Tag Archives: college life

Daunting Term Paper

Term paper season causes a lot of anxiety for students.  The grade is not a matter of memorization but of doing something with one’s acquired knowledge.  Scantrons no more!  The irony is we’re often eager to state our point of view except when it’s obligatory.  Here’s a few tips:

  1. Start with a subject covered in the course that interested you.  It’s important that you find your chosen topic to be intriguing.  Trust me, if you’re bored with your thesis then writing will be excruciating.  Don’t be afraid to connect a subject learned in class with something that aligns with your passion and/or area of expertise.
  2. Don’t worry if you’re momentarily paralyzed by the project.  Many writers feel the jitters when eyeing a blank page. Congratulations, you are normal!
  3. Break the tasks of putting the paper together into manageable bits.
  4. Try free writing (old-fashioned with pen and paper) using the following prompt: “This interested me because…”
  5. Or, try this: “This subject reminded me of…”
  6. At the risk of sounding corny, if your attitude is “Ugh, I have to write this term paper,” consider shifting your attitude to “I have an opportunity to explore an idea and express my thoughts.”
  7. Once you get a handle on your position regarding a topic then begin using the library’s search engine for publications on your subject matter.
  8. Reading the publications ask yourself: does this enhance my view?  How so?  Is this contrary to my view?
  9. Now begin an outline with a clear thesis, order of ideas, and a conclusion.  Why is this topic worthy of writing about?  How is it significant?
  10. Fill in your outline. Again, break the work up into bits if the task feels overwhelming.  Some people do wonderful work hours at a time, but that isn’t necessary for everyone.  Devote at least 25 minutes to pure focus time on your paper and shut off any distractions.  Step away for a while and then return to your work.
  11. Contact the professor if you’re concerned about the direction of your topic.  All professors were once students themselves and they understand the trials of paper writing.
  12. Chat with a friend about your paper idea.  Talking out loud about an idea can inject energy into your work.  Perhaps your friend will add an insight.
  13. After your first draft print your work.  I cannot stress this enough.  Never hand in a paper that hasn’t been printed and edited.  A print version allows you to spot grammar errors and awkward sentence flow better than re-reading on a screen.
  14. Review the professor’s guidelines regarding citations, margins, and other details.
  15. Type up corrections you made from your printed version.  I recommend printing another draft, stepping away from it to do another activity, and then re-read your printed version out loud and slowly.
  16. Edit out overused terms and double check your use of conjunctions.  Most likely due to the world of texting I’ve found many grammar errors confusing possessive with plural.  (Know the difference between it’s, its, you’re, your, then, than, their, there, whether, and weather.)
  17. Make your final corrections.  Print!  Cheer!
  18. Remember, your term paper is an expression of your thoughts.  You are offering an interpretation or analysis on a subject that is unique because it comes from you.  This is an exercise in thinking, not just knowing, and it is one of the ways you learn more about a subject and, in turn, more about yourself.

*Fancy more tips?  Click here.


Are You In A Relationship With Your Phone?

Two of my classes this term focus on the dynamics between technology and culture: Science, Technology, and Society and Ethical Considerations in Technology. The other day I spotted an opinion piece in the student paper discussing the dating app Tinder (Click here to read it). Now, the usual academic set up of the courses involves discussing case studies such as The Challenger Disaster, the New Orleans Levee failure, and Genetic Engineering. In light of the interesting shift in our behavior regarding phone usage, and specifically the piece from the student paper, I decided to shelve the topic on the syllabus for a moment and ask students what they thought of the influx of dating apps.

My intention was to simply spend a brief time on this, but it unraveled into a spirited class discussion lasting for nearly an hour. Everyone had something to say!

I asked students what the advantages are to using an app for dating and put the list on the board. It looked something like this:

  1. It saves time.
  2. It’s efficient.
  3. You can plan your thoughts out in a text or have a friend double check what you text before hitting send.
  4. You don’t have to deal with face-to-face rejection.
  5. There is an ego boost to getting “hits” or “likes.”
  6. There is more control over first impression because you can choose the photo and the bio.
  7. There are so many possibilities.

Unlike reviewing case studies where students learn the information pertinent to the cases, memorize them, and then crank it back out on an exam, this discussion ignited their interest because they are smack in the middle of a cultural shift regarding personal interaction brought about by the fancy-gadget-does-everything-phone.

We then began to pick apart the list on the board. How much time is actually saved if one is on the phone for hours swiping away at photos of potential dates? Wouldn’t there be a similar amount of time spent on going out and being social in person?

