My Gen Ed Journey

I find myself leading an effort to reform General Education at BC. How I got here is worth some mention. It is hardly out of a love for General Education assessment. I have long history of sporting a bad attitude when it comes Gen Ed assessment at BC. To the degree that I’ve participated actively it has been out a sense of duty to the college. I wound up serving on FACT (our Faculty Assessment Coordinating Team) when Magie Harada asked me to serve some six or seven years ago. I had just been awarded full professor status, with a nice pay bump. And I was coming off of a stint as chair of the Tenure Review Committee. Maggie caught me at a moment when I felt obliged.

Around that time, we were just implementing our system for assessing campus wide General Education outcomes (all 18 of them) at the direction of accreditation. The data analytic tools were impressive. My task was mainly to help faculty learn how to input student learning data based on the assortment of rubrics we had associated with our Gen Ed outcomes (all 18 of them). I didn’t really understand how all of this was supposed to be useful to us as educators or useful to our students. I tried to figure it out. I can be quite dogged at trying to figure things out. Several years later, at the end of Spring Quarter, 2023, I’d come to the conclusion that we were generating lots of useless data, mainly because we didn’t really understand just what we were trying to measure.

At this point, I was determined to get off FACT and spend the remainder of my career having as little to do as possible with Gen Ed and assessment. That fall, however, we had a new dean, and we were entering the last of a 3-year assessment cycle. Dumping Gen Ed assessment on a new dean and some hapless faculty colleague in the final and crucial year of a project that matters for accreditation seemed a rather nasty gift, and so I decided to stay on FACT for one more year. Carl Freeburg, who had chaired FACT for several years, had just retired. And so, that fall of ’23 FACT was without a leader. And nobody wanted the job. We were working under a couple of accreditation recommendations including one that asked us to use Gen Ed Assessment data to improve our delivery of Gen Ed instruction and inform our academic planning. I was convinced that there was no way this could happen since we faced a serious “junk in” problem with our assessment data. Like so many of my faculty colleagues, I was skeptical and cynical about assessment. And my cynicism was rational. My bad attitude was based on careful study and diagnosis of the assorted ways our program of General Education doesn’t work.

It’s one thing to see how Gen Ed Assessment at BC failed. But then what would a functioning Gen Ed program look like? And beyond keeping accreditation happy (which is important if we hope to keep serving our students at all), what would it look like for a program of General Education to serve students. What’s put me in the hot seat for General Education reform at BC as opposed to comfortably coasting towards retirement is that I began to see a path to benefiting our students through pursuing another approach to General Education. One where we clearly communicated to our students, their future employers, and the public at large, just what it means to get an education here. One where we got clear amongst ourselves what our General Education outcomes meant and had realistic plans for delivering on the Gen Ed promises we make.

So, I took the job nobody wanted because I thought I saw a path to better serving our students through a redesigned program of General Education. Is there such a path? Was I just delusional when I accepted the role of FACT chair (now Gen Ed reform lead)? These are reasonable questions. Any interested party can judge for themselves if they read the small collection of brief working documents the reform effort has generated over the past year. The dozens of colleagues that have collaborated on this effort have helped to articulate and clear that path. We do have a worthwhile opportunity to better serve our students through Gen Ed reform. And to better define our institutional educational mission and please accreditation along the way.

An opportunity, however, is just that. An opportunity is not yet a reality. And we face assorted obstacles to realizing the promise of this path. As I reach out beyond the circle of collaborators I’ve worked with this past year, the chief obstacle I see on this path is the very bad attitude I sported until little over a year ago. It remains widespread among my faculty colleagues. Understandably since our best efforts at Gen Ed Assessment over the course of several decades has felt like confusing, pointless, soul killing bureaucratic busywork.

But we are done with that. Gen Ed at BC will no longer just be futilely trying to measure what-have-you or what-not. We are clearing a path to a program of General Education that focuses on what we want our students to learn and figuring out how we can best support their learning. A new program of General Education that serves students well requires a new attitude.

Why Gen Ed Reform?

The college curriculum looked quite different a couple generations ago. When my mother attended the University of Redlands in the early 60s, the standard practice was for all students to take shared core-curriculum classes before they move on to their majors (pathways?). This approach to higher education created an institutional sense of community founded on a shared learning experience. Many small liberal arts colleges continue the tradition of community building through campus wide shared core-curriculum. There were real problems with the core-curriculum of my mother’s generation. It was usually built around “Western Civ” and a canon of works by dead white males. General education at this time was culturally myopic and ethnocentric. So, we had good reasons for doing away with the canon and the traditional “Western Civ” approach.

At public colleges like our own, what has emerged in the wake of the core-curriculum has been a sharp paring back of required courses and the replacement of a core-curriculum with what we now know as the infusion model. On this model, what it means to get an education at a particular institution is defined by a set of learning outcomes that are to be taught across the curriculum. No longer would the defining features of a college as a community of scholars and students be the purview of a couple of disciplines who had authority over a core-curriculum. Rather, ideally, the infusion model would invite continual collaboration across a diverse community of educators, negotiating amongst themselves to define what an education at their school means.

I participated in some of this at Bellevue College some twenty years ago when we routinely devoted entire college issues days to articulating our 18 Gen Ed outcomes. There were working groups that outlined the content of these Gen Ed outcomes in significant detail. We haggled at length over definitions, what specific points to include and what to leave out. Over the years, most of this work got lost. A thorough search of our online archives leaves a full third of our 18 outcomes lacking even one sentence definitions. In terms of what we communicate to students, our legacy Gen Ed program is represented by one page in the course catalog where we give a nice statement from the AAC&U about what it means to get a liberal arts education and then simply list the 18 Gen Ed outcomes by name. Students hear nothing about the 18 in their classes. They have no idea which of their classes claim to teach which of these 18 outcomes. Instructors are often not aware of the outcomes claimed by the courses they teach.

