How do I fail the class?

'National Lampoon's Vacation' Movie Stills

More than a few students ask how to get an A on an assignment… and I’ve answered that elsewhere… but, I also see more than a few students fail every semester — so, here’s the basic way to do that (i.e. DO NOT DO THESE THINGS, duh ūüôā ).

  • Get behind on the work — procrastinate doing the reading until the Sunday the Summarize the Readings post is due, then find out it’s more difficult than you thought. ¬†Then, put off posting until 11:58 and have internet problems etc…
  • Don’t have a firm grasp on the pattern of work in the class — this will let you always be surprised by what’s due… and miss assignments ¬†your classmates knew were coming. ¬†Look at the Class Schedule and see that there are assignments due every week, and keep track of what’s due when.
  • Post the wrong stuff in a discussion / write on the wrong paper prompt etc — this is a variation of not having a firm grasp on what you’re supposed to be doing. ¬†Keep track of the KIND of assignment required, and where you should post it. ¬†These details are important.
  • Don’t follow the directions — that’s a variation of the last one… but it applies particularly to papers when you have a paper prompt (read and respond question, or mid-term and final papers) — don’t answer the whole thing, don’t write something that answers the question — or don’t really take time to understand the question and you’ll be well on your way to a bad grade.
  • Plagiarize, cheat, copy the ideas of another person — this is the fastest and most effective way to fail. ¬†If I see you directly copying something from the internet, you’ll fail. ¬†Period — if you use the ideas of someone else without somehow giving them credit, your grade will suck…

I should warn you, the most common place this second kind of cheating happens is when students plagiarize ME. ¬†It usually happens in Ethics when they are writing about the ethics of warfare, and they’re answering a question about the readings I wrote… and they present the ideas as if they came up with them — when, I know I did… and I know I’m the first person to write that stuff because part of my research was aimed at reading other peoples’ answers… don’t do it.

Generally, if you avoid this stuff — you’ll get a decent grade…

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How to get started on those assignments… Fall 15..

you go girl

To start, the first week is a bit wonky, there are a couple of extra things to do — because 1) I want you to get to know the course, and 2) we have a college-required assessment project and your responses are necessary… I’m only going to cover the normal weekly assignments here.

Read This” — that’s your reading assignment. ¬†Plan to do it over time — philosophy is hard, and you have to think about it… don’t think about it like you would reading a regular book, it’s not like that. ¬†As you read, take notes — write in the margin, and generally engage with what you’re reading. ¬†If it all becomes a blur to you after a bit, stop and do something else — I’ve found housework, taking a walk etc… to be very helpful.

Summarize the Readings” — this is where you write a short summary of each reading. ¬†For many weeks, that means a bunch of short summaries — that’s ok. The idea is for you to get the general idea of the reading and write it down — post them all together in one post — it’s due the first Sunday of the unit.

Read and Respond” — the questions are on the class schedule. ¬†Pick one of them, write a short paper about it (1-3 pages or so) and put it in the drop box —It’s also due the first Sunday of the unit, but you may revise until the second Sunday because….

Peer Feedback” — Post either your Summarize the Reading OR your Read and Respond paper into your Peer Feedback group for this unit. ¬†Do this by the first Sunday of the unit as well… then, spend the next week reading and critiquing the work of your group… they’ll do the same for you. Respond to a minimum of 2, and ideally 4 or more posts (or 100% of the other people posting).

When writing peer feedback for Summarize the Readings — pick a couple of summaries out of their larger post and focus on those… tell your peers what works and what could be better…It’s not too hard once you get the hang of it.

Questions and Answers” –During the second week (by Thursday for sure!) post a question you have about the material — it might be something that relates to the material, but is from current events — it might be an aspect of the material you don’t understand etc… but, ask a question, a good question — in about 100 words (or more..). ¬†Then answer a minimum of 2, and ideally 4 other students’ questions before the discussion area closes…

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How to Talk to your professor…


This is a brilliant site about how to “do” college…

It’s all pretty much common sense to us, the proffies — who have spent most or all of our adult lives in college in one way or the other.. but, you’ll probably find some helpful advice here…

Probably #1, It’s on the syllabus (Class Schedule ūüôā )…. I really do mean that.

