Learning to read

Upon reflecting on my own lecture style, I found that it is very common for me to spend lectures outlining arguments from the assigned texts–I present main points in the text as I see them, and the supporting arguments.  I am acting as interpreter of the texts, which is not surprising given the difficult nature of many philosophical texts and the fact that I am often teaching first- or second-year students (many of which have had little to no experience reading such texts).  But of course, in doing this I am discouraging students from outlining the arguments themselves, trying to come to grips with them in the readings before coming to lecture.  Why do careful reading of the text before class if the professor is just going to tell you what the text says (in his/her own interpretation)?  Some students will do so anyway and then be able to ask good questions and offer alternative readings, but many will not.

If one of the things I would like to teach is how to read philosophical texts carefully and critically, this is not the best approach.  Somehow I need to find a way to encourage students to do this sort of work on their own, whether inside or outside of class.  Two ideas:

1.  In groups, assign a small portion of a text to each group and ask them to work together to determine the main conclusion and the supporting argument, as well as the place of this argument in the overall point of the assigned text for the day.  Then present these to the rest of the class, either on the board or overhead projector, or on large pieces of paper that can be taped to the board for others to see.

2.  Have each student sign up for one day per term to present their own outline of an argument or section of the reading to the rest of the class.  There would have to be multiple students doing so per day, b/c of the size of my classes.  This is actually good, b/c then we could see where students disagree.  Each writes on the board or overhead or a large piece of paper their view of the main point of the reading or a portion of the reading and 1-2 supporting arguments, and we compare.  If there have to be too many per day to do this well, randomly choose 2-3 out of them to do the presenting, and the others serve the role of commenting on those first, before asking for comments from the rest of the class.

I’m thinking of combining this assignment with the one I’ve already done where students sign up to be responsible for discussion questions for their small group once per term.  They could do the above, then also come up with an evaluation of the argument they’ve discussed and some other discussion questions for their group to talk about separately from the main presentation to the whole class as described above.  That way, those students who have signed up for that day are partially in charge of both lecture and discussion that day.

Benefits of (1):  less stress and nervousness for individuals, b/c the results are from a group effort and less traceable to one person. Drawbacks of (1):  takes a fair bit of class time, which, if done too often, can take away from other useful class activities.

Benefits of (2):  more practice in what I think is good for individual students to be doing on their own anyway, before each class (so far as this is possible).  Can be done more often during the term b/c most of the work is done outside of class, so only the presentation time is needed.  Students can benefit from seeing the work of others in this regard more often, even if they are only doing it themselves once per term.

Benefits of both, hopefully:  we can see where we converge and diverge in our readings of the text, and discuss the details of the texts where we have differing readings.  Less emphasis on the reading I have given as the one to use in papers and exams.  More emphasis on the need to justify one’s reading, given the possibility of plausible alternative ones.

I think the public presentation of these is important, rather than just turning them in to the professor.  In my experience doing peer review of students’ papers in groups of four with the professor, I have found that sometimes the pressure of having to present one’s work in public, in front of peers, can challenge one to improve the work over what might only be shown to the professor (not always the case, of course, but it can happen).  This, I think, would be true whether the work is done individually or in a group.