Sunday, September 21, 2014

a couple notes about teaching difficult texts, part 2

Yesterday I wrote about teaching using small group discussions, as part of trying to get at some reflection on reading aloud in class and how that’s going this semester. I feel like there’s more preliminary to say.

I have my classes read difficult material. I write it into my syllabus. I tell my students so in class. “You will read things you don’t immediately understand,” I say. “Expect to have difficulty. When you do, make notes about it. Ask about it in class, because I promise you, everyone in the room will also have difficulty. You might feel shy about it, or like you’re the only one. Trust me: you’re not the only one.”

I explain that their responsibilities are to read assignments prior to class discussion, to look up unfamiliar words and ideas, not only in an ordinary dictionary, but in specialized reference works related to the field, and to take notes and ask questions about the articles. I start every discussion of an article by asking for overall questions, or clarifications of particular words or passages.

I have three justifications for my choices of reading assignments. The first is pedagogical, the second is disciplinary, and the third is political.

The pedagogical justification is that the course is supposed to develop critical thinking skill. The ability to analyze and critique complex material and ideas can only be developed by reading complex material presenting complex ideas. I sometimes set up an article in advance by explaining something about the author’s way of thinking (e.g., “Peter Singer is a prominent ethicist, most known for writing about vegetarianism and animal rights”), or by providing guiding questions on the reading (e.g., “Why does the Clarke conclude that Baby L’s parents did not have the right to demand treatment?”). Sometimes I don’t provide any set up, but just remind my classes that they should come to class with their questions. Sometimes I have them bring a written question.

The disciplinary justification is that philosophy courses should involve reading philosophers’ own writing, as much as possible. It would be much easier to read a synopsis of Onora O’Neill’s article on paternalism and patient autonomy in medicine, but there’s no substitute for reading O’Neill’s own writing. Philosophy is in large part a tradition of texts. The article by O’Neill is a splendid example of the style of British-trained academic philosophers: abstract, concise, and universalizing. Taking a philosophy class ought to expose a student to stuff like that.

The political justification is that articles written in academic and professional journals are in a coded language that excludes most readers, and this exclusion should be resisted by learning as much as possible to break the code. Professions are proprietary about their knowledge bases, and this serves to legitimize their claim to expertise, and their power and authority. In teaching ethics, I’m always aware that almost all the messages my students have ever received about ethics have been pronouncements by authority figures. It would be a cruel irony if an ethics class taught them to replace one set of authority figures (churches, family, cultural hegemony) with another (ethicists).

Again, I tell my classes about this. None of these agendas are secret. I also refer back to them frequently.

Summing up the situation, I give my students difficult things to read, and explain why I do so, and what I want them to do with these things, and why I want them to do it. We spend most of our class sessions digging into the reading material and the ideas presented. We then expand on that into the broader implications of those ideas. An approach I use very frequently is small group discussion in which each group has an assigned question (usually) and is responsible for responding, based on the text. While they give those responses in class, I take dictation, and sometimes adding my own notes, or prompting them to add more. Their responses then become the basis of a second round of discussion involving the whole class, before I correct, clarify, and try to deepen the response. I then ask the class to take a step back to consider how the whole discussion, and the texts under discussion, bear on an issue or topic. In that way, we move from interpreting details of some particular passage of an article, to the whole article, to connecting it back to the overarching theme of a unit of the course. 

This semester I've restructured my classes completely, so that we begin with a plainly described "situation" in which ethics and ethical questions matter. In Bioethics, it's the Ashley Treatment. In Professional Ethics, it's long-term effects of head injuries in professional sports. Each article gives another bit of nuance or another way to think about the situation, sometimes but not always directly related to the situation itself. When we return to the overall situation, I try to help my students synthesize ideas and rethink their initial reactions. 

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