Publication - "Philosophy and Commentary: Evaluating Simplicius on the Presocratics"

My paper about the role played by Simplicius and the late antique commentary tradition in Presocratic studies has been published in 'Platonic Pathways'.

Reference

Parsons, B (2018). ‘Philosophy and Commentary: Evaluating Simplicius on the Presocratics’, in: Finamore and Layne (eds). Platonic Pathways: Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies. Gloucestershire: The Prometheus Press. pp 227-242.

Abstract

IMG_7101.jpg

No fully extant text of Presocratic philosophy has survived antiquity. Occasionally, there are significant new discoveries such as the Strasbourg papyrus of Empedocles, but, as Runia commented in 2008, “even the students of early Hellenistic philosophy are better off” when it comes to source material. The modern scholar of early Greek philosophy is reliant on source books published in the shadow of the Diels-Kranz that collect together fragments and testimonia from later sources. Much of what we know about the Presocratics comes from Plato and Aristotle, but also from the Neoplatonic tradition, in the form of the explicit influences that the Presocratics had on particular Neoplatonic thinkers, and the wealth of verbatim fragments preserved in Neoplatonic texts.

This paper discusses the reception and transmission of early Greek philosophy through the lens of Neoplatonism, focusing on Simplicius’ commentaries on the works of Aristotle. Many of the fragments and testimonia that we have today come from Simplicius. However, there are issues surrounding our reliance on Simplicius’ commentaries. Why does Simplicius include extended references to Aristotle’s predecessors in his commentaries on Aristotle? Does the tendency to harmonize the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle in Neoplatonic works, known as the harmonization hypothesis, extend to Simplicius’ reportage of the Presocratics? The paper evaluates Simplicius’ contribution to Presocratic scholarship and asks what implications there are for our reading of the Presocratic fragments we receive from Simplicius.

Old Books and Digital Humanities: Finding the 19th Century Textbooks of Nietzsche's Basel Lectures

Whilst Friedrich Nietzsche is most well-known for his published works, such as The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1891), and Beyond Good and Evil (1886), he started his career as a professor of Greek Language and Literature at the University of Basel. During his tenure at the university, he lectured on topics such as Plato, Hesiod's Works and Days, and the early Greek philosophers, or, as he called them, the 'Pre-Platonic philosophers [vorplatonischen Philosophen]'.

Early Greek philosophy is generally taken to have started with Thales in the 7th century BC, and to finish with the paradigm shifting influence of Socrates. However, unlike ancient authors like Plato, for whom we have many surviving texts, the remains of early Greek philosophy are fragmentary, found scattered across antique commentary, biography, and doxography.

Philosophy and Classical studies collide in the study of these philosophers: not only must their reader have a keen philosophical eye, but an awareness of source criticism and history. This leads to the following question for the reader of Nietzsche's lectures on the early Greek philosophers: Were there any set texts or assigned reading for the course? What were Nietzsche's sources for the fragments? 

The key to answering this question lies in the 18th lecture of the 1871 summer semester lecture course, ‘Encyclopedia of Classical Philologie [Encycloaedie der klass. Philologie]’, entitled ‘On the Study of the Antique Philosophers [über das Studium der antiken Philosophen]’ Nietzsche advises his student thus: 

The fragments must be studied in the original: in Mullach fragm. philos. (poor esp. Democritus), the personal-notes in Laert. Diogenes. Numerous historical writings are lost. Valuable compendium with excerpts of sources Ritter a. Preller. Comprehensive account from Zeller, now 3 ed.

– Nietzsche (1992) 407 [1]

Whilst this advice does not appear in print in the text of the early Greek philosophy lecture course, we may assume that Nietzsche would recommend these sources as the set texts, as the ‘Encyclopedia’ course was ‘intended as a general guide to the study of philology’ (Porter 2000, 167), a concrete account of his recommendations. [2] The collections of fragments, ancient texts, and scholarly works recommended to his students are, then, as follows:

1.    Mullach, (1860), Fragmenta philosophorum graecorum

2.    Diogenes Laertius, ed. Hübner (1831), Lives of Eminent Philosophers

3.    Ritter and Preller, (1869), Historia philosophiae Graecae et Romanae [3]

4.    Zeller, (1844-52), Die Philosophie der Griechen in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung

Though Nietzsche references other 19th century works in the lectures, such as Schleiermacher's edition of the fragments of Heraclitus (1838), these books provide a first port of call in the search for Nietzsche’s own sources and textbooks. There are two modes of access for the modern reader: in print and online. 

