Friday, August 14, 2009

Big Books, Long Words

I tell people I only read short books. I tell myself I only read short books.

When a friend published a book and apologetically said "But it's not much of a book--it's less than 200 pages," I had to reply "That's the best kind! It's the kind of book that people will actually read!"

When asked about my favorite books, I can cite a whole list of really great reads under 200 pages long. The books in the Boston Review series qualify, and as a bonus, some add on scholarly comments, such as Susan Moller Okin's Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?. Loren Graham's What Have We Learned about Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? is a favorite of mine, not just for its fascinating thesis, but primarily because it is the perfect model of a short book. It asks some clear questions and then provides evidence to answer each. The evidence and the interpretations of it are not always the obvious ones.

Lectures can make good short books. Austin's How to Do Things With Words just would not have been as good a read if it were three times as long. I've never read Robert Brandom's Making It Explicit, which is over 700 pages long, as though he had to make it all explicit. And I don't believe everyone who says they've read it. It's far more believable that they might have read his Articulating Reasons, published just a few years later and covering similar territory in just over 200 pages.

But these books are (analytic) philosophy--and perhaps philosophy ought to be brief. But no, when I think of my favorite novels, they too are short. To take one example, Christa Wolf's Cassandra is less than 150 pages. And far more than novels, I always love to read a short story by Alice Munro or Muriel Spark.

In spite of my long-standing penchant for quick, concise reads and common, straightforward language (spare me the neologisms!), I've found myself reading long books this summer. But by necessity, only a few of them: Bowling Alone (544 pages), The Poisonwood Bible (576 pages), Roads to Quoz (592 pages).

From earlier this year, here's a column by historian Ann Vileisis on "The Pleasures of a Big Fat Book" (ooooh! Look at her bookshelf! That's like my bookshelf--well, it would be if you removed the big fat Russian novels!)

What's your preference? The focus of a short book or the rambling development of a long one? Is a preference for short books conditioned by too much Internet reading and too little patience?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Virtual PowerPoint

Running on summer time here--laid-back as opposed to of-the-minute.

Here's an article from The Chronicle on "teaching naked," that is, without slideshow support.

It maintains that "when computers leave classrooms, so does boredom."

It's impossible to be both thoughtful and also completely enamored with slideshow technology after having read Edward Tufte's "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within." For a demonstration of one of the points, just consider how Lincoln's Gettysburg address might have impressed (or not), had it been delivered in 2005. One of my colleagues assigns Tufte's booklet in his Critical Thinking class. It throws students into an uproar.

(This is not, of course, how philosophers do PowerPoint. Their style is to put 80% of their prepared text onto slides so that it is virtually unreadable and to never use a chart, graphic, photo, or even color.)

The Chronicle article profiles a dean at SMU who alleges that professors "often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool."

Excerpts from the article:
A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw.

The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions.

Here's the kicker, though: The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen's ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods. The lecture model is pretty comfortable for both students and professors, after all, and so fundamental change may be even harder than it initially seems.

"Strangely enough, the people who are most resistant to this model are the students, who are used to being spoon-fed material that is going to be quote unquote on the test," says Mr. Heffernan. "Students have been socialized to view the educational process as essentially passive. The only way we're going to stop that is by radically refiguring the classroom ."

This agrees with my classroom experience. Perhaps this is narcissistic of me, but I think that philosophy is in a unique position with regard to the use of PowerPoint. Many of my colleagues have been more resistant to using it than professors in other disciplines, partly because our material is not readily illustrated with photos, diagrams, charts, or equations. Nor is it easily simplified into bulleted points (though I hardly think philosophy is unique in that!). But the main reason we've resisted slideshow technology is that teaching or doing philosophy is tied in an essential way to arguing about ideas, to give and take, to dialogue. Teaching philosophy is like teaching a foreign language in that the best way of learning it is by doing it. Discussion is not a teaching technique that we abandoned, and that is one of the main reasons that students love us or hate us.

One point in the article, though, gives me pause. The dean whose campaign it describes has been encouraging professor to record videos or podcasts of their lectures and to assign them as homework.
One of [his] fans is Maria A. Dixon, an assistant professor of applied communication. She's made podcasts for her course on "Critical Scholarship in Communication" that feature interviews she recorded with experts in the field. "Before, I was always complaining that I never had time to go in-depth and talk with my students," she says. "Now they come in actually much more informed about a subject than they would have if they had been assigned a reading."

Eh? "IF they had been assigned a reading?" So is the new technique this: discussion replaces lecture and lecture replaces reading? And students are "much more informed" by getting a professor's summary than by reading primary literature? I hardly think that is much of an improvement, in the end.

Indeed it recapitulates Tufte's criticism of PowerPoint, which is that only a fraction of information goes onto a slide than can be put onto a handout or said in the natural words of someone not tied to reading a slide. Likewise, an hour's lecture contains only a fraction of what a person can read (silently) in an hour.

Monday, August 10, 2009

It's Summer

The last (and hottest) days of summer...and I'm trying to wrap up a writing project on presettlement with nothing relevant to blog, here's a short film. Pretty cool.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Teaching Climate Change

I don't think my university (recently ranked 596 out of 600 colleges by Forbes, but not for this reason) offers a course that explains climate change and its social consequences.

There are a lot of barriers to offering such a course. Would it be a science course? In which scientific discipline? Just understanding the physical causes of climate change requires knowing more than just a little something about physics, chemistry, and earth science. So what department would own it? (We don't have an earth science or geography department.) Understanding the effects of climate change broadens the scope even further, to include (all) the life sciences, but especially ecology and the medical sciences. And also social science. Understanding the social causes and implications would require a yet broader course: communication, political science, economics, public policy, history, philosophy. At least those, and probably more.

Can such a course be taught only at the senior level, since it requires so much knowledge? If so, would there be any students who could fit it in their schedules among their other advanced courses? Or could it be a way to teach basic concepts from many disciplines in a way that provides the sort of meaningful context that gives sense to difficult ideas?

Even if such a course would have a market among lower-level students, how could they get credit for the course (except as an elective), given that my university is set up on a disciplinary model? And how could a team of teachers from different colleges (e.g. science and the humanities) get credit for teaching it?

Then again, how can we afford not to be teaching such courses? How can we afford not to make it possible for every student who wants to take such a course to have the opportunity?

It's so common, so easy to say that Americans don't have the education it takes to understand the urgency of climate change. But are we in higher education doing what we can? Are we providing an education that helps graduates understand pressing problems?

Here is one course, available as a podcast, which has a multidisciplinary approach to climate change.

And here's an interesting blog I just happened across which examines the psychology of climate change denial.