Monday, October 14, 2013

Friday, September 27, 2013

Video-taped lectures

Dear Philosophy Teachers, What are your thoughts about bringing in guest lecturers? (pretty cool!)
What about video-taping other's lectures and showing them in class as guest lectures? (still ok but not as cool?)
What about making such guest lectures available for online students to stream? (that pushes the coolness factor up a bit, since they'd otherwise watch the same lecturer all the time, right?)
And now my real question.
How long can I keep using those same video-taped guest lectures? They're always and forever fresh to each new batch of students, after all. So for how many years can a guest lecturer be dead before I stop calling him a "class guest"?

Monday, September 23, 2013


The list of reasons I don't blog like I used to is lengthy! The number of things I'd rather do than spend time on my computer is a larger than your human mind can conceive. Blogging was a great way to grow my confidence and fluency as a writer--a few years ago the original intention was achieved and now I'd rather write on my research projects than send these transient words into the ether. I've also been known to say that blogging is passé--post-Tumblr, post-Twitter, if it can't be expressed with merely a wink and a non-linguistic guttural sound, then it's too complex a thought for anyone else to process anyway. And besides, with Salon, HuffingtonPost, Slate, and the Atlantic begging anyone with a pulse to provide them with content, why write on a site all by your lonesome?

Nonetheless, I'm sure glad that others have the fortitude of spirit to keep trying, and here are two I'll be keeping my eye on:


Hopeless Generalist

The Sciences and the Humanities

I'm reading two blog-type articles.
Steven Pinker at the New Republic, "Science Is Not the Enemy of the Humanities" and Gary Gutting's response on the NYTimes Stone blog, "Science's Humanities Gap."

I spend much of my time standing in just exactly this space where the humanities and the sciences overlap. Some days, the landscape looks smooth and even, without discontinuities. Scientific, empirical methods inform philosophical inquiry, and ethical evaluation clarifies and directs scientific practice. Other days, the landscape is riddled with ditches. My experience in this place is so variable that I can't get through more than a couple of paragraphs of Pinker's piece without both nodding along with him and groaning at his blinkered, biased writing.

Like him, I have some colleagues in the humanities who will say idiotic things about how environmental and social harms are inevitably driven by science and technology. But why should I or anyone take them seriously? The same people who decry biotechnology's poisoning of our food with engineered DNA hire landscapers to spread pesticides and fertilizers with well-known negative health and environmental effects on their lovely lawns. The same people who denounce technology's corrosive effects on modern society walk around with a kid babbling at them on one arm while their nose (and and their attention) is buried in the tiny screen at the end of the other.

Likewise, I have colleagues in the sciences who are worse than ignorant about what we do in the humanities--they are outright hostile. The hostility I observe is not driven, oddly enough, by the ignorance and hypocrisy which gets under my skin, but by a belief that the humanities have no utility for students. Students are told, more or less, that an interest in the humanities will at best distract them from the studies that matter and may actually make them worse scientists or worse engineers. This tactic goes hand-in-hand with a trivializing attitude about the training required to be proficient in a humanities discipline. "I'm a philosopher, too" a biologist once said to me, "I have a Doctorate in Philosophy, don't I?"

Pinker writes:
"The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness."
While this is a true description of some humanists, it's false of most, and it plays into just exactly the kind of stereotyping which Pinker laments. While Pinker regrets the 1990's fad for postmodernism, he backs the current fad for "the digital humanities," which is just like the old analog humanities, except making full use of computer resources. Ten years from now, we'll shrug at the shallowness of the view that digitizing poetry, philosophy, literature, and history will make it more meaningful. It does make it more accessible (a boon when it comes to organizing and interpreting historical archive holdings), but digitizing alone does not create new ideas or change old ones.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jenny Saul sums it up

Salon article: "Philosophy has a sexual harassment problem."

Slate podcast (about 11:30 in).