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Dr. Patty Day — #5

of scars, me..

Today is the 5 year anniversary of my dissertation defense, in other words, it’s the day I became Dr. Patty.

I think my story might be helpful to some folks, so I’ll tell it… it’s the short version of the story of my academic life — how I ended up as Dr. Patty…

In middle school, I was that weird kid… you know, the one whose dad died, the one who may or may not have had her stuff together for class, the one who hardly ever spoke in class, the one who had been teased / bullied / rejected early and often by her really rich peers… my family was more or less middle-class, their families owned corporations. ¬†Imagine a school district stuffed full of 1%ers, and aspiring 1%ers, and you get the idea. ¬†That’s also where I went to high school.

My grades were never all that awesome, but — I’d bought into the message of the 80s that I had to go to college to be successful, so when I graduated in 1987, I went to the University of Minnesota. ¬†When I was there, I was more interested in working at McDonalds and dating the boy I dated in high school — so my grades weren’t great there either… Eventually, I moved to Denver to marry the first boy I dated in high school. ¬†After a few years in Denver, I moved to Omaha with him (thanks, Air Force!) — and went back to college.

My new school was the University of Nebraska, Omaha — or UNO. ¬†All of my credits transferred in one way or the other, and it ended up that I had a minor in Italian (no, I don’t speak Italian) and a minor in Humanities.. a few courses here or there, some math, science, and philosophy for the most part and I had a degree… and MUCH better grades.

It was at UNO that I really fell in love with philosophy. I loved the thinking about arguments part, I loved the fact that there was no objectively right or conclusive answer to the interesting questions, and I loved that the philosophers i met at UNO were welcoming and encouraging.. and class was fun! ¬†So, of course, I decided to go to grad school… I was about 30… I was married, and lived 60 miles away from the only philosophy grad program in the state.

I had no idea what I was getting into — no clue, at all… in retrospect, my UNO professors tried to gently clue me in, but really — I had no idea. ¬†If I had, I’d have probably gone to law school — except, the problem with law school is that you end up a lawyer… that didn’t sound like fun.

So — in about 1997 or 1998, I started grad school in Philosophy at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. ¬†I felt like I was starting completely from scratch — taking classes in a language I didn’t know, in a program whose norms weren’t those of undergrad, and in a room with mostly men who liked to argue a lot…

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say it was a culture shock and I couldn’t really see any way of getting good advising from the person assigned to generally advise grad students. ¬†During our one and only meeting, he asked me questions about whether or not my husband knew how much work grad school was, and whether or not my husband minded that I wouldn’t be home to cook dinner… I more or less knew that he didn’t respect me. ¬†It wasn’t a surprise that he didn’t return my e-mails or phone calls, and wasn’t in his office during his posted office hours — the message was pretty clear, I was in a man’s discipline — and, since I wasn’t a man, I wasn’t interesting.

So, without help from my grad advisor, ¬†I did my best. ¬†I wrote what I thought were smart papers, I took the courses listed in the graduate department handbook. ¬†I had to re-take a couple of courses (Philosophy of Language and Ancient Philosophy) –and I took logic. ¬†Eventually I earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy. ¬†I did it working nearly full-time, and taking two courses per semester.

When I applied to do the PhD part, I knew which courses I’d have to take in addition to my MA courses. ¬†What I didn’t know was that UNL had a “residency” requirement… that required me to take three courses per semester. ¬†That wasn’t in the handbook. ¬†That’s something my grad advisor should have told me, and he probably would have if he’d met with me more than once. ¬†By that time, the old grad advisor had retired and a new – non-sexist and generally awesome person took his place.

My new wonderful grad advisor asked me when my residency semesters were — I more or less told him that a) I hadn’t had any notice that there was such a requirement, because b) the old grad advisor ignored me for years, and c) the residency requirement wasn’t in the handbook…. which I had more or less memorized, and had handy at all times… After that, I told him that IF the university insisted that I re-take a bunch of coursework to meet that requirement, I would file a Title IX complaint — I didn’t want to do that if I didn’t have to, but I would. ¬†Wonderful grad advisor took two days to come back and tell me that it wasn’t a problem.

