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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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…]