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.
Rewriting the Rules
In my earlier course design posts, I made two basic rules for myself:
- Enter by the narrow gate
- 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).
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:
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.
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.
- 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)
- Knowledge/information reinforcement work (information read once doesn’t stick nearly as well as information used and reused and remembered)
- 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)