A Better Kind of MOOC

Been thinking for a while about how to innovate on the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Here are the problems MOOCs face: 

  • Despite having high quality content that is in great demand, virtually no one watches a MOOC past the first two or three lectures.
  • MOOCs are often visually annoying. A camera pointed at a professor's face. We get all the downsides of classroom learning, with none of the upsides.
  • MOOCs too often fail to communicate the sort of excitement of learning that comes with being surrounded by peers who are learning the same material as you are at the same time. MOOCs are insufficiently social.

I'm still thinking about how it makes sense to try and hack the MOOC. But in the meantime, I'm trying out a few things on the God and the Good Life class that I may try to work into a MOOC (if I ever try to make one). One of them is just the format of the class syllabus / website (they are the same thing). It's laid out simply. Students (or anyone online really) can just visit the site, click the topic they want to think about, and do all the readings and assignments. We're also trying to get the course blog to be more active -- to be a social space for those who may be following along and doing the readings. One major thing was missing, though: content. That is, until now! Below is a video we put together for lecture #1 of course content (title: Learn to Live Well). I'm hoping to do this for each of the courses. Links will be available the page for each of the lecture days (example). Enjoy!


Professor Meghan Sullivan, "The good life is roughly this big."  

Knowing (How) "to Live" [Well]: or, Building Stories

  • Warning: this post is academic to a stupid degree. I'll be using this blog -- from time to time -- to work out ideas-in-progress that I have for my dissertation. (More than anything, I just need a platform with a tagging feature to organize random thoughts...) That said: you're welcome to read, comment, and ask questions. I'll be trying to make this same point pretty much every day for the next two years...

Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson argue that knowledge-how is a form of propositional knowledge: to know how to Φ is just to know (of some way W) that W is a way to Φ under the practical mode of presentation. If you understand what that means (even after reading everything they've ever written on the subject), congratulations. You've reached enlightenment in the area of academic epistemology to a degree I don't even strive after anymore...

Let's suppose for a moment that this position is false (ironically, it's called "intellectualism" -- so I may have to rename the blog...)

Let's suppose (with well over a generation of philosophers) there's a distinctive type of knowledge that agents acquire when they learn how to do something (like ride a bike, run a marathon, write a book, etc). Now suppose that living is a doing of the relevant kind (that is to say: leading a human life is an action). It follows from this that learning to live well (acquiring live) is not the sort of thing we can learn propositionally (whatever exactly that means).

There's something about this conclusion that resonates deeply with me (and, I think, others). We do not learn how to live by academic philosophy. We cannot learn how to live simply be assenting to propositions that experts testify to. We need to discover for ourselves in some important way how to live. (Which -- as Korsgaard incessantly points out -- is the same thing as learning how to "live well" since "Φing" and "Φing well" are not separable actions, but the same action described in some evaluative way.)

Okay, so then how do we (or how can we) acquire knowledge how to live (and live well)?

The answer, I think, is deceptively simple. From stories.

Action, in general, requires us to (a) describe our behavior in a particular, temporally ordered way, (b) structured by reasons for so behaving, and (c) unified by our intention for that description of our behavior to be the authoritative interpretation of what we are doing and why. (And I was giving Stanley a hard time earlier for jargony philosophical conditions...)

The capacity to so describe our behavior is identical (in my thinking) to our capacity for what Anscombe calls "practical knowledge." It is a capacity that allows us to authoritatively apply a certain type of description (I call it "actional description") to our behavior. It's what transforms such behavior into action. It's what -- if it is missing -- makes some movement unintentional.

How do stories fit into this mess?

Well, narratives are sustained descriptions of complex actions (or -- if Aristotle is right -- one, extremely complex action). They are unified by the intentions of an author to offer a comprehensive and authoritative description of those actions (or that action). Successful narratives describe or illustrate (rather than report on) the way in which intentions to act interact with the world (sometimes in frustrating ways). They illustrate, thus, actional descriptions (at a very high level of complexity) that have successfully been applied by agents to their behavior. They also illustrate instances in which attempts to bring behavior under actional description fail. (Consider the case of Walter White, a man who professes to be acting in the interest of his family by cooking and selling meth, when -- all along -- his behavior is ultimately explained by more egoist motives, and more self-centered reasons.)

