Here’s a response to a student criticism I wrote about what I take to be a deep problem in our cultural practices. We don’t care about all that’s involved in the practice of good thinking. And when good thinking is around we’re hostile to it and defend bad thinking. Or, we argue against the need to think well because we’re lazy and good thinking takes effort and initiative. Here goes:
Student criticism of CH courses is commonplace. However, a former student forwarded a public criticism of how I teach this section of CH202. Hence, please allow me a response. The criticism, word for word, is this:
“One of the worst online professors at TMCC. His paper topics are unclear, he isn’t organized in any manner, and he makes you watch hours and hours of video. 4 essays will make up your grade and he is very harsh and takes into account only philosophical topics. Don’t take this professor unless you are very very very fond of philosophy.”
Now, please contrast this critique with an email I received from a student in my CH 201 online course this last summer term:
“I just want to thank you for a wonderful summer session. This is my first summer class and I really appreciate the organization, the straightforward assignments, and the fair grading. I am very pleased with your teaching style and as a Student Worker at TMCC and a student at UNR, I will definitely be referring people to you as a professor.”
So some students like my approach, some do not. That’s fine. However, I’d still like to answer these charges made about my approach. I believe my approach to online instruction is not unreasonable or unorganized. Permit me a few words.
First, the videos I assign are meant to do two things. The first thing a video does is to break up the monotony of relating to the material in an active fashion—i.e., the act of an engaged, close reading in which you are looking for key ideas and concepts. Watching a video is passive. Just sit back and absorb the material. Second, videos show us concrete examples of the abstract ideas we consider in this course. For example, the best way to answer the question of what modern politics is all about is to look at a concrete example of it—i.e., UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. The issues of individual rights, power, consumption, the masses, and media representation of democracy in action are all modern political concerns and represented clearly in the documentary. That’s also why I require that you use it as a case study in your paper. It will help you ground ideas about modern politics in an event—i.e., the Free Speech and the Civil Rights movements.
Second, the issue isn’t that my paper topics are unclear, but rather you the student have to think about what you’re writing for me. And thinking about what you’re writing isn’t an easy thing to do. (Is what I’m writing true? Is there support for what I believe to be true in the texts? Have I made the right associations? Inferences?) Even if I were unclear about what I’m looking for in an assignment, I still extend an open invitation to all students to discuss any comments, questions, or concerns they may have about the course. So there is no reason for a student to not gain further clarity about what I’m asking for in the class assignments.
Third, if by “very harsh” my critic means that I hold my students’ writing and thinking to a standard of excellence, then yes, I’m very harsh.
Fourth, while there is a philosophical strand to this course, the charge that I take into account only philosophical topics is false. The first leg of the course deals with modern science. The second leg of the course deals with modern politics. The third leg of the course deals with modern meaning (for an individual’s life). The last leg of the course deals with modern art. The fact that we read philosophers who think about science, politics, meaning, and art helps us to achieve the course’s learning objectives.
In the end, the way I read the tone behind this criticism is that this student wants a class free from the effort of thinking. This is a problem for two reasons. First, consider, as an average, the amount of well-written work required for this course. The average is a page a week. Viewed from a purely pragmatic point of view, if you can’t write a page of clear effective prose a week, then you might find it very difficult to find/retain employment in today’s competitive job market. Clear, effective writing is indicative of sound judgment and clear thinking. And that’s what employers are looking for. Second, we need more thinking about our lives and what they amount to. Within the context of this course, we need to think more about our lives through the prisms of modern science, politics, meaning, and art. And if my critic equates, correctly, the activity of thinking with the practice of philosophy, then yes we need more philosophy. Consider how as a culture we care so much about the fitness of our physical appearance, but not the fitness of our thinking or our “mental appearance.”
But, consider for the sake of argument, just how better we’d be as a people if we fostered thinking in our culture? What would the world then be like? As Heidegger puts it:
“It is absolutely correct and proper to say that ‘You can’t do anything with philosophy.’ It is only wrong to suppose that this is the last word on philosophy. For the rejoinder imposes itself: granted that we cannot do anything with philosophy, might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?”
As always, please let me know if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.