Last week here on the ol’ blog, I presented a preface to a series of posts about designing and teaching intermediate and advanced philosophy courses using the ACRL’s Information Literacy Framework. In this week’s installment in the series, I’m going to take a little time to walk through the thought process behind my course-building work, in which I used a sort of backward design to grow the pedagogical skeleton for my PHIL 230 (Studies in Philosophy) classes. What I’m most interested in accomplishing with this post is a fairly rudimentary account of how the Framework can be used to generate and support course outcomes.
Backward design, as an approach to course construction, begins from outcomes and builds back from them to the assessment metrics and activities that will be used to generate and evaluate student work towards those outcomes. The language here is important. I did not set out make a particular part of the ACRL Framework into an articulated course outcome. I used a part of the Framework — in this case, the set of threshold concepts under the general heading of Scholarship as Conversation — as a context (a frame, as it were…) in which to select the course outcomes I would use.* Ideally, if all went well, this would mean that when I assessed my stated outcomes, I would also have available to me information that could be used to assess the alignment of my course and my students’ work with the Framework itself.
So: Having decided that I wanted my students to become at least minimally competent participants in proper philosophical conversations, I next had to decide exactly what would count as evidence of that competence. After I thought about it a bit, I chose to design my course around the work needed to research, write, revise, present, and respond to a typical conference-length paper (~10-12 pages, about 20 min. read aloud, straight through). This meant that on the way to getting something of a grip on [course topic du jour], my students would have to work on doing research, on selecting a topic, on drafting a paper, on presenting and revising that paper for final submission, and on responding to other people’s papers in writing and in conversation. I added a proposal/thesis submission phase (including a sort of literature review) and an ongoing, term-long collaborative annotated bibliography assignment in order to flesh out the research and writing process and draw attention to some important tasks in paper development. Instead of assigning an entire semester of reading, I chose a good introductory text or two on [topic du jour] and assigned roughly half of a semester of reading; students would be finding and sharing the rest, subject to curation and assignment by Yours Truly.** My hope was that my students would effectively be making themselves into a little community of people conversant in the course topic by sharing and developing their research and writing with each other, rather than working individually to meet a set of instructor-determined requirements that they all only incidentally had in common by virtue of being students in the same class.
My outcomes for the courses in which I used this design looked something like this:
In this class, students will learn:
a) Some of the central concepts and arguments in [course topic], including discussions about [a short and non-exhaustive list of specific issues, arguments, and questions belonging to the course topic]
b) Research skills – the use of specialist databases to find relevant scholarly materials, the evaluation of the usefulness of those materials, and the construction and use of annotated bibliographies as a part of the research process
c) Writing and speaking skills – the writing process for a conference paper presentation, including topic selection, argument structure, collaborative critique, public presentation and comment
Why choose the conference paper process as a course structure?*** Because of all of the formal venues in which scholarly conversation occurs in philosophy (conferences, departmental colloquia, publications, society meetings), the conference — at which scholars from many different institutions and backgrounds may meet to learn, discuss, and improve each other’s arguments — seemed to me to offer the most room for publicly modeling philosophical work in progress. Journal articles and books may be the tenure and promotion endgame for the conversation among professionals in the discipline, but the living process of honing arguments is easier to see (for me, anyway) in good conference discussions. Requiring the class to do the research needed to write a relatively brief conference paper on a narrow topic afforded me a way to use the research process itself both to develop skills and to introduce content. It also made the final product of student work for the class — the paper and its presentation — an actual instance of participation in the Conversation in addition to providing a set of tools for assessing my students’ ability to do so. I wanted my students to do some philosophy, in short, and I thought that this would be a good way to make it happen.
“But wait,” you might ask, “how are you going to get decent conference papers and discussions from a bunch of non-majors who don’t have enough of a foundation in the material to do even beginner-level work? Aren’t they just going to flounder? Aren’t you just setting them up to fail, and yourself up to do a huge amount of additional work?”
As it happens, all of this did occur to me — in fact, this is why I chose to use the threshold concept(s) embodied in Scholarship as Conversation to generate goals for the course rather than creating more specific topic or skill mastery outcomes. Next week, I’ll share the outline of one of my syllabi and say more about the actual assignments I created, the resources I provided to my students, and how these assignments were meant to work to get the newbies up to speed and into the conversation.
* This approach is more or less what Megan Oakleaf recommended back when the Framework was shiny and new, although I must confess that I hadn’t read the Oakleaf piece when I first started thinking of my courses this way.
** I may have thrown them off the metaphorical dock to see if they’d swim with this approach, but I didn’t want them to drown — they each had a lifejacket of a sort, in the form of my selective deployment of the results of their research. I needed a control mechanism to cope with the inevitable moment when no one selected anything actually good to read, or when someone included an article that we weren’t ready for yet, but could conceivably find a good use for. Including instructor oversight via curation meant I could throw something in if I had to, instead of relying entirely on the students to get it right every time. I always added any texts I selected to the same annotated bibliography the students were building, so that I was a part of the research process as well as its overseer.
*** Some experienced library instructors who use the Framework may look at this and think I was being a wee bit too literal w/r/t what’s actually in the Scholarship as Conversation frame. That’s a fair cop. In my defense, I think that since the work of academic philosophy is so frequently done in conference contexts, being literal in this particular way is an entirely appropriate choice for trying to get my students to do philosophy. My discipline often just is its conversation, constantly evolving, and I think it’s a good idea to run with that fact right out of the gate.