Thursday, September 20, 2018

Evening Note for Thursday, September 20

Thought for the Evening: Kinds of Failing in Teaching

Suppose you intend to teach something (it doesn't particularly matter for our purposes what). Then it seems you could intend to teach but fail to teach because you did not do anything that was even the right sort of thing. For instance, perhaps you don't really understand what teaching is, and so even though you genuinely intend to teach, all you manage to achieve is a cargo-cult imitation of it, like a child might -- you put people in rows and stand in front of the group like you've seen in pictures and babble in gibberish or about nothing in particular as if you were lecturing. This is a failure of teaching that is so fundamental that we could say that you didn't even get started on teaching. We can call it the zero level of teaching failure:

0. Not the kind of thing that even could be teaching

But you could fail even if you were not that clueless. For instance, you could try to teach, and do the kind of thing that teaching actually involves, even though you are not the right kind of person to teach -- for instance, if you don't actually know what you are talking about. This gives us the next level of teaching failure:

1. The right general kind of thing to be teaching, but not the right person

Even if you are the right kind of person, you could fail in other words. For instance, you could pick a self-defeating time to teach, or try to teach people who aren't even hypothetically interested in hearing what you have to say, or through a medium that just doesn't work. Thus we have:

2. The right kind of person doing the right general kind of thing, but not in the right circumstances

However, as every teacher knows, you could be the right kind of person doing the right kind of thing in the right circumstances and still fail. For instance, you could garble your explanation so that instead of teaching the student, you just hopelessly confuse them. WE have all been there. Thus the next level of teaching failure:

3. The right kind of person incorrectly doing the right general kind of thing in the right circumstances.

Suppose you do it all correctly, though; you could still be interrupted by something, or impeded by something, so that your correct and adequately done work goes to waste. It happens; your teaching could be perfectly fine in itself but foiled by something external to it. And thus:

4. The right kind of person correctly doing the right general kind of thing in the right circumstances, but blocked by something external

If you manage to avoid all these failures, to that you are the right person doing the right general kind of thing in the right circumstances and aren't prevented or impeded by something else, congratulations; you have in some sense succeeded in fully teaching. I say 'in some sense' because while you have the esse of teaching, you can (I'm sorry to say) still fail to achieve the bene esse. Everything could come together so that you are fully teaching, and you could still be flubbing it. Maybe you need more sleep, or maybe you need to care more, or maybe you are trying out something that is just falling flat, and instead of its taking flight, you can hear it drop like a stone and plink on the distant floor of the abyss that has apparently opened at your feet. Thus:

5. Full teaching that is poorly done

But there is another kind of failure -- the fifth level is where full teaching is lame or sickly for reasons belonging to it, but sometimes teaching is all done right and just smothered by a lack of a support. Perhaps you yourself don't follow through properly; or perhaps you need support from others and they don't come through for you. Perhaps the student drops the ball on their end. Perhaps you do well and get drowned out by error in the end through no fault of your own. And thus the last:

6. Full teaching done well itself but not well supported

There are plenty of ways to fail at teaching, then, and failure is available in plenty even when other things come together just right. An interesting modification of all this is when we are talking not just about teaching but about teaching on behalf of, when the teaching itself is an act of representation. Level 1 failures for teaching in general tend to be about whether you can actually do anything to teach at all; but you can be a perfectly fine teacher and still not be the right kind of person for representative teaching. This is quite common. Perhaps we are talking about teaching in order to certify, as with college professors or teachers in beauty schools, or maybe you are teaching, by a sort of dispensation, what is in itself a higher authority's prerogative to teach, as with rabbis or catechists or the Pope. Such cases impose more conditions that have to be met to avoid each level of failure as a teacher.

As a college professor, for instance, I not only have to teach, I have to teach in such a way that at least a fair amount of what is taught can be used for degrees, transfers, other classes. This is actually a very large set of constraints; a prerogative of being an academic is being able to teach as one sees fit, but in fact, even setting aside laws and policies, there are many things that restrict what one can do. I could teach a perfectly excellent Intro Philosophy class starting with the Pre-Socratics, then looking at Cicero, then Iamblichus, then John Scotus Eriugena, then Gersonides, then John Norris, and ending with Collingwood. It would be perfectly excellent in the sense that it would be an entirely viable way to introduce people to philosophy; they would learn an immense amount about philosophy. But in practice it's not a viable class at all. It wouldn't directly prepare students for a typical upper-level philosophy class; it would be an uphill battle explaining to one's colleagues in the department why this course covering people some of them may never have heard of, or that they know only in name, is an Intro course; another department looking at the syllabus might doubt that it should really transfer as an Intro course, so you wouldn't be doing your students a favor if they try to transfer the credit. It would usually not be good teaching on behalf of the college, even if it were great as teaching. (This ties in, incidentally, to something I've mentioned before, namely, the defective concept of the Intro Phil course.)

Various Links of Interest

* John Brungardt has begun translating John of St. Thomas on natural philosophy. It's only just started, but it looks like it will be a nice project.

* Holly Brewer, Slavery-entangled philosophy. I am, I should say, not wholly convinced by all parts of this argument.

* Elisa Freschi, Bhavanātha and the move towards theistic Mīmāṃsā

* Lani Watson, What is a question -- very nice little essay on the subject.

* Elizabeth Bruenig, He wanted to be a priest. He says Archbishop McCarrick used that to abuse him.

* Ed Condon notes that the recent Catholic crisis is not due to a lack of mechanisms in canon law for dealing with it, but a lack of will in using canon law to protect those who need protection.

* Lloyd Strickland, The “Fourth Hypothesis” on the Early Modern Mind-Body Problem

* Jeremiah Carey, Dispassion as an Ethical Ideal

* Ruth Goodman, Getting Clean, the Tudor Way. A good way to get a sense of the root cause of Tudor fashion, all the ruffs and sleeves: it all comes down to linen being relatively easy to clean and replace.

* When Frederick Douglass came to Ireland -- in his own words

* William R. Black, Let's bring the Sabbath back as a radical act against 'total work'

* Kwame Anthony Appiah, On the Kidnapped Boy Who Became a German Philosopher

* Paul Gerard Horrigan, Transcendental Beauty
Paul Gerard Horrigan, Transcendental Aliquid

* Eduard Habsburg, Ancient Walls and New Bridges

* Steven T. Kuhn and Brian Weatherson, Notes on Some Ideas in Lloyd Humberstone's Philosophical Applications of Modal Logic

Currently Reading

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
Lloyd Humberstone, Philosophical Applications of Modal Logic

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