The Art of Lecturing and Improvisation

As most people begin as a lecturer, my first lecture notes were fantastically over-prepared. For 45 minute sessions, I would prepare 5000 words in essay level language and fail to get through a third of it. This academic year, I took the decision to begin to rely on extemporisation more. This was for a number of reasons. Firstly, because of time. I’m still an hourly paid lecturer and I simply cannot spend the hours I am paid writing near-publishable material for my lectures. Secondly, I have dyspraxia with dyslexia-like traits that make reading aloud very difficult anyway. Thirdly and most importantly, I’m much clearer and more interesting when I extemporise. Having the confidence to realise this was far more difficult than actually having the confidence to do it.

Now my lecture planning means deciding what themes need to be discussed and building a presentation (Prezi is my weapon of choice) that provides an aid to memory whilst giving students something concrete to hold onto whilst I explain the issue. The presentation is now my only notes, but its purpose is to give me a framework to discuss the topic with the students. I think this mindset is the best way to avoid the dreaded and ambiguous criticism in student feedback “they just read off the powerpoint”. I’m not entirely sure what students mean by that, but I make conscious effort to ensure that the presentation slide is something I respond to and develop on rather than being the content I need to deliver.

Now, not having full notes is a stylistic choice on my part. All lecturers extemporise in some way, even if they rely predominantly on written notes. It’s why lecturing is an art rather than the knack of reading from a sheet. One responds to the mood of the room, one realises what’s going over their heads and what is too simple for them, and responds to it. Similar, I hit the space bar, I read the slide, I identify what they will understand without my help and what they won’t. I begin to speak.

This brings me to the point that prompts today’s post. I’ve just come from a lecture I gave for the first time, having “written” it yesterday. Upon getting two slides in, I realised the presentation itself made a rather large leap from one topic to another, meaning I had to bring in ten minutes of material not even mentioned in the slide. This, thankfully, was the first time in the three months since I’d decided to adopt this lecturing strategy that anything like this had happened. My anxiety-ridden dreams about stepping up and having nothing to say proved baseless even in this situation, since I know what I needed to bring in and I did so.

I was startled I was able to do this, and after leaving the lecture I began to reflect on what extemporisation is. Where do the words come from? This is a problem I’d thought about as a teenager, not as a lecturer but as someone learning the guitar. I used to look at the people in my school who were further along in learning than me in awe when they would improvise solos. I used to wonder where the notes came from. Today, improvisation is my favourite thing to do on the guitar.

I thought, then, that as they are similar phenomena they might have a similar explanation. The way I was taught improvisation, and the way many are taught it, is through “licks”. Rather than writing 12 bars of solo note for note, you write three or four motifs or “twiddles” of a few notes each and play around with them. What might be originally three notes can get you 2-4 bars of blues solo just by repeating it with different emphasis and order, varying the theme. As you continue to play around with the licks, you get more confident and start developing new ones by accident and on purpose. Through even more time, you don’t even need the licks anymore. You play the melody as easily as humming.

I seem, analogously, to have developed teaching “licks” over time; motifs of content that I can elaborate, condense, and develop on the spot to meet the needs of the question. (I do not claim this to be an original ability, it’s clearly what everyone does. I’m simply surprised that it’s finally happened to me.) I can make the point that “Descartes identifies the human being with the mind as something distinct from the body” in a sentence, or a paragraph, or, as I did today to fill in the gap between two bullet points on my lecture slide, a ten minute dramatic recount of the First and Second Meditations.

But, what is the pedagogical equivalent to developing the “licks”? In guitar, you play around with what you’ve wrote on your own with headphones in your guitar amp so no one can hear you make mistakes. You can hardly do this yourself. Equally, we do not teach often enough (4-8 times a week 20 weeks a year) to develop this ability with much speed. How do we get good at riffing on our material? I guess, by debating and talking about our subject with friends and colleagues. I can only conclude from thinking about how I thankfully had the skill to get myself out of a tight spot that talking about our subjects with each other informally in the pub and formally in research seminars is an essential part of the teaching process, to help us master our material. So, to answer my adolescent question (where do the notes come from?) one need only turn to Aristotle: you get better at things by doing them; you get better at extemporising by extemporising, at talking by talking, teaching by teaching and explaining by explaining.

