Sunday, December 18, 2005

Time to review the year's courses. They were overall much better than last year's, I'm happy to say. Long may this trend continue ;)

First Semester:

PSYC 208: Cognition - A bit dry, but I'd say the content was important enough to make it a worthwhile course nonetheless. (And I like how they acknowledged my coming top of the class. Philosophy courses never do that. Perhaps they're trying to be "egalitarian" instead, I don't know.)

PHIL 236: Ethics - An outstanding course, highly recommended. Carolyn's a wonderful lecturer, and the content (meta-ethics) is intrinsically fascinating. [Highlights: "Why Be Moral?" essay, and learning about Hare's two-level utilitarianism.]

PHIL 317: Contemporary Political Philosophy - This was a great course too, with very wide-ranging and important content. Pity I only got an 'A' though, that was unreasonably harsh marking, IMO, I thought I did better than that. Ah well. [Highlights: all the basic income stuff, and smashing libertarians into itsy bitsy little pieces.]

Second Semester:

PHIL 238: Cognition - Average. Some interesting content, though the lectures weren't especially engaging. Suffered from being a 200-level course, I would have liked some more advanced content. Having said that, I found some of it quite difficult to get a firm grip on (by my standards, I mean; I don't imagine it would have any discernible impact on graded assessment). As a result, I put an insane amount of work into my first essay, though it fortunately paid off, with the lecturer giving extraordinarily high praise and a 100% grade in consequence. To be honest, I still thought my grasp of the topic was a tad slippery even after all that research. Philosophy of biology is weird.

PHIL 305: Philosophical Logic - Wonderful course! Paradoxes make for fascinating content, the student seminars were fun and engaging, and Doug Campbell's lectures on 'induction machines' were clear, original, and extremely interesting.

PHIL 471: Aspects of Rationality (honours paper taken as a 300-level special topic) - Very challenging. Elicited what is probably my best technical work to date. It was neat to have John Broome as guest lecturer for half the course. Some of the content was a little on the dry side, and I would have liked to see a greater focus on foundational questions in normativity, rather than assuming from the start that there are normatively-binding objective 'reasons'. But such is the state of the field these days. Highlights were my two essays: Reasons for Belief, and - especially - Ought we to be rational?

MATH 243: Analysis - Not so good. Classes were spent scribbling down theorems and proofs at breakneck speed. I don't know what they expect us to learn from that. In my opinion, there are two ways maths ought to be taught:

(1) Conceptually. For example, when you introduce a proof of something called the "completeness of the real numbers", stop and explain what this means, and what its broader significance to mathematics is. Think of it as philosophy of maths, the goal being to improve students' understanding of mathematics. This is especially appropriate for topics as foundational as those covered in this course (limits, sequences, series, functions, etc.), which was essentially about the foundations of calculus.

(2) Methodologically. Teach students how to do maths. Use plenty of examples, show us helpful techniques and heuristics for tackling problems and constructing proofs.

A mix of the two would be ideal. But whatever you do, do not opt for the (3) cramming in as much content as you can approach. It is utterly worthless. Students will hate every minute of it, remember just enough to fool the examiners, and then promptly forget it all. At least, that's what I did.

Also, assessment was very imbalanced. I got practically full marks for all the assignments, but couldn't even finish the exam. It asked far too much for just two hours. I was very happy to get an 'A' in the end; after that exam, I was expecting worse for once! Anyway, if anyone from Canterbury is reading this, I don't recommend taking this course for interest (though you'll probably need it if you plan to major in maths).


  1. You're absolutely right about math. I'm convinced that poor teaching in math turns more students off than in any other subject. On the conceptual side of things, I find it also helps if you understand the historical background. Books like Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell, Journey Through Genius by William Dunham, Cantor's Paradise by Mary Tiles, Prime Obsession by John Derbyshire, etc. make good suplemental reading because they provide context and really help bring the subject to life.

  2. "Utterly worthless"? A bit of an exaggeration. Plenty of math students take these basic courses and manage to learn the material without filling their heads with worthless cockamamy philosophy like "math is empirical". There *is* a lot of material to cover, and time can't be wasted in navelgazing.

  3. I've got it on good authority (Well my mums...) that more children of maths teachers study philosophy at university than maths...

    Anyway what are your plans for next year?

  4. Re: Maths
    I think courses are taught like that for two reasons:
    1) For 95% of the students, the course is there to show that the student is capable of learning /something/ - and for that it doesn't matter how interesting, relavant or applicable what you're learning is.
    2) For the students going on to do maths, they can ponder the more interesting questions later: for now they need the fundamentals. (c.f. you don't teach kids at primary school why they should want to learn to read and write: you simply teach them and hope that they come to realise by themselves that it was worthwhile at a later date)

    Unfortunately, for the remaining 1% of students who take courses for interest, its not a good approach.

    I guess what I'm saying is that you're in the unfortunate minority.

    (I'm sure you could also make a comparison between Salem's Ass and philosophy type approach to learning)

  5. Anon - you seem confused by my contingent numbers post. What we (allegedly) learn empirically is not first-order mathematical truths, but rather, the metaphysical fact that numbers exist (which Quineans say we learn because they are indispensible to science).

    Alex, fair point that I'm not really the "intended audience", but nevertheless, I think my suggestions would benefit maths majors too. It's not really an issue of fundamentals vs. fun. It's an issue of learning vs. cramming.

    David, that's funny, my dad actually was a maths teacher once upon a time.

    Next year is not fully determined yet. Most likely a fourth undergrad year at Canty to get a 2nd degree, before heading to Oz (maybe Melbourne?) for honours. Alternative would be to ditch the double degree and get straight into honours, either here or elsewhere. Depends in part on which courses I most want to take. But any general advice is also welcome :)

  6. Depends entirely on where/why your heading.

    General advice if you are going into academic philosophy is to train in more than one place (I didn't and look now I'm employed as a bioethicist, either a chilling cautionary tale or... some small hope :)

    If you stay in NZ then go to Auckland, its the only place with real credibility in the Leiter report. (Which I know shouldn't be important, but after the umptheen dozen time you explain at a conference, then you'll understand...) I should say I mean no respect to the faculty at Canty, wonderful people, but the international rep of your postgrad departments does count.

    if to Auzzie (And why Auzzie?) then what do you want to specialise in?

    Pick a department appropriate to that...

    Happy to give further advice if you want.

  7. hehe - I enjoyed this post - probably because I did a number of the same courses while doing Phil and Psyc at Canterbury (95 to 00)

    I did Phil 238 when it was still INCO 219 (very wide ranging stuff in those days, and I dare say Derek has developed his ideas on phil of biology some way since then). Bit of goss- Paul Russell was involved for one year in INCO 219 - he failed to turn up to one of the lectures!

    My two fav psyc papers - I found there was lots of philosophically interesting studies from Psyc 209 that made their way back into my philosophy essays! Plus looking at perceptual illusions in darkened lecture theatres is quite fun. Shame Psyc 331 hasn't been offered for a few years - I found a background in philosophy of science and an understanding of Kant definitely helped.

    Good to hear Doug is doing so well - not surprisingly he was top of our honours class - he's a clever guy! :)


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