Undergraduate Research Beyond the Classroom

A Presentation for the Lewis Honors College & for EPE 301 Students at the University of Kentucky

Click here for the handout.On Tuesday, October 13th, 2020, I was invited to give a talk for the Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky on “Undergraduate Research Beyond the Classroom.” This talk is also potentially of interest to students in my EPE 301 course on Education in American Culture. Really, this talk is for any undergraduate who might be interested in taking advantage of opportunities to engage in research or its dissemination beyond the classroom. The handout I used can be opened here or by clicking on the Adobe logo on the right.

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

Students in EPE 301 can use this video as 1 hour of their field experience observations. The dangers of COVID-19 prompted the creation of this option. Most students are probably not studying the subject of this talk for their papers, but all are working on research in their undergraduate coursework. In that context, students might find the content of this video useful for taking their work beyond the classroom. In addition, students interested in an issue about which they suspect that I could offer some useful thoughts can email me with their questions or comments as part of their field experience work: eric.t.weber@uky.edu.

In the talk, I reference three texts that aren’t mentioned on the handout. Those books were:

Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Penguin Books, 2015).

Brewer, Robert Lee. Writer’s Market 2020 (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).

Brewer, Robert Lee. Writer’s Market Guide to Literary Agents 2020 (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).

The post Undergraduate Research Beyond the Classroom first appeared on Eric Thomas Weber.

Provoking pedagogically-effective discussion in college courses, with an example using Danielle Allen’s Cuz

Today is the first day of classes in my seventeenth year of teaching. I have taught a lot over those years–sometimes as much as a 5/5/1 (5 courses in Fall, 5 in Spring, and one over the summer.) My sense from that time is that the value of a philosophy course is largely not derived from excellent lectures on my part–but rather from an engaged seminar discussion. This is sometimes called “Socratic” but I happen to think that Socrates provided a terrible model for contemporary faculty.

Still, I think students learn more from what they do and say and write in the classroom than from what I do, say, and write. The kind of reading, note-taking, and preparation I do to give a lecture helps me understand material deeply–and it’s precisely that kind of reading and preparation that I want my students to cultivate themselves. In that spirit, I have developed a kind of “in-class” presentation which is both how I think of my own best classes, and also allows students to easily step into the role of “guiding discussion” themselves.

During the semester each student takes responsibility for a “provocation,” a written and oral project whereby they start off the class. This works best in small seminars under 15, but it can scale up to 30 with careful management. Each class period a student takes responsibility for kicking off our discussion of the reading with a short paper that briefly summarizes the argument, pulls a choice textual selection for discussion, and asks a provocative question or two, and then explains why this question meets three critera: (1) it is personally interesting to the student, (2) difficult to answer because it turns on a deep philosophical disagreement/confusion or rests on tricky empirical issues, and (3) important for directing further study and/or its answers will have implications for other relevant questions.

I always make sure to model these provocations for students myself, and indeed this afternoon I’ll be doing so using an article by Danielle Allen:

Danielle Allen’s “The Life of a South Central Statistic” is an excerpt from her book Cuz, which describes her cousin Michael Allen who was incarcerated as an adolescent for a string of robberies and thefts. Danielle Allen describes how Michael was locked up under the then-new three strikes policy in California (which also enhanced sentencing for carjacking) and how prison changed him—and how the relationships he formed there eventually led to his murder. Though he worked as a firefighter while incarcerated his criminal record kept him from taking firefighting up as a career upon release, and he fell into the drug trade. Though she lays some blame at the feet of the California legislature for meting out such a harsh sentence, Danielle Allen also describes the violence of organized drug trafficking as a “para-state” with twice the resources of the CIA operating in American cities to exploit and kill men like her cousin.

One of the more striking passages in the article is this one:

“California’s legislators had given up on the idea of rehabilitation in prison, even for juveniles. This is a point that critics of the penal system make all the time. Here is what they don’t say: legislators had also given up on retribution. Anger drives retribution. When the punishment fits the crime, retribution is achieved, and anger is sated; it softens. This is what makes it anger, not hatred, a distinction recognized by philosophers all the way back to antiquity. Retribution limits how much punishment you can impose.

The legislators who voted to try as adults sixteen-year-olds, and then fourteen-year-olds, were not interested in retribution. They had become deterrence theorists. They were designing sentences not for people but for a thing: the aggregate level of crime. They wanted to reduce that level, regardless of what constituted justice for any individual involved. The target of Michael’s sentence was not a bright fifteen-year-old boy with a mild proclivity for theft but the thousands of carjackings that occurred in Los Angeles. Deterrence dehumanizes. It directs at the individual the full hatred that society understandably has for an aggregate phenomenon. But no individual should bear that kind of responsibility.”

