Monday, February 15, 2010

Suggestions for Helping Students Find "Dialectic" Indicators?

Hi, folks,

One of my departmental colleagues recently expressed some frustration about his students' reading abilities, and I thought that it might be useful to air the source of his frustration here. To paraphrase my colleague: he finds that at all levels of his Philosophy courses, many students have a very difficult time either identifying or following the dialectic thread of an essay, article, book chapter, etc. I have noticed this difficulty in most of my Philosophy courses, as well.

There is already a challenge to get some students to recognize something as an argument when they're reading a text. Spending some time with those students on identifying indicator terms -- by which I mean, the words and phrases that indicate (likely) premises, intermediate conclusions, and main conclusions of arguments -- can help quite a bit. However, there is a second, probably larger challenge, and this is the one that my colleague was talking about: even when students can recognize that an argument is being presented, they often have real trouble recognizing what the author is doing with that argument in the context in which it appears.

For example -- you might ask your students: What seems to be the author's relationship to this argument in this section? Is the author setting it out "simply" to present it, without either endorsing it or criticizing it? Is the author setting it out so that, one paragraph later, they can begin to criticize it or to present someone else's criticism of it? Is the author presenting it and endorsing its conclusion, but not all of its premises? And so on. (I don't mean to suggest that those possibilities are mutually exclusive, of course.) In my experience -- and in my colleague's experience -- students overwhelmingly treat arguments that the author discusses as ones that the author is endorsing; the results for their understanding of what they read are easily predictable. I have sometimes assigned "guided reading questions" to accompany the assignments, in which I ask, e.g., ""What seems to be the author's relationship to this argument, and how can you tell?" But even when I've thereby alerted them to the need to ask that sort of meta-level question as they're doing the readings, I find that many students still struggle to figure out how to do it.

(Assuming that I've described it correctly,) Is this a challenge that others of you regularly face in your courses? What are some of your favorite ways to meet that challenge?


  1. You have hit the nail on the head. I have noticed students having this problem more and more.

    I am not sure if I am just noticing it now, because I am gaining experience interpreting the problems students have, or that they have always had this problem.

    I wonder if this tone-deafness to author-intent is new? Is it an artifact of a generational linguistic phenomenon? If it is generational, could it also be that students are improving, that in the past the students having this problem would not have even got the argument at all?

    Could it be that something in they way students use language has changed, has the emoticon and other intent indicating text message slang (e.g. lol, omg!) removed the ability of today's youth to read any authorial attitudes beyond those that are telegraphed in the most obvious way possible?

    Or is it just that there are a lot of students getting post-secondary educations today that would not have gone in the past?

  2. I've noticed this problem, too, though I can't say I've done anything to address it in a systematic way. I can think of two things that could be done. I wonder if anyone here has tried them.

    (1) It might help to spend some time explaining the different relationships an author might have to an argument. ("Sometimes an author will present an argument so that they can critique it," etc.) If students don't know what the options are, a question like 'What is the author's relationship to this argument?' will seem much more daunting.
    If this is helpful, which relationships do people think it would be most important to highlight?

    (2) Drawing on an exercise discussed a while back with respect to plagiarism, force students to do the things that they're having trouble distinguishing between. (In the exercise, a writing instructor taught students to paraphrase by having them intentionally plagiarize a passage in class.) Give students some low-stakes writing assignments in which they have to adopt various relationships with some specific argument(s)—e.g., endorsing, reporting, critiquing, improving, contrasting, etc.

  3. I think the challenge (you highlighted) students face belongs to the domain of rhetoric (communication) and not philosophy per se. It is next to impossible to not use rhetoric in philosophy because it is almost always the case that philosophical arguments, unlike mathematical ones (say), rely heavily on doxastic attitudes/beliefs and that they do not simply mimic syllogistic structures. Which is why philosophers rely on a range of techniques in order to convince their readers that their arguments are indeed "sound." Therefore, it is no surprise that they routinely engage in rhetoric, consciously or unconsciously, all the time. And, I believe that college courses (even the most basic ones) in rhetoric can help students a lot in understanding how and why philosophers argue the way they do.

    Have you looked into the possibility that students who you think have difficulty recognizing the intent (of authors) in arguments may not have already taken a course in rhetoric/communication?

  4. Speaking as a student, if someone asked me what relationship an author had to an argument, I'd get all twitchy and worry that I was expected to know a lot of background about his views on various philosophies and other authors. If someone asked me what the author was trying to accomplish by presenting an argument, I'd assume I was expected to know what he was trying to do with it. Changing the language used in the question might help.

    Generally, the vaguer the question, the more nervous the student gets, because the professor usually knows exactly what they want at all times. The student is not so lucky. :P I've lost count of the times I've known the answer the professor wanted but not answered because I didn't realize that's what I was being asked (in class).

    Have you had students present an argument then intentionally pick it apart in order to present their own? It might make it easier for them to recognize someone else doing it. That's about the only idea I'd have - make them do the things they're supposed to spot, so they become familiar with them.

  5. I think it would be useful to have an in class exercise / workshop where there's a short reading with (numbered) parts (paragraphs or sections) and students are asked to (a) figure out what the main thesis of the reading is and (b) how the parts support that, e.g., by explaining why each paragraph is there / what its purpose is, etc.

    I'd put students in small groups to do this: if the instructor lead the process too much, students would likely freeze out of fear of looking dumb or making mistakes. It would, of course, require a well-structured reading prompt.

  6. Wow. I'd like to agree with simulated knave, above.

    In the comments that I take to be from lecturers, I see a slightly scary lack of self awareness. You seem to be missing a crucial point about texts: often the things you need to understand a text are not in the text itself.

    As a lecturer who's picked a particular piece to read, you know the background. You know the major positions of the author. You know the arguments to which the author is responding. You know the major ways in which this piece has been interpreted by others.

    As a student, particularly in an introductory course, you often don't have any of this background knowledge. And that makes the interpreting of texts very very difficult. Many philosophical texts use language in strange, or technical ways, without signalling it. Trying to figure out whether a word is being used in a normal or distinctively philosophical way is hard when you don't have the background. And often writing is simply ambiguous: "this argument has merits" can be a resounding approval, or a complete dismissal.

    But all of the responses from lecturers here seem to assume that *looking more closely at the text* will solve the problem. It won't.

  7. Hi all, I'm new to ISW but so far it's been amazingly helpful and entertaining to read.

    I'm a 3rd year PhD student in philosophy and have been a TA for 2 of those years; sometimes the inability to discern even simple points in a passage is disconcerting in the extreme for me.

    But I think I'm also young enough to remember that in high school, the only real instruction we got in figuring out what was 'being said' is in English class with literary analysis and even things like poetical interpretation. I can't think of any other class - okay, maybe global studies in some cases - where we had to analyze a primary or secondary document and figure out what the heck was happening. Sad indeed.

    But we have to remember that philosophy texts are rarely easy to interpret for first-timers; that, and the attention span seems pretty poor these days (lots of students can tell me that Descartes believed in an Evil Demon, but rarely can they tell me why he employs it and how he gets past it...)

    I think this is why we see lots of glosses of arguments (as opposed to analyses) and lots of sloppy language and imprecision in essays and written responses. If students think that philosophy is inherently useless anyway, they become disinterested and this only amplifies the problem.

    How can we fix this? I'm not sure, obviously, but I think that giving them leading questions helps. "How does Descartes get past the Evil Demon scenario in the Meditations? What precise steps does he take to do this?" This conveys some of what we're looking for and informs their reading of the text.

    One more suggestion that has worked for me: pushing office hours or (in some cases) requesting that a student meet with you if they absolutely are having a tough time, and showing them general strategies to pick out argument strains and authorial attitudes.




If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!