How Democracies Die

Inspired by a particular speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention, I have gone back to read the founding documents of the United States, starting with the Constitution.

Well, let me step back and give some context to this.

I am scheduled to teach a course in political philosophy, this fall, an assignment made both more interesting and more fraught with peril by the current political scene here in the U.S.

I will be modifying a course design I used a few years ago in which I introduced the students to three whole books: Locke’s Second Treatise, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Iris Young’s Inclusion and Democracy.

The question is: How are democracies supposed to work? More precisely, the interest is in whether and under what conditions democratic forms of government both work well and provide a legitimate basis for political authority. The three whole books correspond to three broad models of democratic government: liberal democracy, republican democracy, and deliberative democracy.

I was briefly tempted, though, to build the class around the question of how democracies die, often by their own hands. Continue reading

Life Is Strange: Video Games and Moral Imagination (Spoilers!)

I’ve spent a little too much time, in the past week or so, playing a game on my computer.

The game in question, with the deceptively trite title Life Is Strange, is an example of what may be an emerging genre in video games: a graphic adventure game that amounts to an especially rich and engaging interactive story, with a particular game-play mechanic, some mild puzzle solving, some free exploration of the setting of each scene, an overarching mystery to investigate, and a series of tough choices that affect future (and past!) parts of the story.

In this case, the narrative device and game-play mechanic is the ability to rewind. The main character is Maxine “Max” Caulfield, an 18-year-old photography student at a high school for the arts, who suddenly finds herself able to manipulate time by undoing some decisions and trying other options. Important elements of the plot and a number of the puzzles that need to be solved depend on this ability.

SPOILER ALERT! I will not reveal any particular details of the plot, especially from the later chapters, but I will be discussing the general outlines of the game and the general outlines of its ending. If you have an interest in video games that might lead you to play Life Is Strange, and if you really don’t like to know too much about the trajectory of a story before you start it, you might not want to read on.
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Doing New Things in Teaching (with more words added later)

(Explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often, just like at that one not-real place I found with my computer. I wrote this using a thing the guy who makes that not-real place made to help people to write more simply.)

I work at a big college (the kind that has a lot of little colleges in it). This week I went to a meeting where some of the top leaders of my big college talked about how they want a lot of us in my big college to do new things in teaching.

They said a lot of stuff about how teaching is good and how teaching matters a lot to people and how important it is to do new things in teaching . . . and especially how important it is that people in my big college do the new things before anyone else does them.

What they did not say, but I thought I heard anyway, is how they do not really know what teaching is.

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Theoretical Commitments

I have long thought of myself as something of an agnostic on matters of moral theory.

From the beginning I have concerned myself with practical decision-making, first with environmental ethics and policy and more recently with engineering ethics. I am now mainly concerned with how best to teach ethics to undergraduate students in engineering degree programs. In those efforts, I have come to think of moral theories as resources for ordinary practical decision-making, lenses through which to see ordinary basic values of one kind or another.

I could, I have thought, go on using these frameworks, playing them one against the other in expanding and enriching the variety of values taken into account in any decision, without committing myself to any one of them. As a teacher, I have thought I could offer the frameworks to students with complete neutrality, allowing them to figure out for themselves how to balance one kind of value against another. It is not for me to indoctrinate them, after all.

As I am, after a quarter century, re-reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I begin to see that such a neutral perspectivism is untenable. In fact, telling myself I am neutral among perspectives is simply false: everything I do has a frame and a direction, based on a particular – though still developing – understanding of human cognition and of the ends of human life in the world. Continue reading

Scaffolding: The Utility Template

As previously noted, scaffolding is an important element in problem-based learning:

it is an external and somewhat artificial version of a thinking process that is usually carried out internally. The idea is to direct students’ attention from the outside until they learn to direct their own attention themselves, from the inside

For drawing students’ attention to various kinds of basic values, I found the template for utility values the easiest to develop. I don’t want to go too far, just now, in speculating about why that should be the case, but I think it has something to do with the fact that utilitarianism is the product of an empiricist outlook, according to which the marks and measures of value are observable and the connections from action to its ethical implications largely a matter of empirical causality.

