TILTing Gen Ed

I’ve been thinking and talking lots about TILTing Gen Ed. This idea might call for some elaboration. Our default is to think of TILTing assignments. We do this when we are explicit and transparent about the learning objectives of an assignment, the processes through which these are advanced and the criteria we will apply in evaluating student progress. However, it’s not assignments I’ve had in mind with talk of TILTing Gen Ed. I suppose we should TILT Gen Ed assignments, but I’ve been thinking about how to apply TILT principles to our program of General Education itself. That is, let’s clearly communicate to students what we want them to get out of BC education, how they can achieve these learning goals, and how we will assess their progress.

Applying TILT principles at the level of assignments is typically the job of individual instructors. Applying TILT principles to our program of Gen Ed is not about imposing shared TILTed Gen Ed assignments, teaching methods or grading practices on faculty. This would be at odds with academic freedom as we understand it here.

That said, applying TILT principles to Gen Ed at the level of a campus wide program does call for new kinds of collaboration. The first step may be the biggest. There is no path to clearly communicating to students what we’d like them to get out of a BC education without first developing a shared conception of our Gen Ed outcomes. Developing a campus wide infused program of General Education that is meaningful to students, where their path to attainment is clear and our methods of assessment are transparent will require that we collaborate in coming to a shared conception of our Gen Ed outcomes, engage in collaborative curriculum development, and participate in formulating, norming and applying our standards of assessment.

It would not be realistic, or even all that helpful, to have all faculty on campus fully participating in a TILTed program of General Education. The model we are proposing is opt in and it affords varying levels of participation. Still, it is important that all faculty be well informed about how we are TILTing Gen Ed.

In developing a shared conception of our Gen Ed outcomes, many will be tempted to start by defining these. I think this is a mistake. Nobody learns much about elephants by studying dictionary definitions of the word “elephant”. To come to a decent understanding of what an elephant is, you’d want to study elephants. Only once we’ve done this will be in a good position explain what an elephant is. And we want a good understanding of what an elephant is before we set out to define the word “elephant”.

Gen Ed terms like “critical thinking” or “cultural diversity” refer to programs of study that involve a range of knowledge, skills and abilities. Before we are in a position to define and explain our Gen Ed outcomes in ways that will be meaningful to students, we need to acquaint ourselves with the full scope of these KSAs and only then deliberate amongst ourselves about which we deem essential, optional or problematic for our program of General Education. It’s not likely or necessary that we reach unanimity concerning how a Gen Ed is best understood. There will have to be compromises along the way. But we should start with a wide-ranging understanding of the options and the value they represent for our students. This, I hope, will describe the sort of agenda our Gen Ed working groups pursue this Fall.

Critical Thinking for Educational Equity

Early in my career, when I still got to teach logic and critical thinking on a regular basis, I was shocked to discover how many students entering college didn’t really understand how the truth-functional conditional (“if.. then..” claim) worked. I was equally shocked to discover how many of my students were attempting to get through intermediate algebra requirements by following textbook recipes for solving problems. The logic of algebra was largely lost on these students. I could see clearly how this could be an insurmountable barrier to getting a college education. And yet we maintain degree requirements in math without supporting significant instruction in the underlying logical reasoning skills. The lack of focused instruction on basic reasoning skills makes things like algebra an often insurmountable obstacle to obtaining a college degree.

We should think of critical thinking and logical reasoning as basic skills. We do provide extensive dedicated instruction in other basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic. But focused dedicated instruction in critical thinking and logical reasoning gets lost in the shuffle. It’s our less advantaged students that pay the price. Educationally advantaged students often pick up the critical thinking and logical skills along the way. Such “infused” teaching of critical thinking and logical skills works OK for students who have talented attentive teachers who recognize these barriers and have the bandwidth to address them as they come up, or for students who have peers that are figuring out logical and critical thinking tools along the way, or who have well educated parents who can help them figure out how the truth functional use of “if. . then. . ” works in the course of doing their high school geometry homework. These educationally advantaged students, of course, are disproportionately white and affluent.

This was in fact my experience growing up as a white kid in Mesa, Arizona. I was the child to two parents with advanced degrees. Having a single income home (my dad was a high school reading teacher), we were of modest means. But my mother was very well qualified to help me figure out geometry, algebra, biology and chemistry. She helped other kids in the neighborhood with these things as well. I was able to pick up decent critical thinking and logical skills along the way. But only because I enjoyed the educational advantage of a scientifically trained mother, and an educated father who was keen on keeping up with technology. Along with this I had grew up with friends and teachers who expected me to figure these things out and go on to succeed in college.

Things weren’t like this for my Latin American classmates who lived just a few blocks away. Their parents taught them how to fix an old car, or how to make tamales (a skill I now wish I had). When they got to the community college I attended after high school, they more likely arrived (if they enrolled at all) without a good understanding of how the truth-functional “if . .then . . ” worked. Not because they lacked aptitude I had, but because their dad didn’t bring home a Commodore Pet for them to learn how to program BASIC on, and because their mom wasn’t equipped to keep an eye on how algebra homework was going and provide the critical explanation in a timely fashion.

How can we as educators attentive to issues of equity help to correct for these prior educational disadvantages? Let me propose providing dedicated, robust instruction in critical thinking as a way to address the intellectual barriers our less advantaged students often face at their source. Reasoning skills are basic skills and picking them up in the context of studying other things does not work well for students who don’t enjoy all the extra support I had, be it in the classroom, at home, or among their peers.

When I arrived at Bellevue College 20 some years ago we had healthy offerings in Critical Thinking and Logic. We filled multiple sections of both our reasoning courses every quarter and served thousands of students with dedicated instruction in basic reasoning skills. Shortly after I became chair of the Philosophy Department, the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges decided that reasoning just meant math. Our course offerings in basic reasoning skills were all but wiped out and they have not recovered since. They won’t recover without the support of wiser degree requirements. Since then I have challenged educators and administrators at every opportunity to explain why we dedicate so much instructional time and attention to basic skills like math, which is really just reasoning with numbers and variables, but basically no dedicated instruction to more general reasoning skills. I have never heard a good explanation.

It is the more general reasoning skills we teach in courses like Critical Thinking and Logic that equip marginalized and otherwise educationally disadvantaged students to succeed in the STEM courses we prioritize. By pushing STEM to the exclusion of focused attention on the basic reasoning skills required for success in STEM, we cement and sustain educational inequities that tend to fall disproportionately along the lines of race and other historical facets of marginalization. Treating Critical Thinking and Logical reasoning skills like other basic skills could go a long ways towards addressing these inequities. Doing so will require more than lip service. We don’t rely on teaching other basic skills across the curriculum, to be picked up along the way if things go well. Imagine if math were taught only across the curriculum, not in required math classes. We all recognize that dedicated instruction in required courses for basic skills like math and writing. Why not for the basic general reasoning skills featured the standard Critical Thinking curriculum? Our failure to require dedicated robust instruction in Critical Thinking is one of the many ways we perpetuate entrenched educational inequities.

I have no idea

I have no ideas. I grasp a good many ideas. I’m acquainted with even more. Some ideas I understand pretty well. But none of them belong to me. Not even any I might have been lucky enough to entertain before anyone else. Even people who have discovered an idea or two didn’t create them. Sometimes the same idea first occurs to multiple people. Which could claim ownership? Both? All?

That no person can have an idea should be clear given that any idea you can think of has probably been thought of by others. My own study of philosophy includes many frustrating experiences of thinking I’ve found an original idea only to find that others are way ahead of me. Over time this experience has grown to be more amusing than frustrating. Others being acquainted with an idea presents no obstacle to many more discovering the same idea independently. The mere fact that different people can understand the same idea is sufficient to show that the idea itself can’t just belong to one or the other of them.

Ideas are their own thing. Ideas are entities just like sofas or skateboards. Except that they are abstract, their existence doesn’t depend on occupying space or time. And for just this reason, their existence doesn’t depend on someone creating them. As such, ideas constitute a commonwealth shared by all beings with the sorts of minds capable of grasping ideas.

Of course, we can grant up front that ideas are experienced differently by different people. This much is to be expected given that different people are different experiencers. We greet an idea with our whole mind, shaped as it is by our own experiences, habits of thought, predispositions. I grapple with the same ideas as everyone else when I learn to solve an equation for a value. For some the experience is pleasant, for others not so much. For at least a few, the experience will remind them or Earl Grey tea. There is so much variety among people and their experiences. Yet the ideas remain constant. The varying associations we may have with an idea are just facts about us in all of our differences, not indicators of variations in the idea itself. The idea is its own thing.

The fundamental ontological status of ideas is a long-standing matter of contention among philosophers. But regardless of basic metaphysical truths, when we think of ideas as being their own thing, a kind of entity, a whole new realm of inquiry opens up. Now we can examine an idea, analyze it, consider its implications, formulate arguments for or against claims about the idea. All we need to do is acknowledge that there is something to look into. Serious treatments of the ultimate nature of ideas all grant us this much.

Policing your student’s prose:

I’m not a cop. I hate having to deal with this issue. But we are seeing AI generated writing turned in by students and this thwarts our efforts as educators trying to help our students learn. So, we’d better have some tools. One of our Philosophy Adjuncts, Davis Smith, has compiled a few tell-tale signs and found a few online tools (links below) for detecting AI generated writing. Here are the contents of his email this morning:

Like me, you read a lot of student writing. This gives you a good nose for telling when something is off in the writing. In the cases of Philosophy writing which I have seen from AI, I have noticed:

  1.  We humans have a thousand things bouncing around our skulls at any given moment. Try as we might to prevent it, this will impact our writing. There will be sudden changes in word choice and tone, obviously inserted notes after the fact, and sudden spurts of creativity. This gives our writing a degree of bounciness, it sort of jumps up and down. AI writing isn’t like that. AI writing is WAY too smooth, going from A to B with no detours and never takes the scenic route.
  2.  There will be meaningless platitudes and very neutral language. For example, in all of of the essays I assign my students, I have a fourth of the points being whether they take a stand and give reasons for their stance. I call this the PEE method (Present Explain and Evaluate). AI writing is really bad at the evaluation part so it will take on an air of neutrality and not try to rock the boat. Humans aren’t like that. We have opinions and reasons for them and I want the students to pull them out.
  3. For my classes, I use certain terms and phrases differently than how they would find them on the internet, such as ‘Cultural Relativism’, ‘Objectivism’, and ‘Libertarianism’. If a student is paying attention to the content, then they will understand that, for example ‘Cultural Relativism’ (talking about the term) does not describe a complete stance, they need to say what is relative to the beliefs of the culture. AI would automatically assume that Cultural Relativism refers to Moral Cultural Relativism. For Objectivism, an AI might just assume that the paper is on Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism (because she called it that). And for ‘Libertarianism’, I can almost guarantee that the AI will write about the socio-economic stance rather than the metaphysical stance about free will. Fundamentally missing the mark like this on terms which are particular to a field is a sign that it’s AI.

That said, Here are the three AI detectors I use, in order (if the first one flags, I move to the second, and if the second flags, I move to the third). Though, I will admit that a recent update to GPTZero makes it 99% accurate for detecting human writing, so maybe I will not need one of the others.

  1. https://gptzero.me/ This is GPTZero, which was the first chat-bot detector made for academia. I would really like this one included in Canvas to do an auto screening of submitted work.
  2. https://copyleaks.com/ai-content-detector This one is my default second check. It even gives a percent likelihood that it was AI.
  3. https://writer.com/ai-content-detector/ This one I am looking to replace because the character-limit is far too small for my students’ papers, especially the AI generated ones. 

Defining words

We use words to express ideas. In principle, we could use any word to mean anything we like. Meaning is usage. If all the English speakers agreed to use the word “cat” to refer to goldfish, goldfish would be what the word “cat” means. While the meaning of a word is totally up to us as a linguistic community, the only way we can ever hope to communicate with each other effectively is by coming to some consensus on how a word is going to be used. Definitions typically belong to linguistic communities, not individuals. Nobody is going to stop me from defining words however I like. But people just won’t understand what I’m saying if I get too creative about what meanings I’m attaching to the words I use. What matters is that we use words in ways that provide clarity of communication, at least to the degree that it’s required for the purpose at hand.

In everyday discourse we have a fair amount of wiggle room regarding what words mean. Many words are ambiguous, that is, they have multiple meanings and can be used to express one or idea or another (to know a person isn’t really the same thing as to know that 2+2=4). Sometimes we can reliably convey something using words in ways that deviate from any of their meanings (“I just knew he’d say that!” when I didn’t really know, but maybe just had a hunch). And words are often vague in meaning (“I’m not exactly bald, not just yet”). There are various cues, some linguistic, some otherwise social, that can usually make our meaning clear enough, if not entirely clear. But we rely on the standards of our linguistic community to fix meanings in ways that are good enough to share our thoughts.

Ordinary language only gets us so far. Often thinking clearly requires that we identify a specific idea and hold it still in order to see clearly how it relates to other ideas. To do this we introduce technical definitions for words. That is, we define a word in a specific way, with the understanding that we are going to use the word in that specific way and not in other ways in a certain context. The context may be an entire branch of study. “Adaptation,” for instance, has a specific meaning in evolutionary biology. Or the context may be a single paper. It’s quite common for a philosopher to define a word in a specific way for the purpose of formulating a particular argument. The technical definition provides a way to focus on a specific idea, often carefully distinguishing it from closely related ideas, when ordinary everyday language isn’t rich enough or stable enough to do the job.

A key step in building a rich conceptual framework involves getting comfortable with technical definitions. Having a richer conceptual framework illuminates how ideas relate to each other and affords a richer understanding of thing in general. Understanding things more clearly requires tracking technical definitions and then keeping the specific idea they pick out in mind in subsequent uses of the word.

Usually, when I start to introduce students to how words are used in philosophy, they quickly get distracted with what the word means to them. This is quite literally a distraction. As soon as I start thinking about what a word means to me, I’m changing the topic from whatever idea we set out to analyze in favor of something else that’s going on in my head. This will invite confusion.

Staying on topic can be challenging in philosophy, especially since many of the ideas we are trying to analyze and better understand are among the assorted and sometimes closely related meanings of familiar words. For instance, you are familiar and competent with the word “know,” but you’ve probably never had occasion to reflect on how knowing your best friend doesn’t really get at the same idea as knowing that 2+2=4. This makes it all the more important to watch for definitional remarks and stay focused on the specific idea we want to examine. All the other ideas you might be interested in are out there and they may well be worth examining in their own right. But one project at a time. Otherwise, we wander aimlessly and lose track of what we originally set out to examine.

Free Will

Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism | VPRO Documentary – YouTube

We should think some about free will here. Lots of people suppose that they are exercising free will if they get to make a choice, without worrying about the potential for choices to be engineered, at least statistically at the level of populations, perhaps by being nudged at the level of individuals. 

The traditional view about free will takes free will to be absolutely uncaused, such that any time you make one choice, you could have as easily made another. Philosophers have largely abandoned this view of free will, but it remains widespread. Empirically we know full well that people choices and behaviors can be manipulated to varying degrees. Indeed, knowledge of how to predict and manipulate human behavior is the foundation of the attention economy.

Most philosophers that work on free will are now more interested in analyses of free will that don’t conflict with causal influences. One example would be to think of free will in terms of the mind operating freely in response to information it recieves. A freely operating mind might be sensitive to reasons that bear on some issue, or a mind might be stuck in some way that prevents it from responding to things in effective or illuminating ways. I once heard this described as the weathervane theory of free will. A freely operating weathervane will swivel to point north when that’s the direction the wind is coming from. Likewise, a freely operating mind will be responsive to good reasons for thinking or doing something. A mind that is stuck might double down on the belief that Q, even when we have compelling evidence and reason to think that Q is false. I’ll let you think of other examples.

Now, we can offer a further diagnosis of the problem with surveillance capitalism. Undermining the free and unfettered operation of the mind in deciding what to think and do is a foundational operating principle for the information environment we’ve built. 

Some of my Students went through this. Some are still going through this.

Opinion | Iraq Veterans, 20 Years Later: George W. Bush ‘Owes Me a Beer, at the Least’ – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Twenty years ago, I had students at BC who were signing up to fight in Iraq. A few of them came back years later. Prematurely aged gets it about right.

Reimagining General Education at Bellevue College

General Education refers to the program of study aimed at instilling the knowledge, skills and abilities that will benefit students as persons, regardless of their career skills. Much of what we teach as General Education will also benefit students substantially in their professional endeavors. Employers value things like critical thinking and communication skills. But General Education is where we get to focus on helping our students become life-long learners, contribute to their communities and lead flourishing lives. Our program of General Education embodies what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. As a community of educators, we have a good deal of latitude in deciding just what an education at Bellevue College means and how we will deliver on that promise.

