Multi-part question: Will you tell us about a time in your life when you were at a crossroad(s), what big decision you made and how you made the decision?
elledeau

My initial thought was that there just aren’t a lot of big decisions in my life where the outcome felt uncertain to me so I wouldn’t have much to say in response to this question. But, in thinking a bit more deeply about it, I suppose I’d say this is itself noteworthy enough for a response.

When I think of big decisions, I could point to choosing to attend one college or one graduate program over another; or to move from my first job at James Madison University to my current job at Nebraska; or to get married; or to have kids. All of these might be considered crossroads in my life.

But the choices I made in each of those cases felt like the obvious thing to do, both at the time and certainly upon later reflection. I never seriously considered going to grad school anywhere but at Duke once I’d been admitted and I visited. I never thought, after meeting my wife, that I wouldn’t end up marrying her. And so on.

I like to think that this is due to thinking things through in advance. In my writing on heroism, I often note that thinking ahead, planning ahead, is the best preparation for action. If you haven’t thought seriously about the kind of life you want to have lived, about the sorts of actions and choices that define who are you, you won’t be prepared to take action when it’s demanded of you, to make a difficult or dangerous choice when you come to a potential crossroads. I like to think that my crossroads moments haven’t felt so much like big decisions filled with uncertainty because I thought about what I wanted or what I hoped for well ahead of time and, when those moments approached, I had a very good sense of what I wanted to do.

# questions # raison d'être # education

The necessity of political philosophy arises because most policies are good for some people and bad for others.

That’s Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, writing in the New York Times today.

I don’t agree with any of the conclusions that Mankiw draws about particular policies … but I like this sentence. It’s a good one for some of my colleagues in political science, who are often rather dismissive of political theory as a subfield of study.

HT: Ted Goodman.

# philosophy # political science # education # politics

A really good TED talk changes you. A really-really good TED talk not only changes you, but the way it changes you can change.

The Explore blog, which can’t get enough TED these days notes that this quote comes to us from

The brilliant and wise Amanda Palmer at TED 2014. She should know – hers is one of the most spectacular TED talks of all time.

I’m convinced that Amanda Palmer’s quote doesn’t actually mean anything … which is a great synopsis of my feelings on TED generally.

"A really-really good TED talk not only changes you, but the way it changes you can change." How does the way a talk changes you also change?

Maybe it goes like this: First I felt like I knew everything about the subject matter because I listened to someone talk about it for twelve minutes; I was transformed into an expert in my own mind because I listened to someone who might be an expert (or who might just be Amanda Palmer).

And then, later, that feeling changed and I realized that I didn’t actually know everything about the subject … so I had to listen to another TED talk. But there weren’t any more TED talks on that subject, so I just listened to a bunch more short and flashy talks about other subjects that I now know a little bit about. Then I realized I was having a lot of fun learning, but only if the learning was flashy, brief, and superficial. So I watched a bunch more TED talks on my laptop instead of participating in the discussion that was going on around me in my college classroom. Now I don’t know anything about John Locke’s thoughts on government from his Second Treatise or American history or whatever we were learning that day … but I do know what Amanda Palmer thinks about “giving and receiving.” Neat!

Everything is changing, including the changing ways that I’ve changed. Alas, what isn’t changing is the superficial grasp on things I’ve gotten from these TED Talks.

# TED # education # teaching

reblogged from Explore
TED has done more to advance the art of lecturing in a decade than Oxford University has done in a thousand years.

As TED turns 30, The Economist looks at how it revolutionized the ideas industry. Pair with David Hochman’s excellent New York Times profile of TED’s Chris Anderson.

The above is via the Explore blog.

For my own part, I’m going to go ahead and call foul on this, and not simply because I’m confident that my lectures (which are nothing at all like TED talks) would nonetheless look pretty different from lectures delivered by anyone who was teaching just prior to the Battle of Hastings. Pair with my blog post on “edutainment.”

# TED # teaching # education

reblogged from Explore
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.

Via the Explore blog:

6 tips on writing from John Steinbeck, born on February 27, 1902 – a fine addition to our ongoing archive of writing advice.

As much as I like Steinbeck, I’d say this is not the best advice … especially for my graduate students working on their dissertations. You are going to finish.

I’d amend Steinbeck’s advice to say, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to feel like it’s finished.” Nothing I’ve ever written has felt finished to me (as in, nothing more I could possibly do to improve what’s on the page). But that’s not the same thing as being finished and sending it off. I could keep tinkering with what I write indefinitely. But at some point, it’s important to say, “This isn’t perfect, but it’s done” so then you can move on to the next thing.