As this problem has drawn press, Saul (and others) have been right there making the clear points that matter:

  • informal remedies make a difference—as a complement, not a substitute, for formal remedies
  • formal remedies can work, or they can be used to cover up rather than to resolve problems
  • the prevalence of harassment and sexual harassment is linked to the lower numbers of women in the field
  • recruitment of women and minorities can therefore help to reduce the prevalence of the problem, but recruitment must be accompanied by retention
  • there is no one explanation for the low number of women and minorities in philosophy, but given the degree and types of harassment, we might wonder why so many people stay in a field where they're made to feel unwelcome!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sensible Gender-Neutral Language

I'm (still) reading Jo Ellen Jacobs' The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill and came across such an interesting passage about the Mills' use of gender-neutral language.

In 1851 and 1852, Mill's Logic and The Principles of Political Economy were reprinted in third editions. By that point, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill had married. In this third edition, exclusively male language was replaced, when possible, with neutral language.

"'Men' was replaced by 'people' or 'mankind' and 'a person' was substituted for 'a man'"(216-217).
A footnote was also added to the Logic:
The pronoun he is the only one available to express all human beings; none having yet bee invented to serve the purpose of designating them generally, without distinguishing them by a characteristic so little worthy of being made the main distinction as that of sex. This is more than a defect in language; tending greatly to prolong the almost universal habit, of thinking and speaking of one-half the human species as the whole.
It's too bad this footnote was removed from the 1862 edition, published after Harriet's death.

When I have a student who insists on using exclusive language, I sometimes point to the APA's statement on the matter from the mid-1980's (from before the birthyear of my current students!) but now I have an even earlier philosophical text I can point to.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Philosophers and sexual harassment

Ah, what a show we had earlier this summer. This one became more entertaining than anyone could have guessed. And enlightening. Who else is on that list, I wonder?
And where will he work next? Somewhere--someone will look out for him, as this letter shows. Sadly, that's how this family works. One hopes it will at least be a position without graduate students.

Now that it's been a couple of weeks and the chuckling is over, it's time to recognize the underlying grossness of it all. Start here.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Tiniest Offenses

The recent news about sexual harassment in philosophy has been bringing exposure (so to speak) to the problem--not to mention providing an awful lot of intentional and unintentional amusement.

Myself, I have not experienced (prolonged episodes of) sexual harassment at work. Even if common, it's not ubiquitous. Harassment, though, appears with regularity--either of myself or observed harassment of others. Gender is often a component, defining the target, the methods, the vulnerabilities.

But sometimes a great long span of time goes by--months, even--when I'm not harassed, and I don't hear reports of harassment of students and colleagues. But even in these intervals, there are the micro-insults, the patronizing gestures, the imbalance between duties and privileges.

I'm knowledgeable, aware, and sensitive, and I usually spot the insults, jibes, barbs, slurs and slights that are directed my way. Every now and then someone around me notices one I miss: "Did I hear so-and-so say that to you?" someone asks. Or I report on a frustrating encounter with a male student, and a male colleague says "No, I've never, not in 20 years, had a student say that to me."

An episode today. Dean asks a question of a committee I'm likely to chair in the fall, copies the full committee and the department chairs--and also copies Prof. Graybeard, past committee chair but no longer a member. I respond to the question. Dean acknowledges response. Prof. Graybeard, copied to all, supports the correctness of my response. I'm grateful.

Until a department chair asks me: "Why was Prof. Graybeard copied on that? And why did he respond? What did his response add?" Was it supportive? No, undermining.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Using Facebook for Volunteer Work

I have a problem, and maybe you can help me--because you know more about facebook than I do.

I work with a group to foster conservation and preservation in an urban old-growth forest in Rochester--Washington Grove. You may have seen me write about the work in the Grove before, e.g. here and here.

The group has been operating since about 2008, and although we coordinate with the City of Rochester, we are not incorporated as a non-profit. Our grants and fundraising is funneled through other organizations. For instance, the City of Rochester has a fund set aside for reforestation, and donations to the fund are tax-free. We've raised over $3000 for that fund, and it is informally earmarked for work in the Grove.

