RACT watch this space

IMG_1348-0 Tomorrow begins the conference on Reasoning, Argumentation and Critical Thinking Instruction at Lund University in Sweden. Dr. Frank Zenker, a researcher at Lund, has hosted several conferences in recent years on social epistemology that I would have loved to attend, but I’m especially happy to attend this one as it deals with an intersection of academic topics of special importance. It’s an open question whether argumentation fosters critical thinking and how it affects reasoning, and the recent decades of psychological research on reasoning suggest that people’s thought is much less critical than we might tend to otherwise recognize. All sorts of bias — from perceptual to social — colour our interaction with and reasoning about the world.

The picture at the top is of a lovely brass band playing in the pub this evening, and here are a few speakers who’ve convened so far.

IMG_1355 I will post summaries and commentary on the talks as we proceed over the next few days.

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What Is Argument Repair?

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the language of “argument repair.” I don’t think this is my term, but borrowed from others. Many people have found it the most interesting concept in my analysis of textbook treatments of fallacies.  Some textbook authors have asked for sources, and some instructors have developed their own exercises.

I have only found one scholarly discussion of it, and no articles aside from mine, but in critical thinking and argumentation studies it’s quite common for  innovative scholarship to be presented in textbook form.  (A great recent example of this is Maureen Linker’s Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice — I plan to post on that soon.) Richard Epstein’s Critical Thinking (Thomson Wadsworth) devotes a chapter to the argument repair, and perhaps that’s where I picked up the term.  It’s no longer in print, unfortunately, but you can find a discussion of it here.

What attracts me to the notion of argument repair is that it suggests a dialectical context. We may repair arguments in response to criticism, though we cannot in change our central reasoning (how to identify that central reasoning is the big question). That dialectical engagement distinguishes argument repair as a practice from simply charitable interpretation, which does not involve the arguer revising what is said but only an audience interpretation. (It may also include repairing one’s own argument, in an internal dialectic.) That dialectical element is present when “argument repair” appears in the one other place I’ve found the phrase, a poem “On the Immortality of the Soul” by Charles William Jones (of Islington):

In matters of such import, pith, and weight,
As the soul’s welfare and a future state,
Each should endeavour for himself to judge,
Invoke the contest, and refuse to budge:
Then to the field of argument repair,
Wisely engage in manly conflict there;
But should conviction’s force your breast assail,
Retire at once, nor your defeat bewail

This rich depiction of argument as war is far from what I want, and yet conflict is certainly part of the dialectical picture.  What interests me is that the audience allows the speaker the opportunity for argument repair.  The speaker can take “to the field” and “retire” in turns.

Although dialectical context distinguishes argument repair from simply charitable interpretation, each may follow the same guidelines.  We don’t want to shoehorn all arguments into deductive form, and yet we want to allow for implied premises, and also “blunders” in Douglas Walton’s terms (see Tindale’s article here).  Epstein in a later edition along with Carolyn Kernberger provide the following Guide to Repairing Arguments (206, 68):

Given an (implicit) argument that is apparently defective, we are justified in adding a premise or conclusion if it satisfies all three of the following:

  1. The argument becomes stronger or valid
  2. The premise is plausible and would seem plausible to the other person
  3. The premise is more plausible than the conclusion.

If the argument is valid or strong, we may delete a premise if doing so doesn’t make the argument worse.

The three criteria involve additions to the argument: the audience “putting words in the speaker’s mouth” in a non-pejorative sense, or the speaker making additions; but it’s also noted that an argument might be improved but trimming off extraneous information. Epstein and Kernberger also suggest the following limits to argument repair (206, 68):

  • There’s no argument here

  • The argument is so lacking in coherence that there’s nothing obvious to add

  • A premise it uses is false or dubious and cannot be deleted

  • Two of its premises are contradictory, and neither can be deleted

  • The obvious premise to add would make the argument weak

  • The obvious premise to add to make the argument strong or valid is is false

  • The conclusion is clearly false.