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Seminar: Can You Break the Ontological Argument?

As discussed in the last post, I believe an important task in teaching philosophy of religion is being able to identify the difference between an unphilosophical attack on religion in the manner of Dawkins and the philosophy of religion itself, where the former seeks to understand religion in its own terms regardless of its decision on the question of the existence of God.

I’ve found a good way of teaching this, presuming the students tend to view religion within the locus of Dawkin’s allegation that religion is irrational, is by teaching the rationality of religion. This makes the discussion relate to them and meets the desired learning outcome.

A fun way of doing this in a seminar is to discuss the ontological argument. The discussion takes the form of a challenge: prove to me that this argument is invalid. There are some prerequisites for making this work.

  • I unashamedly stack the odds in my favour by not teaching them the classic refutations (Aquinas / Hume / Leibniz / Kant) beforehand.
  • Some famliliarity with the arguments for the existence of God will help (recalling A level should be sufficient)
  • But, again, I wouldn’t encourage them to do too much preparation for this debate. It spoils the fun

Now, you may say this is a bit of an odd tack to take. But, the point of this seminar is not actually for them to refute the ontological argument, but experience the frustration at being unable to refute it. As my college critical thinking teacher taught this argument: the ontological argument is one of the best arguments in history because everyone hates it, everyone wants to refute it but noone can agree on exactly what’s wrong with it.

The most authentic objection to the ontological argument is just a vague sense that there’s something funny about it. But, this sense is not a rational sense, it is an irrational dislike of the way the argument operates, which is itself ultra-rational. As a Heideggerian, I tend to interpret this as a pre-intellectual sense that the meaning of being is misunderstood in this argument. This follows his reading of Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument. By saying that Being is not a real predicate, Kant is saying that the meaning of being is misrecognised in this argument abused. But, that is by the by.

As a continual reminder that no one says anything new, students only really come up with the same three or four objections. I will present these in a table, because I like tables. Before doing so, it is only fair to remind you of the premises of this subtle and intensely annoying argument.

P1 – We all can conceive of a perfect being

P2 – Existence is a perfection

– The perfect being exists

Complaint        Response
But it depends on what you mean by perfection doesn’t it! Well, no. Perfect is a technical philosophical term that means a “complete” being, a being that has all positive predicates as part of its being. Just as the perfect pizza does not have anything lacking, the perfect being lacks no positive property whatsoever. So, that argument doesn’t work.
Yes but that’s not what perfections means to me That doesn’t matter, it’s what perfection means to the person making the argument. Playing around with definitions won’t refute the argument. Try again.
Well, you can’t prove the existence of something just using logic. Why?
You just can’t!!! Well, Hume said that, but he didn’t actually justify it. The entire point of the ontological argument is that it purports to prove that the one matter of fact that can be settled by reason is the existence of a perfect being. You have to say why that’s incorrect

And on it goes. The first time I tried this I did feel like the students were about to attack me, they were that wound up. But, it is an important lesson. By refuting every argument they have, they are forced to simply say the don’t believe it, which is itself an irrational response to the rational argument.

To calm them down, I tell them Kant’s refutation which, for me at least, does solve the issue. But, remind them that if we follow Kant we are admitting that the problem of national religion is not that it is rational, but that it is too rational. Reason believes it has the ability to deduce the existence of things but it is unable to because reason is not a property at all. It certainly gives them something to think about.

The Dawkins Problem in Teaching Philosophy of Religion

In 2006, Richard Dawkins released a consumer product that is widely alleged to be a book. It was called The God Delusion. It brought no new insight into religion. It was not grounded in scholarly sources on the topics about which it spoke. It was not released by OUP, Dawkins’ publisher of choice, implying that even the elite have work knocked back sometimes. It was, however, a succeess. It was a bestseller and made Dawkins’ a necessary cornerstone of any discussion of atheism.

Despite the so-called books lack of scholarly qualities, any course or attempt to teach the philosophy of religion. This is not because it offers any great insight or contribution to knowledge, but quite the opposite. The God Delusion is a lucid, if utterly non-self-aware, expression of the common sense attitude to religion. I mean “common sense” as the collection of predjudices our society has about a topic, that which initially delimits the possible positions within a debate before philosophical work can take place.

