Category Archives: Academia / college life

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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How to be a good college student, from the professor’s point of view…

So, you’re kind of new to college — either as a first-timer or a returning student.  That’s awesome (I really mean that 🙂 ) — good for you.  I know how much courage and determination it takes to decide to add college to your otherwise full life.  I remember both being a first-time college student at the U of MN — and a returning (married) student at UNO (University of Nebraska, Omaha).  Every year I see folks come in all fresh-faced and excited to learn… let me tell you a few things that will help you out.

  1. Keep track of things — you’ll have small and big assignments, stuff to read, stuff to do etc.. keeping it all in one place, the same place where you write down your dental appointments, kids’ soccer games, etc — will keep it in your mind.  
  2. Have ONE bag for school — physically keep your notebooks, books, pens etc.. in one bag (if you can..).  When you go out the door on a day you have school, that bag should be with you — it sounds simple, but often students don’t quite get this one.
  3. Talk to other students in your classes.  Exchange contact information, plan to get together for a coffee/homework / exam review or whatever.  These folks are also smart, funny, and generally trying to balance all the things you are — they can help you out, and you can help them.  
  4. Stop by your professor’s office hours — we’re there to help you.  Also, don’t be surprised when we’re there (not in office hours) and say we don’t have time to help.  We have lots of things going on outside of class time –and often that work is on a deadline too.. 
  5. Budget enough time to do your homework — and do it in a quiet place, with internet access.  Sometimes you’ll get stuff done early, sometimes it will take you longer — learning is a fluid process.
  6. Sometimes life isn’t fair — you’ve probably learned by now that life can be less than fair — bad stuff happens to good people, and the rest of your life interferes with homework time.  That’s the way things go sometimes.  Do your best to play by the rules outlined in the class schedule / course syllabus and keep in touch with your professors if things are really, super crazy…Otherwise, don’t be too worried about turning in less than amazing work, it happens to folks sometimes… 
  7. Make sure you know how the class is graded, so you can put your effort where it should be… and, so that you can make sure your final grade is accurate.  I had a good friend once who was displeased with their grade in a course.  My first question was ‘what does it say in the syllabus about x, y,z’?  Turns out the professor had addressed x, y, and x in the syllabus — said specific things about how that was to be handled, and DIDN’T follow their own syllabus.  My friend sent a polite e-mail to that effect, and the grade got changed. 
  8. When you’re e-mailing, be sure to include your full name and the course you’re taking  Almost all of us teach 3-5 courses per semester.  In philosophy those courses have between 30 and 50 students.  I’ve had semesters in which I had 250 students — across 5 classes — not having to go in and find your name among all the class lists makes a decent e-mail response all the more likely.  

Generally, do your best — be smart, don’t suck — and college will be ok. 

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Writing and editing a philosophy paper… hints and tips


Disclaimer — I’m a philosophy Ph.D, not a writing professor — it’s quite possible that you’ve had better advice about how to write papers elsewhere — and that advice is probably right, if it works for you.  Below is what has worked for me over philosophy courses between about 1088 and 2002 — and then in writing my dissertation from 2002-2010… your mileage may vary — but, if you adapt these ideas and write a good paper, it works — if your paper sucks, then find other ways… there are plenty of places on the internet that will help you write, go find one that works…

the BIG questions answered up top..

Page numbers in an assignment are guidelines, and assume you are double-spacing a paper at 12 point Times New Roman font.  

You can choose ANY citation format.  Philosophy officially doesn’t care.  Most students use MLA or APA, but we don’t care which you use.

No, you can’t have an extension — IF your class has a one late paper policy, you can use it.

Before Writing

  • You start with the question — if you’re given one (like in most of your short paper prompt) great — then, ask what it means… what every part of the prompt means, this isn’t a multiple-choice thing, you need to answer the whole paper prompt.
  • Have an on-paper brainstorming session — sit down with a pen and a blank piece of paper.  Write key words for each of the paper prompt on the paper and write down all of your thoughts about each one.
  • Turn your paper brainstorming into an outline — it will probably follow the path of the paper prompt, but maybe not.
  • Do main sections for each part of the paper prompt — maybe putting each of those sections on a separate piece of paper… now, put the stuff you wrote down into an outline that starts at the beginning of how you’d like to write the paper and working down.  
  • Ask yourself what’s missing — where do you need quotes of philosophers, where do you need more analysis, where should you insert stuff you read from your classmates etc.  
  • Fill what’s missing into the outline… it may help to do the outline on note cards, so you can easily rearrange the points.
  • Gather all the stuff you’re missing — use post-it notes as bookmarks if you want to use philosophers in your text.  If you’ve found online sources outside of the class, then gather them in a set of bookmarks on your computer.  If you’re using quotes from classmates, copy them into one document and make sure keep track of where you found it.
  • When you’re gathering sources from elsewhere, make sure you have enough information to make a citation… I usually do this by keeping track of the author’s name, where I found it, and when their information was published.


