Susan Judith Hoffmann
A. Reflections on Critical Thinking in Humanities
Drawing on a wide variety of teaching material, for example, scientific, literary and philosophical texts, cultural artifacts, films, theater or music, humanities courses teach students (1) to understand what knowledge is, how knowledge is constructed and how to reason about and critically assess various kinds of knowledge claims, (2) to understand, interpret and reconstruct a worldview, and (3) to discover and reflect upon moral issues.
All Humanities courses include an important element of critical thinking. In all the courses, students are expected to be able to identify assumptions made in various bodies of knowledge, in worldviews and in moral theories. They are expected to identify their own beliefs and opinions about knowledge, worldviews and moral theories and are expected to be able to reflect critically on their views. They are expected to be able to articulate these critical reflections in writing. They often come to their Humanities courses expecting to memorize and repeat information and facts and are often quite unprepared for what it means to engage critically with the material they are presented with. Often they think that it means accurately repeating the “information” and then expressing their own personal opinion on the value of this “information”.
It is important for teachers to spend time practicing critical thinking and empowering students with the confidence and maturity to express and justify their own thoughtful interpretations of the material they read. Students really benefit from the opportunity to do lots of writing and to learn to be better thinkers by practicing critical thinking in their writing. I think that while Humanities teachers certainly emphasize the importance of critical thinking in the classroom, we can learn a lot from the insights of the WID movement. While I always have the goal of teaching students to be independent critical thinkers in my mind when I am teaching, I have benefitted greatly by learning many new strategies to foster critical thinking in a way that will motivate students.
B. Exploratory Writing Assignments
I like these assignments a great deal as they always generate great discussion and gets the students to be philosophers together rather than passively learn about what philosophers do. It teaches them the rewards of philosophy practiced as an intersubjective dialogue and gives them an opportunity to write, clarify and deepen their thinking in a very easygoing classroom setting. It is also a great confidence booster to students who feel intimidated by philosophy since I show them my lecture once we have recorded all their findings on the board and they can see that the whole lecture (or almost) is there and has actually come from them!
C. Formal Writing Assignments
My biggest challenge is to keep students off the internet where they can find many very general often superficial and poor summaries of the material they have been assigned to read. After reading several very general summaries online, they conclude that there is not much else to say on the topic. Another challenge is to make sure that the students give themselves enough time and have enough confidence to write an essay in philosophy. Finally, I have to make sure that what they write speaks to their own interests and concerns and when I can get them to do this successfully they find philosophy interesting and rewarding. If they are unable to relate philosophical problems and questions to their own lives, they are often not interested in writing philosophy essays and will look to the internet for help. The topics below and the emphasis on writing as a process that involved many very different stages is intended to address these problems.
D. Evaluation Criteria
A grading rubric is very helpful to me for two reasons. First, I can give it to the students before they write their essay so that they have a clear idea of what I will be looking for. Second, it cuts down on having to write the same comments over and over again and I can use my grading time more efficiently by writing specific comments about content that will be more helpful to students. I learned a lot from Bean about giving positive and constructive feedback. Before my participation in the WID group I found that my comments on essay drafts were interpreted as “editing” by my students. I have now developed better strategies for giving written feedback on the essay drafts. I found the Bean manual to be extremely enlightening in this area and I am getting much better results from my students.