In the quoted paragraphs above, Danielle Allen seems to suggest that the political morality of deterrence is worse than revenge. Is the purpose of criminal punishment to prevent crime? Does this treat a person like an aggregate–a statistic–as she suggests?

This fascinates me because I am tempted to believe that the only reasonable use of state violence to punish is to deter worse behavior, but such efforts are often accused of dehumanizing the perpetrator. Yet revenge seems more dehumanizing, doesn’t it? Perhaps this is difficult to answer because the manifold justifications for punishment all speak to us at different times in terms of different crimes: when we see the individual harm to a victim we are much more likely to demand the satisfaction of our anger in revenge—but when we think about the ways that a deterrence theory might prevent some crimes from even happening it seems better than having more crime and more retribution for those crimes! I wonder whether there are techniques that could be used to combine these theories: perhaps there are ways that revenge is itself deterring—for instance it signals that crimes are unacceptable. But still there is more to deterrence than renaming revenge: for instance it might be the case that some crimes are difficult to prevent, while other crimes—which cause less harm overall—can be prevented best with really graphically shameful punishments. (For instance, perhaps slumlords are best deterred by being required to stand shamefully in front of their badly maintained buildings holding a sign indicating their violations.) There’s a lot of further study warranted here—and plenty of room for both empirical assessment and more principled philosophical exploration of the related themes.

This provocation barely touches the surface of the interesting themes raised by the article and Allen’s book. But it’s enough to get a conversation started, and I usually come prepared with four to six passages and questions like this for an hour-long class. Quite often I find that even students who are randomly assigned to provoke on some topic develop a semester-long fixation on the themes that arose during their provocation–just because the deep thinking and preparation required to write this short assignment and share it with others gives them a sort of endowment effect with those issues. Here are some more provocations on Allen:

  • Michael was technically a “violent” criminal but his victims weren’t really hurt. He was also a teenager, and perhaps less culpable than an adult in a similar situation. What should we make of his age in assessing his culpability?
  • Michael’s lover–and murderer–was a trans woman named Bree and there are all sorts of issues raised by her time in a men’s facility in California. Should Bree have been housed with women? What would have happened to Michael then?
  • Michael had a loving and supportive mother but her struggles with abusive partners may have contributed to his fate. Could she have done anything differently? And how do our public policies exacerbate these circumstances?
  • Some of Michael’s difficulties upon release are closely tied to the stigmas he faced during reentry. But others are tied to the fact that he fell in love with Bree while incarcerated–they are the results of the deliberate decisions of an adult man struggling to manage social expectations, economic needs, and an obviously abusive relationship with someone who he loved helplessly. What should we make of his story?
  • I find Allen’s discussion of the para-state endlessly fascinating and I wonder whether this is something that prison abolitionists should spend more time working on. Why does she name it a “para-state” and what should we say about the violence that arises from it? Does she partly exonerate the United States for its racist, mass incarcerating policies thereby?

What’s New?

Diving into Public Philosophy, or maybe Belly-Flopping Into It

This spring has been BUSY. In Moving to Lexington, KY, I decided that among my key aims would be to dive deeper into the waters of public philosophy, public intellectual engagement. So far, a number of related activities have kept me busier than I could have imagined. They’ve also been hugely rewarding.

Still capture from our Trigger Warnings online symposium. Organizationally, I’ve been working a great deal on projects for and leadership of The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA, on Twitter & Facebook). Last fall, we held an online video symposium on “Trigger Warnings,” which was a lot of fun, and we need to hold more of them. We haven’t gotten back to that yet, but we need to, I think. We should probably think of that kind of work as a program, one with a name, and that should happen with some frequency, as well as an officer leading the charge for how and when we’ll hold the next one. We’ve certainly learned a great deal about the need for and steps for better audio quality in recording such events. The next one will be better and we’ll keep on growing our archive of material and gatherings.

The DJ booth at WRFL Lexington on December 10th, 2016.In work for SOPHIA, we’ve also returned to a project I started in 2015, which was my Philosophy Bakes Bread podcast. Instead of it being solo and only a podcast, we’ve welcomed Dr. Anthony Cashio of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise as a co-host on the show, which is now centered on interviews about how and why philosophy matters in real life and leadership. We’ve been very fortunate to get a spot on WRFL Lexington, 88.1 FM. The program is now a weekly radio talk show and then a podcast after that, the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast (on Twitter and Facebook too). We started in January of 2017 and have been very busy ever since. The podcast, when I worked on it alone, only came to 4 episodes in 18 months. Since committing to the weekly radio show, we’ve aired 32 episodes, 27 hour-long programs and 5 short “breadcrumb” episodes. It has been considerably more work than I could have imagined, but it’s also been a great deal of fun. More importantly, it’s been some of the most engaging public philosophical work I’ve done to date. We’ve got listeners in 67 countries and the show has been downloaded over 9,000 times to date. We’re excited about approaching the early milestone of 10K downloads, which we hope to see happen in the next 10-14 days, or less, as far as our present trends appear to be going. That’s super exciting.

