Blog Archives
Comments Policy

For most posts on this blog, comments are turned off by default. For reasons why this is the case, and with which I largely agree, see this blog post at Bioethics Bulletin. I will open comments on individual blog posts when I explicitly desire feedback on something I have written. Those comments will be moderated; irrelevant, abusive comments will be sent to the circular file.

I welcome intelligent and constructive feedback, however, and I think of email as the best medium for this. (For some examples of people who agree and their reasons why, go here and here.) Click on over to the Contact page and send me an email.

Thanks for your understanding.


Go Yotes!

I'm happy to announce that I'll be joining the Philosophy Program in the Department of Languages, Linguistics, and Philosophy at the University of South Dakota! I'm looking forward to representing USD at RoME 2013 this year and to teaching my new courses.


RoME 2013

I'll be presenting at the poster session of the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, which takes place from August 8-11 at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Last year's poster session was excellent and I'm looking forward to doing one again.


ISUS XII 2012 at New York University

I'm pleased to report that I'll be presenting my paper, "Demandingness, Fairness, and Promoting the Good: Modifying the Collective Principle of Beneficence" at the 12th annual meeting of the International Society for Utilitarian Studies, August 8-11, at New York University. I'm greatly looking forward to this event.


The Washburn Philosophy Club hosts Don Marquis

Yesterday, the Washburn Philosophy Club (WPC) hosted its first guest speaker from off campus. Don Marquis (Kansas) was kind enough to talk to Washburn students and some of the faculty about his famous paper, "Why Abortion is Immoral" (Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989): 183-202). It's a very good thing that WPC has enough regular members to start bringing in outside speakers, and I hope this can continue.


How PowerPoint ruins a presentation

Rani Lill Anjum:

PowerPoint presentations have become the standard way for philosophers to present their work. The idea is that this is a modern and useful tool that benefits both the speaker and the audience. But after having sat through countless PowerPoint presentations at conferences and meetings over the last few years, my experience is that PowerPoints more often than not actually works as a hindrance for giving a good presentation. The use of PowerPoints seems to encourage a violation of basic pedagogical principles. I here want to share some of the ways in which PowerPoints have ruined a perfectly interesting talk for me as a recipient.

Her 11 points of advice for people who want to use PowerPoint in presenting their work are all fantastic points. 

It was rare that I saw PowerPoint in use during a paper presentation of any kind when I was a graduate student. Faculty occasionally used PowerPoint when doing lectures (or used Microsoft Word to put notes up on screen for all students to see, in one case), but never in presenting a paper of their own. Graduate students, when presenting papers in colloquia, never used PowerPoint. As a department, our practice was that audience members in a paper presentation should have read the paper beforehand, and should have come prepared to ask questions. This had the practical effect of rendering PowerPoint useless. Using PowerPoint locks you into a certain script for your talk. But that is a liability when your audience is going to ask questions that you may not have anticipated and you need to think on your feet as a result. For that reason, I am skeptical of PowerPoint's usefulness in a paper presentation.

For doing lectures to students, however, where you are likely to have a more well-defined set of material to get through, PowerPoint seems more useful. It can still be abused, however, so lecturers who are using PowerPoint as a teaching tool in the classroom do need to follow Anjum's advice. As I stated in my prior post, presentation software can be helpful in the classroom, especially when it would take a long time to fully write an argument out on a whiteboard or chalkboard. So if the argument isn't too big, I will generally write it out on a PowerPoint slide beforehand.

For slides like that, however, it's really important to not go through these slides too quickly. The time that you save in writing out an argument on the whiteboard needs to be spent well, and explaining and commenting on how the argument is supposed to work seems to me like the best way to do that.


Are the wealthy more ethical?

Neil Wagner, writing for The Atlantic:

Who is more trustworthy, a rich person or a poor one? According to a new study, poor people are more likely to act ethically than the wealthy. The difference in ethical behavior may be about opportunity rather than moral fiber, however.

Fascinating series of experiments.


Death by PowerPoint?

I’m a bit late to the party on this topic, since the discussion has been going on for several days. But hey, this is a new blog, and this is a topic that I have had cause to think about this semester.

Jennifer Morton at the fantastic philosophy teaching blog In Socrates’ Wake has posted a bleg[1] about how to effectively use PowerPoint as part of one’s pedagogical toolbox. This is an issue that came up earlier this semester in one of my classes. Using my campus learning management software[2], I ran a poll in the third or fourth week of class asking students how they thought the class was going so far, and how it might be improved. Some students asked for more discussion and group work, which I thought was a good idea.

Doing this meant paring down my slides, so I could get through the essential information more quickly. I figured that this would be a good thing. After all, “Death by PowerPoint” is a real phenomenon.[3] It’s what happens when you overwhelm people with information in presentation slides. The standard advice about presentation slides is that there should be a single main idea per slide, with a small amount of text directing the audience’s attention to a key point.