First, here's an example of one of Nietzsche's sources in print: my personal copy of the 1864 edition of Ritter and Preller's fragments, clocking in at 154 years old. Going philosopher by philosopher through antiquity, it reproduces the fragments in the original Greek and offers some commentary in Latin, not unlike a modern textbook for early Greek philosophy such as McKirahan's (1994). 

There's a certain aesthetic joy in using original print materials for research. Flicking through the old pages to follow that reference and to check that rendering of the Greek evokes the past 150 years of students doing the very same. 

Many university libraries have copies of these books, though you won't always find them on the library shelf. For example, if you wanted to check a copy of Ritter and Preller's Historia Philosophiae out of the University of Edinburgh Library, you would have to request it out of storage. And Mullach's Fragmenta philosophorum Graecorum can't be taken out of the building: it's part of the Centre for Research Collections' Special Collection. However, some old books don't feature in the library's catalogue at all, and would have to be ordered via Inter-Library Loan.

This isn't conducive to research: when reading Nietzsche's lectures, I may need to check a reference to Schleiermacher's Herakleitos der dunkle von Ephesos (1838) one minute, and Ritter's Geschichte der Ionischen philosophie (1821) the next, a process slowed by having to find a physical copy of the text. 

Mullach's Fragmenta, 1860

This is where modern technology and digital humanities come to save the day. Many old books - including the 19th century collections of fragments and scholarly works I need - have been digitised and made available online on websites like archive.org

The advantages here are obvious: these books can be accessed anywhere, any time, as long as I have my computer with me, introducing flexibility into research and the reference of old books. 

The work being done by digitisation projects and centres such as the University of Toronto (where most of my digital editions seem to come from!) are invaluable to today's research in the humanities and social sciences, opening up access to old books on an unprecedented scale. These digitisations are invaluable to my own work on Nietzsche's lectures on early Greek philosophy.

Fragments of Anaxagoras from Mullach's  Fragmenta, 1860

Fragments of Anaxagoras from Mullach's Fragmenta, 1860


Notes

[1] Translation from Heit (2014) pp 222.

[2] Porter devotes an entire chapter to the ‘Encyclopedia’ lectures; this is an entire genre of philological lectures and publications, and Nietzsche’s ‘Encyclopedia’ lectures may have been structured in imitation of Ritschl’s, which Nietzsche would have attended as a student. See Porter (2000).

[3] Specifically this 1869 edition and not the 1838 first edition; see Brobjer (2008) 240.

Sources

Brobjer, Thomas. 2008. Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Heit, Helmut. 2014. Nietzsche's Genealogy of Early Greek Philosophy. In:Jensen & Heit (eds.) Nietzsche as a Scholar of Antiquity. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hübner, Heinrich Gustav, ed. 1831. Diogenis, Laertii De Vitis: dogmatis et apophthegmatis clarorum philosophorum Carolus Franciscus Koehlerus.

McKirahan. 1994. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis.

Mullach. 1860. Fragmenta Philosophorum Graecorum. Paris: Didot.

Nietzsche. 1992. Nietzsche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Vol. Zweite Abteilung, Dritter Band. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Nietzsche. 1995. Nietzsche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Vol. Zweite Abteilung, Vierter Band. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Nietzsche. 2001. The Pre Platonic Philosophers. Translated by Greg Whitlock. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Porter, James. 2000. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ritter, Heinrich. 1821. Geschichte der Ionischen philosophie. Berlin: T. Trautwein.

Ritter, Heinrich, and Ludwig Preller. 1869. Historia Philosophiae Graecae. Gotha: Perthes.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. 1838. "Herakleitos der dunkle von Ephesos: dargestellt aus den Trümmern seines Werkes und den Zeugnissen der Alten."  Sammtliche Werke Zweiter band, Dritte Abtheilung.