Logo for Philosophy Bakes Bread, which looks like two conversation bubbles shaped like slices of bread.

We also have a logo for the show now, that isn’t just my lame effort to put a text over an image in Photoshop… We’re finally getting around to putting the word out in efforts beyond social media posts. We’re WAY overdue on a few requests for interviews. To give you a sense of why, for each episode, we need to: 1) think about who’ll be on, 2) invite the person(s) on the show, giving info about what we do, how, etc., 3) schedule the interview, 4) meet to prep to give the interview, 5) meet and record the interview, 6) edit the interview for airing as an episode, 7) go to the station and air the episode, 8) announce the show on social media before and as it’s airing, 9) get the files after airing from the station and perform final mastering on them, 10) prepare language, images, and social media posts to accompany the podcast episode release, 11) post the show and announcements on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus, then 12) secure and make final tweaks to transcripts of the show that the great Drake Boling, UKY Philosophy undegraduate student, has been doing for us, and finally, 13) post the transcript on our site, as a PDF, and on Academia.edu. Ok, now do that 31 more times… to date (no, we’re not up to date yet with all the transcripts). To say it’s been a lot of work is an understatement.

Logo of the Public Philosophy Journal.This means that I’ve not had a chance to do as much of my own (single-author) writing, but the good news is that I’ve been doing considerably more coauthoring. In the academic world of Philosophy, people tend to think of meaningful writing as single-authored work, at least much of the time. That’s a mistake. There have been excellent philosophical works that are coauthored. Among them, I’m thinking of a number of projects by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. But they’re uncommon in the field. I’m glad to have had the chance to do some coauthoring, and one of these opportunities was a very special one. Again related to SOPHIA, I and three scholars put together a project that we pitched for the Public Philosophy Journal. The idea is that some theorizing has been needed for SOPHIA to pursue its mission: to build communities of philosophical conversation. To that end, Andrea Christelle, Sergia Hay, James William Lincoln, and I ventured to Michigan with grant support from the journal and the Mellon Foundation, ultimately, to write together a “Groundwork for Building Communities of Philosophical Conversation.” I’ve experienced coauthoring only a few times, and it’s not always been easy. This case went very smoothly. We’re not done with our project, and getting together remotely to finish the project is taking time, but the pay off has been great. We’re researching needs and methods for building communities of philosophical conversation, because we believe there’s a great need for a more philosophical culture in the United States and elsewhere.

SOPHIA's group at the PPJ's 2017 Collaborative Writing Workshop.

SOPHIA’s group at the PPJ’s 2017 Collaborative Writing Workshop.

Beyond that, I committed to coauthoring a paper for the Summer Seminar on the Future of Philosophy at UNC Ashville this July, which I’ll be driving to this afternoon. I’m also giving my own individual paper there, but have been very happy to coauthor a paper with my Philosophy Bakes Bread co-host Dr. Anthony Cashio as well. We’re looking to finish a longer paper a little later this summer for the journal, Dewey Studies, and this is a step in that direction. The paper is called “Lessons Learned Baking Bread: Taking Philosophy to Radio and Podcast.” We had a blast writing it, and were inspired in relation to that to answer some of our interview questions that we’ve received (and have been way late in answering them) in the last few months. Anthony is not only great to talk to on the show, but also to write with. I’m hoping that my future includes more and more coauthoring, because it’s very rewarding and makes for a superior project, I believe, when we can draw from more minds and from encouraging and sympathetic thinking and dialogue.

Lumber I milled up in late November and December of 2016. Last but not least, I’m finishing work finally on my edited collection of John Dewey’s public writings. That’s been a long-time coming. I keep thinking it’ll be done soon, and it will be soon now… I’m also working to finish my next book, which I’ve been developing longer than any before, called A Culture of Justice. That’s the other topic I’ll be talking about tomorrow in Asheville. These projects would have been done far sooner if I hadn’t committed to an intensive radio show, but I don’t regret a thing. It’s all been super rewarding. I feel as though I’m constantly working and getting more and more behind, but I think it’s more likely that progress is just advancing slowly on the huge projects, bit by bit, and that I’ll be excited to see them at the end. That’s a lot like a big bed project, which I’ve completed in my new hobby of woodworking. I milled the lumber for it in late November and December of 2016. Big projects sometimes creep along, but eventually, if you keep making little bits of progress, they come together, like this:

The bed I planned and built over the course of 7 months.

