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.


About L. M. Bernhardt

Deaccessioned philosopher. Occasional Musician. Academic librarian, in original dust jacket. Working to keep my dogs in the lavish manner to which they have become accustomed.
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