Common sense is something every philosophy teacher must reckon with. If philosophy has any chance of meaning anything to a student, it must be made to make sense to them, otherwise it will just be a neutral exposition of eccentric opinions had by people who are now dead. This is, applicably, the attitude that Richard Dawkins has to theology and the philosophy of religion.

How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many. (56)

Responding to the frequent criticism that he simply has no authority in the field he is talking about, Dawkins says that religion is not a field. It is just a collection of errors that are not worth wasting one’s time with. This is a dominant presupposition in common sense, which students find themselves repeating.

As such, whenever I teach the philosophy of religion, I begin with Dawkins. Not because he is profound, but, quite the contrary, he gives expression to a basic prejudice that must be challenged. So, I begin by reconstructing Dawkins’ position to the following two basic ideas.

The idea that religion is irrational is not unique to Dawkins, or even to atheism. It is the basic idea of fideism, the idea that religion is to be found through faith and faith alone, not the intellect. But, fideism is itself a reaction to the hyperrationality of natural religion; the claim that all religion is irrational needs at least to be modified to “some religions are irrational”.

This opens a pedogogic opportunity. By demonstrating the rationality of natural religion, we can challenge our students on the Dawkins thesis fundamentally and historically, rather than pointing to the extrinsic problems with his position (lack of expertise and scholarly conduct), or even by attacking his particular claims.

Kant is a particularly good place to start. In his discussion of the arguments of natural religion, in which he refutes an names all the arguments for the existence of God, he attempts to give an explanation of where these arguments come from and why. Rather than attributing it to an irrationalism or emotionalism, which is where he would go to explain moral abberations, Kant actually blames reason itself.

Reason longs for ultimate explanations of things, but can never provide them because doing so takes it beyond its de jure limits. The problem with religion is it follows reason to far. Religion is hyper-rational, not irrational. In practice, I’ve found the best way to hammer this home to students is to take a seminar on the ontological argument asking them to attempt to refute it. I’ll talk about that in another post. But, it generally frustrates them as the argument is incredibly difficult to refutre rationally, and they are forced into an irrational dismissal of it.

Essay Error B: There is No Right Answer

Following my last post talking about student essays that fail to deal with issues of interpretation by treating philosophy as a matter of fact, the opposite error I’ve found is to treat it as a matter of opinion. This mode, like all subjectivism, finds itself in an inherent contradiction (saying that there are no objective truths is actually to claim there is at least one objective truth, that there are no others). An example of this might be “Kant is wrong because he fails to recognise the subjectivity of humans, that we’re all different.”

Many students seem to have been warned away from this style of writing by the suggestion that an essay should not contain the word “I” or should not be written in the first person. This is a really ambiguous way of putting the point that seems to lead students into the error described in my previous post, that we are dealing with something objective, fact based, that doesn’t admit of interpretation at all. The trouble is, when we tell our students that we do in fact what to hear what they think, they interpret this as licence to opine to their hearts content.

Traits of this sort of essay are as follows:

  • Over-reliance on own examples and criticising philosophers based on their own opinions without any evidence or argument
  • Sometimes quite strong descriptive accounts grounded in secondary sources, but then a completely ungrounded critical section
  • Essay structures that survey several opinions about the topic only to conclude from this that manifold opinions means all opinions are equal

The interesting thing about these essays is that they can have first class level engagement with secondary sources and the text itself, since they do understand that scholars aren’t trading in fact, that there is no “correct Kant”, but then can have 2:2 or even 3rd class critical sections that abandon all scholarly skill previously demonstrated to the claim either that a) it just depends on what you think or b) none of these views match my own therefore they are not convincing.

Both the error of fact and error of opinion are easy to identify and describe and to moan about to colleagues. But, how to address them as a pedagogical problem? Next year, I think I’ll try and develop some active learning exercises. No matter how clearly one explains these problems and traits in essays, it will go out the window with the students when they are under the pressure of the deadline. Something active may help it sink in a bit more, though. I’ve tended to be a luddite about quiz apps for integrated learning, but some sort of multiple choice exercises where students are presented with essay sections of differing styles and asked to pick which one is best might help.

