Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Teaching Not so Easy: Part 2

Guess what the French word for “paper clip” is. Give up?  It’s “trombone” or to be more grammatically correct,  “un trombone” --- what a much more imaginative word to capture the shape of what we anglo speakers mundanely call the paperclip.

Perhaps you read in the 9/25 PR,  “Speech Jammer among 2012 IgNobel Winners”. It’s a device that repeats an individual’s speech a few hundred milliseconds after they’ve said it and it purportedly completely discombobulates the speaker. It’s proposed use is to warn conference speakers that they have exceeded their time limits. I know this works because when I was a typical bratty teenager, I had the ability to do the same thing --- repeat almost immediately one’s speech which really annoyed the speaker. I quit this practice after my seventh grade English teacher stopped lecturing, glared at me and slowly said, “Stop That!”. I may have been a wisenheimer  but I was also wise enough to know when enough was enough.

Why am I writing about trombones and speech jammers? Because they are both educational experiences that I never would have remembered if I had not agreed to teach the computer ethics and writing course at SUNY, Plattsburgh as I mentioned in the previous column. Associative memory is a strange and amazing thing.

I also promised a Part 2 to complete my thoughts regarding this process and so, here they come:

I began preparing for this course several months ago by perusing my last Syllabus which lays out the goals of the course and the scheduled assignments --- what to read when and when the writing assignments on the readings are due. Fortunately, the textbook is the same one I chose 5 years ago although it is now in it's fifth edition but the content is pretty much the same and the ethical theory covered has not yet changed. The supplementary readings were a bit out of date so I thought I could replace that with readings from the web (including perhaps some of the articles from this very column accessible at: tec-soc.blogspot.com )This required reading ethical articles on the web.
In the process I found that in addition to the standard ethical theories of : Relativism (Cultural and Subjective), Divine Command Theory, Egoism, Kantianism, Utilitarianism (Act and Rule), and Social Contract Theory --- I had overlooked investigating the Free Will vs Determinism issue even though it's resolution is critical to the study of ethical theory. Determinism has been described as the view that the past determines the future. However,you must first believe that humans have free will, that one can rationally choose their actions before you can hold them accountable for them. And since Ethics can be briefly characterized as What you Ought to Do, you implicitly accept Free Will over Determinism which, in its extreme form states that we cannot control our actions as every action is predetermined by its many causes.  No wonder this issue has been debated for over two millennia without resolution, however, I found the links below to be useful:

Humans have Free Will
Humans do not have Free Will
Humans are Determined but still have Free Will
Buddhist View of Free Will

It’s been quite a bit of work but it’s been worth it.
A long-time friend and colleague once told me that that whenever he hears from someone that claims we profs have an easy life on the gravy train, he responds, “Yeah, that’s right, I only work 9 hours a week and 30 weeks a year --- anyone who’s not a teacher is crazy!”. The reply is usually stunned silence and hopefully, eventually the realization that not only is this a gross oversimplification, it’s just not true. I’ve worked for over fifty years in the federal government, private industry and in academia and I can say without a doubt that I’ve never worked harder or been happier than when working as a teacher.  Next to being a brain surgeon performing a successful operation, I cannot think of a more fulfilling profession.


  1. Dr. Denenberg, I just came across your blog and will be a regular visitor from now on. I took a few classes with you as an undergrad at Plattsburgh and all were very beneficial for me. I've been in programming and general IT for 11 years, and still use the techniques and approaches taught in your classes. I look forward to reading more!

    1. Hi Lou,
      I remember you well as a good committed student who enjoyed the class.
      I'm glad you're enjoying the columns...tell all your friends.
      I love comments.
      P.S. Looks like you and Nick discovered the blog together?

  2. Hey DrD! I took this course with you during my undergrad studies, circa 1999. It was one of the most engaging and fun classes I've ever taken. While you mentioned in your previous article that the development of writing skill and the examination of ethical themes in society vis-a-vis our usage of technology are equally important goals of the course; I would posit that the development of critical thinking skills is an implicit, and equally important third goal. While it was not the focus of the course, I found that I enjoyed this aspect, along with the discussion format. Your students this semester are fortunate that you were able to fit this class in to your retirement schedule!
    All the best!


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