  • Write the introductory paragraph, outlining your paper –something like, “I’m going to prove that Macs are superior to PCs by explaining that Macs are easier to use, are less vulnerable to computer viruses, and their hardware is more durable.” — notice that I gave a conclusion “Macs are superior to PCs”, and three reasons (premises) for why that is the case.  At this point, you have three main sections to develop — and then a concluding paragraph to write.  
    • It’s important to note that the introductory paragraph may change as you write the paper, but if you’re working from a good outline, it may not change much..
  • Write the body of the paper — a few things that have helped me:
    • Use a color to denote places you’ve used the words of others — it may be one color for direct quotes and another for paraphrasing.  Pretty much, when you’re looking at another thing and typing, you need to use a color.
    • Insert placeholders for your citations.  If you like parenthetical references, use  something like (Insert ________ info here) — keeping track of what you’re looking at as you type.  Put these notes in RED — so  you’ll see them later.  If you prefer footnotes or endnotes, insert them as you write — they’ll follow the text if you move it — and put the shorthand of the citation in the blank area… The reason for doing it this way is that your brain is in a creative mode, it’s jarring to put citations in right away… besides, you’re going to edit anyway.
  • Keep writing until you think you’re done.  Then, go back and keep writing… you’re going to cut.  Don’t just STOP when you get into the page range… stop when you’re done saying what you need to say.  
  • Write the concluding paragraph, explaining briefly what you did and how you did it.
  • NOW — save it a couple of places, and if you can — print it.
  • This last step is important — walk away.  Physically get up from the computer and walk away — go do something else.  Let  your brain unwind, and give yourself time to think of stuff that should be in the paper — or stuff you need to cut.  I call that part “percolation” — and it’s important.  I tended to put longer stuff in percolation for longer periods etc.. 

Editing the paper

  • Now that the paper is out of percolation, take one of the copies (and make sure you know where the other copies live, just in case disaster strikes at this point) and re-name it something like “Ethics ethical theory paper 1 Patty Courtney” — so, your class name first, the assignment second, your name last.  Putting the course name first will help you find ALL of your work for that course… trust me, you’ll want that system later when you’re looking for a writing sample, something to revise etc.
  • If you can, print out the paper — this really DOES help.. look at it away from the computer screen. 
  • Outline the paper — yep, sounds weird, but make marks in the margin as to which paragraphs go with which parts of your original outline.  Do you spend 6 paragraphs on a sub-point and only one on the main point?  Maybe that needs to change, or maybe you need to revise your opening paragraph to shift the focus of the paper… before you do that, is that shift going to satisfy the assignment?
  • Highlight, with a pen, the quotes — do you have lots of quotes right next to one another without your own analysis in between?  Are you asking your sources to do all of the explaining?  If I wanted that in a paper, I’d just go read your source…. I want to see what YOU think of  your source.  How does it interact with your argument (is it in support or opposition — if it’s opposition, why are they wrong and you right?).  
  • Circle all the places you put in placeholders for the citations.  
  • Find  your pile of references — bring it to the computer.  
  • Adjust the body of the paper so that it makes sense — cut paragraphs if needed, explain more where needed and generally adjust the writing so that it answers the question (remember, it’s all about the question, doncha know? ).
  • Now — look at the form of the paper — a few things to look for (among many):
    • spell-check underlines… and pay attention to what spell-check wants to insert, is it correct, use the dictionary to find out.
    • Missing punctuation — do your in-text quotes have TWO quotation marks?  Do your other uses of quotes fit the style you selected.
    • Informal language — no “lol” — if you’d text it to a buddy, that’s probably not ok language for a formal academic paper.  Also (and this is a biggie) when referring to a philosopher, use their LAST NAME (not their first name… you don’t know them, and there are lots of “Immanuel”s out there in the world, but I think there is only one Kant… use the last name, not the first name — and generally not the whole name.
    • Get the names right — and the names of their theories right… FYI, JS Mill is NOT “Mills”.  
    • It’s your (for things that belong to you) and you’re for (you are).  See other common mistakes all over the internet.
  • Now the body of the paper is how you want it, you’ve adjusted the proportions of the paper and generally you’re (notice that.. hmmm…) happy with the way the paper reads.  At this point, go back and put the citations in — carefully checking the text of the citations one more time.  Follow your style manual, doing your best if you can’t find a way to cite what you’re using — making sure to include basic information.
  • THIS IS IMPORTANT — make sure that EVERY time you use an idea from another person, in the body of your paper, you have something that indicates it’s a quote or paraphrase.  
  • IF you have incomplete citations in the body of the paper (Smith, 97) for example, you MUST make a “works cited” page that includes the full citation.  If you’ve used footnotes or endnotes, that’s not necessary.
  • Once you’ve done all of that — give it another read on your computer.  Fix small errors, adjust the phrasing and generally look carefully at every paragraph.
  • Now –put it in short percolation…
  • When you’re back — give it one more read –quickly this time… does it say what you want to say?  If so, go in and turn everything you’ve colored to black type, no highlighting etc.
  • Save it.
  • Save it someplace else.
  • Close it.
  • Submit it to the dropbox… 

