And the Semester Begins ...

I guess the summer is over because yesterday I met with our Fall semester students who I’ll have in class for the next four weeks. Our program serves both semester and quarter undergrads from the 9 UC campuses. Because of their different schedules, it’s a challenge to coordinate classes. Our strategy now is to have the semester students take a four week module at the beginning of the term, and then migrate to their core seminars for the remaining 10 weeks when the quarter students arrive. That way they’re all on the same schedule for the bulk of their academic work. I’m teaching the four week module and love the opportunity to think about how to construct a class that meets once a week for four weeks, for 3 hours each session, in the evening, after the kids have been working all day at their internships! Yikes!

For the last year, I’ve been teaching the General Research Seminar, which is essentially a research design course in which students do independent research. I’ll save the details about that course for another post. But that class has made me think a lot about how important critical thinking skills are and how we can better teach them to our 20 year olds before they head off campus and into the real world.

I’ve posted the syllabus for the Module in the Library. It looks a little strange, even to me, because it’s not packed with readings each week. Instead, the students are divided into groups to read chapters from Mark Henderson's The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, a fabulously rich and accessible book about the role of science for policy and in politics. They will write analyses of their assigned chapters and in class will work through biases, assumptions, evidence, and arguments made in the book. The goal is that they learn a bit about what it means to think critically, and *maybe* they’ll apply some of the skills to the biases and assumptions that operate in their own decision making. Hopefully I’ll do my job well enough so that when they move onto their core seminars and then back to campus and beyond, they’ll take with them a few basic skills to help them separate the wheat from the chaff that is all around them.

A professor can dream.

When I have my lesson plans put together – or perhaps after I try them out and see how they worked – I’ll post them. I’m using Stephen Brookfield’s Teaching for Critical Thinking to help me think through the exercises; terrific book for teaching generally, but particularly good for developing approaches to the often difficult task of deconstructing the personal assumptions that we all have and that act as barriers to learning new information.

As a last note for now, in addition to having students write various assignments, they’ll be creating an infographic using Venngage software. I’ve purchased an educator subscription so that my students can take advantage of the pro version with access to all the bells and whistles. This is a cool assignment that I assign in the research seminar as well. Because my students are interning in DC most days, I ask them to know their organization’s mission statement and identify a few issue areas/topics that are important to the organization. The infographic assignment requires them to ask a question or make a thesis statement related to one of these issues, present evidence in support, and cite their sources. It’s a fun alternative to the usual writing that they do but still requires them to make an argument supported by evidence. A perk is that they have developed a new skill that they can put on their resume. They present their infographics at the end of the term, and sometimes I add a peer-review component that requires their classmates to identify an additional piece of evidence that they think would make the argument more compelling. It’s fun!