October 14, 2012

Teaching not so easy: Part 2


---- — Guess what the French word for “paperclip” 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.

The Associated Press recently published a story about the “SpeechJammer,” which was among the 2012 Ig Nobel 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 the SpeechJammer? 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 mentioned in my previous column. Associative memory is a strange and amazing thing.

I also promised a second part 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. Fortunately, the textbook is the same one I chose five years ago. Although it is now in it’s fifth edition, 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 The supplementary readings were a bit out of date, so I thought I could replace that with readings from the Web. This required reading ethical articles found online.

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 versus determinism issue even though its 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. This, 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 more than two millennia without resolution. 

I have, however, found the following links to be useful: humans have free will (, humans do not have free will (, humans are determined but still have free will ( and Buddhist view of free will ( It’s been quite a bit of work, but it’s been worth it.

A longtime friend and colleague once told me that whenever he hears from someone who claims we professors have an easy life on the gravy train, he responds, “Yeah, that’s right. I only work nine 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 more than 50 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 working as a teacher. Next to being a brain surgeon performing a successful operation, I cannot think of a more fulfilling profession.

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at