So narrative plays several roles in this picture: (1) acting requires the ability to tell stories to ourselves, (2) making the action of others intelligible (or making our action intelligible to others) requires the ability to locate the agent (ourselves or others) within a narrative (or perhaps set of narratives), and (3) evaluations of actions will require us to ask whether -- and to what extent -- the narrative at issue is coherent, comprehensive, and -- ultimately -- a good one.

So, to recap: learning to live well requires us to acquire knowledge-how to live. Living is an action (or perhaps a complex set of actions, structured in some way). "To live" [well], then, will require us to know (how) to tell "the story of a good life," and to bring our behavior under the actional description of one such story.

My Philosophy of Grading

If I had to grade our grading practices in higher-ed generally, we would not get an A+... 

If I had to grade our grading practices in higher-ed generally, we would not get an A+... 

I think a lot about grading and why we -- as educators -- even do it. I've come up with some norms of grading -- a sort of "philosophy of grading" -- that I always use to come up with specific grading practices. I thought I'd post it here, since I think grading is one of the things that we, college educators, are the absolute worst at. Feel free to post thoughts or comment with your own additional norms!

  • Students should be assessed only on the performance of activities or the production of work that demonstrate growth or mastery of the skills, competencies, and objectives identified in the course objectives. For instance: it makes sense to evaluate whether or not a student’s paper includes strong arguments, since learning how to argue is a core objective of most philosophy courses. It does not make sense to assess a student’s paper for grammatical errors, since we are not focusing on making them better technical writers. If a paper is so error-riddled that it makes the argument difficult to follow, you might choose to evaluate their grammar insofar as it detracts from their argumentative skills, but you should never subtract points simply because a student’s writing style or use of grammar is not up to your own standards (or even the stands of professional writing). Likewise, you should never assign a grade to students simply for showing up (since being in a particular location at a particular time is not a skill we are aiming to cultivate in this course). However, you may assign points based on how well students participate or engage in discussion. Since students who aren’t in discussion cannot participate, they will receive no points if they fail to show up. Thus, “attendance” is counted, but only insofar as being present is a necessary condition on the performance of activities or the exercise of skills or competencies that we are actually aiming to cultivate.


  • Every assessment needs to communicate information to students that they will find useful: (a) in approaching future assignments in the course, (b) in evaluating or assessing themselves with respect to the course objectives of the course, or (c) in becoming better students, philosophers, or persons. That is to say: grades should not feel random, or be given without any explanation. Because personalizing feedback is often tedious (and tends to be ignored by students), we recommend creating detailed rubrics that you will use to guide your grading. It is most helpful to provide these rubrics to students at the same time that the assignment is given. You can then use the rubric to structure your grading, and provide it to your students along with their grade breakdown, to show them where and why they lost (or gained) points. This is what a rubric looks like:

    Your rubrics should be tailored to the objectives of the course you’re TAing for. You may choose to write more constructive descriptions than those that appear in this sample rubric. For instance: “generally unclear, unfocused” is fairly vague as a description of how a paper that “needs improvement” vis-a-vis “Structure and style.” Instead, consider more concrete descriptions, like “Support for the main claim could have been more focused and better organized,” or “The author considers some strong objections, but fails to adequately respond -- or adequately responds to several weaker objections.” Feel free to share your rubrics with others who are TAing the same course!


    • Students need to know how to receive personalized feedback on assignments if they desire it. Moreover, the process for receiving such feedback should not be complicated or difficult for the student. It must be clear when and where your office hours are -- but you should also strive to figure out whether there are more expedient and accessible ways for your students to receive personalized feedback. Can you meet for 5 minutes right after class? Can you have them submit an early draft of an assignment via email and comment on it via Google docs? Does the student need to set up an appointment at Starbucks outside of your regular meeting time?


    • Whenever possible, assessment should be framed as a way for educators and students to collaborate on their shared objectives (I.e. The objectives of the course or the particular assignment), rather than “top-down” or “expert” evaluation on students, their work, or their performance.


    • Under no circumstances should a student be evaluated on traits, characteristics, or abilities that are outside of his or her control. Grading, and assessment more generally, are meant to be ways of communicating with students about their performance in the course, and how they can improve their performance and production. Assessing a student on something she cannot control or does not have the tools to improve upon makes no sense. Such arbitrariness should be avoided at all costs.


