Aristotle and Moral Education in Art

silhouette of three performers on stage
Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.

While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.

On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.

But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.

Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.

Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.

Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.

Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beware the Salesman

Podcast ads.

Hacks and routines.

Blogs that promote and sponsored content.

Look to the incentives and see if they align with your own.

What’s in their interest might not be in mine.

This might change over time.  Sources that don’t sell might eventually sell.  There is a future where I might try to sell you something or join my mailing list.

Beware the one who sells you solutions for problems they don’t have.

Beware the sponsored content coming from authorities you like.

Beware the salesman who makes universal the particular.  The one who puts everyone into a clearly defined box.  The one who makes money on your problems.  The one who charges to join their community.

I’m not saying these are all inherently bad things; merely that they merit many second thoughts.

Secret shortcuts don’t exist.  If they were valuable, they wouldn’t be secret and they wouldn’t be a shortcut – they would be the norm.

Everyone has to make a living.  Everyone has something to sell.  But not everyone has your best interest in mind.

Caveat emptor.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Book Ideas – Types of Feedback

I’ve been reading Scott Young’s recently released book, Ultralearning, and I think it’s a pretty good summary of how one can take on an intense learning project for personal and professional development.  It functions like an autodidact’s road map with plenty of good tips, insights, and stories to round things out.  Elements of the animated bibliography are present, but I don’t find it contrived in its execution.  The stories help frame the chapter and serve as an introduction to the core material.

It’s funny how last week I was talking about mnemonic devices, because after drafting that post I ended up reading about the concept in Chapter 10 of the book as it dealt with ways of supporting retention of material you learn.

In chapter 9 of the book, Young talks about ways of providing feedback in the learning process, whether the feedback is provided from others or feedback you can use in your own learning process.  He parses out three kinds of feedback that I found interesting, not only for my own personal use in learning, but also as something I should keep in mind as a teacher.

The three kinds of feedback he outlines are outcome feedback, informational feedback, and corrective feedback.  Each type of feedback serves a specific purpose, and you should be mindful of the context the feedback is given, as the wrong type of feedback can set you back in your learning.

Outcome feedback – provides information on whether you are getting answers right or if you are meeting a pre-identified set of learning objectives.  It tells you that you are right but doesn’t give any indication of why (or why you are wrong).

Informational feedback – provides further information to explain the underlying reason why something is right or wrong.  It can be informative to re-affirm what you have learned, and can identify key areas of strength or weakness, however it does not create a concrete process forward.

Corrective feedback – provides, as the name indicates, a path forward for the learner in terms of how to overcome deficiencies.  It details not only how one is right/wrong, why they are right/wrong, but how to address or avoid being wrong.  This type of feedback not only requires a level of comprehension of the material, but requires sufficient understanding to teach the underlying processes to the learner through explanation, demonstration, suggestion, etc.

As a teacher, it’s important to know what kind of feedback is warranted and under what circumstances.  Most of us tend to focus just on outcomes, but students often don’t learn from pure outcome assessment.  Rather, you need to take the further steps to go beyond an evaluation and ensure you are addressing the underlying deficiency present in the student’s performance.  Outcome assessment is awesome because it’s quick and definitive, but it’s also lazy if your goal is to improve your students.  On the other hand, corrective feedback is desirable but it’s labour-intensive and must be done carefully so as not to remove critical thinking from your student – you don’t want them to merely follow your instructions but instead you want to promote their thinking and reasoning through problems without your guidance.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Memorization and my Campus Response Experience

In January of 2008, I was walking through my university campus’s student centre and passed by a table for the UW Campus Response Team, whom were recruiting volunteers for the new semester.  I doubled back, chatted with the team members, and signed-up to participate in their interview process.  I had taken first aid courses periodically during my cub scout and army cadet days, plus I had ran some basic first aid courses while abroad, so it felt like a good fit.

In retrospect, my “experience” was quite paltry, but I had shown the team managers that I had enough of the “right stuff” that they invited me to join the team and participate in the weekend training course they put on for new recruits.  It’s an intense crash course in first aid skills that were well beyond my experiences and the training spanned several hours Friday night and all days Saturday and Sunday, before you perform your final scenario test to qualify as a secondary responder.

The material covered was largely derived from emergency first responder courses, along with some material covered for pre-hospital trauma professions (e.g. fire fighters and paramedics).  The training was designed to create heuristics in the responder’s mind to quickly flow through critical details while gathering as much information as possible and start treatment momentum.  The last thing you want is for a responder to have to intentionally think through what steps they should follow, because it shunts cognitive capacity away from situational awareness and into operational procedures.

In an effort to automate one’s thinking, you end up doing a lot of mock scenarios and skill drills.  As a responder, you end up creating a script in your mind to follow.  The script is based on a common set of things to attend to, which you follow according to handy mnemonics and other memory aids.

Despite the mnemonics functioning to provide mental triggers for actions, you still need to learn the process to go along with the mnemonics, and from the start of training weekend, you only have precious few hours after training concludes for the day to encode the information out of your working memory and into longer term storage.