There you go — a million little steps to a decent philosophy paper… 

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Online teaching vs. Face-to-face teaching….

of scars, me..


This is my 14th year teaching — and, for sure I’ve seen lots of changes.  

I started teaching in Nebraska, part-time, for three difference colleges — each with their own unique characteristics (4-year public, 4-year private, and community college.).  Each college had a unique student body and I got plenty of experience teaching all kinds of students.  The thing is, all of those colleges only had face-to-face courses — and my general teaching strategy was pretty much the same.  Go in and talk to a group of people about something I found fascinating — give quizzes/exams, assign papers — and you’re done.  

With a face-to-face course, the preparation had two parts — 1) design a syllabus, 2) prepare for each individual class.  The syllabus design usually took me no more than an afternoon, even with new textbooks.  The class preparation was usually less than an hour in the time before class, less later on when most of the content was in my head already.  

The teaching part took whatever amount of time it took to hold the class in the classroom, plus office hours and an occasional e-mail problem to solve.  Students asked questions in class, I answered them and everyone else heard the answers.  Students would learn from me and one another and it all kind of worked out.  When class was over, so was my teaching — until next time.  Of course, there was periodical grading, which meant taking a stack of papers home to read and hoping the cat didn’t eat anything important. 

Teaching online had a totally different rhythm — For starters, the pre-course preparation just began with the syllabus.  After figuring out what the course was going to look like, I had a whole bunch of work to do in D2L (our current course management system).  D2L doesn’t always work like you’d think it does.  They have odd defaults for things, they update the program (often not fixing previous problems, but adding new “features” just when I got used to the old “features), some things can be copied between courses but others can’t etc.  

Teaching online is like teaching in short intervals — because the students are accessing the course material at different times of day, different days of the week and generally taking advantage of the online course format to fit learning into their busy lives.  That’s one of the wonderful things about online teaching — the learning never really stops — that also means that the teaching never really ends.  

In face-to-face courses the teaching routine was clear — not entirely under my control, but pretty close — you go in, teach, be done… An online teaching ‘routine’ is quite different and it needs to be two things — 1) it needs to provide answers to students in a reasonable time-frame, and 2) it needs to fit into MY otherwise pretty busy life.  Establishing that routine can (and continues to be) a challenge. 

Perhaps the bigger challenge is that students’ questions don’t come all at the same time — and most of them are about the mechanics of the course, not the course content.  So I find myself instructing students to scroll down and find a set of discussions.  I help them trouble-shoot browser complications, I help them figure out where to post something etc… none of this is based on anything but my own experiences with the CMS — and it’s not my specialty, or anything close.