Zeller. 1844-1852. Die Philosophie der Greichen in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung. Tübingen: Ludwig Friedrich Fues Verlag.

The Part-Time PhD and Me

bethany-cat.jpg

Back in September 2017, I changed my engagement with my PhD from full-time to part-time. I've written about that experience for the University of Edinburgh in a blog post entitled "Changing to a Part-Time PhD".

Here's a short extract:

Now I’m part-time, I’m producing the same amount of work as before, but my research output matches my supervisors’ expectations. Most of my income comes from hourly paid tutoring for Classics and Philosophy at the University, and the rest through a small assortment of side-hustles. And, most importantly, I’m in a much better place for my mental health. The stress and worry around missing targets dissolved when my targets became more realistic and achievable. On top of all that, I still have time for my wonderful boyfriend and our kitten. For me, part-time study has made it easier to balance all of my responsibilities: my research, work, and home life.


Reading Pedagogical Theory: Fry, Ketteridge, and Marshall

Reading Pedagogy

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. & S. Marshall. 2015. “A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”. New York: Routledge.  

Chapter 19: Social sciences (pp 278-292)

When undergraduate students arrive for their first year of undergraduate studies in the social sciences, the challenge is how to support their transition into higher education. In a period that has seen increasing student numbers and levels of indebtedness, greater attention has been paid to their material and welfare needs as they enter university.
— p 279

Recognising that students come into the university classroom from different backgrounds, including different class and financial backgrounds, is an essential part of ensuring equality of opportunity for all learners. This needs to be taken into account when writing the course syllabus and reading-list. A first-generation university student from a working-class background might not be able to afford copies of several key texts across all of their courses. Many courses in my discipline now direct the students towards library resources, or provide PDF copies of key chapters, where copyright law allows. One way I try to handle the challenge of recognising my students’ material needs is by bringing handouts of key chapters of the texts, when I want to focus on something specific in tutorials. When I recommend them additional reading to help with their comprehension of a subject, I try to find materials that are available online for free via the Library website.

The challenge for academics is how to encourage the students to expand their comfort zone and develop both the confidence to take risks, and a healthy scepticism towards the range of concepts and master narratives they may encounter. This is particularly relevant when teaching subjects that are controversial or politically sensitive.
— p 283

The issue of approaching politically sensitive or controversial topics with first year undergraduates is a key challenge in my teaching practice; the study of philosophy is all about the questioning of our presuppositions and beliefs. Furthermore, the first year, first semester course ‘Morality and Value’ opens with discussions on practical ethics – including abortion and prostitution. I’ve used a few different methods to navigate this challenge. Firstly, in the opening tutorial of the semester, I establish my ground rules for the classroom: please do the reading, please turn up, and please respect others. This gives me an opportunity to point out that everyone has come from different backgrounds and will bring different beliefs and perspectives in the classroom. We are here for healthy discussion, and I will not tolerate rudeness or disrespect. Secondly, in tutorials that tackle sensitive subjects, I open with a ‘trigger warning’ of sorts: I tell the students that we’ll be covering sensitive subjects and that it is important to remember the ‘respect others’ rule – you don’t know what personal experiences with these topics people in the classroom may have. These strategies help make the students feel more comfortable in the classroom while we discuss sensitive subjects, empowering them to get involved in the debate.

This Week In Tutorials: Knowledge as Virtue in the Meno, and Greek 'Ostracism'

This week, the philosophers read Meno 77a-78c and 86c-89c, and the classicists on Greek World 1B had their first tutorial, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. 

The philosophers had to evaluate the paradox presented by Socrates in Meno 77a-78c, and to analyse the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c.

The classicists focussed on exploring the social function of ostracism; discussing the social tensions and perception of class in fifth century Athens; and practicing using a variety of kinds of evidence for the Greek World – political writings, dramatic works, and material evidence.

Picture1.png

The paradox as formulated in the Meno 77a-78c is that we desire only good things; no one desires bad things. It is also popularly formulated as no one does wrong willingly - wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. This is a paradox because we see people around us desiring bad things or doing wrong all the time. For Socrates, it is self-evident that people only desire good things, because nobody wants the pain or other bad consequences of bad things. Therefore, when we see people who do wrong, this must be out of ignorance.

I asked the philosophers if there was any connection between this paradox and the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c. Knowledge is that which is always beneficial, Socrates argues; in fact, the canonical virtues require knowledge to be good - for instance, courage without knowledge can manifest as brash, unwise action. Knowledge is how we know what is good. 

The students noticed that this relied on quite defined notions of 'good' and 'bad'. Many of them expressed that they felt like 'good' and 'bad' is more relative than Socrates portrays it. This tension helped me connect the topic of the tutorial to next week's tutorial, where we'll be looking at Plato's theory of Forms. For Plato, there is a thing which is good that we can have knowledge of through reason. 

Later in the week, I taught the first tutorial for Greek World 1B, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. I am teaching this course for the second time this semester. The experience of reviewing my notes and teaching materials from last year is an interesting one - I've improved upon my Powerpoint, and found that different aspects of the set reading stand out to me. It's been a great opportunity to reflect on my past practice and how I've improved over the last year.

The practice of 'ostracism' was where the Athenians could vote to expel a fellow citizen from the city for a period of ten years. These votes were recorded on pottery shards known as 'ostraka'. This leads to an interesting tutorial setup, where written texts and material evidence are brought together to explore the social function of the practice. On the one hand, we have Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians 22.1-7, where he discusses the history of ostracism. On the other hand, we have vast hoards of surviving material evidence, and the inscriptions upon them. In the discussion, we explored different motivations behind Athenian ostracism; the students argued well for whether they thought overall that it was more of a political or social institution.

Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher | Road to AFHEA

IMG_1410.jpg

This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


Yesterday, I attended the second workshop of the IntroAP course. In the first session, the discussion focussed in on the first two core Professional Values of the UK Professional Standards Framework:

V1: Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities

V2: Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners 

This time, our focus was on the third Professional Value:

V3: Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development 

This is, essentially, a call to becoming a critically reflective teacher: one who works towards improving their practice by engaging with and incorporating information and advice from different sources, from articles and workshops to conversations with colleagues from all kinds of different disciplines. 

The key reading I enjoyed in this session is the chapter on 'Becoming Critically Reflective' Stephen Brookfield's 'Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher'.¹ There are four lenses through which we can review our teaching practice, he writes (p29-30). These are:

  1. Autobiography: our own experiences as learners and teachers. What formative experiences have shaped our practice today?
  2. Students: attempting to see ourselves through our students' eyes, and taking student feedback on board. How do the students experience my classroom?
  3. Colleagues: having critical conversations with colleagues, or observing each other's practice. What is everyone else struggling with? What are they doing to improve?
  4. Theory: reading about pedagogy. What's happening in the scholarship?

These lenses can help us step outside our own assumptions about our teaching practice and gain new perspectives. Thinking about my history as both a student and a teacher helps me realise why I do certain things in the classroom, and why I feel more comfortable with this activity over that. My students and colleagues are often better placed to identify where I could improve than I am - and it's necessary to be open and receptive to that feedback. Reading theory shows us how common many of our classroom experiences are, and gives evidence-based explanations for different teaching and learning styles. 

Brookfield discusses many of the results of becoming critically reflective. The one I think is most important is, 'We See Ourselves as Being in Continual Formation' (p42):

It is in the nature of the reflective process for us always to be evolving. We never have the luxury of regarding ourselves as fully finished critical products who have reached the zenith of reflective evolution. We see our ideas and practices as needing constant investigation. [...] At no time do we ever consider the possibilities for learning and change to be fully closed.

This passage identifies the the heart of my motivation for taking this course in the first place. Just as I never consider myself as having 'finished' becoming a researcher and philosopher - in fact, I feel like I'm constantly learning new things, new approaches, and new methodology - I certainly haven't 'finished' becoming a teacher. One doesn't 'become' these things, and become a static end-product; one is always 'becoming' them. I am always becoming a philosopher, a teacher, and a researcher. Critical reflection on these processes of 'becoming' is essential.

Between now and the next workshop, we're completing teaching observations of one another. I wanted to observe the teaching practice of someone in a problem-based tutorial subject rather than a discussion-based tutorial subject area, to see what I could learn from the difference in practice, so I paired up with a colleague who teaches mathematics. I'll observe her tutorials, and she'll observe mine, and we'll exchange feedback. As preparation, I'm thinking about some of the following issues:

  • What kind of feedback would I find helpful or like to receive if I were her? 
  • What can I learn from her practice to incorporate into mine?
  • What aspects of my own teaching practice do I want to hear the most feedback on?
  • What can I learn from this exercise for when I conduct tutorial observations in the future?

All in all, I'm quite excited at the prospect of stepping outside of my comfort zone here: both by conducting an observation for the first time, and by exploring teaching practice outside of the humanities. 

1. Brookfield, Stephen, (1995) "Becoming critically reflective" from Stephen D. Brookfield, Becoming a critically reflective teacher. pp.28-48, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 

NCRS: Travel and Exploration

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 16.17.22.png

For more information on the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series, including forthcoming seminars, check out the Facebook page and website.


Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series

Spring 2018 Seminar 1: Travel and Exploration

Speakers:

  • Dr Ilda Erkoçi, Edinburgh: The image of Albania in 19th century travel writing
  • Gesa Jessen, Oxford: Germans up on the Mountain and down by the Sea - Heinrich Heine’s Travel Pictures and the Emergence of Nature Tourism
  • Edwina Watson, Oxford: “Headlong perpendicular”: The Elevation of Poetry in Byron’s Manfred and Alpine Journal

Today was the first session of the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series. I was very pleased at how well-attended the session was. Though the topic, 'Travel and Exploration', is quite outside of my area of expertise, any broadening my knowledge of the 19th century serves to provide context for my research on Nietzsche and 19th century European philosophy and philology. However, Edwina's paper inspired an investigation that filled in a gap in my knowledge of Nietzsche's development: that is, Nietzsche's engagement with Byron.

Thoughts on the talks:

  • Dr Ilda Erkoçi
    • Ilda discussed how Albania was recorded in 19th century British travel writing. I was interested to hear about how Classics had a role in the British interest in the 'near east': archeology was a motivation for travel, for middle-class travellers educated in classical studies.
    • Travel writing was largely by educated, upper class writers - resulting in colonial or superior tone in their reportage. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, many of the prominent and influential travel writers were actually women. An example is Mary Edith Durham, who wrote about the Balkans; she first introduced anthropological elements in travel writing. 
  • Gessa Jessen
    • Gessa addressed the travel of Germans in Germany in the 19th century. There was a bourgeois infatuation between the German middle classes and the Harz mountains in the 19th century, whilst the seaside emerged as an exclusive travel destination for the upper classes. 
    • In his 1826 work Reisebilder (Travel Pictures), Heinrich Heine evokes Goethe's Faust in his approach to the peak of the Brocken. There is at once a nationalist and romantic nature to this interplay of German Classicism and nature tourism. 
  • Edwina Watson
    • Edwina talked about Byron's excursions into the Alps, as referenced in Manfred and the Alpine Journal, and how they relate to an 'elevation' of poetry and Byron's vertiginous aspirations in the literary sphere. Byron's Manfred is Goethe's Faust reimagined - and this metaphysical, gothic drama is full of allusions to Byron's own experiences in the Alps. 
    • I thought that there seemed to be similarities between Edwina's description of Byron's Manfred and Nietzsche's Zarathustra, from the mountainside setting, image of the eagle, and philosophical themes. It turns out this intuition was spot on: "Ich will das Ganze als eine Art Manfred und ganz persönlich schreiben," Nietzsche writes, in reference to the Zarathustra (NF-1881,12[70]). In Ecce Homo, 'Why I am so wise' §4, he reports having read Manfred at 13 years of age.

The next NCRS is on February 22nd, and the topic is 'Issues in Theology'. 

This Week in Tutorials: Definition and Translation in Plato's Meno

I taught my first tutorials for Greats: From Plato to the Enlightenment today. The aim of our discussion of Plato's Meno 70a-79d was to examine the definitions of virtue given in the Meno, question “definitions” and the possibility of making definitions, and practice discussing and evaluating texts from the history of philosophy.

458px-Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle.jpg

The dialogue opens abruptly with a conversation between Socrates and Meno, a young aristocrat from Thessaly. The discussion is centred on virtue, or excellence (ἀρετή), and the question of whether virtue can be taught. For many of the Sophists, the belief that virtue can be taught was key to the education they provided. However, in the Meno, the question is whether virtue is the result of teaching, nature, or practice (70a). 

But first, Socrates asserts, before we can decide whether virtue can be taught, we must define what virtue is (70a-71d). We must know what the thing that we are dealing with is before we can discuss whether it has certain qualities, such as if it is teachable. Socrates invites Meno to attempt a definition of virtue.

Definition, we find, is a tricky business. Meno offers up three different interpretative strategies. In one, he gives examples of virtue: the virtue of a man and woman (71e). However, Socrates objects on the grounds that you cannot define virtue by providing a litany of examples of it. Meno's second and third attempts are objected to in similar ways. In the 73c, Meno offers a definition of virtue as the ability to rule, and at 78c as the ability to get good things. Both of these definitions, Socrates objects, are at the same time too broad and too narrow: there are cases of virtue they don't include, and cases of less than virtuous action that they do include.

Along with the issue of definition, reading the Meno requires us to engage with the issue of translation. Some students in the class brought along copies of the text other than the prescribed translation. On two different occasions today, students offered up their alternative translations along with the interpretative consequences of their translation. The following case is the one I want to look at in detail:

ἀρετή as virtue or excellence 

How do these different translations affect our interpretation of the Meno? The problem of definition revisits us: just as Socrates says that we must define ἀρετή to decide whether it is teachable, we must make a move to definite ἀρετή in order to translate it. 'Virtue', for the students, may be laden with moral connotations from when we studied virtue ethics last semester. Already, students wanted to introduce Aristotle as a contributor to our discussion. 'Excellence', on the other hand, isn't so strictly moral. We might say that someone is an excellent vet, meaning that they are skilled at diagnosing and treating sickness in animals. What would be the strictly moral sense of being a good veterinarian? Plato's usage of ἀρετή in the Meno seems to stand between these two translations: on the one hand, there is mention of canonical virtues, such as justice and moderation, but on the other hand, the definitions that Meno gives that hint at ἀρετή as doing something well, whether that is ruling or obtaining good things, look more towards the idea we have of 'excellence'. 

Beyond the philosophical problem here is the pedagogical problem: how far should I take first year undergraduate students down the 'alternatives in translation' rabbit hole, in a course taught entirely in translation? Would ἀρετή benefit from the 'eudaemonia' treatment, i.e., being generally left untranslated? It's easy to get distracted by the different ideas we can get from the text with the different translations in mind, and there's only so much time. 

Thoughts on Anxiety in the Classroom | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 


This article was one of the first of Graham Gibbs' articles I read. It discusses the way that fear and anxiety can manifest in students and their studying behaviours. On the first page, the following line jumped out at me:

Some students adopt a confident or anxious approach to all aspects of their studying [...] They might choose obvious essay questions on subject matter that has been covered thoroughly in lectures or the text book, or where the ‘right answers’ seem fairly straightforward. [...] They prioritise coverage over depth. [...] All decisions are intended to reduce risk.
— Gibbs, 2014

In the course of marking student essays, I've noticed the phenomenon of the 'popular' essay. A large proportion of the class will answer this particular essay question. The question will engage with a topic that was covered in at least a week's worth of the lectures, or one of the tutorials. Whilst many students will engage with the question with the results of their own reading, displaying the development of original thought and a high level of engagement with the subject matter, many more of these essays will rely on the textbook or recommended reading, hitting the same surface-level points along the way with little critical engagement, resulting in middling marks.

In the past, I wondered whether this phenomenon was due to the essay being seen as 'easy' or 'straightforward' by the students, with little consideration for the motivations for choosing the essay topic beyond that criterion. However, reading Gibbs' article, I wonder whether the reason behind this is anxiety.

Are the other essay questions neglected because the topics weren't covered sufficiently well in the lectures or tutorials? If students are too anxious to admit to a lack of depth of understanding of the course material, they might therefore take the lower risk presented by the 'popular' essay, rather than face the prospect of asking for help. Anxiety can make asking for help seem like an insurmountable task, with an accompanying fear of shame at the possibility of seeming 'stupid'. If anxiety results in the students thinking that asking for help will be unpleasant, then this can be a huge barrier to learning. Approachability is important - letting students know that you are open to questions about the topic or the essay material at the end of the tutorial may empower them to ask for help. 

Are the straightforward essay questions picked because students do not feel prepared to tackle the more complex question? Do we do enough to help students understand what essay question-words like 'explore' and 'analyse' mean in context? Not understanding how to approach a certain essay question increases the risk of not answering it properly, or the risk of failure, which can cause anxiety. I signpost my students to writing resources; there are many excellent resources online, such as Purdue OWL, the UNC Writing Center, and the University of Southampton Writing Centre. Students in PPLS at Edinburgh can also take advantage of the PPLS Writing Centre. I'd love suggestions to add to the resources I recommend to students come essay-time.

Finally, I worry about the problem of anxiety and surface-level learning. In tutorials, I try to provide an environment where students can explore the topics, get involved with in-depth discussion, and practice original and independent thought. In this way, these tutorials are practice for the essays; students can try their ideas out on the class and benefit from hearing the thoughts of others. Am I doing enough to encourage students to go beyond surface-level fact finding and tackle the subject in depth? Am I creating a comfortable space for anxious students to critically engage with the subject material before essay time? A lot of the activities I set for my students are small-group discussions. This gives quiet or anxious students space to talk with a small number of their peers. Often, I find that this breaking of the silence empowers them to speak in front of the rest of the class later on. The risk of embarrassment from talking in front of the whole group is deflated, as they have tried out their ideas already. For some tasks, I have time to check on each group individually before asking the groups to feed back to the class as a whole. This enables me to give attention to small groups of 3 or 4 students at a time; this is when many of the 'quiet' ones may ask me a question or tell me something they found interesting about the reading. The risk of asking a question in front of everyone, of 'seeming stupid', collapses, and I can have a brief one-on-one conversation with the student. What other techniques could I be using in the classroom to reduce anxiety?

Anxiety can be a huge barrier to education. Further thought is needed on how to encourage students to critically engage with the course material as they go, with positive reinforcement along the way.  

 

What is Teaching? | Road to AFHEA

IMG_1410.jpg

This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


Today I went to the first workshop of the course. One of our tasks was to think about the following questions, and write our answers down on Post-it notes:

What is teaching? What is it that you’re doing in the classroom?

Each group covered a sheet of paper with Post-it notes, before passing the sheets round to the next group to read and discuss. There were a lot of answers like 'facilitating open discussion', 'imparting facts and knowledge', and 'providing students a space to develop thinking skills', but the following juxtaposition was particularly interesting:

Left: "What is teaching? To facilitate the learning process. To deliver course outcomes for the students."  Right: "cultivating a spirit of wonder at the world."

Left: "What is teaching? To facilitate the learning process. To deliver course outcomes for the students."

Right: "cultivating a spirit of wonder at the world."

At first, I judged the answer on the left as dispassionate and overly analytical. I said it sounded like the job posting for teaching, and that it didn't capture a sense of the real value of teaching. I liked the answer on the right better - good teaching inspires students to engage with the course material, new perspectives and ideas, and, ultimately, the world around them. To reduce this to 'course outcomes' sounded to me like restrictive box-ticking, or doing the bare minimum.

However, a colleague pointed out that these two answers can - and, I now think, must - be taken together. Our students all come into the classroom with different backgrounds and motivations, but one thing they share is the desire to succeed. Teachers should work towards that spirit of wonder at the world, but what is that work worth if the students leave without the knowledge, skills, and understanding that they came in for? It is important not to lose sight of the essentials of the course you're teaching.

Upon reflection, teaching should deliver the course outcomes, and inspire a love of learning along the way.