We also have a facebook page.

But before you "Like" it, hear my problem. The person who started the page (and is the admin) has left our group, and though he shares our goals to appreciate and preserve this forest, he is not committed to updating the page and is not willing to relinquish control of it. He may have more malign intentions towards the group than mere neglect--I'm not sure. (Politics is not my forte.) Facebook seems like as good a means as any to announce our once-a-month volunteer workdays, to post photos of the trees we've planted, and to build support for this project.

What to do? Report the page to facebook? Under what description? As hijacked? What can of worms does that open? Would it be worth starting a new page instead? Or first?

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

What's "Meant" Prior to "Assesment"?

I'm part of a "faculty team" that is working on assessment of a new general education requirement in ethics education.

In principle, I'm not opposed to there being an additional layer of accountability when it comes to course content and teaching effectiveness. I could imagine assessment procedures which could be used to hold faculty accountable against those hobgoblins that threaten higher education--grade inflation, the pedagogy of rote learning, deadbeat professors, arbitrary grading. And I can imagine procedures which faculty could use to gather evidence to make demands against administrators--for smaller class sizes, for  highly qualified teachers, for professional development and other kinds of support to improve classroom teaching.

But from what I can tell, the game of assessment involves developing a show that provides cover on all sides. One goal is to make it as simple as possible for faculty to perform, but the results are so shaky and obscure that the results could never be used to support demands. It neither requires nor builds respect between administrators and faculty.

Here is a snippet of conversation from my meeting yesterday--6 excellent professors in the room with the director of assessment.

Professor: How were the members of the assessment team chosen?

A. Director: We try to pick professors who are credentialed and qualified in the assessment target.

[My silent thought]: As opposed to those professors who are teaching courses for which they are not credentialed or qualified? Are only some of us who are teaching ethics courses qualified?

A. Director: Of course, some of the people we ask are unable to participate because they are engaged in research or other important projects.

Me, out loud now: Oh yes, I've heard of those people who do research, but none of us here do research or have other important projects going on. No, not us. Our lives are practically empty.

Here's a nice piece on the failed logic of assessment. By a philosopher, of course.

Monday, June 03, 2013

John Stuart Mill and Liberty

I've taught the main idea of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" before--in introductory level courses. I've taught his separation of cases argument against government suppression of free speech. And I've taught Liberty in a way that incorporates a discussion of freedom of action and specifically victimless crimes.

But one of the questions that I had, going into teaching this course, is whether "Liberty" is supportive of the variety of political thought that in the news media gets called libertarianism.

I'm far from an expert on contemporary libertarianism. I know that it comes in liberal and conservative flavors, and that libertarians from the right and from the left sometimes find mutual support., for example, houses information about Mill, and The Liberty Fund archives Mill's collected works at

In my course, one very good and politically engaged student was conservative but had mixed commitments to libertarianism and communitarianism. He was mostly supportive of Mill's ideas and, when critical, usually viewed Mill's philosophy as tending to undermine social order and tradition. Another student was liberal in a distinctly libertarian way. He, too, found that Mill's political philosophy fit his own ideals.

But after a close reading of "On Liberty" and of some of Mill's other works, I have a difficult time seeing how Mill's commitments can provide the basis for contemporary conservative libertarians who would like to see less government, a reduction in government entitlements (usually with no reduction in government support for corporations), and a very low taxation rate and regressive tax scheme. Mill even seems amenable to limiting civil liberties in some cases if it is in the long-term interests of society.

In fact, Mill's individualism seems nearly completely secondary to his collectivism. The reason he supports individualism is for the very good reason that the way to develop the greatest potential in society is to develop the potential of its individual members. For example, he supports compulsory education at a time when it was controversial in England. And he is against limiting the choices that individuals make because in doing so we limit our possibilities for future growth. We should allow people to make mistakes because some of the different and unusual ideas they develop in their experiments in living will be better for society as a whole.