    • Finally, self-assessment is a good way to help students internalize the course objectives, as well as standards of evaluation that will help them gauge how well they are doing with respect to those objectives. For instance, if you’re given the freedom to award “participation points” for discussions -- you might have students submit a half-sheet of paper at the end of each session on which they rate their participation from 1-5, justify their score in a sentence, and write a sentence about how they can improve next time. This assessment will give them a chance to evaluate their own performance and participation in the discussion, and start to gain a reflective awareness of their in-class performance. You’ll then want to review and adjust (if necessary) the self-assessments, in order to provide students with feedback about how well they are internalizing the standards of evaluation, how accurate their evaluation of their performance (and the performance of the group) is, etc.

    On What's Not Funny

    If you're an ordinary American there's a strange war that you might not have heard abou that rages between journalists and academics, on the one hand, and comedians on the other. Usually the battles are fought via Twitter, and they're always about whether or not people today are "too sensitive" or whether "political correctness" is somehow ruining our sense of humor on a national scale.

    This discussion is somewhat more personal for me, as someone who is both an academic and (was) a comedic improv actor (briefly, still am at heart, though).

    The world of professional comedy is a strange place, with bizarre and incommunicable rules and norms. The only real rule, I suppose, is that you have to be funny. What you say has to produce laughter -- and not just any laughter, but laugher in an ideal audience. When I first started working at Comedy Sportz in the Twin Cities, this fact make for an utterly disorienting experience. My fellow actors would say things that were disgusting by the standards of polite society, or shocking, or racially charged, but the were funny, and the behavior was rewarded. I quickly learned, though, that it wasn't just any crude joke that would draw praise, it was jokes with meaning or purpose. It was jokes that stung. That revealed some tragic inequality, or double standard; jokes that made you laugh, then think, then look inward.

    All this is to say: when I see comedians and journalists going back and forth about something like whether we can joke about sexual assault, or whether race has any place in comedy, I don't think either side is obviously right. I think it's a tough question, but not one that I think will likely lead to productive dialogue between the groups since the worlds they work in -- and the conventions they operate with -- are so vastly different. 

    Enter Paul F. Tompkins. 

    Tompkins was featured in a recent "Big Think" video talking about this exact issue, and I found myself thinking: thank God! He articulates so well what both sides of the endless Twitter war seem to miss: there's nothing you can't joke about, but not everything you say is funny. That's it. War over. (I wish.) Anyways, he says it better than I can paraphrase, and it's only 4 minutes long, so I'll just let you watch it. Let me know in the comments what you think. 



    Update! This morning, after posting this, I came across a great post over at Brain Pickings on the exact same topic! Click through this picture to read that post!

    Click on the picture above to read the full post on Brain Pickings (a phenomenal blog that you should really follow!)

    Click on the picture above to read the full post on Brain Pickings (a phenomenal blog that you should really follow!)

    Is the Love of Truth Incompatible with Living Comfortably?

    Emerson says yes: 


    I'm not so sure...I mean, I suppose it depends on how practically demanding you think the love of truth is. And what standards you have for "living comfortably." Let's get a bit more precise:

    •  Incompatibility: regularly fulfilling one's epistemic duty in the course of everyday life is not compatible with living the sort of healthy, well-balanced life that is often held up as ideal in our culture

    Is Incompatibility  true? Emerson's suggestion seems to be something like this: the well-balanced life presupposes stable beliefs or sets of beliefs in things like religion, political positions, moral issues, etc. One cannot examine one's worldview too deeply, lest the foundations of that worldview start to crumble and demand time and effort be put into arriving at more accurate (and more nuanced) views.

    I'm sympathetic to this claim. I mean, I think we're often to complacent when it comes to the foundations of our views. I think one of the great benefits of living in a culture that is both strongly pluralistic, and as technologically connected as ours is that such complacency is actually much harder to maintain. When you used to have to travel halfway across the world to encounter someone who believed in a different God (or rely on the caricatures of those who had), it was easier to do one's due diligence and arrive at the reasonable conclusion that one's inherited views more or less got it right. Today, we can't even log in to Facebook without being confronted with a barrage of alternative views. Though these views usually aren't the paradigm of reasonability and well-reasoned argument, the sheer variety we're faced with tips us off to the fact (or perhaps makes it the case) that a good deal of intellectual investigation will be required in order for one to have done one's epistemic duty with respect to even very basic religious, political, and moral beliefs.

