Service-Learning in Introduction to Ethics (or Henckell’s Opportunity)

“I have often been asked by students, ‘Did I pass?’ but never have I been asked, ‘Did I learn?’” *

-Martha Henckell

1. Earning before Learning

Henckell argues that there is an opportunity in realizing that students tend to rank earning (credit) before learning: once we understand that students are motivated by earning we can leverage that motivation to teach them course concepts more easily.

But the potential is broader than that.  In my mind, community college teaching shines when it helps students see how their studies can infuse their regular lives. I came to this view sometime after I started teaching adult-only Introduction to Ethics courses back in 2009, but it wasn’t until I started teaching at Onondaga Community College that I realized that service-learning is the key to leveraging (what we might call) Henckell’s Opportunity to show students how their academics might influence their real lives.

But wait: what’s service-learning?

2. What is Service-Learning!

Service-learning can take many forms, but the key is that students perform some form of community engagement (the service) and then reflect on that engagement (the learning). Their reflection should deploy course concepts to help them understand/organize their thoughts about their service activity. Onondaga Community College (where I serve on the Service-Learning Committee) recognizes four types of service-learning including direct service (like volunteering), presentation (like a movie screening with discussion), project (where students work with a group to create), and advocacy (in which students “offer their voices and talents to the effort to eliminate the causes of a specific problem and to make the public aware of the problem”).

3. Introduction to Ethics, Local Controversies, and Advocacy Service-Learning

In my Introduction to Ethics courses, I present ethical theories as decision-making procedures: ways of organizing what’s important and what should be ignored when making a decision to act. So Utilitarianism (which defines the right action as the one whose consequences maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness) judges various options based on how much happiness and how little unhappiness they cause. For the Utilitarian, whether you should lie in a situation isn’t about being an honest person (as it would be for the Virtue Ethicist) nor about duties or absolute moral rules (as it would be for the Kantian). It’s about whether lying in this situation is likely to yield humanity the most happiness and least unhappiness. If it does, then lie. If it doesn’t, then don’t. This approach takes an ethical theory of right action and uses it as a way to decide what to do.

Essays for Introduction to Ethics center around local controversies to ensure students can deploy these ethical theories toward understanding issues that impact their community (i.e., their lives). As local controversies are often culled from the op-eds, it was a short leap to imagining an Advocacy Service-Learning option class centered around a letter to the editor. The assignment requires three things: 1) research (ideally including interviews), 2) submitting a reflective research write-up (that serves as letter-writing prep), and 3) submitting a concise letter to the editor. Their letter, organized around one or more ethical theories, seeks to a) argue in support of public action to eliminate the causes of a specific problem, b) make the public aware (or aware of the severity) of the problem, or c) both!

Thus, in writing their letter, students deploy course concepts to understand a real world situation, blazing a trail between the classroom and their community.

4. “Did I learn?”

Much as Henckell suggested we use students’ desires to earn credit to help them learn course concepts, service-learning can be a way to use their desire to show them how course concepts plug into their everyday lives. The letter to the editor option serves as a bridge between what we do in the ethics classroom and how students understand and interact with their community beyond the academic walls. Their advocacy is their service, and they learn that it’s possible to use concepts from their educational lives fruitfully in their everyday lives. And to me, that’s the real opportunity: to show students the great possibilities that open once they start taking an active role in placing their education into their own lives.

*-Henckell, Martha. “Assessing Student Learning Online.”  “Teaching the Humanities Online: A Practical Guide to the Virtual Classroom” Ed. Hoffman, Steven J. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2011. 125-140

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Soul Mates and Metaphysics

I like the phrase, “Pave a Path” for thinking about teaching, and when it comes time to talk about metaphysics, there’s a particular discussion that allows students to see a connection between what we’re doing in the classroom and what happens once they walk out of it.

So to help my students connect with metaphysics, I’ve found it helps to talk about….


1. Metaphysics

I define metaphysics as the study of existence (both the nature of existence and what things exist). And on the first day of class, for example, the metaphysics question I use:

“Could a person (say, Hank) be uploaded to the internet?”

We can’t just assume that Hank is the same person he was yesterday (as we normally do when he looks and acts similarly). So what would it take to convince us that it’s really Hank there in the internet?

Students talk about mimicking brain structure, and eventually get around to discussing the necessity of memory and personality to being the same person. Students enjoy it, and it gets their metaphysical feet wet.