Generally, I agree with that advice and try to follow it. Sometimes, though, an argument deserves to be written out in its entirety on a slide. This is because it would otherwise take much too long to write it out on a whiteboard, and because students can read much faster than I can write or talk. If I have the argument written out on the slides, though, I can comment on the meanings of the premises and the way in which the argument is supposed to flow logically from premises to conclusion without mechanically reading through the premises themselves.

With the slides thus pared down to essential key points, I use PowerPoint slides in the best way possible - to visually illustrate and reinforce key points from their readings.

The comments on Morton’s post are full of good suggestions. One point of discussion in the comments is this: when should students get access to the slides? Should they have the slides before or after class? Michael Cholbi votes for the latter option, reasoning that some students will skip class and rely on the slides for their notes instead. I see the wisdom behind this suggestion, but I have had some success with letting students have the slides beforehand. My reasoning is this: If they have the slides prior to the lecture, they can annotate their slides with their in-class notes, consisting of reactions and comments on the material. The idea is to recruit their ability to make connections between the key points on the slides and the commentary on those key points that they are hearing from me and from other students.

But in order to avoid students skipping class, the slides can’t be too detailed. There should be an incentive for students to come to class and take notes. Giving students presentation slides with voluminous amounts of detail prior to class strikes me as removing that incentive, and I try to avoid doing that.

Bottom line? Presentation slides can be an effective tool in the teacher’s toolbox, if used correctly. And - bonus, from my point of view - you can integrate Poll Everywhere polls into your slides, which gives students a stake in how the presentation goes.

  1. A blog entry consisting of a request for information or contributions. “Blog” + “beg” = “bleg” (I think).  ↩

  2. My campus uses Angel.  ↩

  3. Consider the advice given on this particular slide show, for example.  ↩


Using Poll Everywhere to increase class participation

I’m interested in ethics, teaching, and technology. So it makes sense to talk about a combination of those three things as my first blog post.

I recently began using the webapp called Poll Everywhere in my classes. I found it to be a good way of engaging the students’ attention. Poll Everywhere allows you to ask questions of your audience and get their instant feedback through multiple-choice opinion polls and open-ended question polls. In response to a question, the students send a text message consisting of a six-digit code number (plus a message if necessary) to Poll Everywhere - or via the web at this link, if they have their computers or iPads handy - and you and they can watch as Poll Everywhere auto-updates in real time with their answer. You can use Poll Everywhere in the web browser or imbed the polls into your Keynote or PowerPoint slides (Flash required). Although your mileage may vary, I found, through testing Poll Everywhere in multiple classes, that students generally do have unlimited messaging plans with their cellphones and are more than willing to use them. If you’re considering using Poll Everywhere in the class, I would recommend telling your students that they shouldn’t feel obligated to participate unless they have an unlimited messaging plan.

So here’s how I put Poll Everywhere to use. The topic of the lecture on this particular day was an introduction to W.D. Ross’s ethic of prima facie duties. By way of introducing Ross to the students, I attempted to get them to see Ross’s reasons for rejecting Kantian deontology and Moore’s ideal utilitarianism. To get them thinking about reasons why Ross would reject Kantianism and utilitarianism in favor of his own preferred view, I asked them to first vote on which of those two views they themselves favored. The idea behind asking them to vote is to make them take ownership of one of the theories that Ross criticizes, so that they might better understand the force of his objections.

I used the multiple-choice opinion poll to gauge my students’ opinions on this question. Poll Everywhere makes it super simple to construct the poll. All you do is ask a question and provide some answers, such as in the following format:

Of these two choices, which moral system do you lean toward? Kantianism or Utilitarianism

That nets you the following poll, which the students answered as follows:

First Poll
First Poll

As you can see, twice as many people in this particular class favored Kantianism over utilitarianism.

Then, in order to get the students to see why Ross might have rejected Kantianism or utilitarianism, I asked them to send in what they thought of as the best criticism of Kantianism or utilitarianism, which they did - again, using their cellphones or computers.[1] From there, I proceeded to go on to talk about Ross’s own objections to Kantianism and utilitarianism.

I asked the students what they thought of Poll Everywhere. To a person, they all thought it was a neat tool. Not a few of them were excited to be allowed to use their cellphones in class, and most thought incorporating the tool into the classroom was a good use of technology. It’s something they can understand, and it made everyone a bit more willing to participate. Interestingly, some of the students told me afterward that Poll Everywhere allows the students who are shy about speaking up in class get their opinions out there to be heard. That’s a good thing in and of itself - and maybe it’s also a way of breaking the ice around speaking up in class, too. If increased vocal participation does follow, however, I suspect it will follow from a combination of things, namely: judicious use of the technology, group work, and increased student confidence about knowledge of the material.

It costs nothing to set up an account with Poll Everywhere. A free account, however, lacks some of the features of a premium account, such as the ability to moderate open-ended question polls. But a free account will enable you to do quite a lot to get your students participating. What’s not to like?

  1. I’m not embedding these particular polls here, as doing so requires Flash and there isn’t an option to imbed a static image.  ↩