Conversations With Small Dogs About Sin and Repentance

IMG_2907

This is the look of a repentant dog. It is also the look of a no-account canine liar who regrets nothing.

Me: Buddy, we need to talk about some of your recent behavior.

Buddy: Pretty cool stuff, right? Right?!?!

Me: Um…I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing. What do you think you did that was cool?

Buddy: Well, let’s see — yesterday, I did that amazing trick with the butter sticks, and this morning I pre-soaked those paper towels for you. Awesomeness is me! Do you happen to have a cookie handy?

Me: [sputtering for a few moments in disbelief] The “trick” with the butter sticks involved you stealing a whole box from the grocery bags, hustling out to the back yard, and eating as much of it as you could before anyone noticed!

Buddy: I know, right? AMAZING!

Me: [sighing heavily]: No! No, “amazing” was not the word I was looking for. And that’s nothing compared to the “pre-soaking” bit. Why on earth did you just walk over and pee on the new package of paper towels?

Buddy: I thought I’d save you some time.

 

IMG_2906

The true face of Buddy, Canine Menace To All That Is Good and Decent In The World

 

 

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The Unexpected Gift of Annotation

The fun thing about the Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms is that in addition to their more spiritual gifts, they sometimes also contain other things.

While it is generally considered an urban legend, I can say with complete confidence that finding money in a Gideon does happen — I found this dollar in a motel Gideon in Ames, IA some years ago, tidily marking a rather unremarkable place in 1st Chronicles (not the most exciting of scriptural locations). I have no idea who put it there or why — usually, if you find something that looks like money in a Bible, it’s a bit of fakery for the purpose of proselytization, and not real money at all. In Ames that day, though, the Lord and/or a previous resident of the room provided a dollar when I needed money for the vending machine, which was certainly nice!

As it happens, money is not the only thing people leave behind in nightstand Bibles. Sometimes (as I discovered in my hotel room in downtown Denver, CO recently) you get advice:

It’s a funny sort of thing, that annotation. There’s a story or three in it, to be sure. “You need help?” It seems to ask, before telling the reader (sadly? angrily?) to “Put this down and find your own way.” Is this the wisdom of someone who tried both ways, or the exasperation of someone tired of being sold what this Bible offers? Has anyone else found the annotation, and availed themselves of its suggestion to find their own way? It’s hard to tell on that last point — like most hotel Gideons, this one looks shiny and new. Other than the annotation, it’s pristine, as if the only other time it were ever opened was the occasion of its being annotated. This little written competition for the traveler’s soul also suggests a small, nearly invisible move in an ongoing cultural and political dispute about the nature of hospitality to the needy, to the traveler, etc. One wonders if its message (its many messages, really) has ever reached or will ever reach the person it’s all meant to help.

Also, frivolously: While I’m happy enough to find my own way, a small donation to the vending machine cause never hurts…

Posted in Uncategorized

Time: Some Examples

A little while back, I wrote a post about the John Margolies photograph collection at the Library of Congress Flickr stream. It is a fascinating collection, documenting the architecture of the (now nearly forgotten) highways and byways of the United States, freezing and preserving a moment in the lives of the towns that line those roads. Some of the towns documented in the collection were photographed in the process of dying, as early as the 1980s, their populations shrinking and their visitor traffic similarly diminished. The buildings, though, even then stood as a reminder of an undimmed and  ambitious civic imagination.

As it happens, Margolies photographed some buildings not far from where I live. When I saw them in a recent upload to the LOC stream, I got an idea: why not go out and photograph some of those buildings as they are today (assuming they still stand)? So I hopped in the car and took myself on a little morning road trip, out here in the slowly-emptying fields and fading towns, off to find Margolies’ subjects in 2018.

In Storm Lake, IA, for example, the G. Witter building still stands tall on Erie St. :

The image on the left is the photo John Margolies took c. 1987; the photo on the right is the one I took in September 2018. While much remains the same — the basic structure of the building, originally constructed in 1888, is largely untouched — significant elements of the facade (especially the windows) have been altered. I was amused to notice the parking meters back in the 80s photo — all parking is free in Storm Lake now! The change to the doorway in the building just to the north is very recent indeed (as in “perhaps late August/early September 2018” recent). The G. Witter’s restaurant and bar operated in Storm Lake at least through the early 2Ks, although by 2002 or so it had moved across the street to a different building. The Witter family were kind of a big deal in and around Storm Lake, and owned rather a lot of the former farmland on which residences north of Milwaukee Ave. (IA7) now stand.