# writing # education # teaching # Steinbeck

reblogged from Explore

Whistleblowers

I was asked this afternoon to moderate a panel at the Hero Round Table conference in September on whisteblowing.

The panel will feature Daniel Ellsberg and Philip Zimbardo.

Needless to say, it didn’t take me very long to agree.

Have an interest in whistleblowers? Or in altruism or heroism more broadly? You should think seriously about attending this conference. If you’re a student and want to do some research on these topics, consider presenting a poster.

Also, for anyone with an interest, here’s my 12 minute talk from last year’s inaugural conference.

# Ellsberg # Zimbardo # heroism # education # politics

The Importance of Teachers

I learned this afternoon that my 6th grade Hebrew teacher, Riva Thatch, passed away yesterday at the age of 92.

While I don’t use the vast majority of the things I learned in Mrs. Thatch’s class these days — my Hebrew is awfully rusty — I know she laid the foundation for all the rest of my education by doing something so simple: Mrs. Thatch loved me. She wanted the best for me and she somehow managed to make that clear to me — and remember, I was a rambunctious, goofy, irritating, nerdy, girl-chasing 6th grade boy. I’m not so naive as to imagine that Mrs. Thatch was alone in caring about me and about my education as much as she did; it’s just that, at that impossibly awkward and important time in my life, I really noticed her caring.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had many truly excellent teachers, from my kindergarten teacher to my undergraduate and dissertation advisors. My own decision to become an educator was so obviously shaped by these generous men and women who assigned me homework, graded my papers, corrected my many mistakes, encouraged me to learn, and cared so deeply about me as a person.

# education # teaching # obituary

Achievement Unlocked

I had a meeting this morning with a man I’d never met. I was wearing jeans and a zip-up fleece, which is pretty much my uniform this winter since I’m not teaching and thus don’t need to wear my teaching uniform of khaki pants and a button-down shirt or sweater.

He said, “So, you’re a professor, right?”

I smiled and said, “I am. But I’m not really dressed like one today.”

He said, “That’s ok. I knew you were a professor because of your beard.”

Sabbatical beard achievement unlocked!

# education # teaching # comedy # beards

There are at least two was to approach (online) life. You can (1) be extremely self-critical and have a generally (even if you don't [I don't mean YOU "you" but the subjunctive "you" here] realize it) post-modern epistemologically skeptical self or (2) be generally feckless and un-self-conscious and just do stuff. Obviously, it's both easier to do (2) but also somewhat paradoxically harder to do (2) if you're in the wrong position. Anyway, either way, which is better?
bmichael

I often discuss this issue with my students, especially given the amount of online writing I’ve started to require of them in my courses over the past few years.

The short answer is that it’s always better to think critically about the online persona you’re crafting, even though it’s more challenging to do so and requires a fair amount of time and thought.

Better how?

Well, once you’ve figured out your goals for writing (and just generally being) online, the hard part is done. Now you just have to live up to the goals you’ve set for yourself. My sense is that having a carefully thought-out online persona makes it more likely that people will share your work and thus makes it easier for more people to find what you’re doing. After all, it’s more likely that someone who has thought critically about the sorts of topics (s)he wants to write about will also be thinking and writing carefully about those things, and thus will find an audience who is interested in careful thinking and writing on those topics.

If you never set any goals, never figure out what you want to accomplish online, I think you make life harder for yourself in the long term. You’re either always be trying to figure out what you’re doing (and why) or else you’ll just never figure it out and, as you say, “just do stuff.” Just doing stuff seems to me to be what gets people in trouble. If you’ve worked out who you are, I’d venture that you’re less likely to do something embarrassing to yourself. And, of course, we now know that embarrassing yourself online can be global, permanent, and have serious off-line implications.

# questions # internet # education # teaching

What are your thoughts on research faculty participating in extension and community outreach programs? Do you feel it's a suitable use of their time?
jakke

I suppose it’s difficult to say what’s a suitable use of someone’s time. When we’re “graded” as faculty, it’s almost entirely for our research productivity and the quality of our work in the classroom. The “service” requirement of my job counts for just 10% and it encompasses a dozen or more types of activities, like serving on committees at the university, advising student organization, doing editorial work for journals, reviewing book manuscripts for presses, and so on.

With regard to community outreach, here at Nebraska, we have the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and several of my colleagues have been invovled teaching courses for that program. I’ve generally heard very positive things from those who have been involved, both teaching and learning.

I tend to do other sorts of “outreach” activities that aren’t affiliated with the university … mostly because my university-related service cup runneth over already. In the past few years, I’ve given occasional lectures at retirement homes, and to religous or community groups, and I’ve served as a board member for local and national non-profit organizations.