I needed a way to quickly drill myself and aid in recall.  The system I settled on was to get some window writable markers and write out my mnemonic devices on the bathroom mirror.  Every time I used or walked passed the washroom, I would attempt to fill in as many of the mnemonics as I could remember, and note where I made mistakes.  Through constant repetition, I was able to turn:

E
M
C
A
P
I
E

A
V
P
U

P
E
A
R
L

A
B
C
D

S
A
M
P
L
E

O
P
Q
R
S
T

Into

Environment check
Mechanism of injury?
Count the casualties
Allied agencies?
Personal protection
Introduce yourself
Events leading?

Alert
Verbal
Pain
Unresponsive

Pupils are
Equal
And
Reactive to
Light

Airway
Breathing
Circulation
Deadly bleeds

Signs and Symptoms
Allergies
Medications
Past medical history
Last meal/beverage intake
Events leading

Onset
Provocation
Quality
Radiation
Severity
Time

It was a quick and dirty way to give myself quick feedback on these concepts that I could readily apply to my first aid treatment during training and eventually on shift.  Any time I lost momentum or felt nervous about the judges evaluating me, I would mentally go back to my bathroom mirror and fill in the blanks.  I haven’t been on the first aid team in almost a decade but these concepts easily come back to me, even during my crazy nights at the bar.  It’s a testament to the stickiness of the ideas and the effectiveness of the drills.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Thinking and Research Habits

You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit.  It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist.  I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.

This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast.  After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book.  It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class.  You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it.  If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.

However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back.  On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process.  They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.

You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.

David Epstein
(promoting his book Range)
The Longform Podcast, episode 348 (starts at 21:08)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62028020

How do you set up the bounds of research?  How do you delineate what you put in the book?  What should I include in the book?

  • There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
  • Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes.  He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage.  Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
  • He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
  • As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together.  When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it.  Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
  • The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
  • It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
  • Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text.  Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on.  It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.

 

Cal Newport
(promoting his book Digital Minimalism)
Love Your Work, episode 183 (starts at 49:30)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62048017

How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?

  • He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles).  He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas.  He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges.  It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
  • He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested.  It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
  • To validate ideas:  1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.”  He asks “Is this working for me?  Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
  • Over time, something will emerge and persist.  It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
  • The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Books on Vocational Reflection

I finished reading Complications by Atul Gawande last week and really enjoyed it.  It was his first book and covered stories from his apprenticeship phase of becoming a surgeon.  I thought back to the first book I read from him, The Checklist Manifesto, and realized that while I enjoyed the topic Manifesto covered, I found it lacking a certain charm that Complications had.

Manifesto felt like a good idea that was stretched a bit too thin to fit the book format, and was heavily supplemented with references to studies done by other researchers.  This isn’t meant as a criticism – it was a good book!  But what I felt Complications (and his other book Better) had is the first hand reflection on one’s professional development.  It’s not just a memoir of one’s life, nor is it a tell-all, but instead it’s a focused meditation on the training, learning, failures, achievement, and lessons one gains from devoting themselves to their vocation.

Over the last three and a half years of reading, I’ve found I really enjoyed these kinds of  books.  I looked over my reading list and pulled a bunch of examples randomly below.  Some of them are about medicine, others are of actors, and a few books from the business world.  The common thread is that it’s less about the personal biography of the person and more about the development of the professional (for this reason, I didn’t include Elon Musk’s and Enrico Fermi’s biographies, or career retrospectives like the books from James Comey and Hillary Rodham Clinton).

It describes a world bigger than the person telling the story, and their attempt to grapple with the epistemological, ethical, and professional obligations that comes from entering a profession, and where their limits lie.  These are not stories about heroes – the stories are about human error and fallibility, and learning to deal with that revelation.  It also keeps its eye towards what it means to serve others, and where the profession should go in the future.

Ultimately, these books differ from the animated bibliography in one crucial area.  The animated bibliography is often a book that results from a person researching and stitching together the ideas of others.  In some cases, these books will require the author to attempt to put the ideas into practice, but in my opinion this is in service of selling the credibility of the book.  However, the books I’m discussing here and listing below are different because they are an account of people who are learning by doing.  They are applying what they previously learned during formal education, and reflecting on the outcomes to see what lessons can be derived.  In some sense, the books are an autopsy that try to tease out causes, or at least serve as a cautionary tales for those who come later.

 

A Thousand Naked Strangers – Kevin Hazzard

 

Doctored – Sandeep Juhar

 

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had – Tony Danza

 

Total Recall – Arnold Schwarzenegger

*Note – I include this mostly because of his telling of his time as a body-builder and actor.

