Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ascending the Matterhorn during your office hours

I wanted to share an idea I implemented this term that seems positively received by my students. Starting in the sixth week of my Moral Philosophy course, we began to read Kant's Groundwork. As I remarked to the student, Kant's writings are the philosophical equivalent of the Matterhorn: steep, forbidding, Teutonic.
I hit upon the idea of scheduling some additional office hours during which I would work through the assigned readings with students. I reasoned that since I have to read in order to prepare my class meetings, it couldn't hurt to have students present so that we could read together.

What have we done during these meetings? I try to answer questions about the assigned reading by looking directly at relevant passages and texts. More importantly, I try to let the students see how I read by actually working through the text, line by line, verbalizing as I go what I'm doing and thinking: noting what I've written in the margins, pointing out how a given passage relates to what came before, what I'm anticipating will come next, etc.

Granted, only about 10% of my students have attended these hours (so I usually have two or three students present). But there seems to be a clear benefit here: First, contrary to my expectations, those students who attend my 'reading hours' are not attending in lieu of reading on their own. Rather, they seem to be trying to figure out what they missed or misunderstood when they read initially and trying to figure out how to read better.

Moreover, as I pointed out in my last post, there's a massive gap between the reading skills of disciplinary experts and those of novices. What I try to do in the reading hours is model those reading habits that have come to be second nature to me: focusing on the meaning of the text as a whole, chunking, forming provisional interpretive hypotheses I later amend or revise, assuming the text coheres as a whole so that unclear claims will later be clarified, reading later passages in light of earlier ones and vice versa, etc. I don't have any evidence to corroborate this, but the students who've participated are more engaged by the material and engaged in a deeper way.

Has anyone pursued a similar approach? Given the success I've had so far, I plan to continue this in future terms.


  1. This sounds interesting -- what do you think would be the maximum number of students this would work with? I'm wondering if something like this could be used with a whole class?

  2. Nicole,

    Not sure - I've done similar sorts of things with full classes, but more as a one shot thing, not an ongoing activity. I found that 2-5 works nicely in my office.

  3. This is a really great idea, Michael. I think that this is tremendously important when teaching folks how to read historical texts. One idea: perhaps make very explicit the competing ideals of the principle of charity and historical sensitivity. That way, while you are reading together you can ask them to make such choices while interpreting, e.g.: do you think that Descartes is contradicting himself, or is there an alternative interpretation on which he isn't contradicting himself? Does this alternative stretch credulity or does it in fact open up the text? That way they can see why understanding a text requires a dynamic and flexible response and dialogue.

  4. Becko,

    Good point. A lot of what expert readers do rests on the assumption that texts make sense — that their own initial incomprehension of a text is likely to stem from not appreciating how the text is/was coherent from the author's point of view. Making a revisable mental draft, suspending judgment and awaiting subsequent clarification, assuming that authors make a contribution to knowledge (even if the contribution is negative, i.e., being wrong or confused), etc. — all of these are facets of the sympathy and charity we want students to adopt toward texts.


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