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?

Continue reading

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.

From the Archive: A Bizarrely Inexplicable Post

A mention of the work of Douglas Adams in The New York Times, this morning, has prompted me to go back to the archives of my earlier blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, for a post from December 20, 2011.

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As long as I am acknowledging my intellectual debts, I should pay tribute to a writer who had an early, deep, and not entirely explicable influence on my outlook on the world: Douglas Adams.

Yes, it does seem strange to be writing this. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not exactly part of the canon of essential philosophical treatises.

It’s very funny, of course, and has tremendous appeal to people of a certain culture who went through adolescence in the 1980s, but is it really worthy of serious tribute from someone who claims to be a serious philosopher?

Well, that’s part of the point, of course.
Continue reading

The Aims of Education

My approach to teaching could be described as “outcome-based education,” given the emphasis of my courses on helping students to develop particular skills of moral cognition.

For me, this narrower, short-term aim has always been tied to a broader vision of the humanities, or of liberal education, or of human life in the world. It has taken be by surprise, then, that on several occasions colleagues have asked something like the following critical questions:

In focusing so much on skills and measurable outcomes, are you not selling out to the corporate model of higher education as mere job-training? Are you not betraying the spirit of liberal education by capitulating to the increasingly corporate or consumerist approach to higher education, which reduces the whole enterprise to the provision of “credentials”?

This is a fair question, one made perhaps more urgent by the fact that the vast majority of my students are professionals-in-training, and much of what I do, particularly in engineering education, is to prepare them to work well and responsibly in their professional roles.

My first reply to the question of whether I am betraying the liberal arts is simply, “I hope not!”  I think I can do better though, in that I can draw a distinction between outcomes-based education of the kind I am developing from the job-skills-training model that seems more and more prevalent in higher education today.

Continue reading

Being on the Same Side

I use a rubric in assessing my students work, set out in tabular form: each row is one of the criteria from the learning outcomes, while the columns indicated degree of mastery, with stronger performance on the left.

When a student comes to see me about an assignment, usually concerned about the final grade – GPA rules all! – I immediately turn to the rubric and discuss specific ways they can improve their performance on the assignment.

Talking to one student, this semester just past, I said, “My goal is to get everyone to move to the left.”

I was taken aback when the student asked, in reply, “My left or yours?”

Beat.

“We’re on the same side, looking at it the same way,” I replied.

After a moment’s silence, the student said, in wonder, “I’ve never heard a professor say that before.”

It makes me wonder what my colleagues are doing in their own classes, or what students think we are doing, that it never occurred to this particular student that an instructor could be on the same side, with the same goals.

It makes me wonder how many of my colleagues, and how many of my students, think of education instead as an adversarial process?

What can we do to tear down that wall?

Design Flaws

As I’ve noted before, I adopted a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to my practical ethics classes in Fall 2012: after a summer of planning and preparation, I jumped in to the deep end with two courses structured entirely around groups working on messy, practical problems.

(I’m looking back over my history with PBL in preparation both for a paper I’m writing about it and for a workshop I’ll be conducting later this month.)

By the midpoint of the term, I recognized a serious structural flaw in my design, one that threatened to undermine all learning in my classroom: the two “practical exams” that made up much of each student’s final grade were given equal weight in the gradebook.

I should not have been surprised that students struggled so much with the first exam, but it became clear enough that they were still far from mastering the basics of ethical inquiry. In short, scores on the first exam were quite low, across the board.

Student despair and panic over their already-beleaguered GPAs is not altogether conducive to student engagement and cognitive development.

So, I introduced my first mid-course correction. Continue reading