Just up IA7 from Storm Lake in Aurelia, IA, the Honsbruch Drug Store (photographed in the 80s by Margolies, on the left) has been replaced by…well, Lots ‘n More:

As you can see, there have been changes to the awning and the panels above it, as well as to the doorway next door that goes into the rest of the building block. As nifty as the original storefront was, though, I think the whole building the store occupies is actually a more interesting subject, whether in the 1980s or in 2018.

Lots 'n More

The former home of the Honsbruch Drug Store in Aurelia, IA

The cool bit (the odd bit) of the building is on the right side of the photo — a (fake?) cuckoo clock, over an architecturally incongruous entrance. I find myself curious about what this building was originally meant to be, given all of the things it is now.

Somewhat further away and to the south in Odebolt, IA, there’s a bank building that probably wasn’t operating as a bank even when Margolies encountered it thirty-odd years ago:

The differences between the Margolies photo on the left and the one I took on the right are actually kind of interesting — I encourage you to click the links and head over to the versions of the images hosted on Flickr, where it’s fairly easy to zoom in and look at the details in each shot. Sometime before Margolies encountered the structure in 1987, someone had covered up the bank name (Farmers Savings Bank); I know it operated as a bank under that name at this address at least as far back as 1929, but by the 1980s at least one bank (possibly more than one) had failed in Odebolt. Now, the name of the bank is restored, and many of the damaged pieces of the facade have been cleaned and repaired. Windows have been replaced, the door painted, an air conditioner added. One of the buildings next door was demolished years ago, now replaced by climbing ivy or creeper, while the other appears more or less unchanged. The structure is located in Odebolt’s historic district, an easy few steps across the street from the Iowa Rural Schools Museum and the Peterson Pioneer Home among other things, well worth a visit if you’re wandering the back roads and end up there.

There’s more to see, of course, but my little morning tour had to be cut short (I had other obligations that day). Still, it was a beautiful trip down quiet old highways, with harvest-ready fields warm and ready under the sun — a reminder of what a road trip could be, in a slower world.

Posted in Americana, Iowa, Library of Congress Flickr Stream MAGIC, photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

One of those weeks…

MargoliesOriginalCleanersM

Yup.

 

 


Photo of Tip Top Cleaners on 3rd St. in Chickasha, OK, taken in 1979 by John Margolies, available with no known copyright restrictions courtesy of the Library of Congress Flickr Stream. Slight bit of weakly meme-ish vandalism of same by Yours Truly.

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New Construction, Part II: Framing It In

In the previous post in this series, I laid out a blueprint for my Introduction to Philosophy course, using the Information Creation as a Process frame to structure my objectives and the general approach I might take to assessing how students meet those objectives. In this post, I’m going to frame in the class by talking about the syllabus and providing a description of the tasks I’ve assigned my students. Then I’ll say a bit about how the work I’ve assigned addresses my objectives and rules for assessment purposes.

The Syllabus

Here we go! Click on over and have a look at the syllabus outline. Give it a quick read! Enjoy!

The first thing you may notice when you look at the syllabus is that I’ve changed the statement of my objectives a bit. I edited the language in order to set my work up for informative assessment. Good course objectives (or program objectives, etc.) ought to be phrased so that it facilitates evaluation, which means requiring action (“students will demonstrate…”) rather than describing the internal states leading to action (“students will learn…”).

There are a few other things to which I’d like to draw attention here:

  • The required use of Zotero for an assignment in which students generate a collection of scholarly articles in philosophy for particular reading days in the course, supplementing the assigned reading in Nigel Warburton’s Basics and Classics books.
  • The change from several short essays in my original version of the course (as described in the preface to this series of posts) to two 7-8 page essays with a more involved paper development process, complemented by two essay-based exams (midterm and final).
  • The Reading Quizzes, which are mostly written to require students to apply what they’ve understood from the reading by filling in missing pieces in arguments or by making appropriate use of specialist terminology or concepts.

I have deliberately lightened the reading load (when compared to what I used to do, anyway) in order to make more room to focus on helping students learn how to read and construct arguments. This is (as my own rules require) how I’m narrowing the way for my students — I’ve chosen to remove or minimize the obstacle posed to comprehension for them by the very difficult prose of the major historical figures I used to assign. I use the Warburton readings to get the students into the ideas and give them a chance to figure out how to form arguments for themselves. Only then do we turn to the work of puzzling out the complicated writing of recent/contemporary scholars in the discipline, with the expectation that practicing the work of reconstructing arguments from Warburton’s clear and straightforward presentation will eventually transfer to the harder task of parsing something written by and for professionals.

