Why teach at a community college?

I started teaching at community colleges in 2001 — just a little while before 9/11.  I’d just finished my MA in Philosophy from UNL, so I met the minimum requirements for the job.

In 2010 I finished my PhD at UNL, and soon after came the questions… more or less they all came down to ‘now that you’re Dr. Patty, when will you start teaching at a “real” / “grown up” college?’

The answer is the same now as it was 6 years ago — I DO teach at a “real” college.  I teach real college classes, to real college students.  Further, for many of my students, I’m their only philosophy course, and probably one of two or maybe three humanities courses in their degree.

That means I get to introduce my students to the wonder that is philosophy… I say that without any sarcasm🙂.  Really, it’s an amazing honor to be able to discuss the ideas that are, arguably, the basis for western civilization and modern thinking with students for their first time.

One of my favorite things is when an ethics student writes something like, ‘I used to think X, but now I think not-X after reading for this unit’.  It tells me I’m actually teaching them something, or exposing them to ideas they might not have seen on their own.

In Logic, those are the lightbulb moments, the moment where the student really SEES the logic, how the problem works, how they have the tools to solve the problem, and how they aren’t “dumb” or “bad at math-like things”.

My students have challenges of all kinds.  Some of those challenges are directly related to their academic preparation for college, but mostly those challenges only indirectly impact their work.  I’ve had students with immigration challenges, deaths of immediate family members, language challenges, big financial hurdles, and just about every other kind of challenge related to privilege you could imagine.

My students are also all kinds of brilliant — at their best, they combine life experience with theory and come up with new ways to think about old material.  Usually, they aren’t exactly on that level, but they make amazing progress from ‘WTF is Philosophy, anyway’ to applying theory to real problems.

It’s no cliche to say that they often teach me more about life than I teach them.  I’ve seen amazing determination, problem solving skills, and motivation from my students.  I’ve also seen my students go on to do amazing things in life, and I’m fortunate that they want to keep in touch with me after leaving campus.

I also work with some really wonderful colleagues, and my current administration is pretty good, in that they leave us alone to teach — and, really, you can’t ask for more than that.

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The Voyeur’s Motel..

Read this first — The Voyeur’s Motel

The important bits of the Voyeur’s Motel article are that the people being spied on didn’t know they were being observed, and the observation gave the owner pleasure..

Under utilitarian standards, the actions of the motel owner were morally preferable… the owner got pleasure, and nobody experienced pain as a result.

BUT — of course,  you’re screaming about now — all those people had their privacy violated.  He watched, observed, and criticized their sex lives… that’s wrong.

Yes — yes, it is… but, it’s also permissible under utilitarianism — because, until he gets caught, there is nothing wrong with it.

On the other hand, it’s clear that it’s wrong under deontology…

The Categorical Imperative says, in essence, only do things you would will to be universal law… which means, only do things you could do if everyone knew what you were doing.  This becomes more clear when you realize that a way to violate the CI would be the “logical” way to fail… — in that, IF your action were universal, would you be able to do it?

Clearly, if even one of the couples he spied on knew, he wouldn’t be able to do what he was going to do…

At the root of it, really — is the means/ends formulation — which becomes really clear here… The motel owner was using people as a means for his pleasure, without considering their ends.   To do so, he needed to deceive his customers, which is the basis of why deontology prohibits lying.

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Deontology on potty laws…

First of all — read this for the background...

So — now for a deontological approach…

The core of deontology, or Kantian ethics — is that good act are based on a good motive.

The problem is, the motive of the potty laws is a combination or religious bigotry against LGBTQ people, and a desire to reinforce the gender binary imposed by society.

So — a word about the binary… generally, it’s the set of expectations on what it means to be a “man” or a “woman” — and, it doesn’t really account for the fact that a person’s s birth sex doesn’t align with what they feel inside.

If we look at the motives for the potty laws, we can see that they’re self-serving and bigoted…

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Utilitarianism…the greatest overall good..

So, let’s start with a definition:  the morally good thing is the thing that increases the net good, all persons considered.  That’s utilitarianism, in my own words🙂.

Now, a real life example — the North Carolina bathroom bill — or, ‘potty law’.  That law more or less requires public bathrooms to be restricted to persons of the “biological sex on the birth certificate”.

What the law was responding to was local laws in Charlotte, NC — that included protections for trans rights.  What would mean, in terms of bathrooms and other gender-segregated facilities like locker rooms, is that trans women would be permitted to use the women’s room, and trans men would be permitted to use the men’s room.

