiculous list of the to 50 conservative rock songs of all time. Until now, though, I wasn't aware that the Clash's "Rock the Casbah" came in at number 20. In case you don’t remember, the Clash named their monumental third full length album Sandinsita!, in honor of the socialist government in Central America. My vinyl copy (three 12” records!) says “FSLN!” on the spine.

The song “Rock the Casbah” itself is about an issue both liberals and conservatives (or, as they say in England, democratic socialists and Tories) can get behind: the edict issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini banning rock and roll in Iran. We all hate it when the religious leaders ban rock and roll. In America, even the religious conservatives know they can’t get away with that.

The lyrics to “Rock the Casbah” are a wash of images--images of war, ancient cultures, and rock star posing. Standard fare for The Clash. The Clash, as rockers, were always interested first in creating a mood, and only secondarily in making political statements. Violence permeates their music, for instance, but it is not until Mick Jones wrote “Somebody Got Murdered” that you get a clear denunciation of it. This sort of thing led someone in a book that I skimmed to criticize them for being really only about rock star poses. Whatever. By the time you get to songs like “Something about England”--one of the nicer dissections of race and class to have a backbeat--it becomes clear that no one at the National Review can claim The Clash as one of theirs.

Friday, August 11, 2006

An example of question asking for my critical thinking class

Miss Vicky sent me this a while ago, and I've been hanging on to it because I think it will be useful in teaching question asking as an example of a fake question and an evasive answer. This can then lead to a discussion of what kind of dialogue this is and whether the exchange advances the goals of the dialogue. The transcript of the press conference is here. This exchange is about 3/4 of the way down.

While I'm making notes to myself, I'm going to put all my recommended readings in one spot.

Questioning and discussion : a multidisciplinary study edited by J.T. Dillon Publish info Norwood, N.J. : Ablex Pub. Corp., c1988.

Dillon, J. T Questioning and teaching : a manual of practice New York : Teachers College Press, 1988

Strong, Richard W Questioning styles and strategies : proceedures for increasing the depth of student thinking Hanson, Silver, Strong & Associates, c1980, 1995 Edition 2nd ed

Belnap and Steel. (1976) The Logic of Questions and Answers

David Harrah (2002) "The Logic of Questions" Handbook of Philosophical Logic D. Gabbay Ed.

Wisniewski, A. (1995), The posing of Questions - Logical Foundations
Erotetic Inferences. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers. Harrah lists this book as having a good bibliography.

Walton, Douglas N. 2006. Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation, Critical Reasoning and Argumentation. Cambridge [UK]; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Walton, Douglas N. 1989. Question-Reply Argumentation, Contributions in Philosophy, No. 40. New York: Greenwood Press.

Achieving Representation

John at CT shows us this PowerPoint slide that was apparantly used in the planning of Iraq's reconstruction. I am quite fond of the phrase “Aimed Pressure to Achieve the End-State Over Time."

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Look Rob, I know it's fun to make fun of PowerPoint, but the PowerPoint is just an illustration for the talk, it isn't the content. I'm certain when this diagram was talked through it all made sense." Unfortunately, the Pentagon chiefs have fallen into the habit that Tufte first noticed in the business world: emailing the PowerPoint slides to people who weren't at the presentation as if this were an adequate presenation of the ideas. John quotes Thomas Ricks, quoting Lt. General David McKiernan
It’s quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense…In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary order], or plan, you get a bunch of PowerPoint slides…[T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides.
So, in fact, the PowerPoint does become the content. This is the big risk of PowerPoint as social technology. Over at Tufte's site there is a wonderful discussion of the military's use of PowerPoint going on. One commenter who has worked in the military points out another way the Pentagon uses PowerPoint which Tufte has criticized: "The expectation is that the handout is also simply a printed copy of the briefing slides themselves, so that while the PP slides are being projected on screen, the participants in the meeting are simultaneously reading the printed versions."