Here is the basic template:

Utility TemplateFor this template, focus on the action as something that happens in the world that has consequences that ripple out from it, affecting other people. This is largely a matter of material causality: my action causes x, which causes y, which causes z, and so on. Continue reading

Where Have I Been?

Well, most recently, I’ve been at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum, just up the road in Greenville, SC.

Some conversations I had there made it clear that there might be good reason to resume posting to this blog, if only because people expressed interest in seeing updates on my course design projects and some of the materials I’ve developed.

In the very near future, look for more examples of scaffolding, and some observations on the courses I’m teaching this Fall.

Scaffolding: The Virtue Template, revised

Some months ago, I posted a template I provided to students in my engineering ethics class, to assist them in thinking about virtues and vices in considering various options for responding to a complex problem situation. This, I explained, is an example of scaffolding, which is a crucial element in problem-based learning: it is an external and somewhat artificial version of a thinking process that is usually carried out internally. The idea is to direct students’ attention from the outside until they learn to direct their own attention themselves, from the inside.

In using the template during the Spring and Summer terms, I learned a great deal about its meaning and its limits, on the basis of which I have revised the template itself and refined the instruction I give for using it.

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Why I Don’t Want to Get STEAMed

STEM education is all the rage: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the collection of disciplines regarded as the most desirable, the most likely to lead to financial success for individuals and economic growth for nations, the obsession of universities and policy makers alike.

I don’t know who was the first to consider the possibility of making a concession to the older and richer tradition of liberal-arts education in the United States, but I’ve also come across the acronym, STEAM, in which the ‘A’ stands for Arts.

That’s nice. Continue reading

Adventures in Applied Actor-Network Theory

The first step is to admit you have a problem, right?

Well, I have a problem with computers or, more specifically, with broadband Internet service: my capacity to wallow in distraction seems almost boundless. I can sit for hours, hopping from site to site, tracking this blog and that, contributing to that discussion thread or the other, reading news stories – including satirical ones – and playing games.

My goodness, I can waste whole days playing games, especially if it’s one of the new ones, rich in story and human interest and short on gun-play. (Gone Home is brilliant, by the way.)

But, out in the real world, there is much to be done! I have classes to teach and students to advise! I have books to read and papers to write! I have a marriage to keep vibrant and children to raise up into freedom and dignity and friendships to cultivate! I have music to play and instruments to practice and bands to organize and gigs to book and dances to, um, dance! I have a household to keep and finances to manage!

And that’s on a slow day!

I am 46 years old, and really have only so many hours left in my life. Can I really afford to fritter away so many of them on a computer, doing nothing much?

No, really, I can’t.

So, what ought I to do?

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On Quitting Social Media . . . Again

I offer no manifesto here, no call to arms against the evils of technology.

I note only in passing that the pendulum is swinging the other way, and I find myself inclined to disengage from the internet, for a while, to see if it’s still possible to focus on other things . . . like books, and teaching, and substantive writing tasks I’ve been putting off for too long.

In the past, a particular move to withdraw from social media has often followed an especially unpleasant trip down one or another of the rabbit-holes of online “discussion”, and that is somewhat the case, here.

It’s not exactly ragequitting, though. It’s more that there comes a moment of clarity that this technology, so useful for some purposes, also shapes human conduct and human interaction in very particular ways that may exceed all our intentions, often to our own detriment.

There came a moment, yesterday, when it seemed to me the whole of the internet is a vast, teeming charnel-house of the spirit.

My first move has been to shut down my Disqus account, which had the unforeseen consequence of deleting all of my participation in certain comment threads.

I feel no sense of loss at this.

I may still publish to this blog, and may even do so fairly regularly. I’ve shut down my Twitter account, though, and will no longer have posts automatically forwarded to LinkedIn.

In the mean time, my fountain pens have been filled, my shelves are lined with books waiting to be read, my yard needs some attention, my fiddle needs new strings, and my dance shoes have not seen quite enough use, of late.