2. Soul Mates!

But what it doesn’t do is show them how discussions of existence might be relevant to their lives.* That’s a job for Soul Mates: that one and only person who is uniquely suited to be your partner in life. Their soul is a match for your soul. The metaphysical question: do Soul Mates exist?

As is often the case with metaphysical questions, students haven’t considered it, but I normally leave my comments brief: that believing in Soul Mates can undermine what could have otherwise been successful relationships.

If they believe in Soul Mates, maybe Diane shouldn’t stick with Sam. If they don’t, why are they being so hard on Elaine? And students come to realize that their answer to this question can have a real effect on how they deal with relationships and the advice they give (and based on my last walk down the hallway, there’s a LOT of relationship advice passing between undergrads).

3. From Metaphysical Discussions straight to the Hallways

But whether they decide there are good reasons to believe in Soul Mates or good reasons NOT to believe in Soul Mates, having thought about it and come to a considered view can help them shape their relationships and their advice to others. In short, the Soul Mates discussion paves a path that allows students to see a connection between the philosophical process of examining life critically and what they do in the hallways outside the classroom: they can see metaphysics as relevant. And to me that’s the first step.

*-As an aside, I will sometimes reference the importance of a discussion about the necessity of memory to personhood to a disease like Alzheimer’s, but generally feel that’s a little too heavy for the first day. In any case, easing them into the ramification of philosophy with the Soul Mates discussion really seems to do the trick.

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How seeing Teachers as Designers helped me understand my past and gave me hope for the future

A recent birthday present helped me understand one of the first teaching mistakes I realized I was making, and how two current techniques I use work to overcome that mistake. The present made it clear that we teachers have an opportunity to pave pathways to success for our students.

1. Starting with the mistake

Put most simply, I was assessing students based on skills I wasn’t teaching (skills not included in the course’s learning objectives). Their grades came largely from long research essays and exams and yet I spent my classtime talking about Plato and Descartes and Berkeley. How were they to know how I understood good essay-writing? How I’d word questions to get at course content?

Perhaps I assumed that their previous training was plenty to prepare them for my assessments: teach them the philosophical content and they’d plug it into already-mature essay and exam skills. But I think this is too generous to me as a neophyte teacher. I’d bet I simply didn’t think about it. This meant that while I wanted to assess them based on the philosophical skills (which I was working to teach them), I was actually testing them on their essaying and exam-taking skills (which I was NOT working to teach them).

2. The Birthday Present

I received a copy of “The Design of Everyday Things” (hereafter, TDOET) by Donald A. Norman. Norman says, “Well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand. They contain visible clues to their operation. Poorly designed objects can be difficult and frustrating to use. They provide no clues-or sometimes false clues.” (TDOET, p. 2) In short, the design of an object should make clear how that object is to be used. Objects that aren’t designed properly encourage Learned Helplessness: “the situation in which people experience failure at a task, often numerous times. As a result, they decide that the task cannot be done, at least not by them: they are helpless.” (TDOET, p.42) Poorly designed objects frustrate their users by obscuring how users can achieve their goals in using the object.

Think about a pen with no obvious clicker (e.g., a pen that you twist to deploy). The reason that you pick up a pen is to write, and if you cannot get the pen tip out, you will decide that you cannot write (at least not with that pen). The real problem with twist pens is what Norman calls a “visibility problem” (TDOET, p.4): a situation in which there are no visible cues to suggest how a desired outcome might be achieved (the traditional clicker pen has an obvious [i.e., VISIBLE] button on the top, the twist pen does not obviously twist to open and is, in fact, designed to hide the twisting motion to achieve a more elegant silhouette).

3. Using TDOET to Understand Teachers as Designers.

Teachers are designers. Courses are objects students use to achieve a goal: to prove that they’ve learned course content. For well-designed courses, then, it is easy for students to understand how to prove that they’ve learned course content by getting high marks. Poorly designed courses are frustrating because it’s not clear how to show that they’ve learned course material.

Consider the case of my early teaching: my error as an instructor was designing without making visible how students could test their ability to represent their learning on assessments and correct for any possible miscommunication. They didn’t receive feedback on their essays until they received their grade. They didn’t see how I asked exam questions until the exam itself. In TDOET terms, this meant that there weren’t VISIBLE clues they could use to figure out how to achieve their goal in using the course-object (i.e., the high marks that showed they’d learned course content). The course was, then, potentially frustrating and a cause of Learned Helplessness. That’s something that no teacher wants.

4. Two Things

Fortunately, TDOET shows us that we teachers can design our way out of mistakes like I made as a young teacher. Two things I now do are a) reading quizzes and b) process-based essay assignments.

a) Reading quizzes are low-risk situations that teach students how I ask questions so that wordings and assessment methods on exams are not completely foreign. It ensures that question-wordings aren’t barriers to students showing what they’ve learned. 

b) Process-based essay assignments do two things to make clear what students need to do to achieve their goals. First, they require drafts. I read the first and give each student comments. As the comments come before they’re assessed, a pathway to success is made visible. Further, students workshop each others’ essay drafts. This gives them exposure to how others have understood and attempted the assignment, and it gives them peer-feedback on their work. Second, the process-based assignment shows students I’m expecting them to go through a draft and revision process, not simply produce a 3-5 Page essay (as early assignments asked for).

Each of these ensures that students aren’t working in a vacuum, deprived of visible paths to proving they’ve mastered course content, but instead are in an environment with multiple, concrete layers of options to help ensure they know where to put their effort in order to achieve.

5. Hope for the Future

Good course design makes visible not just course learning objectives, but also the pathways to showing how you’ve achieved those objectives. In other words, it makes clear how class assessment shows that students have learned the course content. Reading “The Design of Everyday Things” made clear that we teachers as designers have an opportunity to provide our students with visible pathways to success (perhaps we’ll call it “Learned Successfulness”!) in the midst of teaching them to understand and (hopefully) love our course content.

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Filling the Chalkboard

Why “Filling the Chalkboard”?

Because the chalkboard is the space between that particular teacher and those particular students. There’s a singularity there that exists in the union of the space and the people that is pedagogy unfolding, and that’s something compelling to me.

Pedagogy Unfolding?
Ok, slow it down a bit. Pedagogy is theory of teaching, or, more colloquially, the way you try to teach. It’s the sort of thing that changes from teacher to teacher, subject to subject, and medium to medium. I have a different set of techniques than do my Philosophy colleagues.  I also have a different set than my third grade teacher.  I have a different set for online (lots more exclamation points!) than for face-to-face teaching (very little shouting, er, exclaiming). It’s about a decision (whether conscious or not) about the best way to get your students to learn what you’re trying to teach them.

The difference between pedagogy and pedagogy unfolding is that the latter is in the midst of the process of teaching. Pedagogical decisions are often made before class starts, at the level of planning a course and writing lectures and considering and building exercises for your students. And all this is necessary and important. But there is another kind of pedagogical decision that gets made when the students are in front of you. It’s not about a game plan, but about a decision in the moment. It might be rewording something you’ve said, presenting a new example, or (and these are the best) exposing a realization you’ve had as the class is progressing. Each of these is pedagogy unfolding because it has its effect in real-time, as the class is progressing, and is thereby flexible to (and, hopefully, bends to the learning will of) the students in the class.

So why filling the chalkboard? Because the chalkboard is the space where the learning minds of the students and the teaching of the instructor meet. It’s where the instructor can read the positive or confused looks on students faces and react accordingly. THE CHALKBOARD IS WHERE TEACHING COMES ALIVE. There are days when I write little on the chalkboard, and that’s perfectly fine. But other days I get wound up, and sketch by sketch, definition by definition, that chalkboard fills up again and again, dust covering my fingertips, alighting on my shoulders and the dust tray drawing lines on my back and arms, and these are the days where I’m meeting my students head-on, where the goals that I have are molded and shaped to the inquiry that they have so that the students learn more, learn more easily, and see that their teacher cares for them.

Filling the chalkboard is as much a goal as a description. It’s a hope that, in my teaching, I’ll keep aiming for students and not merely toward my own most precise way of putting things. It’s the hope that I’m not teaching passive students who could be best served by a mere handout, but that I’m teaching autonomous individuals who can, through their questions and comments (and facial expressions) help me learn from our classroom as well. That I’m teaching people to understand rather than to merely know. That I’m teaching them about a way of engaging the world rather than simply describing how the world is. To get a little aphorism into this, Filling the Chalkboard is about teaching my students to fish.

Now that’s a pretty grand goal, but it’s a process like anything else, and the important thing is that the chalkboard is the physical space in which I, as a teacher, am responsive to students. It’s the place where, after the class, someone could come in and see something different than my lesson plans, something unique to our class, our space, and our time. And that’s the beauty of philosophy: because it is about a process (and not about a canon of facts) we get the privilege of using that dynamic chalkboard space to open up and lay bare our inquiry about the world. Somehow, through reading and talking about how others thought of things, we’re able to think about the world in a way that we never had before, and if we can just manage to really talk to each other, we will fill up the chalkboard, and we will truly engage each other, which, when you get down to it, is really engaging the world.

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“Me teaching monads to you is like you teaching your parents about flashmobs.”

“Me teaching Monads to you is like you teaching your parents about flashmobs.”

When I said this during office hours, I realized I’d finally found a way to teach about monads.

1. Leibnizian Metaphysics

According to Gottfried Leibniz, there is nothing physical. Everything is, instead, composed of simple mental pieces he calls, “monads”. These monads can be weak (like the simplistic monads that compose a chair, for example, each like a tiny mind) or strong (like the human mind: the self). Think of it like this: the monads that make up the chair are simply aware of the other parts of the chair. The monad that is my mind, however, contains all my memories and emotions as well as all my rational and imaginative abilities. In short, for Leibniz, the world is composed of a wide spectrum of minds separated by their abilities and content.

2. The Scientific Push and the Freedom of the Will

As the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance, increasing economic and social stability in Europe paved the road to increased technological (and, thereby, scientific) advances, outing old models of understanding (mostly Aristotelian, filtered through the Church) as out-of-date. We codified the motion of one billiard ball causing another to move through, for example, Newton’s Second Law of motion. But as our explanatory power increased, it seemed entirely possible that we would decode all physical interaction and be able to predict all of a person’s choices by simply looking at the physical configuration of their body (the chemicals in their brain, the way their body was disposed to act and take in information, etc.). And if we can predict a person’s choices by the mere physical state of their body, it seems like that state determines that action. In other words, if I act only because of the chemical state of my body, it does not seem like it’s me doing the acting, but instead the chemicals. And so the existence of  Free Will seems threatened by the scientific push set off by the Renaissance.

3. Pre-Established Harmony

Leibniz claim that everything is mental, then, responds to this problem. Rather than condemning humans to a realm that cannot touch the material world (as would, say, Cartesian Dualists), he situated us in the midst of it as a powerful type of the same substance that makes up everything: a powerful monad. On his view, since they are minds each monad from the human mind all the way down to the chair piece gets to decide what it’s going to do in the world. Each monad has Free Will.

But herein lies a worry: if every piece of the world is deciding what to do independently of everything else, why does it look like, for example, one billiard ball moves because it was struck by another? It certainly LOOKS like the motion of the second was caused by the motion of the first (rather than all the monads that compose the second ball deciding to move).

Leibniz responded to this worry by positing what he called Pre-Established Harmony. Just as two pendulums (or two children on a swingset!) may swing exactly together without one causing the other to swing in harmony, so may the world LOOK harmonious (i.e., like one thing causes another) when really there is no causal interaction. In the swingset case, it is a decision on the part of each child to swing as they are, and their harmony can be chalked up to their individual choices happening to line up just right.

4. On Flashmobs

A flashmob is a set of individuals who decide to go to a (usually) public place at a (usually) busy time and, without identifying themselves beforehand, perform some action (sometimes a dance, sometimes just freezing in place) that achieves its grandeur from the number of people all performing in sync. They need not know each other at all, and afterwards all go their separate ways.

5. Imagine showing a flashmob video to your parents.

Upon seeing seemingly random people appear out of a crowd to dance or freeze with several other people, you can predict how the conversation will go:

Parent: “So…they’re all friends?”

You: “Nope.”

Parent: “They look like friends.”

You: “Never talked before in their lives.”

Parent: “How did they dance together then?”

You: “Each decided individually to do that dance.”

Parent: “So they’re not friends?” (this will be asked skeptically)

6. Monads are like Flashmob participants

Each individually decides what to do (and thereby saves Free Will for Leibniz). But their decisions line up just right so that it looks like we’ve got one thing causing another all over the place (i.e., there is apparently harmony in the world). In short, the Flashmob exhibits the apparent harmony resulting from independent, individual, free decisions that characterize the behavior of monads on Leibniz’ worldview. Each monad decides freely and independently what to do and it just happens* that it works out perfectly: all the monads in the first billiard ball decide to stop just as all the monads in the second billiard ball decide to go: harmonious apparent causation matched with independent free wills.

And that’s how, “Me teaching monads to you is like you teaching your parents about flashmobs.”


* – On the Leibnizian view, Pre-Established Harmony is Pre-Established by God. In the analogy, then, God is the Flashmob organizer (who decided what the flashmob would do and put the world out beforehand, i.e., Pre-Established what sort of harmony participants would exhibit).

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