I also have to design a course knowing that I won’t be around to answer content questions in person. That means I need to look for a different kind of textbook. I need to write quizzes that are more like reading guides than tests of knowledge about the content.  I write discussion questions and debate topics with the hope of getting students to engage with the material.  I write paper topics that I hope will get them to apply higher-level thinking to the material — and I write this blog.  All of those things are designed to help the student help themselves to information I had taught to me in-person.  Weird, huh… 

One of the challenges is blending my in-person responsibilities and my online responsibilities.  I still usually teach at least one in-person course, if not a couple.  I sit on a committee that meets every Wednesday afternoon and deals with issues central to the function of the college — I’m also the department chair this year, so there are other duties and meetings for that… plus, you know — I have a life.  I’m a newly wed, a new step-parent, a daughter, a friend and a person who needs to get some things done.  I also want to have a creative and intellectual life outside of my job — so I take photos (processing and printing them myself in the darkroom… cool, huh?), I read books, watch stuff on TV and sit on the porch with my husband discussing everything from our shared experiences from middle school to the crisis in the Mid-east.  

The question becomes, how do I fit the online teaching into all of that?  The answer isn’t easy… I try to set up a schedule that gives me some blocks of time to do grading, to fix the mistakes I made when I set up the course, to think about new ways to teach the course, and to develop the materials for the next time around.  For the most part, those times are Mondays and Fridays — and it’s a challenge to keep those times free from meetings and other stuff.  

Then there are the ‘few minutes’ here and there over the rest of the week.  That’s where the time really gets away from me.  I’ll regularly (like, maybe several times per day) check e-mail, trying to answer the questions /resolve problems as I go — I also check into the course’s “ask the class / ask the professor” discussion area.  That’s where other issues tend to pop up.  

It’s quite common for me to check my e-mail and course message boards from my ipad, after I’ve started the coffee brewing but before I’m really ready to get out of my warm comfy bed — so I’ll start the coffee and snuggle in for some e-mail and student problems from the night before.  

I try to save complicated things for after I’ve had some coffee — and after I’ve put on my glasses and fired up the computer.  This is why it takes me a while to get out the door in the morning — those ‘few minutes’ are often more like 30 or 45 minutes, depending on the time of the semester.  Sometimes with my morning coffee I’ll even write a blog post about something in my news feed, send an article or e-mail to my students etc.. 

When I get to campus, there’s another quick check for messages (and especially replies from students) and then I’m off for in-person duties.  After class, a third round of checking — and usually at least one more round of checking when I get home.  

One thing I’m getting better at is not checking in the evenings.  I’ve found that even though my students’ most often do coursework in the evenings, I need that time to relax, unwind, read  — mess around on facebook or play a mindless game on my ipad.  I need that for my own sanity, and I’ve noticed that if I’m going to make a mistake, or send an e-mail with too much snark in it, it happens in the evenings — so, better to step away from the keyboard at some point.  

To that end, I try to be clear with students that they won’t necessarily receive an instant response to an e-mail, even when they have stuff due on Sunday night.  I spent MANY years doing college (think, freshman year was the Fall semester of 1987, my Ph.D. defense was June 2010) — A LONG TIME.  I did take about 3 years off between 1990 and 1993, but otherwise, I was a college student from 1987 to 2010 — and ALL of that time I was a working college student — my work changed from managing at McDonalds to teaching my own classes part-time, to teaching my own classes and other full-time duties.  I know exactly what it’s like to try to fit college in and around the rest of a life… and, after all that time, I think I’m ready to have more or less ‘normal’ evening and weekend activity — most of the time.

Weekends, for the most part, I try to limit my work to the ‘quick check’ variety — but sometimes a working weekend is inevitable — like last weekend.  There were a bunch of small and large things on my to-do list, and I managed to get them done… This weekend, I suspect, will be different.

In the end, I think that online teaching is MUCH more time-consuming, invasive into the other parts of my life, and perhaps less initially rewarding — but, I like the flexibility it gives me.  I like seeing students progress in their abilities to write about material I really love, and I like that online classes require participation by everyone, so instead of a classroom conversation in which a few smarty-pants dominate a set amount of time — folks who are a bit more shy can say what they think and others will listen… 

Now — off for a weekend — well, maybe one more check of messages and THEN weekend!  


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How did the course end up this way — or, what’s the bigger picture?

