Myodicy, Issue 7, April 1998

End-of-Term Report:
Winter Term 1997-98

by Theodore Plantinga

This term I taught upper level courses in Modern Philosophy and Philosophy of Religion, and also two sections of Introduction to Philosophy. I'll begin with the Modern course (Descartes to Kant), which I had not taught since 1987. The course was offered a couple of years ago by Prof. Danie Strauss, and on three other occasions since 1987 by part-time instructors.

The last time I taught the course I had relied on a history of philosophy: Roger Scruton's book A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein (London 1984), along with assigned readings in primary sources. This time I decided to try the course with primary sources only: I located a suitable anthology with plenty of challenging readings. I invited students to use the library's collection of histories of philosophy as they saw fit. But to set the stage for the course, I had the students read Albert William Levi's fine book Philosophy as Social Expression (Chicago, 1974). I have used this book each time I have taught Modern Philosophy and would recommend it as illustrating how abstract and arcane notions in a seemingly distant era can be brought to existential life.

A unique feature of this running of the course was the addition of "explication sessions" -- class periods in which students worked at a specific assignment based on a primary reading. I had seven such assignments in all, drawn from primary sources in Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Kant (two separate sessions). I began each session with some sample exposition, making remarks about the text and about terminology, which later on (I hoped) would be found useful by the students when they set to work. Then I distributed a question (actually, a few sentences in length) about a particular passage. The students did not know in advance which passage I would choose for their assignment.

They were free to bring philosophical reference works, dictionaries, their own notes, and so forth. They were also free to consult me about the assignment, although in fact relatively little consultation took place.

The students (an all-male crew, as it happens) took to these assignments well. Nowadays one often hears that this or that can no longer be assigned or asked of students because it is "too hard." College, we are told, is being "dumbed down." I fear there is considerable truth to these claims. But the Modern Philosophy class I taught this term certainly was not "dumbed down." The students surprised me both by their willingness to undertake such assignments and their skill in explication.

In Philosophy of Religion, a course I have been teaching on a regular basis over the years, I also tried something new. The college has introduced a program or "stream" (the preferred term) in youth ministry. Those who hope to undertake such work without pursuing seminary training after leaving Redeemer would be looking for opportunities to develop such skills as would be needed in their anticipated career. I was therefore asked whether I could do something with apologetics in my Philosophy of Religion course, since youth ministry grads would want to put apologetical skills to work in their eventual professional role.

Now, the course had always included the study of apologetics, but as I reflected on the request, I realized that my focus in connection with apologetics was mainly theoretical. The students in question needed some practical training and experience.

In response I did two things. First of all I coined a term -- apolomics, which is a combination of "apologetics" and "polemics." This term reflects my own conviction that much apologetical defense of Christianity is actually an attack on arguments and assumptions that are used to hold people back from acceptance of Christian doctrinal claims.

Secondly, I devised practical exercises in apolomics. Each student was required to make an apolomical presentation, which was in effect an argument for some point related to Christian belief (perhaps one that was shared with other monotheistic traditions, perhaps not). The basis of the argument could not include Scripture: the student would have to seek common ground with his two skeptical opponents. The latter were recruited from the class as well. Normally the opponents did not prepare for their role but were appointed to it at the beginning of class. But some topics were of such a nature that I allowed the presenter to prepare or prep one of his opponents. Thus each student got to make one apolomical presentation and was twice asked to serve as an opponent.

After each session (which lasted some 15 to 20 minutes), the class would have an opportunity for critique. The idea was to discuss the argument in formal terms, since the exercise was intended to be mainly practical in nature. Yet sometimes the discussion drifted into the substance of what had been presented. It was not always possible to disentangle the substance from the argumentation strategy.

The students seemed to enjoy the sessions. Yet there were some difficulties to be noted. I will mention three of them here. First, the content of what was presented sometime reiterated what I had presented as lecture material in the course. Because the students were not required to stay away from points that had already been made, it sometimes seemed that class time was not being used efficiently.

Secondly, the sessions ate up a lot of class time. When I planned them, the anticipated enrolment for the course was fairly small. But there is usually some dropping and adding of courses at the beginning of the term, and the result was that the course wound up with a somewhat larger enrolment, which meant that the apolomics sessions required more time than I had initially budgeted for.

Thirdly, it was difficult to get certain students (a small number, to be sure) to participate. Students making presentations are often inclined to read their stuff from notes, but I had stressed that a conversational manner would be the ideal way to proceed. Some had great difficulty implementing this recommendation. Now, I have long maintained that college students need more practice when it comes to oral presentation skills, and so I leaned on them to do what was being asked. Especially those students who were headed for some sort of pastoral or ministry role needed to take advantage of every opportunity to polish their presentation skills. Some gave a fine account of themselves, but a few were most reluctant.