None of this indicates a dialectical context, so it’s interesting that they choose terminology different from the traditional “charity.”  So, it seems that I need to look closer at my own past practice to see if I’m doing anything different, and have made explicit my interest in the dialectical context. I’ve also sent out some inquiries to people who might know better than I, and I’ll report back.

Critical Thinking and “Academically Adrift”

The central purpose of my CT2 guide is to advise philosophy instructors about their choices in developing critical thinking courses.  The responsibility for the development of critical thinking skills does not rest solely on instructors however, as one can see in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

Other important factors include student preparation, work habits, and social resources — both work and funding. For instance, educated parents, studying alone rather than in groups, and working on campus improve performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment  (chapter 2 and chapter 3).  All this, they suggest, indicates trouble for the desired goal of increasing “critical thinking,” complex reasoning, and clear written communication, though these terms are never defined. Part of the problem according to Arum and Roksa is the current culture of college education that presents studying as part-time, and school as a last fling before the sombre (and sober?) world of work (chapter 4).

Nevertheless, Arum and Roksa conclude with recommendations for instructors. They advise more reading and writing, with the caveat that it may not go over well with students and may look bad on student evaluations and other currently accepted measures of teaching.  How much?  40 pages of reading per week and 20 pages of writing per term. This seems a lot to me.  I assign about 30 pages of reading per week (10 per class hour), based on small books, and so often as little as 15 pages per week.  I maintain, and explain to students that philosophy must be read three times to be understood well, and that our reading demands thus will be less than in history and English.  The same goes for writing, I’d argue.  Few sources are needed, so the analysis is more spare and focussed and I could not expect it to be as long as in other disciplines.  But now, I’m just getting defensive … I imagine Arum and Roksa might accept this ammendment.

What they really want is for us to engage in what they consider a more direct ethic of education, to produce reasoners rather than credentials.  They turn explicitly to the tradition of John Dewey in stressing rigour and frequent assessment.  This would entail a turn away from the collaborative learning models that have become popular. Again, this might hurt teaching evaluations, and would demand deep structural change to support instructor-level practices.

I have a number of misgivings about the book, and many criticisms can be found on-line.  My biggest concern is that the results can seem to show simply that individual reasoning does not benefit from collaborative instruction.  That seems unsurprising.  The need for assessment to reflect instructional methods and techniques is known as “alignment” and — as I understand it — the canonical work in this regard is Teaching for Quality Learning at University by John Biggs.  Ignoring this element deeply undermines Arum and Roksa’s approach as the technique is central to the outcomes based model of education they criticize.  It’s akin to giving a US-based IQ test to an African student and remarking at how poor the results are.

That said, if we agree that the skills assessed by the CLA are important, we need to consider how those outcomes have been side-lined in favour of more concrete and specific, and — yes — social skills.  Do we want individual or collaborative thinkers? Collaboration is more popular with students but that is that what employers want?  I haven’t yet seen this general question posed to Arum and Roksa, though some concerns have been similar.  They admit that they do not account for the subject-specific strengths students may gain.  But I’m pointing to something a little different, an understanding of general reasoning as collaborative or cooperative, which conflicts with the enlightenment notion of reasoning implicit in the CLA.  That type of reasoning is important, but there are alternatives.

Methodology

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!

Finding the topics you want

To help instructors make informed decisions about their critical thinking courses, my research assistant and I (see below) are developing a database of the current textbooks that analyzes their contents by topic.  At the moment you will find that we have covered 16 textbooks, and we still have a lot to go, even though we aim to cover only those in the discipline of philosophy in the English language.

The database should assist with Step Two of the CT² steps for choosing a text.  Once instructors have decided what sorts of things they’d like to teach, it will help them locate texts that cover those topics.

