Posters in Philosophy

Just returned from the biannual conference of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.  What an excellent conference with an excellent group of people!  I will be posting a few entries related to presentations and workshops I attended at the conference.

One was by Kristin Schaupp at Univ. of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who said that in large philosophy courses, one assignment she has used with success is a poster.  Instead of having each student do one, she breaks the class into groups who stay together the entire term.  One of their assignments as a group is to create a poster, similar to those presented at conferences in the social and natural sciences.  They have several “poster days” at the end of the term, so that each group has a chance to show their poster and discuss it with other students in the audience. 

The poster assignment requires that the students pick one article read during the term, and do the following:

1.  Outline the argument in the article

2.  Analyze the strengths/weaknesses of the argument

3.  Outline and discuss 2 possible objections

4.  Respond to those objections (say how the author’s article could respond)

5.  State the group’s position on the issue discussed in the article and give an argument for it (can include evidence from readings outside the course)

Schaupp argues that the poster assignment requires students to boil down their ideas into a very clear and concise form.  It allows them to do what we often ask students to do in terms of summarizing and offering a critique of one or more texts, and focuses just on the most important aspects of that kind of activity.

The larger context of this presentation was on redesigning assignments that one uses in smaller classes, so that something that achieves the same goals (approximately) can be used in a larger course with success and without increasing one’s workload to the breaking point.  She suggested we think about one or more assignments we like to use in smaller courses, consider what the important goals of such assignments are, what the problems with it are, and then brainstorm ways to redesign the assignment so that it maximizes the achievement of the goals and minimizes the problems (and is feasible in terms of marking for a large group of students).  For example, instead of assigning individual reaction papers to readings in a large class, she assigns reaction papers to the groups–not that the groups write these together, but that they choose which member will present a reaction paper each time one is due (rotated amongst them equally), and that person leads the discussion in the group that day.

My main concerns with the poster idea for courses are:

— The problem of having some members of the group work hard and others not do much remains, unless one deals with this specifically.

— Production and printing of posters can be very expensive, depending on your campus facilities…who pays for the posters?  Schaupp said that her institution does so;  I doubt mine would, though of course I haven’t looked into it.

— I believe one of the things we can do well in philosophy is to teach students to write well.  This is not always what we do, and we don’t always know how to do so well, but it’s something I wouldn’t want to see fall by the wayside.  This is one of the reasons we need to push for limits on the size of our courses.

I think the idea of using posters in philosophy is very interesting, and it’s something the APA is starting to take on as well.  The following comes from the APA Pacific Division website:

Pilot of Poster Sessions at the 2011 APA Pacific Division Meeting, San Diego, April 20 – 23, 2011
The APA Pacific Division is piloting refereed poster presentations at its 2011 Annual Meeting, April 20-23 in San Diego, California. For this pilot, submissions are restricted to philosophy of mind, broadly understood (as including philosophy of psychology, neurophilosophy, and philosophically-oriented cognitive science).The Program Committee encourages submissions of research whose substance and significance is effectively communicated through the format of a poster and a short abstract.

I do think that writing papers should still be the main way of communicating philosophical arguments, though I haven’t yet formulated exactly why I think so.  There is something valuable, I think, in the rhetorical aspects of using full narratives to express arguments, along with or instead of only the condensed outlines.