Others at that chat note that the Pentagon's PowerPoint tends to be more information dense than corporate PowerPoint, which is taken as a virtue in Tufte's philosophy if done properly. Here's another second hand quote, this time commenter John Landis quoting a Slate article on how PowerPoint destroys the paper trail.
Almost all Air Force documents today, for example, are presented as PowerPoint briefings. They are almost never printed and rarely stored. When they are saved, they are often unaccompanied by any text. As a result, in many cases, the briefings are incomprehensible.
This will make the war crimes trials more difficult.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Chinese Energy Policy Readings, pt. 1

So in the next few weeks I need to put together a proposal for a Spring course I'm teaching with Steve from Geology on environmental issues in China, which includes a travel component. We want to go to the Three Gorges Dam and to Yunnan province.

The main thing we need to get done right away is a syllabus. I've got stuff on Asian nature attitudes lined up, but I'd also like to include readings on current Chinese energy policy. We are going to be talking a lot about the environmental impact of big Chinese dam projects, and the students need a sense of the role of hydro power in larger Chinese policy. They need to know, for instance, what other energy sources would have to be leaned on more heavily if dams were forgone. So here are some options, drawn solely from books I have lying around the house, first looking at Chinese efforts to acquire oil.

Michael Klare, Blood and Oil, Chapter 6 "Geopolitics Reborn: The US-Russian Chinese Struggle in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Basin. This chapter is pretty much exactly what it says. It spends a little time explaining the scope of Chinese energy demand. But, most useful for our class, it outlines the relationships China is building with Iran, Sudan, and Kazakhstan to secure oil. These efforts consist mostly in supplying arms to reprehensible regimes (in the case of Sudan, a genocidal regime) and buying rights to oil fields through the three Chinese national oil companies. An interesting point that illustrates the severe distrust in oil geopolitics: It would make more economic sense for China to sell the oil it pumps in Kazakhstan and use the money to buy oil from Russia, however China has decided to pipeline the Kazakh oil straight to itself. Why? Because Russia has a habit of cutting off oil and natural gas supplies to neighbors that displease it.

The chapter is only 1/3 about China. It is also about the US and Russia, and it takes for granted that the only reason any of these powers is interested in the middle east is the oil. Americans have no trouble believing that China and Russia are in it for the oil, but for some reason we think that we are unique in the world, and actually motivated by values like freedom and democracy. Klare does a nice job of disabusing people of this myth, largely by showing how all the wars of the 20th century have been resource wars.

William Clark, Petrodollar Warfare, excerpts. This is a book about US oil geopolicy, but it inevitably talks about China a lot. Its main goal is to unmask US foreign policy as driven entirely by the need to control oil, in particular the need to be able to control the price of oil and to ensure that global oil sales are conducted in US dollars. Interestingly for such a leftist, Clark quotes Thomas Freidman frequently and approvingly.

Actually I can tell already I'm not going to use any part of this book. It has some very useful information. For instance, Clark thinks that the Caspian basin contains less oil and lower quality oil than was originally thought, meaning that Kazakhstan won't do it for China. They need Iran.

Paul Roberts, The End of Oil, Chapter 10, "Oil Security". This is one of the best oil books I've read. Written in a lively, journalistic style, it can really bring home the perils of energy politics. This chapter opens with a section on Iraq and terrorism, then moves to talking about how much a developing country like China or India benefits from improving energy services, and how much it will hurt to actually provide those benefits. "In comparison with the kind of energy development that is coming to the developing world, the Three Gorges Dam will in hindsight seem almost benign." China is going to have to rely on coal, and in fact, on cheap, old, dirty coal technologies.

(Mph, Clark says Soviet oil production peaked in 1987, right before the empire collapsed, but Roberts says Russian oil production won't peak until 2015. Whence the disparity? Is it just because the Russian figure excludes oil fields in the former republics that are now in decline?)

Ok, this chapter isn't as focused on China, but it gives a really evocative picture of the global energy situation. Perhaps I can use it in conjunction with Klare. They are both quite readable.

More energy readings later.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Something I'd been wondering

from Time

TIME: Are you an American or Canadian citizen?