This is far from selfishness or egoism, and it is also far from saying that government has no business in people's private lives. The state does have an interest in how people develop their private lives, and its interest is to clear the way of obstacles to having the widest possible range of choices in how to live  (so long as people's choices do not harm others). The state has this interest because WE are the state--the commitment to participatory democratic governance is simple and straightforward. Further, there even seems to be a duty (or a consideration of beneficience, at least) to GIVE BACK to society, or to develop oneself for the sake of benefitting others, including the people of the future.

I had wondered if the individualism of "Liberty" was in conflict with the collectivism of "Utilitarianism." I think the relationship is this: an iron-clad commitment to the liberty of individuals is a pre-requisite to developing a society with the greatest sum total of happiness, and especially for the development of higher pleasures. One needs both freedom and security in order to write poetry. Mill comes back again and again to the idea that society has, can, and will progress. But that progress is built on two things: first, that people have liberty to change their lives in ways that are an improvement over past ways of living; and second, that they are motivated to develop and build the society, as a collective, rather than (just) to tend their own self-interests.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

My Mill Course: A Recap

For the spring quarter I taught a 10-week course on John Stuart Mill. Time to look back, or as we now say, "to assess." I asked to teach this course because I've admired Mill but am not an expert and was looking for a way to increase my expertise by a notch.


  • that Mill would be a clear writer for all that I assigned (most of which I had not read for a decade) and that his positions would be clear.
  • that my students, going into this advanced upper-division course, would be familiar with some version of utilitarianism and that most would be well-disposed towards consequentialism.
  • that applying Mill to contemporary issues would be irresistible.
  • that Mill's philosophy would have the appeal of being libertarian, and since that's a prevalent political philosophy among our students, that clarifying his libertarianism would be a popular discussion topic.
  • that the course would cover a wide range of issues and increase the depth of our knowledge of the 19th century (my own and my students').
Expectations, Met.
  • Mill is a clear writer--so clear that the many points at which he fails to be consistent in his views were obvious. This was actually good because it meant that my students could develop good criticisms of their own and develop confidence in their critical abilities.
Expectations, Failed.
  • Students entered the class with no memory of utilitarianism, even if they had taken an ethics course. Many students met only the minimal requirement of one previous philosophy course, and for some that course was critical thinking, a course which did not include Mill. For others, I never figured out why there knowledge (memory?) of Mill was rudimentary or non-existent. Except that I did notice that some were unable to compare/contrast Mill's "Liberty" with his "Utilitarianism" even when only 2 weeks had passed between these discussions. Quite a number of them seemed to know the material well enough, and then a few weeks later, to have no specific memory of it. Were they faking it in the first place? Possibly. Had they failed to develop skills for committing their thoughts to long-term memory? Probably.
  • It was irresistible to apply Mill to contemporary issues, but students found it difficult or impossible to apply his views in a way that challenged their pre-existing views. For example, any discussion of Mill on marriage quickly devolved into a catalog of reasons in support of gay marriage without an attempt to understand the reasons some people oppose or the specific arguments that would derive from Mill. Several students continued to believe that Mill wrote against the polygamist Mormons in "On Liberty," even though we discussed that topic in class on two separate days. I would like to develop techniques for making my class discussions both lively (which they are) and progressive, in the sense that the discussion moves people from one position to another. Rather, the discussion only seems expressive. It does not affect people's beliefs about what they have read, or else their (often shallow or false) views become even more entrenched.
Expectations, Exceeded.
  • Although contemporary libertarianism was only of interest to 3 students (only 2 of whom actually came to class), I was able to investigate this question easily on my own and was satisfied to improve my understanding.
  • We had more than enough material to make 10 very densely packed weeks (it's a 4ch course). I spent the last week on epistemology (induction, Mill's methods, and his hope for the development of the social sciences). I might have left that material off. The course could be extended very easily to a longer term by adding contemporary utilitarianism to the mix.
Although I got to know him better than I had even hoped, my appreciation of Mill was not diminished after 10 weeks of intense study. I learned much more about his faults (and especially the inconsistences of his application of his views to the issues of his time), but I also saw the value of a philosophical life spent developing a thoroughly comprehensive and consistent view.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Trees and taking the long view

