How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive

We’re in the middle of the third week of Philosophy 105, and I’ve managed to make it to every lecture so far (this may be some sort of record for me — I don’t think I’ve made it to all 8 rounds of anything in a long, long time).

After six lectures on basic philosophical concepts — values, ethics, social contracts, egalitarianism, justice — this week we started into the meat of the course, looking specifically at the philosophy of science and technology, and starting out with induction vs. deduction and, today, reductionism vs. holism.

Step number two of the Twelve Step Program is “Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.”

If you’re a cocky “mature student” with a day-job selling access to your “rightness,” getting something out of a university requires a similar transition, albeit minus the deity: admitting that you don’t know everything, that you haven’t considered all the possibilities, and that there may, in fact, be completely valid paradigms of which you have no knowledge or experience.

For me there’s an extra challenge: leaving university early (I dropped out after a year, 23 years ago) despite the family and social pressures to stay required a certain degree of throwing the academic baby out with the personal bathwater: if university wasn’t working for me, it must be university that’s screwed up, not me. Suffice to say that, although it seems university is still pretty screwed up, I’ve become willing to consider the possibility that it is regardless still able to offer something of value to me.

Oh, and I’ve got some authority issues too.

To achieve this “okay, so I’m not so hot shit after all” state of mind, while simultaneously maintaining enough self-confidence to be able to contribute to the experience is something of a delicate balancing act: learning requires risk, but sometimes risk can manifest as false bravado.

In other words, when is it okay to quote from How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive to suggest that holism trumps reductionism, and when is just acting like a prick?

That’s what I’m in the process of finding out.

Otherwise, I must say that, to my surprise, I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience of taking 2 hours out of my day to dwell on matter completely impractical. Although it’s sucking time out of my workday, I’ve been finding that having an opener mind, rather than being distracting, is actually helpful in my day-job (this may break down entirely if I come to the conclusion that technology is evil and I have to go back to the land).

Some more technical observations:

  • The course’s Moodle — the web-based “virtual learning environment” used at UPEI — has seen no contributions from students so far, and half of the students in the course haven’t used it in the last 5 days — its only role to date has been as a very complex Powerpoint and Word file distribution system. I have, however, been able to wire it up to my Flickr account.
  • There’s not a lot of laptop usage in class: perhaps 5% of the students have a laptop out.
  • It’s really, really annoying when the janitorial staff wheels their janitorial carts down the cobbled hallway outside the classroom: you can’t hear the professor at all. This is the sort of institutional problem that it seems almost impossible to solve (see also “screen projector flickers back and forth between white and purple background”) because it’s not an important enough issue to be worth anyone’s time to address.
  • If you’re not a real student at UPEI, apparently you’re in something called “Communiversity.” At least that’s what the fitness centre membership card says. But the UPEI website doesn’t reference Communiversity at all. I wonder what it is.
  • Philosophers are very attached to metaphors involving trains.
  • We were running out of time in one class last week and so had take “a quick breeze through justice.” I thought that was really funny.
  • Films referenced to date: Modern Times, Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Crimes and Misdemeanours.
  • The habit of reading PowerPoint slides aloud instead of actually teaching is called “PowerPoint Karaoke.” Fortunately it’s not a problem in this course.
  • The first case study in the course is due on January 30, 2009: it involves going without electronic technology in your life for 24 hours, keeping a diary, and then assembling the diary into a report of your experiences. How long should the report be? The guideline is “three pages is too short, longer than five pages is too long.” Someone asked a question about font size.
  • I know one of the pillars of the “Instrumental Realism” movement personally — he’s referenced in the course text several times. I had no idea.


Chuck's picture
Chuck on January 21, 2009 - 20:42

PowerPoint Karake.” What a great, succinct explanation; why had I never heard of that label before? Thank you Peter; I’ll be making use of that before the week is out.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 21, 2009 - 20:57

I hear ya, regarding the “mature student” challenge. I believe some schools have workshops at the start of term for “re-entry students,” and I bet enduring being talked to like you’re 20 is among the issues addressed. Have you tried going to office hours? I imagine your professor would take a different tack or tone in talking to you personally than he or she does in explaining the same business to the class as a whole. The experience might be soothing.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 21, 2009 - 23:56

@oliver I’ve absolutely no issue with being talked to like I’m 20 — it’s helpful (and I’ve a sense, at least from those that speak up, that most of the kids in the class are smarter than me). Oh, and they’re 17, not 20.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 22, 2009 - 00:11

I too love the “Powerpoint Karaoke” term and will also be using it in the coming week.

In the early 90s we were the guinea pigs for powerpoint style teacher(wordperfect more likely) in an Organic Chemistry class at UPEI. Halfway through the term the prof went back to writing on the chalkboard because he felt that students tuned out of that presentation style. I was impressed by his eschewing of what would be for him (a prof in this 60s) a much easier path for the sake of students getting more out of a lecture.

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