Honesty and Trust

The weekend after the last wedding experience I wrote about, I was fortunate to attend a second wedding.  Much like my last post on the topic, I want to reflect a bit on something the officiant said during the ceremony.

Warning: philosophical thoughts ahead!

Midway through the service, the officiant was offering some words of advice and wisdom for the couple.  He was discussing values that make for a strong, lasting relationship, and he commented that honesty is an important value to hold.  However, he speculated that beyond honesty, trust is something worth considering as a higher value.

His message was a little tongue in cheek, alluding to the impossible questions a partner is faced with, such as “does this make me look x,” but he also meant it in a more sincere way.  He was driving home the idea that the partnership can’t rely on honesty and transparency alone, but it also requires both partners to recognize the union of their lives, and that they must trust their partner in the journey.

While I won’t say I fully endorse the idea that trust must always be placed above honesty, it nevertheless gave me food for thought.  I mulled over what trust means to me in a relationship, and whether you can have deserved trust paired with deliberate dishonesty.  I donned my philosopher’s cap and thought about it.

For instance, (hearkening back to Kantian ethics), should we always tell the truth?  Certainly, I’d prefer to live in a world where I’m never (maliciously) deceived, but I can imagine cases where deception can be useful.  If my partner deceives me in order to seek to surprise me in a way that would bring me pleasure, then I think that kind of dishonesty can be permissible (Christmas and surprise birthday parties hinge on this being permissible).  Setting aside considerations about the differences between deception and omission, so long as the deception is for the benefit of the deceived, and that revealing  the nature of the deception results in increased happiness, then I think in most instances this can be thought of as a good thing.  On the other hand, deception that is used to maximize the pleasure of one person while building harm at the expense of the other person (especially if the deception is revealed) is likely to be uniformly wrong in all cases.  Feel free to check my thinking in the comments down below.

The implication I realized during the ceremony is that it is possible to knowingly be deceived by your partner and be fine with it if you trust your partner explicitly.  That is to say, if my partner chooses to be dishonest with me (or, to a lesser degree, if my partner is not fully transparent with me), and I suspect them to be as much, then the only instance where I would be fine with this is if fully trust my partner.

This is not to say that I think this gives license to one’s partner to be deliberately deceitful if a full trusting relationship is present.  I still believe that honesty and transparency ought to be the norm in a relationship; that the relationship is built upon its foundation.

But, if my partner judges that deceiving me is in my best interest (however temporary that might be) and it is indeed in my best interest, then full trust is the only way that it could be managed.  Of course, there would need to be some sort of resolution to the deception.  I don’t think a state of perpetual deception or ignorance is possible while being in a person’s best overall interest – the two run contrary in my mind.

Then, if it is the case that the thought of my partner deceiving me causes me discomfort or some other negative associative feeling, then it cannot be said that I fully trust them (or, that honesty and transparency are not things I care about – but how would a relationship work in that case…?).  A breach of trust and a breach of honesty would both transgress the relationship.

It’s an odd sort of thought experiment to run, especially during a wedding.  I had a lot of fun at that wedding, and I’m glad to have gotten some interesting philosophical thoughts to mull over while I celebrated more friends starting a new chapter in their lives.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

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Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

5 Post-Conference Thoughts

I was away in Montreal for the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards conference last week, so I didn’t get a chance to write a blog post leading up to today (hence why the post is late).  However, I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so here are some thoughts on attending the conference.

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This was the first conference I attended where work paid for it.  It was nice not needing to pay for the entrance, the flight, or the hotel room (previously, I would billet with conference organizers to cut down on cost).  It was pretty rad to stay at the same hotel that the conference was operating out of, which made life way easier.

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Conferences can actually be a great learning opportunity.  I learned a lot from the experiences of others as we shared stories and case studies, all of which I have brought back with me to bring to my boards.  I took around 11-pages of notes over the three days, so lots of stuff to review and implement.