The analysis proceeds, left to right:

  1. The usual bibiographic details, plus the relevant expertise of the author, and our estimate of the country/culture to which the book is addressed
  2. General contexts for critical thinking
  3. The types of argument analysis provided
  4. Whether and how fallacies are covered
  5. Whether and how deductive and then inductive logic are covered
  6. Whether and how science is covered
  7. Whether and how language is covered
  8. Specialized forms of reasoning
  9. Developing one’s own thinking
  10. Special features distinguishing an individual text
  11. On-line resources

An “X” is used to fill the box, and where a topic receives only brief treatment only a single hash, “/,” is used. Any other keys can be found in the column header. We aim to limit the evaluative component of this analysis, and keep it descriptive. I confess that I hope the availability of information will help instructors find the textbooks written by scholars in the field.  Providing better understanding of the range of textbooks available may discourage new instructors from simply reproducing outdated views of critical thinking and argumentation.

Brigham Bartol is a smiling young man with curly hair and glasses in a shirt and tie
Brigham Bartol

We began with Oxford University Press because they offered to provide review copies. (I don’t want to pretend I plan to teach with all these texts.) However, we aim to feature books by scholarly and liberatory authors. I will also continue with scholarly presses before going to more commercial publishers.

I am not doing all this by myself and am very ably assisted by Brigham Bartol, courtesy of the University of Windsor Outstanding Scholars Program.  If you wish to be sure that your textbook is in our queue, please write to Brigham.  If you wish to send us a copy of your text, it should come to Hundleby’s address.

Reasoning together

Hugo Mercier visited the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric at the University of Windsor last Fall to discuss his recent work with Dan Sperber in which they  argue that reason is meant to function socially, in contexts of argumentation and hence as part of communication.  This welcome message for argumentation theorists and social epistemologists draws together an immense amount of research in cognitive psychology about the conditions in which reasoning is successful.  I found it very exciting.

Not only does this view suggest a fundamental epistemological significance for argumentation, it suggests that argumentation is basically cooperative, not adversarial.  Sure, opposition can be part of valuable argumentative practice, but the more general or at least original benefit is learning from each other — not winning, as the view has been misrepresented in The New York Times.

What was disappointing is the appearance that Sperber and Mercier’s appeal to evolution, and their employment of “evolutionary psychology” is weak.  Does evolution provide explanatory power, connecting theory with one of the most important scientific innovations of the past several centuries?  Yeah sure.  But explanatory power is not enough, especially when more rigorous empirical standards are available from and demanded by evolutionary biology.  At least, so the consensus seems to be — I need to learn more about this area; but Mercier appealed only to the explanatory power of natural selection, not to anything concrete.

Evolutionary psychology is notoriously problematic, and seems especially prey to the assumption that what has evolved must have been selected for, having an advantage itself. Some evolutionary features, like chins and male nipples are by-product of other features, like jaws and female nipples.  The automatic assumption that all evolved features are adaptations has been described by Elisabeth Lloyd as “adaptationism.”

“…accepting that our kids make mistakes and fail …

“We have a culture now where we have real trouble accepting that our kids make mistakes and fail, and when they do, we tend to blame someone else,” said Tricia Bertram Gallant, author of “Creating the Ethical Academy,” and director of the academic integrity office at the University of California at San Diego. “Thirty, 40 years ago, the parent would come in and grab the kid by the ear, yell at him and drag him home.”

One common cause that experts cite for increased academic cheating is the refusal to accept failure and the insistence that it’s someone else’s fault.  (The most common seems to be the increasing ease of plagiarism.)

Hopefully adopting Edward Burger’s strategy of giving “failure points” will counteract some of what seems to be an increasing reluctance to accept failure, and the lost of learning opportunities which that myopia entails.  So far, so good, in my fallacies class.

I congratulated several students on their failure (to distinguish observation from inference) this week.  It was great fun to watch their faces move from distrust (in being told they are wrong) to perplexity to amusement as they began to accept the learning opportunity.  My grad students also find the idea quite delightful, and so far there seems to be no insecurity or anxiety surrounding it, compared to that normally accompanying innovative pedagogy. They know about failure, and (so far) seem to find the chance to engage it straight on to be more exciting than scary.