Slate just ran a story about ‘robo-readers’, services that provide automated feedback on students’ writing. Generally, I don’t like the encroachment of technology on the classroom (particularly in the humanities). There are some situations (courses with large numbers of students) where technology might help address problems, but I still hold that there is no replacement for face to face engagement with students. My teaching experience has been at smaller universities where this is possible, so I’ve been able to rely primarily on tutorials for giving students feedback.

The services discussed in the Slate piece seem worthwhile, however, for two reasons. First, students may be more likely to seek out feedback if it is not coming from a lecturer. Particularly if a student feels marginalised at university (for whatever reason), being able to turn to an impersonal service may make them feel more comfortable.

Second, even at a smaller university there is only so much time you can spend with any student. Whether I have half an hour or an hour with a student, I want to focus on the ideas at the centre of an essay. Helping students anticipate objections, examine concepts from other perspectives, seek out new resources – these are the key objectives of my tutorials. Going through grammatical problems not only takes time away from engaging in these important discussions, it can often leave students feeling discouraged. This discouragement than distracts them from our conversation about the main ideas of the essay. So, while effectively expressing your perspective is an important part of studying in the humanities, I usually discuss essay structure in person and leave the finer points of writing for written feedback. If a student’s writing is particularly poor I direct them to academic support or suggest that they spend extra time proofreading. Unfortunately, not all students find their way to academic support and students often don’t thoroughly read the feedback they receive on their work.

All that to say, it seems like these services could have some role to play as part of the undergraduate writing process.

Constructing a degree

I have the fantastic opportunity/overwhelming responsibility of designing a BA in Philosophy and Ethics. There are a couple of parameters: 1) I have to use existing modules (so that I’m not proposing a whole range of new courses and the degree can grow organically within the department); 2) being in a Department of Theology and Religious Studies, there needs to be a substantial focus on the philosophy of religion. Apart from that, I have a good deal of freedom to propose modules.

I have a few goals. First, and most importantly, I want to offer students opportunities to study perspectives that challenge the accepted canon of Western philosophy. I think it’s important to study Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel (of course), etc. It’s also important, however, to help students recognise the contingent nature of this canon. Moreover, if we really think that philosophy is important, that ideas matter, then students need to grasp the way that this contingent canon has been intellectually exclusive and contributed to the social and political marginalisation of a variety of perspectives. Second, I don’t want students to approach the study of philosophy as the study of philosophers – I want them to study philosophical questions with the aid of the history of philosophy. I often think of this in terms of cooking. I love duck confit. When I look up a recipe, I’m not primarily interested in learning about the recipe – I want to eat duck confit. Too much of undergraduate education is thinking about recipes rather than eating.

In the past my teaching has fallen into the familiar pattern of studying a series of figures, occasionally puling back to discuss wider themes. So in a class entitle ‘Theology and Modernity’ we read Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and then considered feminist and post-Holocaust critiques of modernity. All too often class discussion focused on what Descartes said rather than understanding what Descartes said in order to think about the relationship between modern philosophy and theology. In my experience, the especially eager students are excited to be reading Hume or Nietzsche but a significant portion of the class winds up selecting an essay question, getting a handle on the basic concepts of a particular philosopher and then regurgitating this information in their essay. At the end of the term, they might know a bit more about Marx, but they haven’t critically engaged with the material. Trying to correct this lack of engagement requires changing the way the students engage with the material, which means rethinking the way I structure my classes.

If, as Adam Kotsko suggested in an episode of My Name is My Name with APS (an excellent podcast that you should check out), the purpose of higher education is to enable students to live better lives, rather than just memorising information, then that needs to be reflected in the way we teach.