Essay Error A: Trying to Get it Right

This is the first of two posts reflecting on a problem with a lot of the essays I’m marking at the moment that has been bothering me. Despite a lot of time spent with the students on essay writing, something really doesn’t seem to be getting through to them: that an essay is an argument that they have to defend. The twin poles of this error are when students try to hard to get the right answer and when students don’t think there is a right answer at all. This is something I need to think about carefully for next year, as it is a problem I want to address with them, coming out of, I think, changes in secondary and tertiary education as well as a basic scientism shared by most of our students when they come in the door.

New students, in line with the common sense thinking about the issue, think that issues of truth can be more or less divided into two categories: matters of fact and matters of opinion. Matters of fact are the domain of experts, particularly scientists. They are the truth and cannot be disputed. Matters of opinion are things that can be disputed, but ultimately hold no truth or power, because it’s all just down to your own perspective really and no one is more right than anyone else. The two basic errors in essay design map onto these two extremes. This post will deal with the first, the next will deal with the second.

This basic error is trying to get an essay right. This manifests as a student desperately trying to make sure they are saying the truth about a topic (Plato believed such and such, he lived in such and such a time, he was important because x). The job of an essay is to be evidence of their comprehension of the facts and the task of referencing is to demonstrate the student has got the fats from the right places. Concordantly, the job of referencing is to prove that they have read the books they were supposed to read.

To explain what I mean, here are some traits of this sort of essay I’ve noticed.

  • A complete lack of discussion of disagreement among secondary sources, because the presupposition is that they all agree because they are authorities telling the truth about the topic or philosopher: they must be all saying the same thing in different ways
  • Stating a view from a secondary source as though it is objective fact, without introducing said source or even implying that the view is a viewpoint, simply dropping a reference at the end of the sentence in an utterly unexplained way
  • Not citing the primary source at all. What is being discussed is not an argument found in a text but a list of truths about said text that just need to be stated, and the marker knows them too so why would they need to know where the argument occurs?

What is certainly missed in this error is that philosophy deals in interpretation. What each scholar defends, even in introductory guidebooks, is an interpretation of a view on the philosopher. And, what we expect from an essay, is an engagement with that debate and some sort of defence of a position within it, or at a minimum a review of the various positions possible and critical comparison of their strengths and weaknesses.

The roots of the problem seem quite easy to pinpoint: a belief that all domains of knowledge, like science, are matters of fact. But, it is difficult to explain what is wrong with this attitude without seeming to defend the second basic error: that the reason philosophy isn’t about fact is that there is no right answer and everything is an opinion.

Teaching Žižek: Philosophy for Politics Students

I was asked to write and teach a short 6 week course on Slavoj Žižek for level 6 politics students this year. The remit for this was to help them engage with the epistemological and ontological issues involved in the positivist method of political science by way of contrast.

This posed some real difficulties, other than grappling with the difficult subject matter and finding a way to explain it. My experience with teaching Politics students compared with Philosophy students is that, more or less, Plato was right. Philosophers love to think in general terms, everyone else deals in particulars. Politics students tend to be historically or statistically inclined, liking specific, empirical problems to think about and deal with. Just as Socrates’ requests for people to define bravery (the brave in general) resulted in particular instances of bravery (Achilles is brave), my abstract questions (What is freedom?) were met with particular policy ideas that would encourage freedom.

My expectation was that I would run into the same challenge with teaching Žižek. While he is very good at speaking through examples, these statements carry absolutely no authority without an understanding of the tradition of the critique of ideology; the theory needs to be understood before the particular claims can be understood.

I took the following decisions:

