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.

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.

Hydraulic Fracturing: Risk v. Acceptable Risk

I have said that the first day of our workshop on hydraulic fracturing, in November, brought out a long list of risks related to hydraulic fracturing and, indeed, the engineers and scientists who participated were quite adept at identifying such risks and possibilities for mitigation.

Something else came out during those first sessions, though, which I found troubling.

What I heard was simply a repeated assertion or implication that those who oppose hydraulic fracturing are moved to do so only by emotion, especially by fear. The assertion was reinforced with reference to certain bad actors in the public arena who engage in campaigns based on misinformation, distortion and possibly even fraud to manipulate the emotions of an uninformed public.

The underlying assumption of such claims, I think, is that there is a clean distinction between reason and emotion, and that only those who base their decisions on the methods and findings of the sciences have reason on their side.

Beneath this is a still deeper assumption that quantitative analysis is the essence of rationality. Continue reading

Hydraulic Fracturing: The Project

As I have been hinting, I’m currently caught up in a collaborative project on engineering, ethics and policy related to hydraulic fracturing.

The idea for the project began to take shape in conversations I was having with my colleague, Chloé Arson, who is over in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. We were exploring opportunities for new directions in engineering ethics education.

I cannot now say which of them emerged first, but there are twin intuitions at the heart of our discussion:

  1. Most interesting problems in engineering – and for ethics and policy related to engineering – involve not only risk but also uncertainty, because the underlying dynamics of the problem situation are poorly or only partially understood; and
  2. We should aim to prepare engineers-in-training to engage in ethical inquiry and policy inquiry at the same time they are engaging in empirical inquiry and in design.

I joked at the time that the second intuition goes both ways: we need engineers who can think like ethicists and ethicists who can think like engineers. Continue reading

On Helping My Daughter Learn to Drive

I’ve noted already that things I learn in private life sometimes converge with what I’m thinking about in my professional life, and this morning brought an especially complex tangle of such convergences.

(I am a practical ethicist, though, so I suppose some spill-over is inevitable. In fact, I used to observe that it’s very hard for me not to talk shop in social situations, since the whole world of human experience is shop.)

My older daughter is 15 and has her instructional permit for driving. I took her out this morning to the parking lot of a nearby mall so should could continue getting used to being behind the wheel and developing basic skills.

We’ve been to the parking lot several times in recent months, but at irregular intervals, so her progress toward competence is slow. She is improving, though.

I was talking to her, as I drove home, about what it’s like to be an experienced driver.

It’s a matter of paying attention, I told her. More than that, it’s a matter of having ingrained habits of paying attention. So, if I’m at an intersection or driveway trying to turn right, I have to be sure to glance to the right before I hit the accelerator, in case a pedestrian is crossing in front of the car. Continue reading

Death By Robot

“Death by robot is an undignified death, Peter Asaro, an affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, said in a speech in May at a United Nations conference on conventional weapons in Geneva. A machine ‘is not capable of considering the value of those human lives’ that it is about to end, he told the group. ‘And if they’re not capable of that and we allow them to kill people under the law, then we all lose dignity, in the way that if we permit slavery, it’s not just the suffering of those who are slaves but all of humanity that suffers the indignity that there are any slaves at all.'” – Robin Marantz Henig, “Death By Robot“, in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine.

This gets close to what I was trying to say in my recent post on self-driving cars, at least in that it offers an alternative to the usual default discourse of utilitarian calculation. Continue reading

On Banning Electronics from the Classroom

A post appeared on The Daily Nous, today, taking up a question raised by an editorial in The Washington Post: Should an instructor at the university level, as a matter of explicit policy, forbid students to have or use their own electronic devices in the classroom?

I used to have such a policy, as I was tired of seeing students absorbed in social media or online videos while I was trying so desperately to engage them.

It did not go over very well with students and, in any case, left me feeling uneasy. As some of my students protested, the policy comes across as condescending, patronizing.

When I switched to problem-based learning (PBL), though, I dropped the policy: the internet can be a resource for students working in groups in the classroom, though I do try to help them reflect on their use of the internet and the relative value of various sources they may find there.

Here is the comment I contributed to the thread following the post on The Daily Nous: Continue reading

Self-Driving Cars: A View from the Sidewalk

I have not been following the hype over self-driving cars closely enough to tell whether it’s a passing fad or something more enduring.

As is often the case with emerging technologies that excite people’s imaginations, many claims for the benefits of self-driving cars come across as exaggerated, almost utopian.

In any case, benefits are cast as benefits, along a single dimension of value: self-driving cars will be convenient and profitable, and we’ll all be better off if they become more prevalent.

I’m far from convinced. Continue reading

Object Lessons

My post about the cyclotron case – “The Other End of the Beam” – has made me wonder whether I could build a course in practical ethics, or perhaps just the introductory segment of a course, around a single, physical object.

I’d come across a brief account of the idea of an object lesson, which is attributed to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century educational theorist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, in a recent overview of the philosophy of education by Nel Noddings.

I’ll need to go back and look at her account, and I’ll need to dig into the history of it, but the basic idea is to allow students to learn from interacting directly with a particular object. Especially notable is that the technique was often used for moral instruction, often in a religious context.

That original meaning of the term, object lesson, has been obscured: in common usage, it refers generally to an experience from which someone learns something.

I’d like to restore the core idea of interacting with an object, in imagination if not in direct experience, to give students practical experience using one or another skill of ethical inquiry. Continue reading