For numbers 2-4 and 6 we talked about the very human element of being vulnerable in both friendships and relationships. Removing, or attempting to remove, that from the equation could rob one of an opportunity for growth. Stumbling, putting your foot in your mouth, blushing, awkwardness, and responding in real time with a facial expression are all elements of being human. Is efficiency meant to be applied in this realm? Would you ever want to date a person who had never experienced rejection or a heart break? Isn’t that what makes us humble, caring, and sensitive?

The ego boost is another intriguing aspect. In the normal course of a week, how many compliments does one receive? Without doubt, it feels nice to be on the receiving end of kind words. What the app has done (along with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) is create a potential for a deluge of “likes” within a brief time frame. No longer will a compliment from someone once a week suffice. It’s now needed within seconds of posting something and the desire to check has turned into something of an addiction.

With number 7, we discussed how the idea of “many fish in the sea” has radically changed to an infinite amount of fish in the ocean. Hmm…how has the idea that there could always be someone else impacted commitment? (Vanity Fair published an article on this over the summer much to the dismay of Tinder. Click here for the article.)

The conversation morphed into a more general dialogue about being on the phone. It’s a security blanket. One never needs to feel alone because one can always get online to see what people are up to. It is a companion.

In the spirit of bringing this dialogue into the subject of philosophy and specifically The Apology where Socrates gives his famous defense, I asked the students what Socrates would think of our addiction to the phone. Are we similar to Athens?

Socrates argued the soul inherently held more value than the body and other material goods. (If you do not subscribe to the idea of a soul then swap it out with the concept of character.) How, then, does one care for the soul? By asking questions, seeking knowledge, and developing virtues such as Justice, Courage, and Creativity to name a few. For Socrates, spending time on the soul through intellectual and moral pursuits allowed for the good life: “For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul.  Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.”

Are we subverting excellence by tending to the phone? Are happiness spikes from internet activity an excess? Are we losing sight of what it means to develop our souls/character by diverting too much attention to the impersonal “likes” of others? Are deep conversations eclipsed by quick messages or updates?

I don’t mean to sound as though I’m anti-technology. (I’m a fan of indoor plumbing, modern dentistry, my kindle, and travel by air.) Nor do I mean to negate the door that has been opened with respect to information sharing.  This reflection concerns the apparent restructuring of the building blocks of relationships.  To be clear, I did not treat this classroom time as a dispenser of wisdom and instruction but as a person also swept up by the phone. And, not totally dissimilar to my students, I’m frustrated by how the phone gradually altered from a device of convenience to one tethering me to its intrusions. I have three email accounts, this blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, an author account, a log for my Crossfit WODS, LinkedIn, a step counter, a calculator, a GPS…the list goes on! In order to take time out to read and write I disconnect the internet from my computer and I put my phone in airplane mode to force myself to focus.

At the end of class I offered the students this challenge (and please feel free to do this and share your experience in the comments): go out for a meal alone and without your phone. What is it like? How does it feel? Does the prospect of it cause anxiety?

Reading Suggestions on this topic:

Alone Together. Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

The Circle, by Dave Eggers and/or my previous post on this novel.


Don’t Bother With These Four Words

I never thought of myself as a picky sort of person. After all, I’ll eat anything, travel anywhere, and I once survived an outrageous perm in the 80s.   However, over the years of grading papers I’ve zeroed in on four words in particular that, scientifically speaking, are causing my hair to turn gray.  That won’t do.

I kindly suggest, dear students, you avoid these four words in assignments:

  1. Basically. No, I don’t want to know what Aristotle is basically saying.
  2. So. This is often unnecessary and could be replaced with “therefore” or “it follows.” And whatever you do, do not put “So basically” together lest you sound like a Kardashian.
  3. Very. Another unnecessary term sprinkled about too many papers.  Throw it out of your vocabulary now. Poof.  It’s officially dead to you. It’s very annoying. Oops.
  4. Goes. What a boring verb! “He then goes on to say…” Yikes! I can’t bear to read one more sentence like this. Are you in need of some verb alternatives? Here’s a quick exercise to spruce up your papers:

Grab a notebook and at the top of the page write “Sports.” Halfway down the page write “Cooking.” Now, list all of the verbs that come to mind regarding these two: Hits, swings, scores, tackles…peppers, boils, chops, seasons, dices… You get the point. Think of ten verbs to write under each category.

Return to a draft of your work and insert two or three of these verbs. Voila!

 

Click here to check out more tips.


5 Resolutions for College Students

Resolutions are notoriously grandiose and often unrealistic, yet we keep coming back to them at the start of the year.  Why are resolutions a “thing” if they are also known to be discarded by February?

