Tuesday, May 04, 2010

philosophy of technology postmortem

Last week was the last week of teaching for Spring semester. I asked the students in my Philosophy of Technology course P.D.'s end of term questions:

What authors from the course would you strongly recommending keeping? Which are particularly insightful and valuable to read now?

Which authors would you recommend leaving out next time? Which seem like historical relics with nothing insightful to offer?

(Here's my syllabus for comparison.)

Here are the highlights:
             yay   boo
Heidegger 12 2
Kurzweil 12 6
Dewey 11 1
Mitcham 11 1
Marcuse 9 1
D. Haraway 7 2
Latour 6 3
A. Borgmann 6 0
W. Berry 6 7
H. Dreyfus 1 5

L. Winner 5 2
Habermas 4 1
Ellul 2 3
Feenberg 2 5
Ortega 1 4

D. Browning 4 3
McDermott 3 4
Hickman 1 5
A few interesting things show up, here. I'm rather impressed by the allegiance to Heidegger, given how much we all struggled with it. And the Dreyfus essay we read on Heidegger, which I thought did a lot to help make Heidegger clear, was pretty much panned! (In the same vein, Dewey did well, but Hickman didn't.)

The popularity of Kurzweil is no surprise, as it was a very accessible and exciting book; nor is the fact that a number of students disliked it. I'm really surprised by the number of people who like Carl Mitcham's book. I thought it was a terrible mess myself, full of too-brief summaries of too many figures in a loose organization. Perhaps it is just a reflection of how important it is to have a general secondary source book in a course like this. My inclination is to try to find a better one.

Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway both did remarkably well, considering, especially since I spent very little time on Haraway.

Of the readings that got 12+ responses, Wendell Berry's short piece, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer" was clearly the most controversial. This may be a result of the fact that few students agreed with Berry, but we had a pretty good discussion.

I put that second group aside to show how the "major" philosophers of technology tended to get a fairly lukewarm response. Heidegger, Dewey, Mitcham, Marcuse, and Borgmann are all canonical figures (such as they are) that did fairly well. Winner did okay, and Habermas, Ellul, Feenberg, and Ortega y Gasset didn't do so hot. Likewise, the third group, which are the Americanists (besides Dewey), didn't do so hot.

I haven't talked much to P.D. about how he's used the results of these little questionnaires, but I'm sort of more inclined to keep the controversial or even negatively-ranked authors if they got a very high response rate – it means they had an impact – while junking those that got very low responses, suggesting that students weren't made to care one way or the other.

Also, one student wrote in that next time I should add McLuhan and Derrida to the list.


Monte said...

Out of curiosity, which Marcuse piece did you read?

Matthew J. Brown said...

We read the first chapter of One-Dimension Man, "New Forms of Control." I really enjoyed teaching it.

KB said...

This is a great exercise. I'm surprised that Marcuse did so well, given that it's Texas and he was a Marxist. But then, when I've taught stuff like that, I have gotten a lot of "Those Marxists make a good point, but what are you gonna do?" reactions. Marcuse is also a very forceful and lively writer compared to, say, Habermas.

Do you think, in general, that they were able to separate "I agree with the author" from "This author, even though I don't agree, makes an interesting contribution and should be retained"?

P.D. Magnus said...

Matt: As you suggest, deep student disagreement about a reading is a sign that it's probably important for them to read it. I also take results like these into consideration when deciding whether to keep readings that I don't consider essential. If students especially liked them, I am inclined to use them again.