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I recently accepted a tenure-track position at a university and will be on a 1-1 load my first year. My first course I will teach, I will get to modify and alter based on my expertise.

In my second semester, I am taking over a graduate course that was taught by a previous faculty member. This course is over a concept that I am extremely skeptical about. The prior professor, who taught the course, is a prominent supporter of the theory and has written articles and books on the subject.

So my concern is that my own biases could bleed out into the class.

My current plan is the following:

  1. First half of the semester: teach the course close the the prior syllabus with some differences.
  2. Midterm: present the evidence as to why I am a skeptic.
  3. Second half of the semester: students either provide evidence in the form of a literature review supporting or objecting to my skepticism.

A little background, I was brought into the department for my computational strength, productive research stream, and subject expertise. The thing is, the subject expertise has nothing to do with this course where I am a skeptic. So I feel a little bit like I would be being unnecessarily disruptive to an already established department curriculum. That said, the faculty member who pushed this subject recently left and I do not know if anyone else in the department is as passionate about it as they were.

I hesitate to outright say the topic due to not wanting to be unmasked. But it can be thought of like this: The idea has a solid foundation built on strong empirical evidence and results. This foundation is largely agreed upon by the field. Where this foundation is not nearly agreed upon is a certain abstraction/extension of this foundation. I believe that this abstraction/extension is trivial and also ill-defined. Others in the field believe that this extension is an important area of study.

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    Answers in comments and speculations about the subject in question have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Jan 25 at 20:33
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    I almost downvoted for intentional vagueness about the field, but then read the last paragraph and held back for now. I think the question would be greatly improved by being up-front about that matter, because "skepticism about a subject" is so frequently a matter of willful error on the "skeptic's" part, and failure to address that right away leads readers of the question to believe you're asking for help doing something many of us would classify as pedagogical misconduct. – R.. Jan 27 at 11:00
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What "skepticism" means to an academic is strongly field-dependent. I am a mathematician, and I would have thought that true skepticism is almost impossible: after all, mathematical results are proved and any standard course would be on things that have been proved, reproved and combed over by the community several times over. I could however be skeptical of the future trajectory of a mathematical subfield: i.e., maybe I think it is not worth the students' time to learn it. But this is just a way of saying that I have very little interest in that subject, so...why then would I teach it? I suppose that's one of the luxuries I have as a tenured faculty member in a reasonably large department.

So I looked at your profile, and I am interested to see that your field is...statistics. So, hmm: again I wonder what you mean by "skepticism." Do you mean that the course concerns a statistical technique that is mathematically valid but whose usefulness is vastly overstated or is typically applied outside its range of validity, or a statistical practice that is actually not grounded well in theory, or...what? I would think that "belief" has little to do with statistics, but perhaps that is a naive pure mathematician's belief.

On the face of it, if the course is in subject X, then spending some of the course covering X, then in the middle revealing that you don't believe in X, then spending the remaining portion of the course having the students decide which is right sounds, well, weird. It is liable to leave them wondering why they took the course at all. Indeed: why is this course being given? You said that there was one "believer" faculty member who is no longer in the department, so...who wants the course now? Inertia is not a great defense for an academic position. As a new tenure track professor in your department, in theory you should have some say in the programmatic offerings and also some responsibility. In practice, the responsibility lies much more with senior people than very junior people. I recommend that you contact faculty mentors and discuss your concerns with them in a mild way, making clear that you will do what they think is best. One idea is to propose replacing the course with a totally different course in a subject close to your own expertise and enthusiasm: other things being equal, that sounds like a much better course. If however the department is really committed to the course: well, you said you would do it, so I would suggest that you really do it, and not include skepticism of X as a main part of the course. You can rest easier at night knowing that you offered the department some alternatives. Speaking as someone who currently has an administrative role in my department: believe me, I am painfully aware that on a wide range of topics, "the buck stops with me." That is my problem; as someone who has not even started the tenure track job, it is not yet yours.

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    My experience with statisticians is that they're mostly all willing to murder each other over which probability distribution best fits an empirical problem. – user101106 Jan 25 at 14:06
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    Thank you for your insight into this. I appreciate especially the final paragraph. Also, if you would like to see a lively amount of skepticism among statisticians, witness an argument between a bayesian vs frequentist. Lively debates also involve such topics as: weights, separating variance associated with a group from the individual, and overfitting. – JWH2006 Jan 25 at 14:40
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    @JWH2006 Bayesians vs frequentists was also my first thought. But amongst people who actually understand both, there doesn’t actually seem to be much conflict; except maybe about the degree to which either mindset is useful in specific applications. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 25 at 16:51
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    @KonradRudolph Note that the major conflicts seem to be simmering down, but my understanding is that this use to be a far larger point of contention - see Andrew Gelman's Dr. Seuss-style parable: statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2018/12/06/… – BrianH Jan 25 at 19:10
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    When you discuss open problems in your math class, you don't attempt to convince the students that the problems have a certain solution without giving a proof, do you?!? It seems to me that that would be an analogue of what the OP is talking about. – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 at 4:45
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Regardless of the subject matter, you (and every teacher) should be teaching from a skeptical point of view. One of the most important things students should learn is that no claim should be accepted without justification. Otherwise, it's not education but rather catechism.
This doesn't mean you should disparage the previous professor's point of view. It just means you should feel free to present alternative positions and defend them -- or better yet, assign the students to defend one side or other of the situation.

OTOH, if the course title is something like 'Effective Use of Astrology in Selecting Short Positions in the Stock Market," then by all means disparage the entire course.

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    You're right. Astrology is far too serious a field to be applied to economic forecasting! – Eric Duminil Jan 26 at 18:15
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    Depending on the belief system of your senior administrators, your disparagement of Astrology may result in their Boötes coming into opposition with Uranus! :) – Deepak Jan 28 at 5:41
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I had a seminar where I asked a (speculative) topic to be presented. A student picked the topic, but said, he does not believe in the hypothesis of the paper. I said, fine - present it as accurately as possible, and then the counterargument.

Good science is not just about canned facts, but about the process to get to these facts and if the topic is still being researched and knowledge still "in the making", exposing the uncertainty in current knowledge is beneficial to the education of the students. There is otherwise a tendency to accept lecture material as raining down from heaven rather than the compressed understanding of past knowledge by the scientific community (which can, of course, shift).

You have the opportunity to make it about the scientific process rather than the particular topic. This is an honest take on scientific education. I assume mostly natural science, but I personally believe the principle should at least to some extent also apply to a well-run humanities stream.

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Well, you are admittedly heavily guarding your subject details. So, I'll just make up something that's very controversial, but something we can all relate to.

Suppose the course is called "Why God exists", and you are an atheist. Ok, obvious conflict. So suppose you determine that the syllabus of the course includes several topics which define the main course.

Perhaps, then, your method of teaching must change. Tell the students outright "You're here to learn why God exists, but I don't believe he does".

For some students (and I bet a few commenters here) that can raise the hackles, "How dare you", "Are you here to teach against what I believe", or they conjure up some other ulterior motivation for you.

So you cater to that, just as if you are engaging in a debate contest: a subject you must argue for or against, despite your personal beliefs. To do that in a competition is admittedly different than in a classroom setting, but that's the point: you need a method to teach a subject for which you have a bias against. One way is to force the students into a debate by way of essays, demonstrable proofs, physical exertion, or maybe even an actual debate - and all topic by topic according to the subject's syllabus.

If you are up front about your bias, your students should not feel that they've been cheated at the end of the course. Or maybe they've changed their minds. Either way can't be bad. But if at the end of the course, they then find out about your bias, then they wonder if they've been taught all that could have been taught.

I would offer that you adopt a methodology that the mob uses: keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. Allowing the students to know of your bias can be better than them knowing you are fervently in support of them, because they may want to go the extra step of proving you wrong.

I am a martial arts instructor, and this subject comes up all the time. Personal biases - instructor and student - can often collide and become an issue in class. So, make the students prove their point. They'll be forced to research and argue.

So it goes something like this: "2 + 2 does not equal 4. Prove me wrong. I can prove I'm right." In order for them to prove you wrong, they'll have to first find out what your proof is: that can only be done one of two ways. First is to research historical ways you might be supporting. The second is for you to tell them. Either way, that research can be very educational.

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I don't see much wrong with your plan.

It does of course depend on the subject matter... Trying to be skeptical about gravity (engineer's joke: gravity is a myth, the earth sucks... :) ) is one thing - but skeptical about other "theories" which are held to be "true" until something better comes along, and it normally does, is not a crime.

If you explain your position and why, then the students can evaluate their position as per the second part of the semester.

It will be more interesting for you developing the assessments to avoid bias... But that will be part of your learning curve.

I don't think you have much to worry about - you are already considering both "sides" - if you held the position that the other side did not exist then the students would have an issue.

Best of luck.

  • First time I heard someone gripping about the earth. Wait, I mean griping. – user21820 Jan 27 at 9:15
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Your plan is good. However, I might do it slightly differently. I would start by identifying what issues/problems this theory can address/solve. I would also clearly outline the set of possible theories etc. that can also address this same set of questions/issues/problems. Then:

  1. I would begin my course by defining the questions/issues/problems and situate them within the broader context of the field.

  2. Introduce and teach this theory as a potential solution. I would be clear about perceived strengths and weaknesses.

  3. Introduce alternative solutions in the same manner.

  4. Have my students take a well-reasoned stand on a particular alternative. Or take a well-reasoned stand on how/why/when to select among alternative solutions.

I had to be general because you were general. But i think that this is a viable format for discussing unsettled and possibly contentious areas of resesarch.

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I believe the answer is very simple and deductive. Have your students provide counter-arguments themselves to the exact prior syllabus. That establishes a zero prejudice solution while providing continuity within the course. Any other option obscures or over emphasizes available information. Collaboration can define potential. In truth your very question and your plan of action betray your wish to not inject bias. It just sounds like your using the fact that all theory is inductive in nature to provide a cover for your bias..

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