Phil 101: Summary of your Midterm Feedback

Thanks to all of you who gave us feedback with the evaluation form. There were 68 submissions. (As well as a 69th that only answered the first two questions, positively, but then had no further feedback. I expect someone started the form and then got interrupted; perhaps they finished later with one of the other submissions.)

We have 195 students enrolled, so that’s a 35% response rate. Of course we would have welcomed more feedback, but this isn’t so bad.

  1. For how the course is going overall, more than half (35/68) said something along the lines of “well/pretty good” or stronger. Another quarter (18) said something like “OK/alright/decent.” Eight said something slightly negative here:

    I’ve annotated each of these comments with how many hours/week the person reported spending on the course outside of lecture and sections. You shouldn’t expect that 2-3 hours/week outside of class is going to be enough to keep up with a normal 3-credit course. More on this below.

    The remaining seven submissions were more negative, ranging from “Eh” and “mediocre” and “not great” to “I am barely getting by” and “confusingly”. The three most negative submissions said the lectures are unhelpful and uninteresting, and called the course “useless” and “stupid.”

    The overall distribution of these responses is generally encouraging. Of course I am disappointed to hear about the people who are struggling or otherwise having a less positive experience. I’m paying special attention to these submissions to see how we can improve the course. I’m always ready to acknowledge ways I might do things better. At the same time, if we’re realistic, there are limits to what we can accomplish. We only have a few hours of class time each week, and most of these students aren’t putting the time into the course that they should be.

    For the three most negative responses, I’m not sure there are adjustments I could realistically make to the course to make it more engaging and rewarding for them. I wonder whether there are things we can do better at the start of term to more quickly convey to them what the course will be like, when they still have the opportunity to choose other courses.

  2. According to the university, for a normal 3-credit course, you should expect 9-11 hours/week average of work, including work in and outside of class. If we subtract the 3 hours/week of class contact, and 15-30 hours (total) for writing papers and studying for the final, that leaves about 5-6 hours/week that you should expect to spend reading, taking notes on the readings, reviewing lecture notes, and so on. I think these estimates are realistic. If you’re putting less time than this into this (or any other) course, it’s reasonable to expect you’re going to have difficulties and incomplete understanding.

    I also emphasized in the syllabus at the start of term:

    There will be reading assignments for most class meetings. These readings are often pretty short, but they all require close study. You should read them carefully before we discuss them in class, and you’ll need to read them more than once. For most of the readings, you won’t understand the material sufficiently with just a single reading. A good strategy would be to read the assignment once before we discuss it, and then go back and read it again after we’ve discussed it. If you don’t plan to do this, you should not take this course.

    The actual times you reported here were largely disappointing (though I’m glad for your honesty). Excluding the time spent writing your papers, only 5 of the 68 submissions reported spending 5+ additional hours/week outside of class. I listed above the times reported by the submissions with mildly negative overall reactions. The submissions with more strongly negative reactions mostly gave answers of 0 or 1 hour/week. (Two of them had more reasonable times.) The rest of you reported:

    Relatedly, only 10 of the 68 submissions reported being caught up with at least 80% of the assigned reading. Another 25 were caught up with at least 60%. The rest were caught up with 50% or less. 🙁

    On the plus side, at least many of you acknowledged in your feedback that you could improve how much time you spent doing and taking notes on the readings. Some example comments here:

    Your responses about whether you understood what we’re expecting of you for the class were mixed. Some said yes, they understood this. Some said so-so; some said not really. We’d welcome feedback about how we could communicate this better.

    Some of you commented here about the grading criteria being unclear, despite the plentiful information we posted to the course website about this. If you have suggestions about other general information it’d be helpful for us to communicate, we’d be glad to receive them.

    I suspect that often when these comments were given, what the person was really looking for was more specific feedback on their individual paper. There are limits to how much feedback your TAs can write up when trying to grade 50ish papers consistently and get them back to you within a week and a half; also too much feedback can be counter-productive. So they aim to communicate the most important things you could address in the rewrite. If you think it’d help to get more details, or you don’t understand what they’re asking for, as we said on the course website:

    For your rewrites, be sure you understand your TA’s feedback and what the most important things will be for you to address in your rewrites. If anything is unclear, find a way to explore it with them further and understand better what would help. You are also welcome to come talk to me during my own office hours (Mondays starting at 3, and Wednesdays starting at 1, in both cases generally lasting more than an hour). If you can’t come in person, you can also Zoom in (office hours link on the zoom links page for this course)…

  3. Lectures

  4. There are four categories of readings I post to the course website:

    1. assigned readings from various dialogue-format philosophy texts (including the four small booklets we’ve been reading, as well as Hofstadter’s “The Turing Test: a Coffeehouse Conversation”)
    2. assigned articles and chapters from philosophy textbooks or anthologies
    3. assigned sci-fi readings: so far there have been four of these (one from Dennett, two from Doctorow, and one from Egan)
    4. various optional readings, including articles from Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, other sci-fi readings, news articles, and so on

    I have no expectation that you’ll all read the things in (d); these are just posted for those who are interested in following up a topic further (now or later), or those who want to explore connections between the more abstract discussion we’re having in class, and more down-to-earth discussions that will show up in your newsfeed.