    In any event, this issue was first presented to me (in a slightly different guise) by Peter Finocchiaro -- a friend and fellow PhD student -- and he's currently working on a post or two that attempts to answer the question I've hinted at here within the context of professional philosophy (as in: he's examining an incompatibility thesis like the one above with respect to one's duties as a professional philosopher and educator). I'd like to use those posts as a springboard to examine the question in other contexts as well. We'll see if I get to it. I might just want to go repose someplace and turn my brain off for a while.  

    Criticism and Apology

    Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is the relationship between apology and criticism, which I take to be two distinct intellectual activities.

    Apology, as I'm using the term, is the activity of finding and presenting reasons or justification for the beliefs, actions, or practices of some corporate entity or individual. It's what you do when you research your political party's position -- or your favored candidate's track record or policy with regard to gun-control -- and offer that research to those who are skeptical of the normative status of that position, record, or policy. It's also, of course, what you're engaged in when you search for and offer reasons to think that theistic belief is rational (or perhaps rationally required), or that the resurrection is metaphysically possible.

    Criticism, on the other hand, is the activity of finding and presenting reasons that challenge the rationality or justification of some target domain of the beliefs, actions, or practices of some individual or corporate entity. It's what you do when you challenge an institutions policies regarding the circumstances under which they are required to report suspicions of child abuse, or an individual with respect to their position on abortion or euthanasia.

    What interests me is both what these practices or activities have in common, and what sets them apart:

    • Apology and criticism are both forms of inquiry, they both involve the discovery, presentation, and exchange of reasons (or reasoned argument). They both, thus, presuppose common intellectual ground with the object of one's efforts.
    • Apology and criticism are both regulated -- in idea circumstances -- by the aim of uncovering the truth and bringing the practices and actions of some entity in accord with that truth.
    • On the other hand apology is often entirely outward facing: it attempts to justify to an external audience the behavior (practices, etc) of some entity in terms they would accept as reasonable. By contract, criticism (whether it be self-criticism or criticism of some group that one is a part of) has an inward aim. It attempts to change behavior, policy, or action rather than justify it.

    One thing that I think about a lot is whether we -- as individuals -- have duties to be critical or apologetical in certain circumstances, and what those circumstances are. For instance: I believe that I have an obligation to present groups and institutions that I am a part of in their best light. In some ways, I represent these groups (or at least represent myself as tacitly accepting the ideals, practices, actions, etc. of the group), and I think it is thus a duty of mine to uncover and present what I take to be the best / most respectable reasons for why that entity behaves in the way it does. Interestingly, though, we don't always have choices regarding which groups we're a part of. I'm American, and, while I suppose I could in some sense change that fact about me, I think it's my duty to answer for the cultural, political, and social norms and practices of America as a whole. I also think, of course, that I have strong obligations in the opposite direction: that is, to critically examine those practices in ways that could help shape them in more positive ways.

    But when should we criticize, and when should we apologize? Are these roles incompatible? Are they merely aimed at different audiences? Or should we ideally integrate those roles into a single perspective, so that we are presenting unified views to the communities we're a part of and to the outside world?

    For what it's worth, the tentative answer to these questions that I'd like to explore is something like: intellectual integrity is a virtue that's sensitive to the different obligations that we have to different audiences in virtue of the social roles we occupy. Developing this virtue and properly exercise it will require us to engage in both sorts of intellectual practices at different times, though it'll be difficult to spell out -- in a general way -- what exactly the relevant factors are in determining when its appropriate to engage in either. In any event, this is something I'm going to be working on in the coming weeks, so these are questions I'll continue to explore. If you have any thoughts (or concrete cases to think through) feel free to post them in the comments.

    The Art of Forgetting, and Letting Go

    The Art of Forgetting, and Letting Go

    We're not usually very good at letting go. It's often something forced upon us by external circumstances. A move or transition, a departure or death. But why not let go more? Why hold on so tightly to so many meaningful things in our lives? Why not recognize more often that someone or something has played its part in our life, and that it's time to move on?