The idea of starting “fresh” is appealing.  This implies something worth noting, namely, we are aware of our capacity for improvement.  Resolutions inherently point to the notion that we can be better.  We are not static.  We are not defined.  We can imagine doing and being better.  The new year prompts us to this realization and makes us conscious of possibility.

Resolutions must be cemented in habit.  Start with manageable baby steps.  Don’t try to be a different person; rather, focus on becoming the best version of yourself. Simply dabbling with the idea of being better is not enough to actually be better.  To achieve staying power resolutions should be broken down into actionable steps.

Here are some actionable steps for the college bound:

  • Wake up at least 1 hour before your first class.  I recommend 2 hours, but I know some of you are staying up quite late.  Do not roll out of bed and stumble into your morning classes.  Set the alarm earlier and use the extra time to grab a coffee and review your notes before the lecture.  This will only be difficult for the first few days, but by day 5 you’ll automatically be waking up earlier.
  • Join a club on campus.  This step brings you closer to the university community and, studies have shown, will increase your chances of graduating and graduating on time.  Look for a club that centers on your major.  Information will be posted in your major’s department.  This is also a nice opportunity to get the scoop on classes to take (or not take) from other students.
  • Visit the office hours of each of your professors at least once.  This will only take 30 minutes of your time, but the returns on this investment will last throughout the term.  You’ll instantly become more involved in the class.  Making the time to visit in person is also a small habit that translates nicely into “real world” action.  Connect with people face-to-face as opposed to reducing communication solely through email.
  • Read one book outside of class.   I know you are inundated with course work so you needn’t pick something that’ll weigh you down.  I don’t recommend taking a stab at Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for instance.  However, the habit of reading in addition to your workload will be just as important in your life after college in the “real world.”  The most successful people read or listen to audiobooks because advancing one’s knowledge is simply healthy and good for one’s business.  Ask three of the most successful people you know and see what they are reading and how often.  Stay curious.  (I’ve listed three book suggestions below.)
  • Buy a Journal.  Keep it in a place where you’ll remember to write in it and look it over: nightstand, desk, school bag, or the loo.  Set aside a day (or two) when you will add to the journal.  On this day write what you are thankful for, one thing you learned from each of your classes, and a new word you learned.  Increase your gratitude, awareness of your new knowledge and your vocabulary.  (I had a journal devoted only to new words.  Before a paper I’d turn to my journal and pick 2 words to use.  It became something of a game.)
Snapshot of yours truly enjoying "Off The Road" by Carolyn Cassady.

Snapshot of yours truly enjoying “Off The Road” by Carolyn Cassady.

Book Suggestions:

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.  I’ve recommended this over and over again.  This book is about climbing Mount Everest in the throes of one of the worst storms/disasters.  Krakauer’s writing is incredibly absorbing and entertaining. One of my students recently emailed that he read this book based on my recommendation and it came up during a job interview.  He thinks he got the job because he was able to chat about it with his prospective employer.  Bravo, I say!

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.  Anyone interested in business, marketing, advertising, and/or sociology should check this out.  Gladwell examines points at which a momentum shifts and trends take off.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.  I loved loved loved this memoir.  Steve Martin brings the reader on his journey to becoming one of the most successful stand-up comedians.  He is honest, witty, and insightful.  While the book does, of course, focus on life as a comic, its real value is in the underscoring theme of commitment and dedication.  Steve Martin believed in himself, in entertaining, and in re-creating and revising his act.  Anyone needing a bit of motivation to kick start their year and follow through with their goals should read this book.

Click here to visit Gwendolyn’s Author Page.

Best of luck, dear students!  Have a wonderful year!


Clarity in Confusion

*Daily Prompt 

It was the late 90s, San Diego, at a little cafe called Espresso Roma.

Planted in my usual reading spot, Philosophy books and notes were stacked in front of me and a hot mocha cooled off to my right.  I interrupted the study session to ask my friend and fellow philosophy major: “Don’t you sometimes wish you didn’t know what you know?  It was so much easier when I didn’t think about these things or even know these things were questions.”

Literature in philosophy involves taking one’s mind on a trek outside of the ordinary.  We read arguments for Free Will only to be followed by equally compelling arguments that there is no Free Will.  What constitutes truth?  How do we know when we know something especially when everything we think we know could be debunked in 50 years as we have debunked “truths” previously believed?  What makes knowledge knowledge?  Reviewing logic supporting the existence of God, and then arguments systematically dismantling that logic also threw my Catholic school upbringing into a menacing tailspin. And what in the world is a “Right”?  Do we always protect the individual, or do we always protect the greatest number sometimes at the sacrifice of an individual?

Facepalm. Facepalm.  More facepalm.

