Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Interactive Observation

One of the tasks I have inherited as department chair is evaluating my colleagues and in this line of work, that means performing class observations. As a philosopher of science, questions of observation and measurement are central. It is a basic truism that there is no God's eye point of view, that in observing a system, you necessarily disturb that system. In other words, you can never quite measure what it is you want to measure because the very act of measurement is an interaction that causes whatever you are measuring to change.

This is relevant in terms of observing a philosophy class which is a discussion-based endeavor. Philosophy classes are often very sensitive to class make-up and chemistry. Add or subtract one or two people and it completely changes the room and therefore the conversation and thus the class as a whole. Add a strange faculty member who is evaluating the professor they feel an allegiance to and they get odd, often clamming up out of fear that they'll say something stupid and make the prof look bad.

But trying to become a classroom avatar is a mixed bag. Showing an engaged love of the material will make me seem sympathetic and thus relax the students, but I am clearly a different sort of presence in the conversation and cannot blend in. I speak with a different sense of authority, not only as a professional philosopher, but one with local authority.

So, the question is what do I do? If I do not contribute to the conversation, the artificiality of my strangely silent presence negatively affects the room and harms the measurement. If I do talk, then my contribution changes the system possibly throwing my colleague off a bit, possibly taking the class in a slightly different direction and because many of the students have been in my classes before it now becomes an awkward combination of my colleague's class and my class, something that clearly skews the observation. Further, by asking questions, I get a better sense of what the students have learned, but at the cost of a sense of my colleague's classroom style and acumen.

Is it appropriate to become a member of the class in observing a class or should the observer try to maintain distance?