A debate in environmental ethics revolves around the idea that if the value of nature is dependent on humans valuing it, the whales, the wolves, and the woods will be traded in for the next bright and shiny thing that catches the human eye. On the other side, there are those of us who are compelled, for philosophical reasons, to be anthropocentrists, while hoping that humans have the sense to take the long view.

Here's an article about some people who do:

It describes people who choose trees to fell for resonance wood--dense wood from which to make the best violins and guitars.
Pellegrini "gardens" the forest, as he puts it. But he gardens for people who will not be born for hundreds of years. So that there will be fine resonance spruce in the 24th Century.
These people are serious about both the wood and their woods:
Around here you would not be surprised to learn that people wear paper shirts and grate wood shavings on their spaghetti.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

No characters, no plot, no story

Jonathan Wolff (a philosopher) writes in The Guardian about how boring academic writing is.
Choice line:
It explains why academic writing is generally so much easier to put down than it is to pick up again.
He argues that a good story depends on there being a tension between what happens and the revelation of what happens. E.g, you know what's going to happen next, but the protagonist is dangerously unaware of the banana peel lurking under her boot.

Academic writing can't be this way, or it shouldn't be this way, or it's risky when it's this way. I'm not so old that I can't remember back to my way of writing as a naive philosophy student. I would pick an unpopular position, but I wouldn't reveal the argument until the last possible minute. "It's not a detective  story," my professor would say. Those papers flopped.

I still resist opening a paper with the roadmap approach: "First, I will argue that xyz-ism is inevitable. Second, I will show that given the inevitability of xyz-ism, it is also necessary. Finally, this point will be used to launch a criticism of the contingency of xyz-ism."

Although philosophy papers aren't known for cliffhangers, I can think of a few that have style. Just a touch of tension may be all that's needed.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Flipped Classroom

My university is all about flipped classrooms. All the teaching awards and grants are going to people who "flip" their classrooms.

From what I can tell, this indicates a willingness to dumb down material as far as you possibly can. Instead of asking students to read and write, you ask them to watch some music videos at home (but not more than 5 to 7 minutes at a time) and then entice them to come play video games in class.

Want to know more about flipping classrooms? Here's the top link from a Google search for "flipped classroom." True to style, it explains pedagogy through clip art (including an image of a student doing work from bed--with the covers pulled up!), a flow chart that never uses a concept requiring more than three words to explain, and information transfer which approaches zero.

I call it "flipping the class" for the "flipped-off classroom."

Monday, March 11, 2013

Education and Breadth

I'm one week into my spring term. It's the time of the teaching season when profs ask each other "Did you get a good start? What are you teaching? Is it interesting?"

We all mean: can you make it through the next 10 weeks with enough vim and vigor to start your summer research plans without first going on a bender?

When I answer the question by saying that I'm lucky to be teaching an upper-division course on John Stuart Mill, I get blank stares. I expected my friends and colleagues, none of them philosophers but most with advanced degrees--even PhD's--to have a sense of who Mill was. At least to know that this course has to do with 19th century history, maybe ethics or something like that.

In fact, the classes' first reading assignment started like this:
Who wrote On Liberty? Nearly everyone with a college education could tell you – well – should be able to tell you that the author is John Stuart Mill.
But no. My well-educated, inquisitive, politically-informed friends give me blank stares. They have advanced degrees in physics, chemistry, biology, business, engineering. (Business, even! No matter that Mill's Principles of Political Economy was influential in its time.) Mentioning utilitarianism or "the greatest good for the greatest number" does not jar something loose or get a glimmer of recognition.

Here I've been down on "No Child Left Behind" and its effect on my current students. But if the intellectuals around here--the ones in their 30s, 40s, and 50s with the benefit of good college educations and post-grad education on top of that are absolutely unaware of one of the leading intellects of the 19th century, then my expectations must be completely out of line.

Let's talk about the important stuff going on in our own times instead.

On a side note, when given the argument below and asked to categorize it as valid or invalid, true premises or not, my students want to know if they're going to be held responsible for all kinds of arcane literary and historical facts which have nothing to do with philosophy!
Since Moby Dick was written by Shakespeare, and Moby Dick is a science fiction novel, it follows that Shakespeare wrote a science fiction novel.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Re-reading the Canon Series

The Re-reading the Canon Series from Penn State Press has become much larger than I realized! And it's been growing for nearly 20 years.

The titles are "Feminist Interpretations of X," and they cover the canon stalwarts (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel) as well as some surprises (Emma Goldman, Ayn Rand). Some recent additions include Thomas Hobbes, Jane Addams, and Richard Rorty.

The essays from the mid-1990's, e.g. in the collection on Plato, are delightfully, charmingly po-mo. I assigned the collection on Quine to a seminar once, and have drawn on the essays about Dewey for classes as well.

As I prepare my spring quarter seminar, I turned to the series to see if there is a collection on Mill. Apparently not! Quel dommage.

Monday, February 25, 2013


I'm preparing to teach an undergraduate course on John Stuart Mill. This is an excuse for me to spend 10 weeks re-reading some of my favorite history of philosophy. It's also part of my program to teach in ways that highlight women philosophers--contemporary and historical. I came across this little piece (from 2009) by Jo Ellen Jacobs about the nature of John Stuart Mill's collaboration with Harriet Taylor.

"The Second Scribe"

The abstract (from PhilPapers):
On Liberty celebrates a collaborative theory of knowing exemplified in the way Harriet and John worked together. They believed fervently in the power of individuals struggling together to grasp the truth – including both the “idealistic” belief that there is truth as opposed to mere subjective opinion, and a deep scepticism about the beliefs accepted by the majority.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Data, yes. But values first.

By David Brooks in the New York Times.

What Data Can't Do

Toward the end:

Data obscures values. I recently saw an academic book with the excellent title, “ ‘Raw Data’ Is an Oxymoron.” One of the points was that data is never raw; it’s always structured according to somebody’s predispositions and values. The end result looks disinterested, but, in reality, there are value choices all the way through, from construction to interpretation.

(from Will Krieger)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Intended insult gone awry

First-grade child, in the car: Mom!
Me: What?
Child: Dad!
John: What?
Child: Ha-ha, what's a nerd word!
John: No, why's a nerd word.
Me: Non-linear's a nerd word.
John: Ontological's a nerd word.
Me: DEontological's a nerd word. Epigenetic's a nerd word. Etiology's a nerd word.
John: We're very proud of our nerd words, son.
Me: Nerd words? Now you're speaking my language.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Is this the same dialogue I read?

Exam Question:
Describe Meno's paradox, also called the Paradox of Inquiry. What solution to the paradox is proposed by Socrates in the dialogue? Do you think this is a satisfactory solution to the puzzle? If not, how would you resolve the paradox? (15 pts.)

Student answer:
"This is the paradox of a slave boy who went to Meno to recollect taxes."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ann Cahill at 3am

Ann Cahill of Elon University interviewed at 3AM magazine--on feminist philosophy, on intersubjectivity, and on a phenomenology of pregnancy loss.

The only thing is, I'm not so sure that the interviewer is right that women in philosophy have it worse than women in other academic subjects. I cringe at the stories I hear from engineering and computer science. But then again, there are also some strong forms of recognition of gender-based disparity in those areas, and we should hope to learn from the strategies STEM disciplines have developed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Undergrad tips for participation

One of my new undergrad advisees asked me how to participate in a philosophy discussion class. This is not something I usually teach explicitly, and it was never taught to me explicitly, and why not? Because a discussion with skilled participants makes all the difference.