Philosophy compels one to ask questions where one didn’t even realize a question existed.  An intellectually secure footing in the world seemed impossible.  Yet, despite this, I couldn’t help but entrench myself further into the study and devour the arguments. This everything-but-clarity feeling hit me when I took a moment at the cafe to stop memorizing information for an upcoming exam and paused to churn over the ideas I had been studying.  Everything made sense and nothing made sense.

“I’m confused,” I said.

My friend, understanding the look of mental turmoil splashed across my face, smiled and said, “Ah, yes.  But now you are confused at a higher level.”

*Tell us about a time you’d been trying to solve a knotty problem — maybe it was an interpersonal problem, a life problem, a big ol’ problem — and you had a moment of clarity when the solution appeared to you, as though you were struck by lightening.


Overcoming Fear of Failure is a Path to Happiness

*The following is a draft of a section for my next book on Happiness and College Life.  Feedback is appreciated.  I thought I’d include a bit of my experience with Cross Fit in the manuscript.

Fear of Failure

Let’s dismantle this idea of failure right away.  There is no such thing.  Fear and failure hold power over you if you allow it.  Failure is just a perception.  You have a choice:

  1. I’ve failed therefore I give up.
  2. This is a lesson, therefore I now know what needs work.

Which option will you embrace?  As I write this I am in the throes of an extraordinary exercise regimen called Cross Fit, and I am far outside the bounds of my comfort zone.  There are two moves in particular that have my stomach in knots: a tire flip and dead lift.  Both begin with a squatting position and then upward motion with the thrust of the thighs and glutes.  While lifting the weight, one’s back cannot round but must remain straight so that all of the lifting comes from the legs and glutes.  I cringe whenever these are listed as part of the routine for the day (or WOD for you familiar with Cross Fit).  I’ve even pleaded with the coach: “Can’t we do sit-ups or something else?”  They smile and point to the weight.  I stare down at it and know that I must try again to lift.  I have yet to accomplish this movement.

The difficulty for me encompasses more than the weight itself.  My struggle in this instance resides with confronting a weakness.  When I look at the bar (or tire) I am a bundle of frustration. A mental tug of war brews.  Part of me feels like unleashing tears and questioning myself for even joining Cross Fit.  I’m embarrassed.  What in the world am I doing here?  I’ve never been athletic.  But another part of me sees this as the potential to redefine myself.  Fortunately that voice seems to be winning the mental war.  Believe me, I want to pass the weight by, move on to an exercise  I can manage, and then head out for Starbucks and snacks.  But, what would that do for me?

When we step outside of our comfort zone and “fail” we are actually being alerted to an area of ourselves that needs work and attention.  If it weren’t for these “failures” we might not be aware of an opportunity for growth.  That is why I’d like to rid you of the idea of “failure,” because they serve as life sign posts and lessons.  Failure, if you let it, means stopping and resigning.  On the other hand, lessons entail awareness, recognition, and determination to reassess our approach.

It is not easy for a weakness to be highlighted in our trials for growth. It is extremely easy to avoid discovering them and running away.

The day will come when I step up to the tire or weighted bar for the lift and my legs will carry me up.  It will happen.  I’m determined.  But the only way for it to happen is if I continue to confront the challenge and build the muscle.

In Tips From The Professor I wrote about identifying weakness and making it your strength in the context of the classroom.  I’ve had students come to me with a deflated look due to a low grade on a paper or exam.  They’ll say things like “Philosophy isn’t my thing” and “I’m just not a good writer.”  A low grade on an assignment is not a definitive statement about your ability.  The grade addresses an area that needs more energy and time.  You haven’t failed.  You’ve learned!  Now, get a move on and try again.

This attitude translates to enjoying life itself. A few years ago I traveled to Poland, and before the trip I hastily studied a bit of Polish.  On day one in Krakow when entering a shop, I proudly greeted the cashier with “Good morning,” or so I thought.  After noticing how his eyebrows knit, I realized that I actually blurted: “You’re welcome.”   What a way to walk into a store! This must have sounded silly.  I chuckled at the goof and immediately made a note to self: practice “good morning.”

It’s okay to make mistakes!  What is important is our response to them.  Delving into the unknown means accepting ridiculous moments here and there but that is essential for growth, which in turn brings us happiness.

Find something new and challenge yourself.  All of the “greats” from musicians to scientists have stumbled. Keep in mind, happiness and excellence were not achieved in spite of stumbling but as a result of learning from mistakes and having the confidence to continue.  People who flourish do so because of their method in the face of obstacles.  There need not be a fear of failure.

If you try something and the result is not what you had hoped for then stop and observe.  Ask yourself: What is there to learn here?  What do I need to strengthen?


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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