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« Balance Series, Part 6: Taking Incompletes | Main | Schliesser on blundering on the job market and finding one's academic voice »

02/09/2015

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Moti Mizrahi

Great post, Mark!
(and welcome to the Cocoon)

Here's a presentation on arguments from John Symons via Twitter: http://t.co/DywC867Mad

Mark Hopwood

Thanks Moti!

The presentation looks really helpful (although I confess I've only skimmed it so far). Have you tried doing anything similar to that yourself? He crams quite a lot in there (albeit with very useful slides and examples), so my sense is that you'd need to spend quite a while working through exercises to really get students comfortable with using the concepts. That brings me back to my question, of course: i.e. how much time do I really want to devote to this in a 101 intro class? I'd be really interested to know what your experience has been, though.

Derek Bowman

An important part of teaching students what arguments are is to get them to try to make arguments of their own. One way I do that is by structuring essay topics in a way that guides students through the process of constructing a philosophical essay.

You can find an example here: http://derekbowman.com/teaching/sample-course-materials/

It also helps if you're able to give students the opportunity to work through multiple drafts, so that the ones who don't know what an argument is can realize this and ask. With small classes you can require two drafts and give comments on the first draft. But for larger classes you can still require the draft to be submitted and have an in-class writing workshop day. I know some people break students into groups and have a kind of peer-assessment at this stage, but I found it better to give them individual worksheets and work on their own paper.

Just forcing students to write two drafts (even if you tell them you won't be able to give comments) already improves what they turn in. And it gives them a chance to recognize what they don't understand and ask questions (in class or in office hours).

This isn't to say that all students fully understand why they're structuring their essay the way they are, or that every student gets what an argument is. But I do think it helps.

Mark Hopwood

Thanks Derek - this is really helpful. I think you're absolutely right about the importance of the writing process. It sounds like my experience might be somewhat similar to yours - I think my students definitely do better if they write multiple drafts and get comments back, but the larger the group the more challenging that is. I'd be very interested to know how you put together the individual worksheets you mentioned - that's not something I've tried before.

I took a look at the materials you linked to (which seem really great), and one thing I noticed was that the way the sample prompt is structured doesn't really use the language of premises and conclusions at all. Instead, you're guiding them through the process of evaluating the strength of a position by considering possible objections and counter-examples.

In many ways, this actually seems closer to the kind of thing that philosophers spend most of their time doing, which makes me wonder: is it really helpful to introduce the idea of philosophical argument in terms of premises and conclusions at all? Is it possible that we would be better off just avoiding that language entirely at the introductory stage?

(Since I don't know much about your class I'm not sure exactly how you approach this, Derek, so I don't want to attribute any views on this question to you - your materials just got me thinking about it.)

Michel X.

In my own experience, what made the difference was taking a class in formal logic. With that under my belt, I was able to connect the dots in a way that was only implicit in my writing beforehand. (I suspect that an intro to critical thinking would have done the same.) That's not exactly a workable pre-req for an intro class, however, and there's still no guarantee that other students will connect the dots as I did.

From my own experiences teaching so far, what's worked best has been a combination of two things: (1) explicitly pointing out what it is that's desired (e.g. lecturing a bit on arguments, validity, and soundness, and going through some examples, both one-sentence examples and short paragraphs), and (2) doing this in the context of a writing-intensive course. It can take a while for the gist of this kind of lesson to sink in. I've observed significant argumentative improvements in student work in courses where three or four pieces of writing were required (by contrast, I don't see much improvement when it's one or two), or where written assignments can be rewritten frequently. Unfortunately, that's also not a solution that's very practicable in a large intro class, unless one is lucky enough to have TAs.

Michel X.

Oops, lost the first paragraph of my post. Sorry! It should read as follows:


I've often wondered about how to get better results on this front. My worry about something like the Symons presentation is that I think it may go too far in the other direction--information overload. The more bewildered the students are, the less likely their writing is to evince the kinds of virtues we're after.

In my own experience, what made the difference was taking a class in formal logic. With that under my belt, I was able to connect the dots in a way that was only implicit in my writing beforehand. (I suspect that an intro to critical thinking would have done the same.) That's not exactly a workable pre-req for an intro class, however, and there's still no guarantee that other students will connect the dots as I did.

From my own experiences teaching so far, what's worked best has been a combination of two things: (1) explicitly pointing out what it is that's desired (e.g. lecturing a bit on arguments, validity, and soundness, and going through some examples, both one-sentence examples and short paragraphs), and (2) doing this in the context of a writing-intensive course. It can take a while for the gist of this kind of lesson to sink in. I've observed significant argumentative improvements in student work in courses where three or four pieces of writing were required (by contrast, I don't see much improvement when it's one or two), or where written assignments can be rewritten frequently. Unfortunately, that's also not a solution that's very practicable in a large intro class, unless one is lucky enough to have TAs.

Mark Hopwood

Thanks Michel. The point about assignments is one that a number of people have made in conversations I've had about this, and I think it's a really good one. Students need a lot of practice and trial and error to get the hang of this stuff, and as you say, it's hard to do that if you only have two papers required.

I'm definitely thinking about ways I can build in more smaller, progressively structured assignments in my intro classes. If anyone has any examples of ways they've done this successfully, I'd love to see them!

Derek Bowman

Hi, Mark. Apologies for the delayed response. It's taken me longer than I expected to find time to go back over the in-class essay worksheets I mentioned.

You're right that my sample prompt doesn't directly address your original question about teaching arguments. It does require student to know the meaning of the term 'argument' and how to recognize one. The hope is that, with a process that encourages self-assessment and revision, students will have an opportunity to realize this is something they need to ask about if they still don't get it.

In terms of teaching arguments up front, I focus mainly on getting them to understand the ideas of 'premises' and 'conclusions.' I also introduce and use the idea of 'validity,' but I no longer try to get the students to memorize any valid forms or learn any tests for validity.

I emphasize the idea that arguments are answers to the question 'why believe this,' where 'this' is the conclusion, and the premises are supposed to provide the why. If I tell them that an argument is valid, then they know the premises support the conclusion, so that the only remaining question in evaluating the argument is whether we have reason to believe the premises are true.

I also gave the students the chapter on deductive arguments from this book as optional reading for those who wanted to know more about validity. But mostly I just told the class that most of the argument interpretations I was going to be giving on the board would be valid arguments.
http://www.hackettpublishing.com/a-rulebook-for-arguments

If you wanted to spend more time on arguments, you could assign the whole book, which is only 100 pages and isn't overly technical. I've seen others who use this as a required text in their introductory courses as their answer to the main question of your post.

I may post my essay worksheets to my website in the future, but if you'd like to see them I'd be happy to share via e-mail. Looking them over now here's the only part that relates directly to the mechanics of arguments (though I have many questions under the heading 'arguments'):

(For an essay on W.K. Clifford's "Ethics of Belief"):
"If you use a version of the two-premise interpretation of the argument presented in class, do you explain how Clifford supports each premise? If you present the argument in a different way, do you explain which part of the argument is supported by his examples and which is supported by the further points he makes in Section 1?"

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