I need a nap… Nah, coffee will help. I’m excited to be headed to Ashville, to meet up with some great philosophers. And, while there, to do a number of interviews for Philosophy Bakes Bread! When we can record in person, it’s awesome, like in these two cases from my trip to Michigan (photos below). Thanks to Chris Long for the great photo with typewriter in the foreground, and thanks to Naomi Hodgson and Amanda Fulford (I don’t recall who took the picture, of the two) for the pic of our setup in the less attractive computer room in Michigan. The rooms were quite different, but the conversations were both substantive and fun.

This is a photo of four people sitting around a table and a microphone to record an episode of Philosophy Bakes Bread in May of 2017, in a lovely room near South Gull Lake in Michigan.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Christopher P. Long, 2017.

This is a photo of me setting up to do an interview with Amanda Fulford and Naomi Hodgson in Michigan, 2017.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Hodgson and Amanda Fulford, 2017.

I don’t know how interesting this post is or has been for people, but it felt good to sit down and write it out. It may be of interest to a few people who’ve been kindly following and engaging with me on social media. In fact, I should mention a bit of a celebratory moment: I’ve hit 100,000 “likes” on my Facebook author page! That’s super cool and deeply gratifying. Thanks to everyone who’s been following my work. It’s really rewarding to write about and advocate for things that others care about too, making however small a contribution to dialogue about issues so many of us care about. It’s impossible to measure real impact, but we shouldn’t let difficulty in measuring something meaningful keep us from diving into it, or from belly-flopping into it as the case may be.

Image of a post from my Facebook page about a signed-copy giveaway for my latest books.

Image of a post from my Facebook page about a signed-copy giveaway for my latest books.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for your interest! If you’re not yet following me on Twitter or on Facebook, get to it!

The post What's New? first appeared on Eric Thomas Weber.

The Eulogy Virtues Valued in Life

This is a photo of the cover of David Brooks's latest book, The Road to Character, 2015. David Brooks has been challenging young people lately to think about more than what he calls the “résumé virtues.” His latest book is called The Road to Character, and he has been touring the country to talk about what’s more important than the many small steps we take in advancing our careers. Which matters more: what people think or say about your résumé, or what people will say at your funeral?

Brooks argues that so many of us today focus on the wrong things — on getting the next notch in our belts — when what we should be developing are the eulogy virtues. In the end, people usually don’t care about this or that promotion you earned. The bigger house you bought rarely comes up at a funeral. What matters most to people are the qualities of your character, not the quantities in your bank account.

Brooks’s message especially to young professionals and those aspiring to be them resonates with me. First of all, Aristotle noted that happiness is something that can only really be measured in terms of a person’s whole life. When we say we are happy, in everyday language, we are primarily talking about how we feel right now. What makes for a happy life, however, is not a certain number of happy-feeling-moments. We can endure great challenges for the right reasons and be happy about what we have contributed. The feeling is less the issue, however. What matters, as Brooks notes, is our character.

With a focus on professionalism today, one can certainly make a great deal more money going into any number of careers than one earns as a teacher. So some other force pushes people into that line of work. As I said in my last post, I’ve been very fortunate to feel appreciated at the University of Mississippi. Recently, a number of students added to that very kindly.

The funny thing about moving, as Annie and I soon will, is that you get a glimpse of people’s appreciation of the eulogy virtues, but without the dying part.

The logo of the University of Mississippi's Student Alumni Council.The Student Alumni Council at the University of Mississippi is a clever organization, in which current students are involved in the work of the alumni association — hook’em early, they say. It’s a great idea, actually, for networking purposes as well as for opportunities for student leadership. Yes, those are related to résumé virtues. The group is more meaningful than that, however. They organize an event each spring (though I don’t know how long this has been going on) where they recognize mentors, hosting a “Random Acts of Kindness” event. When I received my invitation, I joked to myself that I generally intend my acts of kindness to be thoughtful and purposeful, rather than random.

The event was lovely. One student at a time got up to say a few words about a mentor he or she wanted to recognize on campus with a Random Act of Kindness award. Next, two students got up to say that they had both nominated a certain professor. It was heartwarming. We do this work because we believe in it. It’s icing on the cake when people actually show you appreciation for it. When the time came, I was taken aback by three students who each got up to say some deeply thoughtful and kind things about our work together. I got a taste of the value of the eulogy virtues, without having to die, when Mary Kate Berger, Natalie King, and Rod Bridges each spoke eloquently and kindly in their explanations for their nominations for me.

I feel profoundly fortunate to have worked with great people in Mississippi. I also am more confident that Brooks and Aristotle are right. Character is the most important thing we can cultivate. The funny thing that so many people miss, however, is that attending to one’s own happiness really comes down to attending to the same for others. I can’t think of a more rewarding opportunity than to help others to shape their character.

Thank you again, Rod, Mary Kate, and Natalie (left to right in the photo)!

This is a photo of Rod Bridges, Mary Kate Berger, Eric Thomas Weber, and Natalie King at the UM 2016 Student Alumni Council 'Random Acts of Kindness' event.