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Networking is not something I have a lot of experience in.  In general, I’m terrible with schmoozing and making small talk.  On the plane from Toronto to Montreal, I downloaded my copy of Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone and brushed up on some conference networking best practices.  That hour I spent reading on the flight was pretty helpful over the next three days.

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I handed out business cards and collected them while in town.  I’ve already received an email from the President and CEO of an organization out of the US to follow-up on our conversation about receiving accreditation.  This is an example of what you should do with business card swaps – you go in, make a personal connection with the person, and give them a reason to follow-up.  If you give out your card, make sure to follow-up shortly after the conference to keep the connection going.

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Attending the conference put me a little out of my comfort zone.  I could have stayed comfortably in the hotel the entire time and avail myself of the amenities.  However, at various people’s prompting, I did venture out to explore the downtown core.  I made friends with one of the local bartenders as we smack-talked KW, and I was able to enjoy some genuine Montreal poutine.  For my first dinner, I went out alone, but on the second night, I made sure to go out for dinner with a group of people.  Meeting new people is challenging and not a natural thing for me, so I had to intentionally choose to put myself out there.  Having said that, I also respected downtime, and spent the evenings quietly in my hotel room enjoying movies and YouTube to recharge after the day.  I think it’s possible to strike a balance, and it’s good to respect your own personal limit.

All in all, it was a great experience.  I’m glad I went, but I was very happy to return home.  In the end, I felt “conferenced-out” and was looking forward to seeing my fiance after an intense three days of talking about research ethics.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Thoughts on Providing Feedback

I had a heartwarming moment this past week where a student provided some positive feedback about my teaching.  I “teach” an online course through the college and have been one of the instructors for the past year.  I find online courses a difficult medium to engage with students because you never get face to face interaction with them, so you need to find other ways to reach out and build a rapport.

One of the methods I choose, and use when I teach in-class as well, is to take time to provide comments and feedback on assignments.  I think of assignments as ways for me to provide real, concrete feedback on student performance (rather than just a grade).  In addition to the marking rubric, I will give three kinds of feedback:

  • comments on how well a student engaged with material according to a certain criteria;
  • areas where the student did not measure up to the criteria and why;
  • (most importantly) guidance on how the student could improve in the future.

That last bullet point is important to me because when I reflect back on my own learning in school, I realize that grades are often a poor way of gauging how well you understand the material.  Instead, the numeric grade stands as a proxy for how many “answers” you got right.  For the purposes of education, I’m concerned of the other side of the grade – the marks that you didn’t get; why you didn’t get 100%.  If I, as an instructor, can fill in the details of what the student missed, I can guide them towards improving in the future.

It takes me a while to grade assignments because I spend the extra time giving constructive feedback to the students.  If I simply told them what they  got wrong, the student won’t have a sense of what steps they could take to do better next time.  I don’t want the students to use trial and error to figure out how to improve skills.  Instead, I will give them explicit feedback on what I want them to do differently in the future.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m coddling the students too much.  Maybe you are right, but I assume the students are here to learn, that I’m positioned as the expert, and that teaching is more about molding and guiding students, not expecting them to stumble across the correct answers.  I want the students to be mindful of what I expect of them (and it forces me to reflect on what I want to see in the student’s progress, which is significantly harder than a capricious grade you slap on after reading through a paper).

If done right, you should see a general improvement in the quality of the assignments you receive over the semester.  Students who are looking to improve will pay attention to your feedback and will get better over time.

I’ll close off with an excerpt from the student who emailed me:

I struggle with philosophy but I wanted to try out this elective. Your feedback has really helped me to know where I have gone wrong and what to work on for the future assignments. I have never got so much feedback from teacher, so thank you.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Study Strategies #5 – Application

One of the hardest things I find my students struggling with is not grappling with deep philosophical thoughts, or technical jargon (to be fair, they do struggle with these as well), but it’s in the application of course material.  Most often, when my students submit work for me to evaluate, they submit work that is either:

  • straight opinion (read: a submission that is not structured as an argument with evidence and connecting ideas through logic); or
  • an attempt to solve or provide a definitive response for all the problems of this philosophical issue in about a page.