    Generally people were quite positive about the (a) readings.

    There was less enthusiasm about the (b) readings. A number of you found these “long,” “complicated,” “confusing,” and to be “walls of text.” One said “sometimes I get the feeling that a concept could be explained without a long reading.” People said they often they couldn’t follow everything that was going on in the readings, and they generally seemed to call for more work to master than many of you were ready to put into them.

    Here are my thoughts about this. Most of the readings in group (b) are aimed at an undergraduate audience with little to no background in philosophy. I’m not assigning texts written for other specialist philosophers. Yes, these take work to master; and even with an appropriate amount of work, you may not manage to follow every detail. But learning how to do this, and get educational value from such readings, is one of the central skills this course is trying to help you develop. It would be possible for me to design the course differently, where I just summarized the central concepts and arguments in a few bullet points, and skipped over difficulties and complexities that the texts (and sometimes my lectures) dig into. But then it wouldn’t be the kind of introductory training in how to do philosophy that the course now aims for. It’d be a history of ideas course, that happened to be surveying the ideas of some philosophers. There may be intellectual value in such a course, but it’d be a very different course concept.

    The total amount of assigned reading (so not counting (d)) seems to me modest for a university course, even taking into account its difficulty and the fact that most of the (a) and (b) texts need to be read multiple times. One downside though is that the reading isn’t at a constant rate. Sometimes we have stretches where there isn’t much new reading, and other times there’s a cluster of it. In the past, students have asked me to post links to the readings in advance, so that they could read ahead to distribute the workload more evenly. Which I did. But from course feedback, I got the impression that almost nobody was really doing this. So I’m not sure what would be a realistic improvement here.

    There weren’t any comments about the (c) readings. But I hope that these (and the movie we’ll be discussing in the next week or two) will help enhance your understanding of the issues.

    One of the form questions asked whether the way the lectures now engaged with the readings — sometimes talking about details, but primarily aiming to give background and context for them — was working for you, or whether you felt it’d be more helpful to go through the readings step by step. Responses to this question were mixed. About half were happy with the current balance, but the other half thought it’d help to go through the readings more closely in class. One effective strategy may be for me to sometimes do one, and other times do the other. For example, with the Perry First Night I gave many quotes and references in the lecture summary to help you track how what was happening in the text corresponded to my summary of the argument. I also encouraged you to go back and consult these references when you re-read the First Night. There isn’t enough time during our lecture sessions to go into the same level of detail. But in the rest of the semester, I may sometimes emphasize the details of the readings more, in response to this feedback. Note that this won’t be helpful for you if you haven’t done the reading before we discuss it.

  5. Comments on sections and so on I’ve forwarded to your individual TA’s. These were largely very positive: people generally reported that the sections helped them understand material more than the lectures did. (This doesn’t surprise me and I don’t take it, in itself, to be a criticism of the lectures. For most of us, I think learning will always be most effective when you’re discussing things the second or third time, and trying to engage with it through active discussion.) But you also had some suggestions for improving your sections. I won’t try to summarize these here. We’ll try to make good use of your feedback.

  6. Some of the form questions were about what were the most important things you learned so far, and what’s still unclear?

    Answers to both of these questions ranged broadly across the subjects we read about/discussed in class, as well as general philosophical skills. I guess that’s a good sign: both the value and the difficulty have been widely distributed. There wasn’t just one issue where everyone was having trouble.

    Some things that got mentioned a few times as being unclear were: compatibilism, souls, and Leibniz’s Law. The first two of these I agree just are hard to get a comfortable understanding of. But next time I’ll try to spend more time on them. The third shouldn’t be hard to understand; I think there we just need to give you more time and practice with it. (What is hard to understand are the cases where Leibniz’s Law sometimes doesn’t work.)

    Some of my favorite feedback about important things you learned:

    Let me comment on the last quote. I don’t want to encourage the view that the questions we’re asking (do we have free will? do we have souls? could machines ever think? can you survive having the information read out of your brain and inserted into a new body? and so on) don’t have correct answers. Sometimes it may turn out that the language we use to frame the questions isn’t clear enough, and so the questions as initially posed can’t really be answered. But other times there may be correct answers. The mere fact that there is lots of controversy and complexities about what the answers are doesn’t by itself show that there aren’t correct answers. It certainly is true, though, that our course won’t be evaluating you by which answer you think is best, and whether it agrees with the answers we favor. That’s not the kind of thing this course is trying to teach.