The two longer essays, which my students will build on a template I provide after some weeks of topic development, writing, and revision, shifts the emphasis of writing work in the course away from argument and analysis practice (which is what I used them for in prior designs) and toward process (again, as my rules require).

The Work

In my previous post, I laid out the kinds of work that I believed my stated objectives and rules ought to require my students to do:

  1. Discussion work (for brainstorming, for practice, for building the conversation in the company of others, for hitting the analysis and comprehension elements of the course)
  2. Knowledge/information reinforcement work (information read once doesn’t stick nearly as well as information used and reused and remembered)
  3. Creation work (we get better at building things — arguments included — when we practice actually building them)

The essay assignments are intended to be creation work, and for assessment purposes the papers my students submit will (I hope) demonstrate their understanding of how to select and develop a philosophical topic, how to analyze and build arguments of their own, and how to make the best use of critical responses to their writing. The peer review piece of the essay process is also a part of the discussion work I expect, most of which will occur in our class meetings. I typically use class time to assign students in small groups the task of developing and analyzing their own versions of the classic arguments that they read about in the Warburton books, with additional brainstorming and shared reading on article days. The reading quizzes and exams are knowledge/information reinforcement tasks, as are the research elements of the article assignment.

Ideally, the combination of the final exam and the two essays will provide the most useful information about how well my students have taken up and internalized the lessons practiced in the reading, the quizzes, their article research, and our discussions in class. That meets my argument/analysis objective as well as demonstrating understanding. The quizzes allow me to reinforce the reading and give me a way to check understanding as we go along. The research work needed to find relevant articles encourages the students to pay attention to keywords (finding them, using them, putting them in context). Taken together, the participation components do a lot of heavy lifting for the demonstration of understanding of course content.

Of course, there are a number of questions that remain here. For my final post — my Epilogue — I’m going to talk about whether or not this syllabus-building is up to code. That is, I’m going to take a look at likely problems and issues worth taking seriously in consideration of this course as a model for applying the Framework. Luckily (for the sake of Epilogue-writing inspiration), the semester has started, so I’ve already got some things to work on, having once again confirmed that no plan for the term survives its first engagement with a room full of students!


* Both images in this post come from Safe and Permanent Frame Construction, a pamphlet put out by the Southern Pine Association in 1927.

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Library Business, Philosophical Mess-making, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

New Construction, Part I: Blueprint

Last week, I laid out my plan and the basic details for an Introduction to Philosophy course that I’m building using the ACRL Information Literacy Framework. This week, I’m going to sketch a sort of blueprint for that course-building process, laying out my rules and my requirements. My main challenge, this time around, is figuring out exactly which frame I’d like to use to guide my choice of objectives and tasks — unlike my earlier example of a more advanced course, this time I’m working on an intro-level design for a class in which I do not actually want my students writing a “research” paper.

To draft my blueprint, I’m going to lay out my (revised) design rules, describe my requirements, and select the objectives that will structure the class I have in mind. This remains a backward design process, in which what I end up doing will be determined by what my outcomes demand.

Apartment builing photo with floor plan

Time to draft this thing…**

Rewriting the Rules

In my earlier course design posts, I made two basic rules for myself:

  1. Enter by the narrow gate
  2. Curation is the name of the game; collaboration is how we play

Of the two, the curation/collaboration rule is the one most specifically tied to the Scholarship as Conversation frame; it speaks to how course design and instructor behavior ought to get students involved in the conversation, making the work done for the class function (more or less) as a form of socialization to the norms of a scholarly discipline. For this reason, however, it is also the rule I have to change for a course in which my goal is focused more on basic skills development rather than disciplinary socialization. I stand by the narrow gate rule — this is just good design, a kind of pedagogical parsimony that makes it more likely that students will get out of the course what I want them to get without being derailed by unrelated concerns.*

So: What frame best suits the general-audience skills class I have in mind, and how might that change the second rule?

For this class (a writing-intensive general education offering in the Humanities with no ties to a major or minor), instead of trying to build my objectives around the Conversation, I’ve decided that a better frame is to be found in the notion of Information Creation as a Process. For my purpose here, the knowledge practices and dispositions in which I am most interested (for building objectives, anyway) involve using the study of philosophical arguments and concepts to make the work of effective reasoning and clear communication about that reasoning transparent and useful for my students. Accordingly, my revised second rule now looks like this:

Rule 2a: Process is the name of the game; revision is how we play

When I say “process” here, I’m not just talking about the usual brainstorming/drafting business. Rather, what I have in mind goes all the way down to the more basic level of studying argument itself. The revisions I have in mind aren’t just editorial in nature (in the most technical sense) — they require understanding and addressing objections, and changing one’s view when an objection is deemed decisive or convincing. The information creation process is as much about making, analyzing, and adjusting our judgments as it is about the mechanics of creation and revision for written work. Put another way: It’s as much about how we ask good questions as it is about how we refine or improve the expression of our answers to those questions.