  • Soft focus lectures. My lectures would each be about a single aspect of the theory to be elaborated over the six weeks, but they would approach this topic in a very broad way that didn’t focus on nitty-gritty detail. Whilst a philosophy lecture might go into a great deal of detail about each premise of the argument as it appears in the text, this would not be helpful for these students. Instead, I would explain the argument through many examples to elaborate the conclusion rather than defend the conclusion by premises. I deliberately kept these lectures at a hearty pace to indirectly discourage the students from getting hung up upon the specificity of the argument, focusing more on how the argument functioned than how it was constructed, e.g. it did not matter what ideology in and for itself meant, only that these terms allowed Žižek to talk in a certain way. The aim was to make the students think about the problem in their own terms, not get lost in the impossibly large oeuvre of Žižek.
  • Podcasts. The drawback of saturating a lecture with many different examples is it would be difficult to hold in. As such, podcasts seemed necessary. Lecture notes were also available, but I did not want the students relying on these too much. A podcast, however, would repeat the active function of the lecture described above.
  • Detailed Reading in Seminars. While I believed it was essential to avoid overwhelming the students with fine detail of argumentation in the lecture, the students would still need to be conversant with it. Rather than reconstructing this in a lecture, I would read through key texts with the students so they could apply their perspective on the general problem given in the lecture to the reading and work out the finer points themselves.
  • Clear Narrative. All of this necessitated a slow pace overall – six lectures, five to introduce Žižek’s theory in stages, one to apply this understanding to the reading of Žižek’s particular political claims about political events. As such, I constructed a narrative to encourage the students to think of the lectures as a whole rather than a modular sequence. That narrative was provided by the jumping off point: was Chomsky right to criticise Žižek as a charlatan. Is positivism self-sufficient? Each lecture would return to this problem, recap previous sessions and introduce a new aspect of the post-positivist theory to fit in with the general context.
  • Very comprehensive reading lists. A certain school of thought would say that it is the students job to look in the library. However, I made sure the VLE was populated with a great deal of relevant text books if only as a psychological comfort so the students. The majority of the course was so abstract by necessity so for the most part they’d be in unfamiliar territory. A reassuring list of guidebooks a links to podcasts would help prevent them feeling lost at sea and, also, point them in the direction of help.

Overall the students were happy with the course, particularly with the VLE. The feedback I received was predominantly about the order of exposition rather than content or difficulty, so I was quite happy. The exams, of course, remain to be sat and I’m interested to see what they did with the topic.

Getting “Meta” with Socrates

Kierkegaard says somewhere that you can’t learn swimming without swimming. Similarly, I found this week, that the Socratic method can’t be understood without having it done to you. For a while, now, I’ve enjoyed teaching Socrates by emphasising how irritating he was to the Athenian poloi. I do not think it controversial to claim that the real reason he was executed was not that he corrupted youth but that he was bloody annoying. He embarrassed important people who had claim to knowledge and showed them up by revealing their ignorance to all. This has always been a good way of introducing them to Socrates that avoids worn-out, dust-covered platitudes about how the only thing we know is that we know nothing and treating the man as a martyr dying for a cause. It is not that I think the latter is untrue, but that it is so well recognise that it borders on the banal. Socrates the irritant provokes more thought than Socrates the Saint. Why is it that people are so angered when they are proven ignorant? What is it about our prejudices that makes us defend them so ardently? This, perhaps, negative aspect of the Socratic method is more important for new philosophy students to reflect on than its positive epistemological claims. The positive content of Socrates’ philosophy, that we don’t really know anything, sounds far to much like contemporary subjectivism for them to take seriously; they agree with Socrates’ statement immediately and superficially.

However, just talking about this, whilst coaxing assent, did not really make much of a difference to the students’ attitudes towards the idea. And so, this week, the second week on the Apology for our first years, I tried something different in the seminar: I did the Socratic method to them in the most pedantic and irritating mode of which I was capable. I set myself the following rules to do so:

  • I was not allowed to say anything that wasn’t a question
  • Every answer a student would say had to be criticised, even if it was an interpretation I had been arguing for in previous weeks and that I genuinely wanted them to understand and agree to
  • Where a consensus was reached, I was required to break it by finding a problematic implication, however spurious

The first question I asked, by the way, was “Who was Socrates? Why should I care about him?”

This worked really well. I wasn’t very confident going in with this plan, I was worried I would not be able to pull it off (I am getting quite good at teaching, but I’m no Socrates), and I thought the whole thing rather contrived. I expected them to see through it immediately. However, the following things surprised me.

  • They got annoyed at my ignorance, in spite of the fact I was taking positions I’d argued the opposite of only last week
  • They got annoyed long before they realised what I was doing (This delighted me)
  • Where students gave the “right” answer, being forced to defend it in more detail by the method (“Why would you waste your time doing that? Why not just tell people what you think? Asking questions all the time is just annoying and lazy, isn’t it?!”) seemed to
    • Make them realise that they hadn’t really understood, but were just repeating by rote.
    • Made them more passionate about defending Socrates than they might have been

In short, Socrates really knew what he was doing.