What would a functional program of General Education look like? Of course, we do not have an administrative unit, like a department of General Education. This is not what the infusion model for General Education calls for. On the infusion model, our Gen Ed outcomes are taught across campus in a variety of programs. The infusion model is intended as an alternative means to accomplishing what we might instead do with a core curriculum taught in required courses. Adopting an infusion model for General Education still presupposes that there is a curriculum that we are teaching across our various offerings in various programs. In order to harness the diverse perspectives and strengths of our assorted disciplines, the program of study we designate as General Education might be understood in the broadest of terms. There remains much to be understood about just what an education at Bellevue College should mean and we lack a tradition of collaboration around articulating what that is or how we can most effectively teach it across our programs and disciplines.

We do have 18 Gen Ed outcomes, categorized into three major areas as summarized below:

Communication Connections Creative and Critical Thinking 
Reading  Writing  Listening  Visual  Computer Literacy Self-Assessment/Life Goals  Group Processes  Ethics  Global Citizenship  Historical and Intellectual Perspectives  Cultural Diversity  Natural Systems (Science and the Natural World)  Technology and Society   Critical Thinking/Problem Solving  Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning  Research /Information Literacy  Scientific Inquiry (Nature of Science)  Aesthetic Awareness 
BC’s current Gen ed Outcomes

At the insistence of accreditation, we have developed sophisticated tools for assessing these Gen Ed outcomes including a broad assortment of rubrics, Canvas imbedded reporting mechanisms and sophisticated data analytics. But the data yielded is not informative, in good part because we lack a shared understanding of just what we are trying to measure.

We can better understand the gaps in our practice if we think about what a functional program of General Education would involve. For starters, those responsible for teaching our Gen Eds would have some documented expertise in the Gen Ed areas they teach, either through academic study or professional development. This would assure a shared understanding of a Gen Ed area among the faculty who teach it. Next, we might hope for some consultation and collaboration among the faculty responsible for instruction in a Gen Ed area. Faculty who teach Cultural Diversity, for instance, would regularly consult and collaborate with each other, sharing and developing curriculum and pedagogical strategies. A Gen Ed outcome that is taught across several disciplines might then be taught in a way that is mutually informed, complementary, and reinforcing. Then, faculty sharing a Gen Ed area would work together on formulating methods of measuring student learning where standards are reasonably normed and instructors can have some shared notion of how we are all measuring the same thing.

At this point we’ve identified three functional elements that constitute a model for a program of General Education:

  1. Faculty preparation for teaching in a Gen Ed area.
  2. Collaboration among faculty in sharing curriculum and teaching strategies.
  3. Coordinating and norming assessment of student learning.

Not all of our General Education outcomes are fully infused at Bellevue College. Some, like Writing and Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning are taught in a fairly unified way in specific disciplines thanks to the degree requirements imposed by the Direct Transfer Agreement which require that all students graduating with an associate degree take two quarters of college level Composition and one quarter of college level math or logic. Reading and Writing is covered by the English department and Quantitative/Symbolic Reasoning is largely covered by Math (fewer than 100 students a year meet this requirement by taking logic in the philosophy department). In the case of these Gen Ed outcomes, instructor preparation in the outcome area is assured by the respective departments. Collaboration among faculty in developing curriculum, sharing teaching strategies and norming the assessment of student learning is supported at the department level as well.

Instruction in our non-infused Gen Ed outcomes can provide us with a functional model for developing a program of General Education for our infused outcomes. As things stand, the third element of this model exists in our practice of Gen Ed outcomes assessment. We are largely missing the first two.

As we think about how to develop a functioning model of General Education at Bellevue College, we may want to revisit the expansive list of 18 General Education outcomes. There are developed curricula for some of these, notably Scientific Inquiry, Research/Information Literacy, Cultural Diversity and Critical Thinking. It’s not clear the same can be said for things like Self-Assessment/Life Goals or Group Processes. Some of our Gen Ed outcomes are open ended in ways that don’t appear to support anything like a shared curriculum. Others, while definable and valuable, are not things we are ever likely to assure are taught generally to all of our students. A more deliberate and discerning revision of what an education at Bellevue College should mean may be called for. Perhaps our Gen Ed outcomes should be limited, developed and articulated in such a way that any faculty member could hope to explain in some detail just what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. In the absence of this, I’m not sure we really know what we are doing beyond job training. So long as we don’t really know what we are doing in the realm of General Education, odds are we won’t be doing it well.