I’m a Canadian. I’d like to vote in the U.S. election because I feel like I’ve got just as much right to vote in them as anybody else. I’ve lived here for so long, paid taxes for so long and my kids have to register for selective service. I guess I could be a dual citizen, but if I ever had to give up my Canadian citizenship to become American I wouldn’t do it, because I wouldn’t want to hurt Canada. I love Canada. As I get older, more and more I start singing about Canada. My wife’s a California girl, so she loves to be near the ocean, and I love to be near her. So I’m probably going to be here longterm. But a part of me, I don’t know, maybe I’ll get a cabin up in Canada so when I’m older I can sit on the gold coast up in B.C. and look around. Or be up in the Rockies up there around Banff or something. I wouldn’t mind going back, being part of it again.

I won't deny Neil his right to say "let's" in "Let's Impeach the President," since his kids are subject to any draft that might occur. But I am beginning to detect a layer of artifice in Living With War that I hadn't thought about before. I was trying to decide if I liked the "cast of thousands" backing vocals. I normally don't like that style, and it seemed especially out of place given how very stripped down the rest of the instrumentation is. (I think it is just one guitar, bass and drums, with occasional trumpet.)

Then I realized why the cast of thousands was there. They are the American people. That also might explain some of the moments of centerism in the album--the appeals to patriotism. Neil is a story teller, the kind who generally tells stories not his own. Think of Powderfinger. On some level, the outrage of Living With War is not Neil's. It is the outrage he sees that the American people have. He is a channel for their story.

Also, "The Restless Consumer" is the best song I have heard in years.

Update: Another example of the artifice: "Flags of Freedom" opens with the whole cast of thousands singing "Today's the day our younger son/ is going off to war." Neil doesn't want you to think about his personal outrage. He doesn't have a younger son in Iraq. There is a story of a family that has sent off its younger son, and it is so emblematic of the national experience that you can here the whole nation singing it, in unison.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Up from the comments

Molly posted this last night
This morning we had this conversation

Caroline: Does Daddy sleep where he is?

Me: Yes, he does.

Caroline: And where Daddy is, do they have food?

Me: Yes, they do.

Caroline: And when it's playtime, they talk, right?

Me: [laughing] Yes, that's exactly what it's like where Daddy is.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Shorter Version of My Second Talk

Me: National standardized testing for critical thinking, if done properly, would be a really incredibly good thing.

Audience: Do you know how much it would cost to do this right? Not only that, but do you really think that philosophers will be consulted in constructing the test? And do you know how damaging such a test would be if it were done badly?

Me: Ok, the reality is going to suck. But isn't the fantasy nice?

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.

A product of the workshop on writing critical thinking test questions

"She will fail the exam, even though she is very smart, because she stayed out all night at the party and went straight to the exam"

Which of the following is probably assumed but not stated by the speaker

A. The test is very hard.
B. She got no sleep at the party and sleep is needed to do well on tests.
C. She has never passed a test in her life.
D. Fuck you, clown.

What is the reason for your choice: ________________________

(Questions like this are surprisingly hard to write. The biggest difficulty is insuring that there really is only one correct answer. Clever students and people who approach questions with very different background assumptions are often able to give good reason for answers the test designer clearly thinks is wrong. Our group had to make several changes to B before it was unarguably the correct answer. Also, I didn't really include answer D in the seminar. It's a special bonus for the on line edition.)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Guided film watching

This is the third AAPT conference I have attended, and it is always the best conference of the year. This one is no different. Everything I'm learning is so practical. I will be applying it all in the next two semesters.

So just now I learned about guided film watching. I don't like showing movies in class, because it takes so much time. As Dave Concepcion put it in the seminar I just came from "It would be like spending a class simply reading the text to the students." But dave also had a solution to this problem. Guided film watching. Give them a question sheet that they have to fill out while watching. Some of the questions are simply "are you paying attention" questions, like "what color is Henry Fonda dressed in." Others are quick evaluation questions "do you think Henry Fonda's white outfit is symbolic." Guiding their watching means that they are not zoning out, but actively learning how to watch critically, which is something they think they know how to do, but really don't know at all.

So now I've got two ideas for next semester's critical thinking course. Show the Henry Fonda 12 Angry Men over the first three days of class, guiding the watching and stopping frequently to discuss what they are seeing. This may end up being a lot like reading to Caroline, where I wind up saying, "I don't know what's going to happen. Let's see!" a lot.