The thing is, I knew — by the time I applied for the PhD part, that I’d be moving with my husband to Minnesota in the next academic year. ¬†I also knew that I could complete the necessary coursework for my PhD in that year, but that living in Lincoln while my husband was in Minnesota for law or grad school wasn’t an option. ¬†We couldn’t afford that, and I wasn’t about to do a lot of extra coursework because my original grad advisor was utterly incompetent… it just wasn’t going to happen.

Then, at Thanksgiving time, my last year in Nebraska — my younger sister died suddenly. ¬†That was a huge shock — and it put me off of my coursework for a while.. but, I finished the papers within the alloted time, and eventually¬†¬†I finished my coursework and moved to Minnesota in August of 2002.

To finish my PhD, I would have to write three really good papers, and then the dissertation (which is more or less a book). ¬†It’s possible to do these things remotely, but it’s more difficult.. I had resources here, the U of MN library is fantastic, and it was becoming more possible to get academic papers electronically…

Once I got up here, I continued coaching debate, got more involved in debate travel, and started a full-time job teaching at Century… I was busy. ¬†I felt like I’d never finish. ¬†My husband did grad school for political science, and eventually took a job in Omaha — so we drove back and forth… but the dissertation was still on my mind.

Eventually, about 2005 or 2006, I think — I decided to stop coaching debate and focus on my dissertation — because, if I kept doing debate, I’d never finish. ¬†I was still working full-time at Century, and spending every spare moment, break, weekend, lots of evenings etc.. working on the papers before my dissertation. ¬†I was making progress, especially with the help of a fabulous feminist philosopher who joined the faculty after I left.. I also had a new dissertation advisor, one who had immense patience with me.

I decided that I needed a summer OFF (I’d been teaching summers all along, the extra money is nice..) — to actually spend the whole summer writing and not balancing writing, and teaching… just, writing. ¬†I figured that by the end of the summer of 2008 I’d have a full draft.

My current husband (not the grad school husband) has a saying, “we plan, God laughs”.

The summer of 2008, right at the beginning of the summer, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. ¬†Suddenly, dissertation summer became breast cancer summer. ¬†Tests, 2 surgeries and a couple of months of chemo had replaced my writing plans. ¬†Suddenly, I was too tired to do anything, I could only eat avocados, chicken nuggets, and corn dogs. ¬†I had several minor things that put me in the hospital, and there was NO dissertation work getting done.. none of it. ¬†Since I was stage 2, my prognosis was good — but, just doing the daily stuff of life was hard.

I was sure I’d never be Dr. Patty — never. ¬†My oncologist told me otherwise, that he was sure he’d call me Dr. Patty — that he had confidence in me, that I’d finish treatment and feel better — and that I’d get back on track.

So, in the fall of 2008, I finished chemo and resumed my commuter marriage with my (first) husband. ¬†I wrote, I taught, and I drove… Since husband was in Omaha, I was able to meet with my advisor while I was in the area. ¬†That helped a lot — As my hair grew back, as my funky fingernails were replaced with normal looking nails, and as I got stronger — I also wrote my dissertation. ¬†I sent drafts to my amazing dissertation supervisor. ¬†He sent lots of thoughtful comments back. ¬†I wrote about 400 or so pages, and cut all but about 150 of them…

Finally, in the spring semester of 2010 he wrote those magic words — “it’s time to schedule a defense”.

UNL has a set amount of time you’re permitted to work on a dissertation — and, while exceptions can be made, especially for stuff like breast cancer, we were pushing the end of that time frame. ¬†The choice was pretty much, have a defense or do the paperwork for an extension. ¬†I was happy with the way it was, he thought it was ready — so we had it… with a couple of months to spare.

If you want to read it, be my guest…¬†A Rossian Just War Theory

The defense itself was more like an intense philosophical discussion — and, at the end, they conference and decide if you “pass”… they decided I did, and called me Dr…. which felt good, after my sister’s death, cancer, lots of miles, tons of hard work and all that…

I guess the point is, if you think something is really worth doing — do it.