This reluctance when it comes to oral presentations can also manifest itself at examination time. If a student misses an examination for a valid reason or is unable to take the designated exam with the class but must take it later, I do not make a second written exam for one person; instead I administer an oral exam. This term, too, I had occasion to discuss the prospect of an oral exam with certain students. Once again I saw that many students seem to enjoy the prospect of such an exam about as much as they enjoy a visit to the dentist.

On the whole, I believe the oral mode of examination is superior to the written mode, but it is not realistic to examine a large group of students orally. It would take too much time, and it would be hard to remain fresh and attentive for so long. (Attention also drifts when I mark written exams, but then I have the option of rereading some material.) And so I save orals for exceptional situations. But the reluctance of many students to take such exams is a reminder that students in general need more opportunity for oral presentation and interaction (perhaps even formal debate) in their college courses.

In Introduction to Philosophy I had two large sections this past term. I did not have an easy time with my Intro students. A number of them decided all too quickly that philosophy was too hard for them, so why bother trying? Some dropped the course, but others stayed on the class list right to the end, attended many of the classes, but nevertheless did not make it through the course. They did not have the confidence of my Modern Philosophy students when it comes to difficult texts.

I was also bothered by the fact that this term's classroom decorum was not what I had come to expect. Other instructors also reported such problems this term, and we discussed them at a faculty meeting. Some of us took measures to remedy the situation. I came up with a couple of innovations which I instituted after the reading break that splits the term in two. The innovations proved helpful.

One of the main problems was students coming in late. Sometimes the fault lay with another instructor who did not dismiss them from his class in time. But in some cases it was a matter of students coming when they felt like it. I decided that latecomers would have to wait outside in the hall for ten minutes and would then be admitted during what I came to call the "announcement break."

Now, it had been my custom through all my years of teaching to make announcements at the beginning of class, perhaps also a small joke relevant to the subject matter, and then to proceed with the lecture. With many students coming late this term, I found that the announcements were not getting through. Normally I start my classes right on time. If I have an important announcement but quite a few students are not yet on hand when the class begins, I feel an impulse to delay the start in order to make sure the announcement is heard and sinks in. And if students are disinclined to get right to business once they enter the classroom, the announcements might not penetrate even into the heads of those who are physically present.

What I now began to do is to start my lecture right on the button, regardless of who might yet be absent. After ten minutes I would stop, go to the door, admit latecomers, and then make whatever class announcement were needed for the day. This procedure seemed to work well. Tardiness was reduced (but not eliminated), and the students paid better attention to what I announced. But to say that the attitude of all of them was exemplary would be to exaggerate.

I took comfort in the realization that in these difficulties I was not alone. In the April 13, 1998, issue of Newsweek, I read that the problem was worse at some other institutions. George Will wrote: "The Chronicle of Higher Education reports rising anxiety in the professoriate about declining decorum in classrooms. Students' incivilities include coming to class late and leaving early, eating, conversing, reading newspapers, talking on cell phones, sleeping, watching portable televisions and directing verbal abuse at teachers." Although I did not frisk the students as they entered my class, I am confident that no cell phones and TV sets entered with them.

While my reforms helped me get through the term, the students were also aware that they were being taken to task, and that I was not altogether happy with the way things had gone. As a result, I did not have as friendly a classroom atmosphere as I would have liked. The fact that there were almost a hundred of them (divided over two sections) also meant that there were students whom I came to know mainly in an identification sense. (By the end of the term I could match their names with their faces).

When the Intro class is smaller (as it usually is during the fall term), I feel I have a much better chance of getting personally acquainted with the students. A good deal depends on whether I have an opportunity for one-on-one conversation. I do come to know them somewhat by marking their work, but they come into focus for me mainly through conversation.

This term we also continued the discussion of technology and education. The faculty devoted two professional development days to this area. On the first of them, which fell on February 23 (during the reading break), three professors from McMaster University in nearby Hamilton made presentations to us and demonstrated software. On a second such day on which there were no classes (April 13), we heard from a mathematics professor at Houghten College, and also from Houghten's director of technological services. (Houghten, in upstate New York, is the Christian liberal arts college closest to us on the map.)

Both days seemed to indicate that interesting possibilities for increasing and enhancing student participation and interaction in course work could be realized through the new technology. I believe that some of our profs moved from the skeptical category to the hopeful category as they listened to these presentations.

Yet reservations about the contemplated technological changes continued to be voiced, but mainly through conversation or a cautious memo. To the best of my knowledge, no faculty opponent of the changes now underway took the trouble to read widely in the literature that warns against technological change. Thus we might speak of foot-dragging, as contrasted with the more deliberate effort of digging in one's heels. I expect that the trend toward greater use of the new technologies will continue at Redeemer. [END]

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