Walking the walk

This term I’ll be teaching a first-year critical thinking course for the first time in years, indeed since I started this blog and developed the guide to critical thinking textbooks in philosophy that I call “Critical Thinking Squared.”  Now that I’ve been talking this talk for a while, I return to walking the walk.

This blog has not been very active lately, but I’m going to make use of it during this course to chronicle my successes and struggles. To start with, I’ve picked a main textbook based on argumentation scholarship, rather than simply the best intentions of someone with a philosophy graduate degree.  I’m using Sharon Bailin and Mark Battersby‘s Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking, 2nd edition (Hackett). I have not spent much time with this book yet, but I know that I share many of Bailin and Battersby’s philosophical commitments about reasoning, and I have great regard for their educational expertise.  I am already pleased to find vast resources in the book.  I’m also pleased to found extensive teaching resources available through Hackett, and Hackett texts are reasonably priced.bailin_reasoninbalance_webcover

The big question is how to select material that will work for a 12-week class at the first-year level.  I am skipping some of the deeper discussions of argumentation types and currently my plan is as follows:

  1. Chapters 1-3 on: inquiry; basic argument structure (premises and conclusions; subarguments); and induction and deduction.
  2. Michael Gilbert’s Arguing with People — more on that in another post.
  3. I have plotted a skip to the end of the book usings Chapter 7, 10 and 11 on issues, judgment, and dialogue
  4. We will then jump back to chapter 6 to address credibility and expertise. I’m excited to have our information literacy librarian Tamsin Bolton Bacon assisting with this.
  5. I will end with the chapter on philosophical (ethical) inquiry as this may be the only philosophy course most of the students take — and because I hope to encourage them to take more! Also on the final exam, students are required to reflect on one of the chapters 12, 13, and 14 that address inquiry in the natural sciences, social sciences, and arts relative to what they learned about philosophical inquiry. That should allow them to connect the course to whatever type of study constitutes their larger program (few if any will be philosophy majors).


I’m a philosopher and so untrained in methodology although my work in feminist epistemology intersects extensively with feminist methodology. A method of only a very rough sort thus can be found in how I choose textbooks for analysis in my the database.

  1. Textbooks are suitable for the database if intended for introductory philosophy courses. I exclude other disciplines to keep things manageable. What counts as critical thinking varies greatly from discipline to discipline, and often connects with the disciplinary methodology.
  2. I include introductory argumentation textbooks because that has become the standard way to teach critical thinking in philosophy, and only a few textbooks (Pinto, Blair and Parr and Kenyon, that I know of) do not focus on argumentation.
  3. However, books with 50% or more on formal logic do not make the table since that material tends to be covered in separate courses.  Likewise, textbook publishers tend to include argumentation skills under critical thinking and distinguish that from formal logic.
  4. I try to prioritize books by scholars in the field and academic publishers over commercial publishers.  My larger goal is to encourage adoption of the more scholarly textbooks, and I try to provide the resources to allow instructors to find their own way to those books.

Suggestions and advice are welcome!

Who am I to say?

Having styled myself as an expert in critical thinking is somewhat problematic because I am a novice in the field, however enthusiastic and dedicated I may be.  There are many greater experts whom you can find by looking at the ““Teaching the dog’s breakfast”” or consulting the AILACT website.  There you can find people who know the ins and outs of three decades of research on the topic.

What I offer may help those also new to the field in large part because I have the benefit of living among the informal logicians at Windsor for long enough that I’ve “gone native.”  So I can offer some advice about the general shape of the field, and comment on what I’m learning.

Developing a critical thinking course is a highly personal project dependent on one’s own skills and objectives as well as program and course objectives.  Vast options are available, and as I continue to develop my guide I expect it will become more comprehensive.  However, choosing a textbook (and deciding whether one should be used at all) is a highly individual matter, and I’m not match-maker though I do know a good yenta if you need one!