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How to write an objection,


Go read this story about Peter Singer..

This story has been going around for a while.. more or less, Peter Singer is applying utilitarian ideas to medical care for special needs kids. ¬†I have several friends who are parents of special needs kids, and they found his ideas offensive — and I can see why. ¬†Below is my response to a facebook post…

The reason I posted it here is because it’s a good example of how to respond to a set of ideas you disagree with…

Well, as an ethicist myself, I’ll elaborate a bit — BUT, please understand, that I don’t agree with Singer on this topic. I tend to agree with him on other things (animals have rights, we have an obligation to do everything we can do to prevent suffering due to a lack of resources).

Singer is a utilitarian, which means that the right action is the action which promotes the most good, or the most relief of pain and suffering. We can talk more about that if you’d like — I can explain it in all kinds of ways… but, the overall thing is to consider the pains and pleasures of all persons impacted and do the thing that maximizes pleasure over pain.

So, Singer’s basic argument about infanticide is that infants, especially those with special needs, consume a lot of resources and provide very little to society in terms of contributions to the greater good.

He may also see special needs kids with cognitive challenges as not being capable of being full persons — because of their less than average cognition. As a result, spending resources on them means that resources aren’t being spent where the net result will be more happiness…

I also think he’s wrong — for a variety of reasons. For the most part, I see that families of special needs kids learn a lot about compassion, humanity, and humility because they care for special needs kids… and, that’s presuming that the kids themselves make NO contributions to overall well-being.

I’ve also seen, mostly thanks to my friends who are moms of Ds kids that the kids themselves experience a lot of happiness, and their interaction with others makes those others happy as well.

Finally, I disagree with utilitarianism — because the theory can require one person to sacrifice for the good of others– in this case, the person doing the sacrificing is the special needs child. That child can’t even consent to the sacrifice etc… and that makes it wrong…. although, consent isn’t required by utilitarianism.

I can see why some families of profoundly disabled infants may decide to decline treatment, and let nature take it’s course — that’s a highly personal choice. I can also understand why a family might decide to abort a similarly disabled fetus, because the child’s life would be short and quite painful. Again, that’s a highly personal choice and I couldn’t interfere with that one way or the other — unless and until I knew the family AND they asked my opinion.. then I’d talk with them about their reasons and support whatever they decided.

Finally, y’all should also know that — when Singer was a young man he advocated similar positions concerning the elderly — more or less, it was ‘when they get old, let them die comfortably, but don’t put resources into a person who may only get a few more months’… that was all well and good, until his own mother needed lots of nursing care, more medical care etc — and then he changed his tune.

I think Singer should do a bit of volunteering with groups that work with families of special needs kids. I think he’d change his mind…

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Philosophy is not like science…


Every semester about this time (as in, getting the second set of grades back) — I get e-mails from worried students. ¬†The students who e-mail me are usually good students, concerned that they might get a B — and seeking advice as to how to do better… I love that! ¬†Ask those questions, try hard, do your best — work the material over in your mind and see what comes out. ¬†Many of these students are satisfied with the answers I give them — to take risks, write well, and think a lot. ¬†They often do get As…

A few of those students want to know, precisely, why they lost a point or two — they’ve done good work. ¬†They’re consistently meeting the standards, but they want to know why they lost a point here or there. ¬†I get that — and those students often aren’t happy with my answer. The basic answer is that philosophy isn’t like science..

I’m seeing this more and more as the K-12 educational system increases the use of standardized tests. ¬†On a standardized test, there is a right or wrong answer. ¬†That’s how they work — when you get the results back, you can look at your work and see the mistakes. ¬†You can look up the information and see if the test key was correct.

Generally, that’s how science works too, at least as an undergrad. ¬†If the question is, “at sea level, what’s the freezing point of fresh water?”, the answer is pretty much 32 degrees. ¬†If you say 50 degrees, it’s wrong and you lose a point on the exam. ¬†More advanced science courses deal a lot more with theory than factual observations — and that’s where philosophy and science ARE similar… (FYI, science is an off-shoot of philosophy, as is every other academic discipline in some way, that’s why a PhD in Philosophy is a Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy, because we’re the first discipline. ¬†The first scientists were philosophers first.. ).

The thing is, humanities courses (at least the good ones, the ones that teach ¬†you what a humanities course should) don’t work that way. ¬†They just don’t. ¬†It’s all about shades of gray. ¬†This is because excellent answers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

When I’m grading something, the process is more or less like this:

  • Did the student fulfill the requirements for an assignment? ¬†This part is actually objective. ¬†Did the student write the minimum number of words for a discussion post to “count”? ¬†Did the student answer the question I asked? ¬†Did the student get the basic facts right? ¬†Was what the student wrote a reasonable interpretation of the text? ¬†Did the student follow the norms of academic writing etc.

All of that will get you a “meets expectations”. ¬†In my classes, that’s usually a B. If a student’s grade is lower than a B, it’s easy to point to objective reasons why. ¬†Usually a C response came close to doing this stuff, but it missed in some basic and easily identifiable way. ¬†I can point to a paragraph that’s off, or something else that is incorrect. ¬†D and F responses miss the above in a significant way.

Once I’ve determined that the answer meets expectations, the next thing I ask is:

  • Did the student show that they not only understand the material, but expand the conversation about the material? That’s the work philosophers do, they expand the conversation. ¬†They make meaningful contributions that result in greater understanding of a topic. ¬†They give new ways of thinking to, or reacting to, a topic. ¬†They give us new things to think about, even new topics to consider. Those are the A papers..the ones in which students start to think like philosophers.

That’s where things get tricky for students who want philosophy to be like science.

Generally, those students are concerned when they get a grade indicating that they meet expectations.  They protest in some way that they need to know exactly why their assignment was a B instead of an A.  They want me to point to some thing that exists in their answer to justify the loss of a point or two.

The problem is, it isn’t what’s IN their answer that makes the difference between an A and a B, it’s what isn’t in the answer. ¬†There is no way I can point to something they wrote and say that, specific thing, is why your paper was a B instead of an A. That’s because I can’t point to what’s not there.

I can tell them that their answer is more or less what I expected from first-year philosophy students – therefore, it meets expectations. ¬†I can tell them that other students made contributions to the philosophical discussion, and that’s why the other student got an A. ¬†I can write a lot about philosophy and tell them that they need to do things LIKE that, but in their own way… but I cannot tell them that _____________ (thing in their paper) is the reason they lost a point.

That’s because philosophy isn’t like science. ¬†In philosophy, we start with an assignment, we tell students what to look at for inspiration, and we encourage them to fly with the ideas. ¬†Most don’t do that, most get Bs, and that seems pretty fair. ¬†As should be reserved for students who do the exceptionally difficult work of innovating about philosophy. Pushing the discussion forward is difficult, especially since that discussion has been going on for thousands of years… That sounds like an impossible task, but my students have done it every week of every semester, of every year. ¬†So, it’s not impossible, it’s just hard.

When I’m grading a philosophy assignment (and lord knows I do a lot of that!) I don’t start by thinking that this is an assignment worth 100 points, and then deduct for mistakes. ¬†Instead, I look to see whether the student did a reasonable job with the assignment, and then whether or not there is something extra. ¬†It’s the extra that earns an A.

The tricky part about the extra (or, as I sometimes call it “sparkle”), is that it’s unique to the student. This is because it’s a product of the student’s background, observations, thinking process, and creativity. ¬†Every A assignment is unique in some way, that’s what MAKES it an A — that uniqueness. ¬†I can’t tell a student how to be unique. ¬†I can’t tell a student how to process the information they read in a new and novel way. ¬†That’s not possible — if it was, then that new and novel way would become the expectation and I’d need to find something unique as a reason a student earned an A. ¬†That’s called a vicious circle folks, and you don’t want to go there.

The real problem, from my point of view, is that our educational system relies on standardized tests as a measure of success. ¬†That’s all fine and good if what you’re teaching has an objectively right or wrong answer… if the answer relies on the student’s ability to correctly apply a formula to data, if the answer requires a student to recall and connect information, or if the answer is more like my logic courses — where there are rules (with justification) about moves you can make. ¬†That’s not how humanities work.

The problem for students who have been successful at standardized tests then becomes the idea that everything in their education needs to be like those standardized tests…. but, it isn’t. ¬†And, it’s precisely because it isn’t like that, that humanities are valuable. ¬†A humanities course should help a student develop those independent thinking and critical writing skills employers want. ¬†A humanities course should give a student the opportunity to understand how persons unlike themselves think, what motivates them, what offends them, and why the problems of others matter. ¬†You can’t measure that with a standardized test. ¬†It’s just not that kind of thing.

Maybe an analogy would help — If I was presented with a ruler and then was asked to use only the ruler to determine the air temperature on a nice day — would I be successful? ¬†Nope, because I have the wrong instrument for the job. ¬†I could put the ruler on the ground and see that there is no snowfall, or in some water to see that the water isn’t frozen — but, I couldn’t tell you, based on the ruler, if it was 70 or 75 degrees…

That’s the thing, standardized tests — like the ruler — cannot measure what humanities courses really set out to teach students. ¬†Folks in the humanities use standardized tests all the time, to measure students’ basic knowledge of the course material, but — in my opinion (after teaching for 14 years or so, at this point), they cannot evaluate a student’s ability to think critically about complex issues. ¬†They can’t do that, because there is no one RIGHT answer.

This, folks, is why I think the extensive use of standardized testing in K-12 education is a travesty. ¬†It used to be that students started practicing this kind of work when they wrote papers and those papers were evaluated. ¬†The papers were looked at by a real human being. ¬†They were evaluated as to content, structure, and reasoning. ¬†Flaws in reasoning were pointed out, and discussions happened as to possible alternatives etc.. In this way, students learned to write better, think critically, and generally how to process the world outside of the binary trap of “right” and “wrong”. ¬†Students earned grades and graduated from high school based on their ability to do this kind of work, if only in a preliminary way. ¬†Now, what happens is that many students, if their K-12 education didn’t do this, are met with a nasty surprise when they hit a humanities course. ¬†I’m sorry about that, but I’m also not going to change how my course works to conform to the bar set by the standardized tests my students take… sorry, nope.

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If everyone else jumped off a bridge, should you?

Ethics right wrong depends

A very common objection in ethics papers is something like, “everyone else is / isn’t doing X”… which implies that the right thing to do is that thing everyone can / will go along with.

It’s an important question about “can” — if it’s impossible for someone to do what you think is the moral thing, then it seems pretty pointless to say they ought to do so — At this point, you probably aren’t surprised to hear that “ought implies can…” is controversial among philosophers…. because, the limits of “can / can’t” are pretty soft. ¬†So, to say someone “can’t” do something is often more like they don’t want to do so, they aren’t able to see how that thing is possible etc…

By way of contrast, I can’t fly without an airplane, I can’t breathe under water etc, I can’t write a check for a million dollars (well, I could, but it wouldn’t clear) etc… so, in that sense of “can/can’t” ought implies ‘can’ makes sense.

As for “everyone won’t do X” — that’s another story. ¬†Human history is full of folks who went against the grain, who saw what should be doing but wasn’t, who stood up and told it like it is etc… because, the thing is that what’s right often isn’t what is popular, what will become a law etc.

So, if you’re tempted to make an objection like this — think more about it… can the objection become something more like ‘it’s against human nature to require this?’ — if so, you need to explain what about human nature contradicts the theory.

This kind of objection comes up in terms of things like the ethics of warfare. ¬†As y’all may or may not know, that’s what I wrote my dissertation about — so, yea — I’ve thought about it. ¬†The thing is, the ethics of warfare are based on the ethics of the society doing the fighting — so, even if the other side acts in the wrong way, that action may or may not be in line with their own set of values — but, if it contradicts the values of the actors on the other side, then the other side ought not respond with similarly wrong acts.

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