This — of course, set the pervert-hunters aflame– because, of course, it meant that teenaged boys could “claim” to be trans for a chance to go into the girls’ locker room… or that an adult man could put on a dress and hide in wait for women/ girls in the women’s room, in order to assault them.  There was also a general sentiment that somehow trans persons would be more likely to attack in the bathroom.

The claim of the potty law supporters is that the “vast majority” of people are “on their side”.  Let’s just assume that’s true for the sake of argument, then look at the evidence and do some moral reasoning.

Of the 14 or so states that include full protection for trans rights.. none of them have reported even ONE incident of a trans person attacking anybody in a bathroom.  On the other hand, about 70% of trans people (.3% of the US population) has reported specifically either being attacked or intimidated in a bathroom.  Of the 40% or so of trans students who have dropped out of high school, most of them reported fearing for their physical safety or other bathroom worries.

Now — for the utilitarian calculation… Assuming the assertion that the majority supports this bill, the bill prevents no proven harms, but causes a lot of pain for trans persons.  So, keeping the bill has a net decrease in pleasure, so it’s immoral to keep.

Notice, this isn’t “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” — which would end up favoring even some small perception of “good” (like perception of safety) for the “vast majority” of people supporting the law.

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Ethical Theory…

First, a definition — ethical theory is kind of like a formula for ethical behavior or to make ethical decisions… when you APPLY it to a problem.

There are more or less four kinds of ethical theory — theories that look at consequences, theories that look at motivations,  holistic theories that ask ‘what are the elements of being a good person’, and contractual theories.

Consequences: — (or consequentialism) — look at the outcomes of the theory, is the result of the action going to make something “better”.  Better can mean either improving a situation by increasing “good” — OR, decreasing “bad”.  The most commonly discussed consequentialist theory is utilitarianism.  It defines “good” as more or less pleasurable.. so, an action is good if it overall increases pleasure or decreases pain.

To make a decision based on utilitarianism, you simply need to look at all the possible pain and pleasure coming from the action, then do the thing that provides the greatest net increase in good/ decrease in pain.  Note, this MAY be different from the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’… because, an action may be very good for a small number of people…

What this theory does well is to help a person choose between existing options to do the thing that will do the largest possible net good… so, it tells you which particular action is the best.

Motives — (deontology, Kant.. for the most part) — asks, is the person’s motive or reason for action good.  Kant’s reasoning works like this — The only absolutely reliably good thing is a good will — or good motive.  He then developed the Categorical Imperative as a test to see if a person’s motive for action (or will.. ) is a good one.

To make a decision based on motives, Kant’s Categorical Imperative requires that, if others knew your motives, they would agree to the action — and, it asks if you would want to live in a world in which others acted as you want to act?  This is generally speaking the “universal” formulation of the Categorical Imperative.

Kant continues to give other examples of his Categorical Imperative — one of the really important ones is the means/ ends formulation — which directs you to always treat others as an ends, and never as ONLY a means.  Translated, you should not use people to get what you want — you should not withhold information that would make them disagree with the “plan” (i.e. lie to them) — because, what you’re doing is ignoring the fact that they’re an autonomous person (one who has the ability to make decisions about their own life).

You can see how this is a version of the universal formulation — if the action you wanted to take were “universal” — including knowledge of your motives, would that be acceptable?

What Kant’s theory does well is to eliminate possible actions  — the problem is that it does not suggest one course of action as the “best”possible thing to do.  To narrow down the one course of action among all the permissible ones (the ones that pass the Categorical Imperative), you may use any criteria you’d like.

Holistic theories — The general idea here is to ask what a “good” person does?  So — for example, a virtue theory would ask what a good person would do in a particular circumstance?  The answer, is that they would be virtuous, and a list of virtuous characteristics would follow.  Feminist ethics of care are similar, in that they ask what a good person would do, and the answer centers around making good choices for their family and those in their immediate circle of care.

Contractual — These are theories that are more or less ‘good is what we agree is good’ — kinds of theories.  One major kind of contractual theory is the Social Contract theory — in which, whatever the society deems to be ‘good’ IS good.  Nothing is good objectively, in that there is nothing about the action itself that can determine what is or isn’t ‘right’.

Another version of the contractual theory are the multitude of professional codes of conduct.  So, for example, legal ethics centers on what it means to be a “good” lawyer.  That may include NOT breaking a client’s confidentiality if they tell you they’re guilty etc.

Both holistic and contractual theories are often said to be ‘incomplete’, in that they depend on another theory about what is or isn’t right to come to a final decision about the permissibility of an action.  On the other hand, they tend to capture how we, as human beings actually DO decide what’s right.

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Privilege, what it is and what it isn’t..