Of course, I’m not entirely abandoning the Conversation here. What makes this a philosophy class and not just a composition or literature class in which I happen to mention the occasional dead Greek or two is the fact that the course will focus on a fairly narrow range of questions and arguments addressed specifically in the context of their development over time as a part of what makes the discipline of philosophy in the Western tradition what it is. I still maintain that, if you’re really dedicated to a comprehensive application of the Framework, you can probably hang all of it from Scholarship as Conversation. That said, in this case I find it’s a lot easier to come up with appropriate objectives using the Process frame, and other frames remain implicitly present (some of the elements of Research as Inquiry, for example, also live here).

Objectives

The simple course description for the old version of my Introduction to Philosophy class looked a bit like this (I’ve boiled it down a bit):

This class is intended to be a basic introduction to some of the major issues, important authors, and relevant skills fundamental to the discipline of philosophy.

In the past, I treated this description as a sort of abbreviated statement of my objectives for the course. As written, it still more or less fits what I’m doing, but I think some closer attention to the knowledge practices and dispositions associated with the Process frame offers a way to enrich my very simple course description and cast it more explicitly in the form of a set of actionable objectives. The general themes here are analysis (derived from the Process frame’s list of dispositions) and application (as derived from the Process frame’s list of knowledge practices).

To the original brief description, then, I’ll add a short list of objectives, like so:

Objectives

Students in this class will:

  • Learn about some of the central arguments, concepts, and terms in Western philosophy, as represented by material drawn from a selection of major figures in the history of the discipline
  • Exercise and improve their writing and critical reading skills by analyzing and responding to the arguments of others and by developing and defending arguments of their own

This shifts the description of the class from a sort of “here’s what I’d like to have happen” statement to a slightly narrower account of what students should come out of the course having learned.

Requirements

In order to determine whether or not students have achieved these objectives (noting that the second one is admittedly vague), I need to assign readings and create assignments that match what they demand. Because this is a writing class, one or more papers (definitely MORE) turns out to be necessary, but that doesn’t mean that essay work is the only or the best way to get my students to do what I want them to do (or for me to tell whether or not they’re doing it).

Having thought about it a bit, I’ve decided that I need three different kinds of tasks for my students to perform in order to achieve and assess the achievement of my course objectives.

  1. Discussion work (for brainstorming, for practice, for building the conversation in the company of others, for hitting the analysis and comprehension elements of the course)
  2. Knowledge/information reinforcement work (information read once doesn’t stick nearly as well as information used and reused and remembered)
  3. Creation work (we get better at building things — arguments included — when we practice actually building them)

In my next post, I’ll use this general blueprint to frame in the course by describing the work students will actually be doing and talk a bit about how I think that work will achieve my identified objectives.

 


*Alliteration amuses me. Silly? Yes. Spectacularly so.

**Image above courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images Flickr Stream, originally found on p. 27 of Home Plan Suggestions by William A. Radford (1921)

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Philosophical Mess-making, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

New Construction: Preface

A few months back, I wrote a short series of blog posts about building a model for an intermediate-to-advanced topics course in philosophy using the ACRL’s Information Literacy Framework and figuring out how I might scale it for one-shot library instruction. My main agenda in those posts was to suggest a way to work with the Framework as a tool for thinking about how to set up course objectives of a certain kind and let them structure how a course or instruction session is built.

For this next short series of posts, I’m going to document the process of creating a different sort of class — an Introduction to Philosophy course — from the ground up, using the Framework as a guide so that the course serves the ends of information literacy as a part of its service to philosophical thinking. My purpose in doing so is twofold:

  1. I want to provide a potentially useful example of the step-by-step process of developing a class in this way, in the hope that it might be useful to other instructors and the librarians who work with them as they try to make use of the Framework.
  2. I have to get this class ready for Fall anyway, and writing about the process seems to me like a good way to help me to think about it more clearly! Full disclosure: I may be writing about it now, but most of the initial prep and planning work — text selection, etc. — was done months ago. This is more a reflection on the process than an in-the-now documentary piece about it.

This is an entirely new class design for me, so I can’t vouch for its effectiveness up front; I suspect I’ll be back in December or January with a follow-up post or two about how well the whole business actually went. It’s entirely possible that this will turn out to be more cautionary tale than helpful guide, which is fine by me — we learn as much (or more) from our failures as we do from our successes.

Let’s start this show off with some background information.

Tool time!

Time to get my tools together…

The Course

The syllabus I’m going to build in these posts is for an Introduction to Philosophy class serving a general education audience — there is no philosophy major or minor at my institution anymore, and the course exists in isolation from other classes (it neither has prerequisites nor constitutes a prerequisite for something else). As is regrettably common in service courses of this kind, roughly half of the class is 1Y/2Y (the ideal audience for intro-level work), the other half 3Y/4Y. The older students are usually looking for a course that’s not terribly hard in order to finish their Humanities requirements, and the 1Ys are likely in the class because their advisors (bless them for remembering philosophy!) suggested it. Only one is a student I’ve taught before (a senior in a humanities major who took Logic a few years ago). Majors (or intended majors) run the gamut from accounting to art, a bit heavier on the business end. Because the course satisfies a Humanities writing requirement for general education, I will need to build some specific writing instruction into the plan.

The Instructor

While I’ve been teaching some version or other of Intro to Philosophy since at least the mid-1990s, this is (as I mentioned above) going to be an entirely new prep. When I served majors, my goal was to build a course around central texts in the history of philosophy (Plato, Descartes, that sort of thing). I did it this way because I wanted my students to have a grounding in those texts and because I wanted them to take on the challenge of learning how to read difficult work. In my experience, I often deal with students who are not good critical readers — they know how to read textbooks (which are designed to do all of the work for you when it comes to figuring out what the important bits are), but they are seldom required to make decisions about relevance or importance in a text themselves. I’m a great believer in the idea that one acquires that kind of skill by doing, so I wanted to give them opportunities to practice. I selected four or five relatively short works, we read them carefully and discussed them, I supplemented the reading with a little lecture as needed, and then students wrote a brief argument essay for each thinker. The goal of the short essays was also practice — I wanted them to work on solving problems and making arguments, usually by giving them a fairly narrow problem closely connected to the text they read and requiring them to make their own argument about it with reference to the source material. These were not research papers — they could be written (and ought to have been written) using nothing but the assigned text. I wanted to build the close-reading and text usage skills alongside the writing skills they needed to do good work. The final project, building on all of that practice, was entirely original; students used class time to think about what their own philosophical commitments were on some assigned range of issues and had to come up with a way to support those commitments in writing, with at least some reference to the material they had read and worked on for the term.

While I still think students need to work on critical reading and good writing, when I decided to redesign the course I also also decided (with some sadness) to abandon the close reading of historical texts. As I no longer feel the need to ground majors in the history of the discipline, I’ve chosen to focus more purely on skill development for non-majors. Accordingly, I’ve changed books (adieu, beloved Hackett editions…). The course you’ll see developed in the next few posts here uses two assigned texts, both by Nigel Warburton: Philosophy: The Basics (5th ed., 2013) and Philosophy: The Classics (4th ed., 2014). With these books, I’m shifting from an emphasis on history and textual analysis to an emphasis on argument and structure, with the idea that I’m going to be providing my students with a set of skills to take elsewhere (everywhere!) rather than developing a disciplinary foundation for the study of academic philosophy (this is more or less Warburton’s schtick, with which I am entirely and enthusiastically in agreement). In addition to the assigned reading, students in this class will also be seeking out other materials, although their writing assignments will still be meant primarily for argument practice rather than research practice.

The Plan

So: For the next three posts in the series, I’m going to document the process of building this Intro to Philosophy class (with its required emphasis on writing for general education) using the ACRL’s Information Literacy Framework. The series will look like this:

Part I: Blueprint

In this post, I’ll quickly review my approach to the Framework, develop my course objectives, and sketch a plan for implementing those objectives

Part II: Framing It In

In this post, I’ll take up the blueprint from the previous week and lay out the structure of the syllabus, as well as setting up some assignment descriptions and explaining what I want these assignments to accomplish

Epilogue: Is It Up To Code?

Finally, I’ll consider the difficulties likely to arise as the course moves forward. Think of this as a pre-assessment list of “what to look out for” — it should inform how the course is taught going forward this first time. This post will also give me some room to address likely questions about the building process.

OK — time to start building!

 

[Don’t worry — I’ll probably also post something silly in between posts in the series. All work and no play…]

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Philosophical Mess-making, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment