A sample syllabus

One of the things I hope to add to this page over the long run is a series of best practices and models: syllabi, exercises, etc.  I don’t expect these all to come from me and if you have something you’d like to share please send it along.

I am teaching a course (module) on fallacies this term, and in case you are interested, here is my syllabus.  It is based on the way the textbook author, Chris Tindale, designs his own course, but has my own spin.  In particular, I plan this time to have some discussion and assignments addressing constructive failure, a notion popular in business and creative thinking and that has many adherents in pedagogy too. I have also developed a youtube playlist to play at the beginning of class to pick up on the particular themes as we progress through the syllabus.

My technique for using the book is to leave all the case studies/exercises in the book for student practice, and to bring my own examples for in-class analysis.  This book adopts the “critical questions” approach associated especially with Doug Walton, according to which fallacies are deviations from argumentation or inference schemes that may often (or in certain cases) be acceptable.  The questions are used to devise the strength or weakness of a particular employment of an inference scheme, such as appeal to the person.

The critical questions/inference schemes approach gets past the problem that many putative cases of fallacy can be given positive interpretation.  Thus interpretation plays a central role in the course/module, which might seem to open a messy can of worms but I find it a useful way to teach students how to justify their analysis.  And to teach the value of changing their interpretations as they reflect more deeply on the reasoning they encounter, and recognize they can improve on their initial impressions.  Pressing students to be accountable for their interpretations (along with their evaluations) is one reason that I think fallacies can be a valuable way to teach argumentation.

The first month and the next year

The CT² site has now been up a month and received over 1100 unique visitors (the counter was added a little late) from all over the globe.  While the traffic has waned since the first few days, I’ve received excellent feedback and extremely helpful suggestions from all sorts of people, all of which I have already implemented or will get to next summer.  (I am a social epistemologist and try to make good use of the resources other people provide me!)

This week I met with some folks from the University of Windsor’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.  A good deal of the ideas behind the CT² guide come out of the many workshops I’ve taken with them, and some others specifically from John Biggs’ Teaching for Quality Learning at University.  This week Chris Smith and Erika Kustra gave me some pointers on developing the site, so that I can more effectively encourage better pedagogy in philosophical instruction about critical thinking.

CT² won’t change much between now and next summer, while my time is heavily occupied with my own teaching.  However, I have been invited to give related talks: on the status quo fallacy at “Thinking and Speaking a Better World” in Qatar early January; on the relationship between feminist logic of argumentation and feminist philosophy of science at the Pacific APA in San Francisco late February; on adversarial argumentation in philosophy at the Central APA in New Orleans late March.

Then of course there’s OSSA here at Windsor in May, where I will not be presenting so I can be readily available as an organizer.  There’s still time to submit your abstract.

If you find yourself at these places and have any comments on CT², please let me know!


Fallacies and failure

Why teach fallacies?  There is no universal way to get an argument wrong, many argue.  It’s derivative on some positive theory of argumentation.  We have positive theories to support fallacy theory (the three aspects of argument strength from Blair and Johnson, and Govier; argumentation schemes from Walton; or pragma-dialectical errors) so why concentrate on an archaic theory of failure?  Doesn’t that encourage an unhealthy emphasis on nay-saying?  knee-jerk scepticism?  Certainly it can.

For the exact same reasons teaching fallacies can be a serious opportunity for students to learn about the value of failure.  “Teaching students to fail” by Edward Burger in Inside Higher Ed recommends not only informing students about the value of taking risks and learning from their own failure, but making that part of the assessment.  He makes it sound pretty simple and very effective.

Combining this with fallacies seems perfect, as it encourages students to consider the epistemological (or in Douglas Walton‘s terms maieutic) qualities of fallacy analysis and criticism in general.  I’m teaching fallacies this term so I’ll let you know how it goes!

More guides needed: Ethics and intro philosophy

We probably need guides to choosing introductory philosophy textbooks of other types too (Maureen Linker suggests).  Some of the central problems facing CT instructors also plague general introductory philosophy courses and courses introducing ethics: the great range and overwhelming number of textbooks.

There is a bit of a difference given the general lack of training of philosophers in CT by contrast to the general training in ethics and the breadth of the discipline usually required of instructors for courses in those subjects.  At some point I hope that the academy (and maybe even philosophy) will produce people better trained to teach critical thinking.  One must dream! (The image at the top of this webpage is “hope” from the Stanford Cathedral.)

Some sort of consumer guide to these textbooks would still be valuable for CT instructors trained in the field, I think, and would be valuable now for ethics and introductory philosophy.  Instructors trained in a field probably don’t need so much to have the virtues of different contents and approaches broken down, but they might benefit from a database listing the different content and practical features of the available textbooks.

That sort of overview what I plan to develop for CT² next summer.  Publishers and authors are welcome to send me copies of texts so that I may include them.  See my contact page.  I will analyze the content of as many philosophy CT books as I can get my hands on.

Free books!

A range of free texts turn out to be available on the web.  Of course there is the risk that they’ll be pulled off line, so before adopting contact the authors to make sure that’s not a prospect.  There is also a cognitive prejudice against the quality of free things that may discourage you or your students, but hopefully we’re becoming accustomed enough to finding good free resources on the web to think past that bias.

Here are some I’ve skimmed for you, and list in the order of estimated utility:

  1. University of Oklahoma philosopher Chris Swoyer’s Critical Reasoning: A User’s Manual v.3 (2002).  A large and comprehensive book that I will give a whirl next time I teach a general CT class, and from which I will lift chapter 24 on “reasoning in groups” for my social epistemology course.  This book seems to offer great flexibility and the assurance of being authored by a well-established scholar in the relevant fields.  This book covers a great number of approaches and is one of only three philosophy CT textbooks I know of that addresses cognitive biases (the others being Tim Kenyon’s Clear Thinking in a Blurry World, Nelson, 2008 and Diane F. Halpern’s Thought and Knowledge Taylor & Francis, in several editions).
  2. Steve’s Primer of Practical Persuasion by blogger Steve Booth-Butterfield whose experience in policy and academics provides a lively and useful read.  Although philosophers traditionally disdain persuasion because of how it can undermine good reasoning, it can also be a force to encourage good reasoning; and understanding how it works is a valuable general form of critical thinking.  The brevity of Booth-Butterfield’s Primer also recommends it as a supplement to other texts. Revised in 2007?.
  3. Ed Brandon’s Argument Analysis, a very brief on-line introduction to many dimensions of argumentation. Chatty and accessible, with an emphasis on understanding each other and how our exchanges of reason can go wrong. Revised in 1988.
  4. Research Methods Knowledge Base on-line from a Cornell University social scientist, revised in 2006.  If you are teaching social science students, this may be useful as its all directed toward social research methods and seems quite comprehensive, including research ethics too.  It may also aid understanding of a perspective on “critical thinking” quite different from those common in philosophy.
  5. Introduction to Probability, second edition, by Charles M. Grinstead and J. Laurie Snell.  A downloadable pdf that looks like a good resource if you want to teach probability or numeracy. No date evident.

Still thinking…

I wish to thank Candace Nast for her generous assistance in showing me around WordPress. The page launched just last night but I’ve already received a lot of valuable input and adjusted some elements of CT². I decided to include a blog too so I can give credit as it’s due and let people know when and what changes are made.

I especially appreciate you letting me know about small press and free on-line textbooks. I expect some of the most innovative textbooks come from those sources because big textbook publishers often press authors to appeal to the lowest common denominator rather than develop a specific pedagogical vision with a specific philosophical perspective, nevermind basing the approach in evidence and scholarship.  Critical thinking is no simple matter: it can mean a lot of different things and the forms of criticism are by no means uncontroversial, as Ralph H. Johnson & J. Anthony Blair argue in “Teaching the dog’s breakfast”.  This is why picking a text is so difficult, why the choice is very individual, and why so many textbooks are so unsatisfying.

The particular bee in my bonnet that inspired me to create this page is the number of textbooks written without support from scholarship.  The authors are not scholars in critical thinking generally, or the specific fields they cover in an attempt to teach critical thinking.  Further, there is a tacit presumption that explaining and practicing forms of analysis will aid students’ own thinking or at least their public practice of it.  This assumption needs interrogation and will get it, I suspect, as we learn more about cognition. Although no miracles will be performed in a single term of instruction, we need more accountable pedagogy. (I don’t think skills testing is the solution here, but basing pedagogy on research into effective learning strategies.)

So, I tend to prefer textbooks written by scholars in the subject matter — logic and informal logic, argumentation, cognition, rhetoric, media production, etc.  However, sometimes an author with pedagogical expertise, such as Judith Boss or Peg Tittle can offer us what we need.  Even these two books have quite distinct strengths:  Boss’s is glossy and dynamic in the presentation of the book, encouraging students to spend time with it; Tittle’s looks pretty ordinary but she offers a wealth of supporting material on-line to help the instructor engage students.

I hope in the future to be able to produce some sort of grid to help to identify textbook features at a glance.

black and white image of critical thinking textbooks packed tightly on a shelf