Stung by a Stingray

Part 2 in a series discussing the meaning of Wonder

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote most of his reflections – deep, penetrating thoughts, always pushing the limits with his questions, always seeking for an additional degree of precision in his answers – in the form of dialogues; like plays in which the main character would be his beloved teacher, Socrates.

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Socrates and the Socratic Method  — Drawing by hotcheeto89

In one such dialogue, Theaetetus, Socrates is having a discussion with a youth, the very own Theaetetus (my students won’t even try to pronounce his name, so let’s call him Tee). They’re trying to find what is the nature of knowledge, no less. Tee is kind of the ideal student: clever, respectful, curious, and possessing a good sense of himself and his capacities. He’s not afraid to bring forth his own opinions, be contradicted, if it happens, and learn from the whole thing. And he is not interested in what impression he is making on the teachers, whether he’ll look clever or dumb. He is interested in learning about things that, well, have caught his interest.

In his impish manner, Socrates has shown to Tee that it is possible to become taller or shorter, bigger or smaller, without changing in size at all. Compare yourself with someone who has grown a lot. You’re the same size than you were, but you are also shorter!

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“These puzzles are not new to you, I guess,” Socrates asks.

“No,” Tee replies, “but indeed, it is extraordinary how they set me wondering whatever they can mean. Sometimes I get quite dizzy with thinking of them.”

This reaction, I should here mention, is very telling. You can see young Tee (who is a student of math), trying to solve a problem, realizing he’s missed something, looking at it from a different angle, finding it doesn’t add up, starting yet again, until the whole thing gets mixed up in his head. Yet we don’t get from Tee’s reply the impression that he is frustrated by that. Rather, there is something pleasant and fun about getting dizzy and completely baffled!

* * *

Maybe I can introduce here a first definition for “Wonder.” I would call it an onomatopoeic definition.

“Wonder” is what makes us say: “WHAAAT???”

This is not an angry “What?” It’s a baffled, dumbfounded “What?” Socrates compares it with being stung by a stingray. You feel numb, disoriented.

And this is what Socrates makes of Tee’s reply: “That shows that Theodorus (Tee’s own teacher) was not wrong in his estimate of your nature. This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”

These are big words. Up until very recently, at least (until, perhaps, the 1800’s), you could say that this remark by Plato was basically unchallenged. Meaning that everyone who was doing philosophy agreed with this: Philosophy has its origin in this sense of wonder. Let’s look at it in more detail.

There are questions that we ask out of a survival (or more broadly, “practical”) interest: “Where should I go if a tornado struck?” “How can I increase the yield in my crops?”” Does this model come with airbags?” “Do you have homework?”

There are questions that we ask because they help us orient ourselves in the here and now, learn where everyone else is at: “Where’s everybody gone?” “What did you have for dinner?” “What was Hawaii like?” “Who won the game?”

And then there are questions that we ask for no practical reason at all; just because they are baffling, or puzzling, or intriguing.

What is winning

Epic Rap Battles of History got it right. It’s not about who wins!

Sometimes they are kind of silly, but the process of thinking through them is a lot of fun.

And sometimes, they are really BIG questions; questions that make us feel that our grasp on reality is no thicker than a light fabric of theories we’ve spun around our minds. Let’s take gravity, for example.

A: “Isn’t it curious that we seem to be stuck to the ground, when nothing is actually grabbing us?”

B: “Duh! That’s gravity!”

A: “But what is gravity?”

B: “It is… the reason why things are attracted towards the earth.”

A: “So… You’re basically saying that the reason things are attracted towards the earth is that there is something that makes things be attracted towards the earth.”

B: “…”

A: “But how does it work…?”

Now A has punched a hole through the fabric, realizing that gravity is for them no more than a word, put in place of—a placeholder, perhaps, for a real explanation. Now B has two options:

Option 1: Retreat!

“Well, I don’t know myself, but I’m sure scientists know.”

(Which is perhaps not true now, and was certainly not true before Einstein.)

Option 2: Allow  oneself to be baffled.

“Dude, I have no idea…!

Again, it’s both uncomfortable – deeply unsettling, some would say – and exciting. Here is this world we’ve taken for granted, and there’s actually so little we know about it!

This is, according to Plato, and Aristotle, and the bulk of classical philosophers, what originated not just philosophy, but all the sciences (which in the beginning, if you want to know, were all jumbled up under the name “Philosophy”).

Newton

Yep, that’s what Newton’s brilliant work on the laws of motion (and, yes, gravity!) was called: not ‘Physics,’ or ‘Astronomy,’ but the ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’!

And that’s where it all began, philosophy and science: with people that got carried away by these immense questions, and decided to be methodical about it.

<Coming next: Wonder is not just “Whaaat?”, but also “WOW!”>

Wonder

Part 1 in a series discussing the meaning of Wonder

Plato would be mad at me. So would be Alice, for that matter.

I didn’t try to define my subject (which would have upset Plato), and (against the King’s only good bit of advice to Alice) I didn’t begin at the beginning.

I’ve had the nerve to subtitle my blog, “Looking for Wonder in All Things,” and to name it after one of the most famous expressions from (you probably knew this) Alice in Wonderland. Yet at no point, in the year or so it’s been up, did I even try to explain what this Wonder thing is!

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I’ve had my reasons, of course; the first being that it is a very difficult thing to do. I have a very narrow comfort zone; doing something difficult is already stepping out of it…

Secondly, Wonder and Philosophy go a long way back. Plato makes Socrates say (in Theaetetus) that “this sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher,” no less, and that philosophy, indeed, has no other origin than wonder. After Plato, many great philosophers – and hundreds of minor ones – have written magnificent things about it. So the task is reasonably daunting. Especially since I plan to do it blog style.

What got me started, then? Well, this: I teach Philosophy. I brought my students to the library to do some hunting. Among the questions I posed was, how do you define ‘wonder’?

Easy, I thought. Just go into one of the many encyclopedias of philosophy we’ve pulled out for you and look into the index. Well, here’s what they found.

Nothing.

In fact, I think I should center it for emphasis. Here’s what they found:

Nothing.

Yep. They looked in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 10 volumes, and the word wasn’t even in the index. They looked in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and got just a few inconsequential hits, of people, well, wondering about something, but never about wonder itself. Somehow we’ve gone from “the mark of the philosopher” to “not worth writing an article about,” and this is certainly puzzling. A screaming silence, if you will.

I’m talking, of course, of the peer-reviewed heavyweights. Wikipedia, which is awesome (another word for “wonderful”), but so far unquotable in the academic world, has a somewhat discombobulated article that amounts to, let’s see, 700 words. Fewer, probably, than any minor supervillain from Marvel (yet another word for “Wonder”). Certainly less than Wikipedia’s entry on Wonder Woman (which, come to think about it, is such a silly name for a character: it applies to about half the population on Earth!)

Wwoman

Yet wonder is very, very important. Not just for philosophers, but for human life.

Without wonder, it’s like the light has died inside you.

* * *

Just bring these two images to your mind: two traditional high school classrooms. In one students are slumped, their eyes glassy, their whole body language lazily screaming, “when is this class going to end?” In another, students are not just sitting upright but a bit forward, itching to speak, nearly falling from their desks in their efforts to catch the teacher’s attention so they can share what is buzzing through their minds…

The difference? Easy. Wonder. Call it curiosity or interest, if you want; that’s wonder at its lowest intensity. Bring it up all the way to mind-blowing (or sometimes mind-numbing) puzzlement, disbelief, the impossibility to reconcile what they think they know with what is being proposed, and you have something closer to what Plato meant by it.

Do you begin to see why wonder is important? Maybe you’ve been present at a class, or a meeting, where “nobody cares.” It feels like people are breathing, but not really alive. We can lose our capacity for wonder – that interior light. It is rather common, actually.

But why?

If you’ve read this far, it means you haven’t lost your capacity for wonder – at least it’s a very good sign. But maybe you are considering – wondering, yes – how to recover it, wake it up when someone has lost it. If you teach, or if giving presentations is one of your career hazards, you may be asking yourself how to wake up this wonder in your students, in your audience.

I’ll put down a few thoughts in my following posts. I can’t claim them as mine, since some of my favorite philosophers have been working on this for a very long time; but the least I can say is that they are “time-tested” – for at least twenty three hundred years or so.

In the meantime, I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter!

<To be continued…>

Tools for teachers: Do-it-yourself Snakes & Ladders!

A fun activity for an end-of-the-term class!

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Spongebob Business Ethics!

You’ve been there: You’ve taught the whole syllabus, next class you’ll have the test, and you’re afraid that, if you try to fit just one more bit of content into your students’ brains, the whole thing is going to collapse like a Jenga tower. (Not that it matters, since your students’ brains are ready for the break, and have wisely decided to shut down all communications with the teaching world).

What to do then? Cupcakes, music; a course-related movie if you are really dedicated… But in my experience, this approach usually feels flat, as if you had given up, instead of ending with a Bang!

Thus this activity, which, truth be told, won’t probably teach your students anything new, but will have the whole class buzzing and laughing together. Which is good enough for that final class!

You’ll need:

  • one poster board for every 5 students
  • a die or two
  • some goodies (candy bars, etc.) for prizes.

A game of Light and Darkness – Bingo style!

Snakes_and_Ladders Ancient game

Snakes & Ladders: Origins

Snakes and Ladders  (“Chutes and Ladders,” your students will be quick to point out, referring to the famous Mattel version) is an ancient Indian board game. Players, in turn, through a die, and move forward. If they land on a “ladder” square, they move up and skip a number of steps, depending on where the ladder lands. But if they fall on a “snake” (or chute), they move down and have to roll their way up again. The first one to reach the end wins the game.

If Wikipedia is to be trusted, “the historic version had root in morality lessons, where a player’s progression up the board represented a life journey complicated by virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes).” Which makes it a great choice for a final class on Business Ethics.

But how to make it personal? Begin by drawing on poster board various versions of an 80-square track, without adding any ladders or snakes. This is the time-consuming part: you need to have the boards ready ahead of time, one for every 5 students (it takes about 1/2 hour each, depending on skill).

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(Tip: Keep the used boards. The next time you want to do this activity, tape the poster board to a window, and use the transparency effect to copy the board design on the other side. You will save money, and it will take you about ten minutes per game board!)

Here are some examples of boards I used in my last class:
(Clicking on them will open a high-res version in a new tab)

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Snake style

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Tape worm-inspired?

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Old-fashioned labyrinth

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Ever played “Tron”?

In class, I divided students in groups of 5, each group sharing a board, and asked each student in a group to add both a snake and a ladder to their board. Here’s the teaching part: The “reason” why you go up or down has to be stated on the square, and it has to be related to the course content (e.g. Lied on your Resume will be a “snake”; Helped cover shifts will be a “ladder”).

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Walk among them, help them with ideas, and keep them on track.

Tip: They’ll have even more fun if they select a “theme” for their game board, that connects the various rewards and penalties.

Ask them also to design their “tokens” (the playing pieces), which can also be related to a theme.

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Darth Bubble, The Flying Dutchman, and that happy starfish thingy. And a sales graph?

Playing together

It would probably be fun enough to let them play on their own once they are ready. But it’s even more fun if the teacher rolls the dice and announces the results, “bingo style”. To do this:

– Each player in a group should have a number from 1 to 5

– Write those number on the board, and find a way to mark which player is currently rolling. (I have some wonderful magnetic erasers that I simply move around!)

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– Move the marker, roll a die, and announce the result. Each player with that number moves, in every team. They are all playing simultaneously; but because the distribution of snakes and ladders in each board is different, results will vary.

– Move to the next player. Repeat.

(Tip: I bring two or three and a cup. Even if I roll one die at a time, this helps move things faster. You want to keep this moving!)

Pay attention to your students’ reactions. If they laugh out loud or scream in frustration, ask them what happened. This will allow the rest of the class to participate on each teams’ game.

The first player in each board to reach the end gets a goodie (runner-ups too, if you want).

What have you learned?

The actual learning/reviewing done in this activity is thin at best (though, if I taught math, I’ll ask students to do probability analyses for each board, that kind of thing). It is mostly aimed at having a good last day together with them.

There is an important indirect lesson though, which you can discuss with those cooler-than-thou students that insist on keeping their distance: The more you put of yourself in an activity, the more you’ll enjoy it! This is strikingly visible in this activity: the groups that select a theme and try to produce very elaborate boards have a total blast while playing it; those that start reticently will eventually warm up to it, but not with the same level of enjoyment.

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Eels & Ladders

In one class, I could see the diminishing degrees as the desks got further away from the board. Those sitting in the front desks, by far the most enthusiastic players, celebrated every play: they had designed a very detailed Spongebob Business Ethics theme, down to downloading the show’s theme song into one of their phones. Those on the back row had one team member move the pieces for everyone else, while the rest stole glances into their computer screens. Something else to think about…

Alf the Red

Tools for Philosophers: Fun with Ethical Dilemmas!

…Or how to make your students create their own dilemmas to use in the classroom.

Real ethical dilemmas, of course, are never fun. You have to choose between conflicting values–sometimes the lesser of two evils–and it is always a tough decision that leaves you somewhat dissatisfied, when not thoroughly depressed…

Bring them to the classroom, though, and things lighten up! Even the most disaffected student cannot resist voicing their opinion when one of these turns up.

They work greatly when you need to “change the air” in  the class; that is, if you’ve been lecturing for too long and feel that if you don’t do something else your students will die in their desks. It’s good to keep a couple of these handy.

Selecting dilemmas to use in class

Where can you get a good ethical dilemma? Most textbooks will have a good selection, but you should always read them in advance and look for such things as these, and possibly modify the case:

  • A case that provides a lot of detail is more fun to analyze than a very vague one (and thus, dilemmas based on real cases are usually more interesting)
  • A case that makes you decide from the point of view of one of the characters is more engaging than the general question, “what should be done”?
  • Some cases end up telling you what was done, and ask you to judge on those actions. If that is the case, it is better to cut the last paragraph out, and let the students develop their own solutions to the problem

There are many ways of using cases in a class discussion. I’ll discuss them in a future post. Stay tuned! (I.e., press the “Follow” button! 😉

A classroom activity: Dilemma “skits”

Download this activity

While I normally bring to class (that is, to Ethics class) some handouts with good “standalone” cases, I’ve recently had the opportunity of showing my students some flash presentations onscreen presenting short, everyday ethical dilemmas. These immediately capture the full attention of the most tired and distracted students, and are excellent for bite-sized discussions. Even if the acting is crummy, this adds an element of fun to the presentation!

The problem, however, is that there aren’t that many available. I quickly ran out of them.

So I thought: Why don’t I make my students come up with some?

That is how I came up with this activity, which you can download here. In a class with 22 students, we got five skits ready in just 45 minutes! You should allow about an hour for performing & discussing.

 This is how it works:

  • The activity guides students in creating “skits,” 2-3 minutes-long
  • The creation process is broken down so that it is very easy to keep students on track. The time assigned for each step worked perfectly in a 20+ students class…
  • …but you should walk around the groups and nudge them in the right direction if they are having trouble deciding on a topic
  • Groups can be of 3-5 students each, and every student should choose a speaking role. (One role can be the Narrator, introducing the characters and the situation)
  • The skit should not end with a decision, but instead should stop at the point in which a decision needs to be made.
  • When a skit ends, congratulate the students, and then use the opportunity to discuss the case with the whole class. In this way you pace them, and give each one the attention they deserve

* For a nice “extra credit” project, you can challenge your students to make a video of their skit. Eventually you may end with a small collection that you can use in future classes! (If you happen to do this and decide to make them public, let me know!)

Tools for Philosophy Teachers: A Guide for Student Presentations

How do I get my students to read the material before class?

This is perhaps the greatest challenge college teachers face today! (Ideas? Post a comment!)

This will have to wait, though. What I have here [Download!] is a very simple way of getting at least ONE student to read the material before class. It is as simple as assigning them a presentation on the readings for the day.

The basic format of the presentation:

  • The student introduces him/herself and the topic
  • The student summarizes each unit assigned (a section, a paragraph, etc.) in two to three sentences, written beforehand.
  • The student provides a “reaction” to the reading (likes, dislikes, things that left him/her thinking…)
  • The student proposes one or two questions to the class. These are not rhetorical: Only after the questions have generated a few minutes of discussion is the student allowed to go back to their seat.
The format itself is not my creation (though this guide is). I think it’s pretty standard. I picked it up from Prof. William George, at Dominican University.
It’s a great way of reviewing the material too; and the most rudimentary feelings of empathy for the presenting student will have the others paying attention and trying to participate!
How to use it:
  • Write in the header the name of the student and the assignment. In this way, there’ll be no excuses.
  • It is better to assign short sections to many students. In that way, you get more students to actually focus on the reading!
  • A good presentation will take 10-15 mins. of class. Of course, I am counting on reasonably smart, motivated students. Results may vary.
  • Don’t let a student get away with a question that doesn’t elicit a good follow-up discussion. If they made the mistake of asking a question that can be simply answered with a “yes,” let them suffer the *uncomfortable silence* that follows for a few minutes. This will motivate the following students to prepare better questions!
Download A Guide for Student Presentations [in old Word format. Document will open in a new window.]

Tools for Philosophy Teachers: A Logic Inventory

So you’ve started your philosophy course with high hopes of getting your students to analyze the intricacies of Aristotle’s potency and act, Aquinas’ being and essence, and Kant’s Critique of something or other. And already you find your expectations stumped by the fact that your students–fresh from high school–are having trouble figuring the difference between a definition and an example!

Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.

This activity [Download!] can come in very handy at the beginning of a course that will be heavy in the use of various basic conceptual operations. Through it, students get to exercise the following:

  • Definitions (etymological, semantic, explanatory and classical, i.e., genus + specific difference)
  • Describing
  • Characterizing
  • Enumerating properties
  • Exemplifying
  • Formulating
  • Stating vs. Explaining
  • Paraphrasing
Each of these operations is given a brief explanation, after which students are asked to define/characterize, etc. such words as “whisky,” “to run” and “New Yorker.” (Feel free to modify it to your taste).
Recommended use: 
Use it in one of your first classes, and ask students to work in groups first. This will get them talking to each other. Then share with the class. This will get them talking to you!
The document is in old Word format, 5 pages long. It works better if each student has their own copy. 
You can find it here.  [Document will open in a new window.]
Enjoy!
Alf the Red

Using Props in the Classroom

Trying to figure out these three guys
developed into a discussion in which
Lonergan’s “four levels of conscious operations”
were identified, no less.

Hands-on philosophy, you say?

Philosophy teachers don’t usually get many chances to teach “hands-on.” We learn by reading heavy texts, we improve our understanding of subtle points through long discussions, and our teaching is most often very discursive, with nothing for our students to hang on but words, arguments, the records of past experiences, and–if we are feeling generous–flat images on a flat screen.

That’s why I love the look in the face of my students when I bring an actual object to class. What I call a “prop.”
I discovered this when trying to explain Aristotle’s Theory of Abstraction in an introductory class. I was fascinated then by how my kids–barely toddlers at that point–would recognize a basket for bathtub toys (a thing made of yellow fabric, hanging from the wall with suckers) as a “fish,” which is what it was shaped like. This they did without any prompting from the grownups, showing a capacity for relating abstracted images to a “model” at surprisingly early age!
Fishy
Since I was going to talk about this in class, I borrowed one of my kids’ toys–a very cute squeaky shark.
When I took it off my bag, planning to pass it around while asking the question, “Is this a shark, or is this not a shark?” a girl sitting at the front spontaneously exclaimed:
“That is so cool!!!”
Man, were they starving to hold something in their hands! They passed it around twice.
Since then, I’ve been looking for ways to break the monotony by bringing other objects to class.

My favorite is a mate (pronounced “mah-teh.” Not “maté,” as you’ll find it spelled out by most tea companies. That accent is made-up) with its stand, and its bombilla. (Picture above). I use them to make students discover by themselves the “four level of conscious operations,” described by Bernard Lonergan in his work Insight.

If you’ve been to Argentina or its neighboring countries, then you’ll know that mate is a type of tea (different family, probably; I’m not being technical here) served in a recipient made from hollowed gourd, called, also, mate. This is stuffed with the leaves, hot water is poured in it, and you drink it through a metal straw called “bombilla” (also pictured above). It’s a social drink: once you’ve drunk, the host fills it up again, and passes it to the next guest (drinking, yes, from the same bombilla).
My students (I teach in Chicago) normally don’t know this. So when I pass around these objects, they look immediately puzzled. It’s an almost complete unknown at first. They touch, tap, examine, smell, use almost all their senses. They note their observations out loud. (First level: experience.) They formulate theories about their use (“is this a musical instrument”?) They try to put the different objects together in a meaningful manner, finding sometimes that the mate fits perfectly on the stand. Test names, relate them to things they know. (Second level: understanding.) They discuss their theories, weigh them, criticize them, look at me for a hint. (Third level: judgment.) They look with interest when I tell them that mate is really good if you want to pull an all-nighter, and squirm when I tell them that they’d have to drink from the same bombilla, or make up a really good excuse if they don’t want to offend their host. (Fourth level: value judgment.)

Most importantly, they look unanimously awake.

Trust me: It’s really worth a try.
Alfredo Mac Laughlin
* Have you used an unusual prop in one of your classes? Tell us of the context, the reactions you got. When I collect enough of these, I’ll cast them into another post. *