In the place of continual campus-wide collaboration that builds a community of learners around a clearly defined set of General Education outcomes, we have lapsed into departmental silos where, solely for the purposes of assessment, as required by accreditation, we claim a few of the 18 that seem somewhat related to what we teach in our disciplinary silos, interpret these in ways that suit our standing curriculum, and fill out the forms we are told are necessary to keep accreditation happy.

As it turns out, accreditation is not happy. The recommendations continue. On FACT (the Faculty Assessment Coordinating Team), where I have served for the better part of a decade, we diligently implemented one fix after another in response to different recommendations, trying the patience of our colleagues who had to keep relearning what is expected of us in doing assessment. Having doggedly done the best we can to get the old machine to run, it’s become clear that this is just not going to happen. The fundamental problem is that we cannot assess what we don’t understand. And at this point, we lack any meaningful shared understanding of our 18 General Education outcomes. We can’t learn from our past performance if we can’t meaningfully assess it. This is where our legacy program of Gen Ed gets stuck. This is where accreditation has called us out.

It is understandable, given this history, that many of us have lost sight of the point of an institution-based program of General Education. Which makes this an ideal time to refresh our perspectives and consider anew the value we can realize for our students through our program of General Education. We can build community among our diverse learners through a shared educational experience. We can foster in our students the skills and qualities required to participate in a free and open society. We can help our students better navigate the rapidly changing world they are entering with robust transparent instruction in things like communication, cultural diversity, critical thinking and sustainability. We can better equip students with the basic skills and abilities that are valued by employers. We can build a distinctive brand for the college by clearly articulating what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. The degree to which we realize some or all of these goals depends on us and our willingness to thoughtfully and collaboratively engage in building a meaningful, transparent, assessable program of General Education.

We don’t have to realize all of this all at once. For now, it will be enough if we get started with a Gen Ed framework that allows us to learn from our mistakes and adapt accordingly.

The Moral Psychology of Self-righteousness

Most people want to think of themselves as good people. When we self-identify as good people, any questioning of this is likely to be experienced as a personal attack. It is, after all, your perceived identity as a good person that is being challenged. In this case, a defensive reaction is to be expected.

But what if we aspire to be good people without self-identifying as such. It’s the self-identifying as good that makes criticism an attack. Aspiration, on the other hand, calls for continual self-assessment and course correction. Here-in lies the deep wisdom of the Christian idea of original sin. The acknowledgement that we have things to atone for, areas for improvement, even concerning issues we might not be fully aware of, instils a kind of humility that can only be born with grace. The proud person may only see humiliation or self-debasement in owning their mistakes. The humble aspirant, however, sees opportunity for growth.

Bearing the humble recognition of our own fallibility with grace is not easy. There’s an ironic human predicament here. Often what’s hard about coming to terms with our own fallibility is just going easy on ourselves even as we do so and observe a responsibility to work on ourselves.

Why should this grace towards ourselves be difficult? I think part of the answer is that we must square our attitudes towards our own shortcomings with the attitudes we have towards the transgressions of others. When we see badness in others as deserving of harsh condemnation, consistency demands harshness towards our own failings. This, I suspect, is the difficult turn that leads many to spurn humble aspiration towards goodness in favor of rigid and fragile self-identification with goodness. And this is the essence of self-righteousness.

At this point we might interrogate our harsh and unforgiving attitudes towards others. Why are we so punishing? The idea of retribution carries a lot of weight here. Philosophically, the idea of retribution is the idea of returning the wrong upon the wrongdoer. Kant thought of retribution as a moral duty, a matter of respect for the wrong doer embodied in treating the wrongdoer according to his own standards. Kant would also hold that we only see moral virtue in administering this duty when we do so dispassionately, or even against our inclination to let things slide. The emotional craving for vengeance would mask or even negate the duty of retribution.

Maybe Kant could keep retribution apart from revenge, philosophically anyway. But people who crave retribution often have a harder time at this. I worry that retribution more often than not amounts to a thin veil of rationalization for the baser motive of revenge.

The vengeful motive is powerful, perhaps instinctive. I think of it as the fight or flight response after the fact. Sustaining hostility through revenge was probably adaptive long ago on the savanna where the member of a rival clan who kills a member of your clan remains an ongoing threat.

We haven’t outgrown this emotional and motivational legacy of evolution. But restraint serves us well. When it comes to the wrongs of others, we usually leave retribution to the state where it can be administered somewhat more in the spirit of duty than for the emotional motive of vengeance. Granted this might be a half measure in practice. We still often see criminal justice as “getting justice for the victim” rather than seeing it just as holding the wrong doer accountable and treating them as they deserve based on their own motives and actions.

But to our present point, whatever vice there may be in vengefulness towards others, the prospect of finding ourselves deserving of that spite is a driver of self-righteousness. When I self-identify as good and judge those who fail to measure up harshly, the stakes for finding myself in error may be too high to bear. The Christian imperative to forgive others as we forgive ourselves won’t be much help if we are harsh judges in both cases. And so, we often see the self-righteous person doubling down and refusing to acknowledge their errors.

In trying to understand the moral vice of self-righteousness we find a helpful intersection between ethics and critical thinking. The critical thinker is someone who is skilled at learning from her mistakes. The moral vice of self-righteousness prevents this up front by ensuring that we remain blind to our mistakes. Perhaps then, self-righteousness is as much an intellectual vice as a moral vice.

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. 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. This one is my default second check. It even gives a percent likelihood that it was AI.
  3. 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.