For me, these things are a lot of fun and they allow me to interact with really interesting people so, even though it doesn’t really “count” for much with regard to my job, I’d say it’s a good way to spend some of my time.

# Nebraska # education # teaching # questions

Course Evaluations

Last semester’s course evaluations are in for my contemporary political philosophy course and I thought I’d post some of the highlights. As is the case every semester, students reported that they were overworked but that they enjoyed themselves. In fact, there wasn’t a single negative evaluation. In response to the question, “What, if anything, did you like about the instructor?,” several students wrote, “The cult of personality.”

So, this semester the results were crazily positive; this might have something to do with the fact that all the students who despised me, my class, or political theory more generally dropped or withdrew before the end of the semester:

  1. “He is amazing. He was upbeat and could banter with the best of them. He also could break down the challenging info.”
  2. "He’s cooler than he looks."
  3. "Could sometimes be a little arrogant. But the attitude worked well for the class. He was every bit a philosopher."
  4. "It’s a course you can apply to all other courses."
  5. "I always knew that if I didn’t understand the reading, I could come to class & get my questions answered."
  6. "The instructor was younger [than I expected]."
  7. "Maybe slow down a little so students can type the important parts of the lecture, many holes in my notes (and others) because we were all too busy listening to ask him to slow down — which is hilarious."
  8. "I thought, from what I’d heard, that he was an angry old man.”
  9. "Pushed students to work harder and think about their life and passions in addition to the material."
  10. "I didn’t know if I was going to like this class. I ended up loving it. It challenged me to think in ways that I haven’t before."
  11. “It was insightful, challenging, and captivating. I will never view the world the same.”
  12. “Dr. Kohen is the best prof. I’ve had in my 4½ years at UNL. The last three semesters w/him have changed me for the better.”

Unlike previous semesters, where one student would recommend one change to the course and another would recommend the exact opposite, students agreed about changes they’d like to see. They universally hated the 50 minute/3 day a week format, as I do, because our discussions were constantly interrupted just as they got underway, and they want the political science department to offer more political theory classes rather than fewer:

  1. Give him longer class periods. Maybe a seminar or TV show.
  2. Switch back to Tuesday/Thursday schedule.
  3. It will be very sad if this class is no longer offered.
  4. Make it longer than 50 minutes.
  5. The classes seemed a little more rushed than previous courses he teaches due to the 50 minute class length.
  6. The instructor would be more effective if he were allowed to teach more political philosophy classes.

Finally, there’s one question on the evaluation sheet that always makes me laugh; it asks, “Did the instuctor’s lectures, comments, and interactions with students display respect for (sensitivity to) differences in gender, race, ethnicity or other characteristics?” This semester, a bunch of students answered with a reference to the veil of ignorance in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (which we read at the very beginning of the semester).

That might be the best measure of the success of the class.

# political science # education # teaching # Nebraska # comedy # philosophy # Rawls

Technically, no one is required to take any of the courses I teach (at either the undergraduate or graduate level).
There is a political theory requirement for undergraduate political science majors, but it’s only one course and it can thus be fulfilled by taking the introductory course (which is taught by one of my graduate students) rather than one of my upper-level courses.
For the past six years, undergrads in political science at the University of Nebraska who wanted to make political theory one of their three subfields of study would have to take at least one course with me because the subfield requirement called for at least two courses. This won’t be the case any longer, as my department voted to eliminate political theory as one of the subfields of undergraduate study last semester. My suspicion is that, over time, the number of students in my courses will dwindle as more and more students simply elect take the intro course and steer clear of the upper-level courses (less because of my grading practices and more because they don’t fulfill any sort of degree requirement).
There might still be one or two students who choose to take all of the classes I offer. In his or her final semester, I might buy a weekly doughnut for such a student.

Technically, no one is required to take any of the courses I teach (at either the undergraduate or graduate level).

There is a political theory requirement for undergraduate political science majors, but it’s only one course and it can thus be fulfilled by taking the introductory course (which is taught by one of my graduate students) rather than one of my upper-level courses.

For the past six years, undergrads in political science at the University of Nebraska who wanted to make political theory one of their three subfields of study would have to take at least one course with me because the subfield requirement called for at least two courses. This won’t be the case any longer, as my department voted to eliminate political theory as one of the subfields of undergraduate study last semester. My suspicion is that, over time, the number of students in my courses will dwindle as more and more students simply elect take the intro course and steer clear of the upper-level courses (less because of my grading practices and more because they don’t fulfill any sort of degree requirement).

There might still be one or two students who choose to take all of the classes I offer. In his or her final semester, I might buy a weekly doughnut for such a student.

# Nebraska # education # teaching # political science # philosophy # questions

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