10 rules for teachers and students…

I just read this, and it’s very true — so, I love it — go read it… now…

Ok… now, you’re back and of course you’re wondering how all of this class stuff goes together… 

First of all, Logic is different — in terms of how / where I teach it, what we’re supposed to accomplish and all of that.  So — while the general principles apply to logic too, I’m going to talk about courses that aren’t logic for a bit here… 

  • I constructed the course with the idea that it takes at least 3 exposures to an idea for it to catch in your head.
  • I think that you’ll learn writing skills by writing — hmmm… no shock there.
  • I think that collaborating is a good idea, as is competition.  It’s also a good idea to see how other students think about things, to evaluate their arguments, and to respond to their positions.  Generally, I think an open discussion board is a terrible place to do this (because everyone posts at the last possible minute).  
  • I think that Philosophy is hard.
  • I think that online classes make you (the student) work harder to get the ideas, because you don’t have me to explain it in the traditional lecture setting — and, that you don’t NEED me to do this.  I do explain, in a more Socratic way.. and, as such I think that you’ll need to explore your own ways of gaining information to be successful in the course.  This is a good life skill.  
  • Finally, I think that when you write a formal paper, that you should have already demonstrated some knowledge about the topic and that you’ll have written about it informally before you write about it formally.

So — how does all of this wash out in the class —  you need to think about the activities in the class in this way, 

First you read — then you take a quiz / post  your reading notes… (reading notes lets you see how other folks interpreted the material) — then you write a short read and respond assignment that gets MY feedback (so you can see if you’re on the right track) — you also participate in a general discussion or a debate.  Especially in the debate, you do the collaboration part, the evaluation part, the respond part etc…  Finally, you write some papers and turn them in… 

And, along the way, I hope you learn some philosophy, some critical thinking skills, some writing skills and some research skills… so — go!


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It’s sexual harassment… dumb-ass…

So — this article ticks me off, a lot.

First, the tone-deaf attitude that it’s easy to bring sexual harassment charges when you’re a grad student and the harasser is a prominent member of your department — umm.. NOPE!

Second, the implication that she only thought it was sexual harassment when her boyfriend decided to stand up for her — putting himself at risk too..

The thing about grad school is that it’s a huge gamble — you dive in hoping for a job.  Those jobs depend on good recommendations from prominent people in your field.  One of those people decides that they take a shine to you and you have no good way to resist.

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October 9, 2013 · 9:56 am


Read this — I swear I’m not Dr. Amelia..

This post gives lots of good advice… read it —

Go do it.. I’ll wait…

Really only one thing is different — I didn’t e-mail you the syllabus.  That’s because I often change it right up until the last-minute, so I don’t want versions of the class schedule out there — BUT — the class schedule is available on D2L, so make sure you know when the important dates are.

A few things I’d have added..

The dates on the class schedule refer to due dates — those are days when I expect you to have the work completed.  If you’re in a class that meets in-person (I do have a few of those every year 🙂 ) — the material there is going to be the subject of our in-class discussions.  When I figure out what to talk about on that day, I look at the class schedule, so you should too.

If you miss a class, get the notes from a classmate.  I don’t usually lecture from notes, they’re in my head — I’ve been doing this for a long time — I was in grad school for even longer — it’s what I know.  If you ask me for my lecture notes,  you’ll be disappointed because I’ll hand  you a cryptic post-it note with a couple of sentences on it — at most.

I have a lot of students — and 5 classes to juggle… so, if you ask me a question that’s covered by the class schedule, course document, or syllabus I’ll tell you to look there and ask me if you need clarification.  I may say something that contradicts those documents — and if I do, the resolution will be found there.  I’m a big believer in following my own syllabus/class document/class schedule — so, there you have it.

Likewise, because I have a lot of students I don’t need you to call or e-mail me if you’re going to miss class.  If you happen to get me in my office, I’ll tell you to talk to me when you get back to class — and if I happen to answer your e-mail about that, I’ll tell  you the same thing.  We can deal with those kinds of issues when your problem is resolved.

Overall, my goal is to teach you some philosophy — and to do so with a sense of humor, compassion, respect, and a general drive to push my students intellectually.  my courses are designed with this goal in mind.  Sometimes that will make it seem as if I’m being a hard-ass, but it’s really for your own good.  I also believe that failure is a teaching tool — the last one I prefer to use, but if I have to fail you I will..

So, let’s have a great semester and — go back and read Dr. Amelia’s post — it’s a good one.

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August 13, 2013 · 12:34 pm