The thing my students don’t realize is that I don’t care whether they “solve” the philosophical problem.  Granted, I don’t expect them to be able to solve the problem in a page, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of the exercise is for me to check the thought-process of whether they are able to understand the material and work with it.

I was recently chatting with a Program Chair about her time teaching engineering courses.  She noted that often she’d give problem sets that lacked defined measurements, and her students would pause to ask what the length or value of the unknowns are.  She was very frank that she didn’t care what number their calculator displayed because it was more important for her to see whether the students could think through the problem, manipulate the equations, and understand how to go about solving a problem.  For her, the solution was extraneous for the purposes of the class – it was a quick and convenient way to mark an answer right or wrong, but not entirely indicative of whether the student was understanding the concepts.

Now, you may say that this is all well and good for engineering, but how does that apply to philosophy (“But, philosophy has no right answers!!!) or any of the other soft sciences or humanities disciplines.

The truth is that the faster you try to apply the concepts, the easier it is to learn and make the concepts stick, and it’s not all that different across disciplines.  If you are trying to learn a concept, the best thing you can do is to try to take what you think you are learning, and apply it to a novel situation.  By focusing less on the details and working with the core concepts, you get a chance to see what makes sense to you and where your gaps in knowledge are.

For the course I teach, the students work their way through the online module materials, which includes extra readings, embedded videos, probing questions, links to additional sources, etc.  Then, after a round of discussion board posts, the students have a weekly essay prompt related to the week’s topic.

Early in the course, my students will often reply strictly to the essay question with what they think the right answer is.  Through my weekly rubric feedback and general emails to the class, I encourage them to go back to the module content and apply the concepts they are learning to the essay prompt.  What would so and so say about this concept?  How does this school of thought define this concept?  Do you agree with how this concept gets framed?

The point of undergraduate philosophy courses is not for students to generate original philosophical thought.  That is an aim, but it shouldn’t be the outcome.  Instead, the instructor should be guiding the students to think better and understand the concepts being covered so that they can then apply it in novel situations.

When studying, a good way to learn the concepts it to try and extract the ideas from how the author framed them and see how you can apply those ideas in new ways.  It reinforces the learning and helps to spot gaps in understanding in a way that straight memorization doesn’t provide.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2017

Another year of reading has finished, so it’s time to take stock of how I did for 2017.  While I’m not an advocate of reading purely for the sake of speed or volume, I do challenge myself to see how many books I can get through during the year, if for nothing else than to ensure I’m carving out time to read.  For my 2016 results, check back to my post on What I read in 2016.

This year, I managed to get through 44 books and almost 14,000 pages, which is on par with my results from last year.  I posted my top list of books I read this year a few posts back, if you want to check it out.

I would say a little more than half of these books are audio books, as I decided to get an Audible subscription, and a friend has been kind enough to supply me with Terry Prachett books.  I have significantly picked up on the amount of fiction I’m reading, which was a deliberate choice since I noticed I consumed a lot of business and self-help books last year.

