Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bed And Breakfast

Anyone who has taught a while knows that, from time to time, students can be surprising. Today, I learned some very surprising things from my students.

In my class today, we began to look at the philosophical work of the philosopher David Hume. Famously, at the beginning of his A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume distinguishes between 'impressions' and 'ideas'. At the beginning of the Treatise, Hume describes the two concepts as follows,

All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions: and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning; such as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited by the present discourse, excepting only those which arise from the sight and touch, and excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion. I believe it will not be very necessary to employ many words in explaining this distinction.

This was one of the topics covered in class today. When discussing a distinction such as this, it is nice to have fairly concrete examples to drive the distinction home. Coming up with an example of an impression is not too difficult. I can point the the current experience students have of the blackboard, or their chairs, or even the philosophy professor that I am, ranting and raving in front of them. Coming up with an example of an idea, in the relevant sense is a little bit more tricky though.

Over the years, when teaching this part of Hume, I have tried to use various examples of ideas, with mixed success. I have yet to find an entirely satisfactory example, that all students share. At one point I would use the example of their vehicles. However, such an example idea did not work well for those who walk to class, or ride bicycles. The basic intuition that needs to be grasped is that your 'impression' of something, like the computer screen you are currently reading, is much more 'lively' than your recalled 'idea' of the same thing. Today, I tried a new example. The results were not as I expected.

I have learnt (largely, by getting things wrong) to ask the students about my examples, before using them. My plan initially was to use the example of the idea of 'breakfast'. So, I asked the class how many people had not had breakfast this morning. To my amazement, over a third of the class raised their hands. Over one third had not had breakfast? That was worrying.

I had anticipated this possibility (although not how common it might be), so I had a back up example ready. Next I asked the class how many had not slept in a bed last night. My plan was to use the idea of a 'bed', should the breakfast example not fly. To my profound astonishment, three students raised their hands. One explained that they had slept in a lazy boy. The others did not explain this circumstance.

Quite frankly, I am blown away. Over one third of the students in a late morning class had had no breakfast. A few did not sleep in a bed! Of course, my Hume inspired examples of ideas, were totally shot. However, I was left wondering about this state of affairs. I slept last night in a bed. Well, OK it is actually a futon, but close enough. I had breakfast this morning, with lashings of strong coffee. Why had some students not done likewise?

We do not live in a rich part of the world, so these circumstances could have arisen due to poverty. I rather hope that these were life style choices instead. However, this situation worries me. Perhaps some students do not care for breakfast. Perhaps others have night jobs they leave before coming to class, they then going to bed. Who knows? To make matters worse, I felt quite guilty.

When I got to the office this morning, hanging on my door was a bag. In the bag was some fresh home made soda bread, some rather good olive oil to dip the bread into, an interesting book and a nice note. These were gifts from a student who graduated some time ago. These gifts were left for me for Easter. I feel very lucky when I get such gifts (thanks Donna!). However, I wonder whether I should have offered this food to the students who had not had breakfast?

Unfortunately, this idea only occurred to me after class. Students who do not eat breakfast and do not sleep in beds, give me pause for concern. They are unlikely to be in the best condition to learn. I wonder whether I should look into this further and try to see if anything can be done, or whether I should just ignore it all, as these things are just examples of youthful folly. I really hope that it is youthful folly. I am still a little concerned that it could be poverty. This is something that I will have to think about some more. I do not want to have students doing badly due to hunger and the lack of a proper place to sleep. If anyone reading this has any suggestions, they would be most welcome.

The CP

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