The other idea I got from the talk was to use Super Size Me later in the critical thinking course as an example of manipulative visual rhetoric and bad argumentation. Again, I'll use guided film watching, but by then they will have had material on visual rhetoric and statistics.

They should hold this conference every year.

liveblogging: Anderson and Stufflebeam on teaching the nature of persons using techno geeky stuff.

They are from The Mind Project, funded by NIH and NSF to teach cog sci using tech to undergrads.

Ooh, he just said "in the next hundred years the debate over what it is to be a person will heat up." I love it when people think in the hundred year time frame.

The talk web page is here.

They say there are actually three problems of personal identity.

1. What makes a person a person. (This is what I introduce as the moral status question. He distinguishes person and human being here.)

2. What makes this person a different individual.

3. What makes a person the same person over time.

They push a mind oriented answer to all these questions. I let my students resist this. He really loves the STNG episode where they hold a hearing to see if Data has rights. So do I. I would use it if I didn't already use Leiber.

A good clip on dualism: Robin Williams What Dreams May Come.

Now they are talking about software for teaching theories of mind (functionalism, etc.) they are just giving us links.

An animation that explains the difference between analogue and digital computers.

The one guy says that once you teach the Chinese Room argument the students all believe it. He must teach it differently than I do. My students are never convinced by it. I think this means I teach it right, and he teaches it wrong. For some reason, these guys have to use a whole seminar on connectionism to convince students that Searle is full of shit.

I didn't realize there were electrical dendrite to dentrite synapses. I thought they were always chemical and axon to dendtrite. Animation here.

They are doing the animations for something called "consciousness: the movie"

Ooh cool, a program to illustrate computer learning. Students never believe computers can learn. It's got a curriculum to go with it, and a sequence of exercizes.

Turing test software!

Robots! With moral beliefs!

(I never did get around to making a lego robot for my classes. But I am still really enamored of the lego platform.)

The periphery of your vision is actually black and white. I did not know that. And I've been seeing my whole life.

They have edited down a bunch of movies--total recall, regarding harry--to fit into a single class.

This is too much stuff. I should definitely use some of this in my intro.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Martin Benjamin: Moral Pluralism, Vulgar Relativism, What's the Difference and How Can We Teach It.

One of the nice things about going to the same conference repeatedly is that you get to see conversations play out over time. I first went to this conference in 1998, while I was still a graduate student. One of the talks I went to was by this guy (I now know he is Arnie Wilson, but at the time he was just this guy) who talked about the phenomenon of student relativism. Student relativism is a reflex students have to reject ethical discussions by simply saying "well it's all relative" or "its just a matter of opinion" or "it's true for some people but not others." Wilson claimed that this was not a proper philosophical idea, but simply a defense mechanism that lets students blot out uncomfortable issues. We philosophers try to make it more respectable by trying to turn it into a philosophical thesis. Typically the thesis comes out as social relativism: "Ethical statements are only true or false in the context of a given culture." The thesis can be individual, though, "Ethical statements are only true or false relative to an individual." Either way, Wilson thought, we are mishandling our students' concern, because they are not really asserting either of these (obviously false) claims. They are just trying to avoid the nasty conflicts that ethical philosophy stirs up.

Audience members responded very differently to this idea, depending mostly on how much their own philosophy resembled relativism. One person who responded negatively was this guy who was running the graduate student teaching seminar (I think of him as Martin Benjamin, but at the time I mostly just thought of him as the guy who was running the graduate student seminar.) Benjamin was a fan of Isaiah Berlin and a believer in moral pluralism, and he thought that the student relativist was really just a pluralist who hadn't learned to express himself clearly. There were some other interesting ideas from the audience. This woman suggested "It matters that some people are helpless" as an objective moral truth. (I want to say that this woman was actually Adrianne McEvoy, but I'm not sure if I can link up my eight year old conference memory with this other person I've seen around at later conferences.)

In any case, at this year's conference, Benjamin gives a talk that replies in more detail to Wilson. His main point really is about the difference between moral pluralism and student relativism, and a lot of his talk is really just about his brand of pluralism. It's a tricky subject, though, and one of the things that came out of the '98 discussion is that you really can't decide how to teach the issue until you decide what you yourself actually think is true.

So what is moral pluralism? Moral pluralists deny that all real values can be placed in a complete, rational moral system. There are conflicts between "good and important values and principles that cannot be resolved by reason." Benjamin says this is different than relativism because the pluralist recognizes (1) that there are some times when ethical disagreements can be rationally resolved and (2) that there are some actions which are simply ethically unacceptable, like genocide, or "removing someone's arms just to see what they would look like without them."

I'm not sure Benjamin has identified the core difference between himself and the student relativist, though. It looks to me like Benjamin's pluralism is simply a relativism about some ethical issues, but not others. (Which is a perfectly reasonable view.) But there is something else about moral pluralism that Benjamin has downplayed. The ethical relativist relativizes. All ethical statements must always be referred back to a person or culture. This isn't happening in pluralism one bit. All people and cultures can recognize the plurality of irreconcilable values out there.

There is more complexity on the horizon, though. A new catchphrase in analytic philosophy is "Ethical Contextualism." There was even a conference on it recently. I have, for some time, wanted to read up on contextualism, and write a post entitled "Relativism, Contextualism, and Pluralism in Ethics." Some of these ideas also relate back to the distinction between agent relativism and appraiser relativism, which was discussed in this forum here. All of this is more than I can think about right now, though. I've had the link to the contextualism conference in my in box as a reminder to me that I want to read about this. I think I will now use this post as a reminder to myself instead, thus cleaning my inbox and reinforcing the idea that a blog is really just your mind's attic.

Conferring Luxury

Last night, while taking the kids out for ice cream, I ran into Natalia. We chatted and I mentioned I'm going to a conference--the conference I'm at now. "Ooh, fun, where is it?" asked Natalia, who set her last novel in the south of France so that she would have to take plenty of research trips. "At a small college outside of Pittsburgh," I explained, "I'm staying in the dorms and not renting a car, so pretty much all I will do is conference stuff." I was hoping this made me sound Professional, rather than simply Lame. In general, I go to conferences to see talks and to give talks. I don't even schmooze well. If I see some good talks and then go back to my dorm room to read, I count it as a day well spent.

Does that sound virtuous? Disciplined and stoic? Well, from another perspective, the next five days are all luxury and indolence. I called home after I got here. Kids were screaming, in the background as I talked to Molly. "Yeah, I've got three hours before the first talk," I said, "I could work more on my presentations, or I could just shower and take a nap."

"Oh, fuck you," Molly said. See, little Joey doesn't like to be held for more than 10 minutes by anyone besides his mother or me. He hasn't stayed in the child care co-op for more than 20 minutes yet. This means that while I'm gone, Molly must parent 24 hours a day. And she has a job due tomorrow. If she gets any time at all for the next five days, it will be thanks to the cathode ray baby sitter.

In other co-op related news, three kids from our day care co-op were interviewed by local public radio on how they beat the heat. You can hear them here. I haven't been able to listen to it yet, because the lab computer I am borrowing doesn't have speakers. We are a one computer family, and in order for molly to work, she has to have the computer. Thus I have to leach internet access on the road where I can get it. Actually finding public computers these days is not nearly has hard as finding pay phones. No one in our family is away from home long enough to merit having cell phones, so we are still dependent on pay phones when we travel. I found one in the student center here, but it wouldn't surprise me if that is the only one on campus. Pay phones are an endangered species. At the Buffy conference I couldn't find one at all.

One computer, no cell phones. What else? We are also a one car family, and for the next five days that car is at the airport in Syracuse, so Molly is restricted to places she can bike to. It is funny how, from some perspectives, we live quite modestly, while from others, we live quite luxuriously. I'm not taking my family to the south of France to research my novel--in fact, I have an alarming amount of childcare to make up for when I get home. But life is still good.

PS: I just found out that the computer access I have here doesn't include MS word or PowerPoint, which was how I was planing on working on my presentation. Shit. I also can't seem to spell check this post. Shit.