Title Author Pages
1 Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less Greg McKeown 272
2 The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck Mark Manson 224
3 Leaders Eat Last Simon Sinek 368
4 Awaken the Giant Within Tony Robbins 544
5 $100 Startup Chris Guillebeau 304
6 Tools of Titans Tim Ferriss 736
7 American Gods Neil Gaiman 558
8 The View from the Cheap Seats Neil Gaiman 544
9 The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton 272
10 Catching the Big Fish David Lynch 208
11 The Colour of Magic Terry Pratchett 288
12 The Path to Purpose William Damon 240
13 The Light Fantastic Terry Pratchett 288
14 The 80/20 Pinciple Richard Koch 288
15 The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen 256
16 How Proust Can Change Your Life Alain de Botton 208
17 Equal Rites Terry Pratchett 282
18 No Fears, No Excuses Larry Smith 272
19 Mort Terry Pratchett 272
20 The Death of Expertise Tom Nichols 240
21 Never Split the Difference Chris Voss 288
22 Sourcery Terry Pratchett 336
23 On Writing Stephen King 288
24 The Happiness Project Gretchen Rubin 368
25 Reading the Humanities John Greenwood 156
26 Spark John J. Ratey 304
27 Wyrd Sisters Terry Pratchett 336
28 Managing Oneself Peter F. Drucker 72
29 Pyramids Terry Pratchett 308
30 The Checklist Manifesto Atul Gawande 240
31 Total Recall Arnold Schwarzenegger 656
32 Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual Jocko Willink 208
33 I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had Tony Danza 272
34 Guards! Guards! Terry Pratchett 416
35 Eric Terry Pratchett 160
36 Side Hustle Chris Guillebeau 272
37 The Productivity Project Chris Bailey 304
38 Moving Pictures Terry Pratchett 400
39 Mating in Captivity Esther Perel 272
40 Finding Ultra Rich Roll 400
41 Reaper Man Terry Pratchett 288
42 The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin 288
43 Machine Man Max Barry 288
44 The Road to Character David Brooks 320
Total: 13904

All in all, I am very happy with the results, and I am looking forward to tackling the growing stack of books I have in my office for 2018.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Arts of Learning & Teaching

I’ve been in the apprenticeship phase of teaching for the last year, so I’ve largely been gaining experience in how information is conveyed and how to give feedback to students.  While I have given some consideration to course design and what kinds of courses I’d be interested in teaching, my primary focus has been on ensuring the students receive good content and (more importantly) good feedback on performance. Good performance management involves timely and specific feedback to either reinforce good behavioural outcomes, or quickly identifying and redirecting bad performance outcomes. It’s a challenge to ensure that feedback is both timely and useful, but it’s an important step of the process. 

I’m currently working my way through the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and I’ve started thinking about the process of learning.  While learning and teaching are separate domains, they are interconnected since they share similar goals.  However, being able to translate learning (whether being taught by a teacher or through self-teaching) into teaching to others is something that I have a lot of gaps in my knowledge about.

The first time I taught in-class in the college setting, I quickly became aware that my experiences with formal education (the university style lecture) was not a good mode of delivery to copy. While I am comfortable in the lecture setting, I saw that my students did not excel in that environment. I wish I could say that I had fixed my delivery before the end of the semester, but the reality is that I didn’t fully appreciate the situation until after the course was over and I reflected on the term. An environment where I stood at the front and spoke at length for two-hours was not one which the students could effectively absorb the material.

The problem I found is that how I think and absorb content is different from my students. Rather than teaching them to my style, I need to be more mindful of their talents and experiences. Waitzkin discusses this in his book, where he contrasts two kinds of teachers he’s had. One is the kind that teaches his own strengths and relies on rote memorization of strategies and techniques. In chess, this teacher has you studying opening moves to take early advantage of the board.  The other kind of teacher allows the student to play to their inner style, and teaches by building up concepts atomistically. In chess, this kind of teacher strip the board of all the pieces and focuses on the relationships between pieces at the end of the game. By showing how individual pieces play off each other, the student becomes comfortable across the game and learns not only how pieces fit together, but how to set yourself up for control at the end of the game.

I think my teaching style should embrace this second kind of teacher. Instead of dictating knowledge, I should focus on breaking the knowledge down and building up understanding in ways that make sense to the student. I can’t assume my students will have the prerequisite knowledge to compile the facts together on their own. It’s also the case that if I can’t break ideas down simply, the students might not get it, nor may I truly know what I’m talking about.  Afterall, Einstein and Feynman believed that if you couldn’t explain something simply, you probably don’t understand it very well yourself.

Stay awesome, 

Ryan