 

A Life in Parts – Bryan Cranston

 

The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin

 

Shoe Dog – Phil Knight

 

Creativity, Inc. – Ed Catmull

 

The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande

 

Better – Atul Gawande

 

Complications – Atul Gawande

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Masterclass in Political Oration – Jon Stewart

There are some people that when they speak, I will stop to listen.  We have many examples of people who are gifted public speakers, but to me few are more powerful than Jon Stewart, former host of the Daily Show.  He spoke at a House sub-committee hearing last week and so thoroughly presented his case, the bill passed unanimously.  I hope the initiative continues as smoothly through the House proper and the Senate, and is eventually passed into law, because the hypocrisy and virtue-signalling is appalling.  At the centre of Stewart’s argument is the notion that the sacrifice and bravery of the responders during 9/11 should be honoured by taking care of those who are suffering because of their service that day.

Public speaking as a skill is hard, but there is more than just vocalizing the words.  Stewart’s presentation, his ethos (he has earned the right to speak through his work), his pathos (the passion he speaks from on behalf of those he’s fighting for) and the pure logos (no one can form a devastating argument from observations the way a comedian can) all come together to give us a masterclass in political oration.

Give it a watch.  It made me feel choked up.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Livestreaming For My Students

Last week, I tried a new tactic to engage with my students.  I was inspired by two workshops I attended during Conestoga’s annual E3 (Employees for Excellence in Education) Conference.  The first workshop covered how to write good assignment prompts, with clarity and purpose in mind, and the second covered strategies for writing for online courses.  In the course I manage online, my students were preparing to submit their first major philosophical paper, and historically my students do poorly on the writing side.  I largely attribute this to it being their first time trying to write a philosophical paper and their only exposure to this point was either essays in high school or non-philosophy essays for other courses in college.  After sitting in on these two workshops, I reflected on what I could do, in an online course, that would improve my student’s ability to write.  It’s challenging to engage with online students for two reasons:

  • first, you (almost) never meet your students face to face, so you lose the ability to use tone, voice, inflection, and body language to convey information, and
  • second, online courses are atemporal, which means you don’t engage with your students at the same time.

An idea I’ve been kicking around for some time is creating a video for my students as an added bit of content for the course.  The problem with this option is it’s still fairly static and easy for students to skip if they feel it doesn’t contribute to improving their assessments.  It also goes in one direction, where I speak at my camera rather than engaging with the students.

However, I’ve been mulling over another option.  I have borrowed a web camera from my podcasting partner, I have a good microphone, and I delivered a webinar with a live Q&A in the middle of May.  I considered running a livestream last semester, however when I offered the option to the students, I had no requests for it.  But this semester, I decided to set it up and run it, regardless if students attended or not.  At worst, it would be a wasted hour of my time.  However, the benefits would be two-fold: my students would have a chance to interact with me and ask me questions about their assignment, and it would give me practice with a new skill set.

I picked a date and time, figured out how to broadcast (in the end, I went with Twitch, but next time I’ll test out YouTube Live) and went for it.  I had 4-7 students drop in, which is fairly low engagement, however the questions were really good and I had a lot of fun actively engaging with students again.

One unfortunate thing was I didn’t set up the system to auto-record, so I don’t have a copy of the livestream to review or upload.  I ended up recording a second (static) video to cover the main points so that my students had something to reference when they were completing and submitting their essays this past weekend.

It was a good experience and I plan to run at least one livestream per semester moving forward.  I have yet to grade the papers, so I don’t know if I had a material impact on their performance, but in time I hope that my students will get better with the added direction I can give them.  I also now have a video that I can post to help them think through the process of writing a philosophical paper.  If nothing else, it’s good to build handy resources and have them available for your students.  My goal is to help my students improve their thinking and writing as a result of taking my course.  Even if their papers are 1% better as a result of my direction, it’s worth it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“Give Business Card” As A Default Action

I had a strange realization last week.  I am now at a point in my career where I need to make “give business card” a default action for when I’m out and about, but not for the reason you may think.  Under normal circumstances, I feel it’s relatively rare that I have to give out a business card.  In most instances, my role has been too small and insignificant to warrant it, but also because I don’t really buy into the culture of swapping business cards with people in an effort to ‘network.’  I have been promoted to a new role, which entails more responsibility and autonomy when it comes to business meetings, but I’m still getting used to the idea of thinking of myself as an administrator or a manager.

Last week, I was in a coffee shop to grab a quick bite to eat before a meeting.  The cashier saw that I was wearing a jacket with our school’s logo, and he excitedly asked if I was a student or employee.  I let him know that I work at the college, and he asked in what area.  When he heard I work in the school of engineering, he proudly told me that he received multiple acceptances into our mechanical engineering diploma programs.  Since the coffee shop was dead, he then launched into a mini history of his background – he was born in east Africa, immigrated to the Middle East, did secondary school in the US, and now has his visa to study in Ontario.  He told me some of his education, that he had top marks in design in high school, and even has a portfolio.

His energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and he left a strong impression on me.  He sounds like a great kid, and I have no doubt that he will be successful in his studies.  I told him where he could find me on campus, and he said he’d find me in the future.

I realized as I was driving away that I had missed the perfect opportunity to give him my card and promise to follow-up if he had any questions.  I want to see him succeed, and if there was anything I could do to help, I’d gladly try.

Rather than seeing the business card as a way of helping myself, I should put more emphasis on seeing the business card as a way of helping others.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan