Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Teacher Becomes the Student

“Focus,” he said. “Stop talking.  Breathe.  Now, push that bar up.”

Eyes closed, face scrunched, forehead veins popping, I sucked in a breath and pushed the bar up summoning all of my might.  When I let it back down I opened my eyes with relief.

“You’re stronger than you think,” he said.  “Next time we’ll put more weight on.”


Three months ago hubs noticed a Crossfit gym open across the street from us.  Rather nonchalantly he suggested  we give it a try. Why not?  I phoned and scheduled a time for us to come in.  Keep in mind, I did this with only the vaguest of vague notions about class workouts such as Sweatin’ to the Oldies by Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda videos.    Yay for group exercise!

Hubs couldn’t make it that first day so I wandered into the gym solo.  The first thing the coach went over were squats.  Sure, I could bend my knees.  No probs.

“Good, but you need to go further than your legs parallel.”

I tried again.

“Get your butt below your knees.  Then drive back up.” He then demonstrated the movement with grace and an apparent immunity to gravity.

The bending wasn’t too bad, however standing up from that position (and quickly) was a different story.  Whew!  So, what’s next?

“Give me 20.”

“I’m sorry?  How do you mean?” I asked.

“Do 20 of those squats.”

I was going to kill hubs for this.

And the rest of the session didn’t get much better.  There was rowing, push ups, and an awkward attempt at a pull-up that left me swinging from the bar squealing, pretty much offering empirical evidence to the theory of evolution.  I came home exhausted, shaky, and sweaty.  I needed wine.  It didn’t matter that it was 10:30 am.  “I’m drinkin’ the good stuff!”

For the next few days I shuffled rather than walked.  Even the simplest of movements like turning the key in the ignition caused pain.  A few of my students asked me if I was okay.  “Crossfit,” I said.  They nodded sympathetically.  Limping and saying “Crossfit,” around youth, it turns out, gets them to hold doors for you and assist carrying books.  During a class break, one student who does Crossfit handed me a little list of recovery activities and smoothies.  He gave me hope that things would get better.

My sessions at Crossfit continued.  In all honesty I felt like Sisyphus with each new set of exercises because it didn’t seem to get any easier for me.  I was the runt of the litter, perpetually out of breath and the last to finish.  As a professor, I spend my days walking into a classroom being an expert, but now I was entering a situation where I found myself the dullard of the group.  The challenge humbled me.  I needed to follow, not lead.  I needed to listen, not instruct.  I needed to embrace the fact that I had a lot to learn.  I needed to trust.

Then one day in the midst of a set of exercises my mind silenced.  Huffing, puffing, and sweating, my body continued to go through the movements.  I experienced a strange sort of numbness, not in my body but in my mind.  The voice in my head usually counting-down and praying for the end suddenly stilled.  I just kept going.  My muscles took charge and I surrendered to them.

Much to my surprise, my gradual increase in strength and endurance has prompted a rather emotional inquiry.  I can do more.  But accepting this means coming to terms with a buried long held habit of turning attention away from my body.  As a child, I was brutally teased by boys for being chubby.  My solution to the problem involved wearing excessively baggy clothes, and in Catholic school I spent a few afternoons in detention for not tucking my shirt in all the way; however, I preferred the baggy look and detention administered by Sister Jean to tucking my shirt in and showing any sort of form to my body.

This mentality stayed with me but not in an obvious manifestation, more in terms of an absence.  My attention over most of my life has been almost exclusively directed to the development of my mind.  I read.  I write.  I go for walks to ponder what I have read and what I need to write.

A relationship to my body has been virtually non-existent.

It’s not “me.”

“Me” = devoting afternoons to unraveling Hegel (with coffee and snacks).

Jumping into the grueling exercise program that is Crossfit forced me to confront the source and the perpetuation of my feelings towards my physical self.  I absorbed the taunts of the boys even though I put on quite a front with my hands on hips yelling sharp come-backs like, “Oh, yeah, well you’re a stupid-head!”

This has me thinking about the power of buying into others’ beliefs, consciously or not.  I accepted as true that my body was subpar.  I therefore set a definition of myself as if that were static and couldn’t waver.

How much do we hold ourselves back because someone somewhere said, “This isn’t for you,” or “You’re not capable.”?

The boys are long gone now, and I’ve surrounded myself with people who encourage and push me to do more.  At the moment I’m learning how to improve this area of my life.  There is still more work to be done and goals to set.  Most importantly, I’ve learned to shift my thinking from “I can’t” to “I’m getting there.”

*My deepest gratitude to the coaches and crossfitters at CrossFit Madre.

Moral Behavior and Ethics Class: Thoughts on Schwitzgebel’s paper

Schwitzgebel’s paper raises an interesting question, namely, Do Ethics Classes Influence Students’ Moral Behavior?  He writes: “I tentatively conclude that the typical university ethics class has at most a tiny effect on students’ moral behavior.  Even tiny positive effects on moral behavior can be highly important, but unfortunately such tiny positive effects, if they exist, might be entirely canceled or outweighed by negative effects.”  These negative effects are “Toxic rationalizations” where, “The more theories you have ready to hand, and the cleverer your inner lawyer, the more resources you can bring to the task of rationalizing attractive misconduct.” Thus, by learning moral theory, the student now has ammunition to work around a theory’s loopholes and/or misuse the principles of the theory.  As a result, moral theory might not only be ineffective for advancing moral behavior but can actually serve as an impetus for immoral action.

There are a few assumptions at work here I wish to address.  This does call into question a bigger issue of education as such, however I will not delve into that now.

  1. When students enter university they are adults shadowed by some form of moral teaching.  The professor, then, does not begin a class with a group of people unfamiliar with the concepts of “right” and “wrong.” This factor alone suggests that the primary motive of Ethical Theory would be hard pressed to aim towards altering behavior.  I think we can stipulate that a student comfortable with cheating at the age of 18-22 will not suddenly drop the inclination after becoming acquainted with Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
  2. Schwitzgebel admits that the few studies administered to gauge moral behavior post ethics courses are problematic, writing: “These studies are not, I think, very compelling evidence.” And, “In neither study were students randomly assigned into ethics vs. non-ethics courses, which opens up the possibility of uncontrolled confounding factors such as maturity, proximity to graduation, and ethics instruction from other sources.”  He then opts for “indirect evidence” from studies on the impact of economic classes but states, “Unfortunately the results of this economics literature are inconclusive.”  If the evidence itself is weak, how can the conclusion that the courses have a “tiny” influence be substantiated?
  3. One factor employed to measure behavior is students’ likeliness to “charitable giving.”  This might be an interesting study after a course on Peter Singer; however, “charitable giving” falls into an extremely narrow category.  If students do not immediately donate money to a charity I think that hardly qualifies for an assertion that Ethics classes fail to generate moral behavior (especially considering the increased financial stress university students currently face).  In addition, not all ethical theories direct our attention to charitable giving.  (Aristotle’s and Wollstonecraft’s Virtue theory, for example.)
  4. I think there is a misplacement of blame in the following assertion: “An ethics class might leave a student feeling that ethical standards are unattainable, or the student might hate the class and be turned off forever to intellectual conversations about ethics.  A student might learn that ‘ethics’ is about the rigid application of stupid rules, or the kind of thing that concerns badly dressed sixty-year-old men, or leads only to interminable, unwinnable debates.” If that is the effect of the course then I suggest it reveals a problem with the instruction and syllabus, not with Ethics as such.  I also take slight issue with the image presented here of the professor, but that is for another time.
  5. Finally, the possibility of a “toxic rationalization” I find deeply puzzling.  This position assumes that ethical judgment is bereft of empathy and emotion.  In his Lecture on Ethics, Kant said, “To be humane is to have sympathy with the fate of others.”  If a former student of ethics in the “real world” calls on his university material to manipulate a situation for his own gain and thereby behave destructively towards others then that is an outright misunderstanding of ethical theory and not a result of ethical theory.  A person willing to lie, cheat and steal would most likely behave in such a fashion with or without a university ethics course.

So, then, what is the function of an Ethical Theory class?  I sometimes offer the following analogy when beginning my Ethical Considerations in Technology course, a course largely for engineering majors (who wonder what the Hell they are doing in a Philosophy class): holding up my iphone I say, “If someone asked me ‘How does that work?’ and I replied ‘Oh it’s easy you just press this button and it’s on.  Then you tap these numbers and someone picks up their phone and we speak.’ Would I have explained how the phone works?”  In unison the students shake their heads “no.”

“How long would it take to explain how it is that pressing buttons makes talking to someone far away possible?”

“Long time,” they reply.  I then explain that Ethical Theory, like the inner workings of the cell phone, is the extended analysis behind many of our ideas on “right” and “wrong” that might appear obvious. When reading the works of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and Rawls, for instance, we trace the evolution of our thinking about what it means to be human and to interact.  Exposing students to the plethora of ways to define “right” and “wrong” in itself provokes thoughtfulness which weaves its way into their lives in a manner not easily tested.  Moreover, the theories can help solidify ideas about existing values such as autonomy, freedom of speech, and voting.  In the same way an engineering student would appreciate their cell phone more by learning the dynamics of its inner workings through university classes, a student of ethical theory could benefit by reading the logic underscoring moral behavior that is assumed as a given or taken for granted.

Ethical Theory constitutes more that a “do this” and “don’t do that” structure, as I’m sure Schwitzgebel knows; however, this element is ignored in his analysis of its influence. Putting the crux of the matter at measuring immediate moral behavior mistakes educational institutions for a correctional facility.  Again, this does point to the broader issue, I think, of what is education?

Once in a while a student will throw up their hands at the end of the term and say “Well which one is correct?”  I answer, “That is up to you to think about which argument is the strongest. Recognizing the complexity of determining “Right” is part and parcel of the education.”  That is, just applying a theory to a situation isn’t necessarily the only aim, but reading the literature on how the philosophy “greats” worked out theories teaches students how to consider several variables (not to mention it enhances their critical thinking skills).

Am I biased to protect the very subject I teach?  I kindly refer you to the story of Thales if you suppose money to be my motive here.

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