Thanks to Marcus for allowing me to be a contributor here - I've read and benefited from this blog as a grad student, a job seeker, and now as a junior faculty member.
I've been thinking a lot about teaching recently, and found myself having trouble with a pretty fundamental question: How should I be teaching my students what a philosophical argument is?
Up until this year (my first in my new job), I think I more or less subscribed to the view that an understanding of philosophical argument is best absorbed gradually. I would point out arguments in the readings as they arose, occasionally putting them up on the board in premise-conclusion form, and explain just as much of the theory as I figured we needed at the time. Last semester, however, it became clear that students in my intro class were struggling to understand some of the basic principles I'd assumed we were all working with. Their papers often displayed a rather hazy grasp of the relations between premises and conclusions, and very few students really seemed to have a solid understanding of how arguments function. Many of the papers were excellent in other respects (understanding the text, coming up with good objections and examples, etc.), and overall I was delighted with how the class went, but I felt like in this particular respect I was letting my students down. If you come out of a philosophy 101 class with nothing else, surely at least you ought to have learned what an argument is?
This semester, I resolved to do things differently. I set aside two entire class sessions at the beginning of term to discuss the basic principles of philosophical argument. I produced a handout introducing students to basic concepts like "premise", "conclusion", and "validity"; we worked through simple exercises in small groups and as a class; we used Peter Singer's 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality' as an example of a philosophical paper whose argumentative structure is brought out fairly explicitly. Some students really seemed to get the hang of it, but I'm still not convinced that the majority felt confident with the basic concepts even after all of that. On reflection, though, I wasn't surprised. My students are a pretty smart bunch, but understanding how philosophical arguments work is hard. Maybe if we spent half the semester on it, I found myself thinking, we could really crack it, but then we'd be missing out on a lot of the other stuff that you ought to be doing in an intro class, like grappling with a bunch of fun philosophical problems. And here's the thing: I think that you can get a lot out of a philosophy class without ever really understanding what validity is. You don't really need to be able to condense philosophical prose into numbered premises in order to think about whether you might be a brain in a vat. At the same time, though, I can't shake the feeling that if I don't at least give my 101 students the opportunity to learn the basic principles of philosophical argument, I'm not doing my job.
So, on that note of genuine ambivalence, I want to throw this one open. How do you teach your students what an argument is? Do you teach your students what an argument is? I'm thinking mainly about intro classes here, but really I'm interested in anything you do to try to teach this stuff, and how well you think it's working.
(I know there are resources out there, and I've tried a few of them myself, but if there's anything you've found particularly helpful, that would be great to know too.)