This particular student is not shy--he's an officer in his fraternity. So he's not asking for help with that. He's asking about quality, and he pointed out that he doesn't want to imitate what some students do because he thinks the way they participate wastes class time. He might be right! But he also might have a mistaken idea about what a good or bad comment is.

Since I wrote a lot for him, I thought it would be worth copying here:

If you go to a public lecture, you will see that our faculty members each have their own style for asking questions. Actually, most of us have a toolbox that includes a few different question types. For instance, one of us usually asks an apparently simple question of clarification which he has carefully planned so that the speaker will say something controversial, and he follows up with the question "So do you realize that the implication of what you're saying is the usually undesirable outcome X?" Others often ask the speaker if they have examined the connection between what they're saying and some other philosopher. One of us comes right out and says "I disagree with your starting assumptions."

So developing a style for engaging in public is a good thing to think about—we've all done that, maybe explicitly or maybe we just let our style emerge over time.

The first thing to do, then, is to watch what other students (and professors) do, and start evaluating the kinds of questions/comments and the ways of saying them which you think are especially effective or ineffective. Then practice one kind of question yourself. Even if you just have one kind of question/comment that you feel comfortable making, and which you can fashion to fit different circumstances, then you're in good shape.

One of the things you should ask yourself is whether you are better at reacting to other people or better at expressing a thought that is independent of what other people have said. Because depending on the answer, you'll need to be mentally prepared to jump in in different ways. Usually professors give an opening for the latter strategy. Either at the beginning or at the end, they ask "Is there anything about this reading you didn't understand?" or "Is there something else about this debate that we should cover?" And that's your cue.

If you're better at reacting, then you just have to be ready to let your spring-loaded question get tripped and come out your mouth. For instance, I'm better at reacting than starting a conversation, but as an undergrad I used to be really, really slow to respond, and then I would leave every class thinking "Why didn't I just say what I was thinking?" I had to practice being faster, and that's how I developed the bad habit of talking over other people. In some circumstances, it's rude, and in other circumstances, it's how to get heard.

The second thing to do is to have a couple of strategies and types of questions in mind, and the kind that you start developing will depend on the above choice. If you can react, professors LOVE it when one student calls another student out (but in a gentle, respectful, kind way) for saying something that doesn't make sense. Your participation goal is not necessarily to interact with the professor—it's just as good (and probably better) to interact with other students. For instance: "Pat, I think what you just said about the evil demon is really interesting, but you also said that Descartes is an empiricist. I'm curious if you could say more about that because I think of Descartes as a rationalist."

Another thing that professors LOVE is if you can make a connection with a different class day. This is something that can sometimes be prepared ahead of time. "I found myself following along with Marx when he makes a point about the power of the proletariat. But just last week I had a positive feeling toward Nietzsche when he wrote about the powerful individual. Yes, I want to be a powerful individual, but I also want to stand in solidarity with my people. Professor, is there a tension here? What do you make of it?"

Which reminds me—some but not all professors like to be asked what they think about a controversy or interpretation. Well, really everyone likes to be asked, but some will refuse to say.

Finally, you can always ask questions of clarification. "I didn't really get how the revolution is supposed to happen, especially if the ruling class controls the means of public communication. What am I missing?" Or more simply "What is the proletariat? I read this but I'm still confused." Or an interesting one "Is this idea supposed to apply to our time? And if it does, who would the proletariat be right now? The 99%? The 47%? Just people who are homeless?" Asking these kinds of questions does not make you look stupid (although you should do the reading and not just ask basic questions without reading). It makes you look like you're paying attention to details.

So the summary is:
You can improve participation by 
1. planning ahead
2. recognizing the openings and invitations that apply to the kind of comment/question you're best at
3. practicing one particular kind or style of comment/question over and over again until it feels natural to you.