Wednesday, September 05, 2007

To tell the students

Why hard work is more important than talent - people who finish Ph.D's are not smarter than the others, just more organised. In any topic, at some point you will run into something your smarts cannot fix - discpline and structure is what will keep you alive at that point.

Why we refuse to keep handing you facts to memorize - the facts aren't as certain as we like to think, there are, for instance, three possible dates for when WWII began - 1937, 1939 and 1941. In addition, you have to be able to evaluate the facts, to see which are reasonable and which demand further inquiry or are only valid under some circumstances. Finally, at some point you should be able to start creating your own knowledge and you can't memorize something that doesn't exist yet.

Why we make you work in groups - it has everything to do with the topic above. If you are simply expected to memorize facts or principles, then a group will only help you if the other members know things you don't, things that are not in the book. But since we want you to figure stuff out, to evaluate arguments - to have arguments, you simply must have people to have those arguments with. Imagine a court where the same person was both prosecutor and defense attorney ... Voila, group project.

Why you will probably sometimes have to do more than what is required on the syllabus - we don't know what you know and don't know now, only what we want you to know and understand by the end of the semester. If your background knowledge is limited somewhere - we just expect you (without saying anything to you about it) to go figure it out. If you need to use a dictionary or an encyclopedia or read an extra couple of books to understand the stuff that IS required, we expect you to go read that extra stuff. We don't require that you do certain things, but that you accomplish certain things, however you do them.

Keep in mind that we are trying to teach you content, but also skill sets and methods; not only the historical data (who did what to whom and when) but how to DO history - not only what other philosophers have said but how to CONDUCT a philosophical argument - not only what this or that biologist did or found, but HOW they did it and how you can REPLICATE it and do your own research that confirms or questions what s/he did.

When you are bored because you know most of it, the challenge becomes to notice the things that you DON'T know, figure them out and figure out if that changes the things the things you did know.

Make note of the brave souls who do this in a different language. If you have taken a foreign language you know how hard it is - some of your classmates are doing that every day, everything they do is in another language that they have had to master or are still working on. It is HARD, also because joking is terribly difficult in a foreign language and so you become less animated and you only speak when you have to, because it takes so much out of you.