The word “privilege” gets a lot of use these days… most of it helpful, but sometimes not… Personally, I find the term “check your privilege” to be unhelpful and antagonistic, in that it doesn’t really mean anything and the effect is to shut down someone instead of actually helping them to see how their privilege is relevant to the situation at hand.

So — the question is, what IS ‘privilege’?

The quick answer is that having privilege means  your life is easier in some ways than it is for folks without that kind of privilege.  It does NOT mean that you directly get extra stuff because of your privilege, but rather earning the things you DO have is easier for you than it is for someone else — because of the way both of you were born / raised ( generally..).

So, I’ll take myself as an example…  I have white privilege and ‘cishet’ privilege.  FYI– “cishet” is short-hand for cisgender, heterosexual — so, I was born female and my gender is also female (i.e. I’m not transgender)… and I’m heterosexual, so my main romantic interest is in men.

Being cishet makes things easier for me in a variety of ways… it’s never been my experience that, because of the way I’m born, I would question as to whether or not I would be able to marry the person I love (and, of course, the person who loves me…)… that’s the “het” privilege part.  Much of that changed when same-sex marriage became legal in the US — but, it still remains that I’m not likely to be fired or denied housing because I’m a woman and my spouse is a man.

I’ve also never had the experience of society presuming I’m a woman when I feel, inside, that I’m not a woman.  For the most part, people read me as female and treat me as such.  I’ve never had to “come out” as female, I’ve never had to decide if I want to alter my body to match my gender (sex is more or less biological, gender is what you feel inside).

I will say that, because of my gender expression (the way I choose to present myself) — I have had to ‘come out’ as heterosexual… but, that coming out wasn’t something I worried about.  I didn’t have to have a challenging conversation with my friends and family, I’ve never faced social isolation because the person I love isn’t what my friends expected etc.

As a white person, I see other white people in the media, classroom, government etc.. on a regular basis.  It isn’t some kind of unusual achievement for a white person to, for example, be President of the United States.  I’ve never had someone say “you’re pretty, for a white girl” — and think it’s a compliment.  When I — or another white person — does something horrifically bad, I don’t have to worry that strangers will assume I’m about to do something similar because of my race.

My privilege gives me a lot of wiggle room to make mistakes and recover.  I know that, statistically speaking, a white person with a partial college degree and a relatively minor criminal record will still earn more than a black person with a degree and no record.  I know that young white girls in school are much less likely to be suspended from class for breaking a rule than a young black girl would be for breaking the same rule.  I know that my white step-son is much safer hanging around in public — goofing around with his white pals than a similarly behaving black boy with his pals.

There are a variety of ways I don’t have privilege as well.  For one, I’m a woman — I live in a culture that has shown me that women are in danger of sexual assault and other kinds of violence.  I belong to an academic discipline in which it is significantly less likely that a woman will earn a PhD and get a full-time academic job.

I’m also fat — so I’ve certainly experienced people giving me the ‘look’, young kids telling their moms that I’m pregnant, and don’t even get me started on buying clothes.  On a regular basis, the media tells me that my body isn’t socially acceptable BUT — if I’ll only participate in ___________ new weight loss fad, I’ll meet their expectations.

‘Intersectionality’ is an important concept that goes with the concept of privilege.  The idea of intersectionality is a means of indicting that privilege isn’t an all or nothing concept.  So — people can have privilege in more than one way, but lack it in another.  So — a black man has male privilege, but lacks white privilege.  A black woman lacks both gender privilege and white privilege, or a poor white woman lacks economic and gender privilege, but has racial privilege.

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Reading theory….

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No matter which course you’re taking, you’ll have to read articles about “theory” — in ethics, it’s ethical theory — in Intro to Philosophy it also includes theories about mind-body, free will, God etc..

The thing about these articles that is similar is that the philosopher has an idea, and they’re trying to put that idea down on paper — sometimes it works well, other times it’s a bit more difficult to understand what they’re thinking or trying to say..

So — some hints and tips..

  • Read all parts of the assignment, the introductions and conclusions — the foonotes etc.. because you’ll often find clues there.
  • Google the word, idea, or concept that seems central for another point of view on it…
  • Skim the assignment first trying to get the general idea.  Figure out how the parts of the article and argument go together.
  • Go back and read carefully — taking notes as you go… write down each major move in your own words, and why the philosopher thinks that’s a good move.  As you’re going, write down objections and questions you have — since those will be useful later.
  • When you’re done reading and taking notes, look at your notes — do they make sense?  If you had to use them to teach someone else what you just read, could you do it?  If not, go back and check to make sure your notes reflect what you read…
  • Then, think about ways that theory connects to the world around you — put it in context for you… (this is a good way to start a mid-term and final paper assignment… ).

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