Reading Old Books with Engineers

In yesterday’s post I described an approach I developed for encouraging and helping students to read old books and, more to the point, to derive understanding from them.

In a political theory course, last semester, I tried something different. In the first half of the course, I set students to work together on understanding three texts in democratic theory: Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Young’s Inclusion and Democracy.

I provided relatively little guidance, other than ideas on how to use books to develop understanding. After they had worked through each of the books, I set them an in-class, individual exercise I dubbed a distillation, in which they could use only the book and a pen or pencil in filling out a worksheet on which they were to set down an interpretation of the core ideas of the book.

I was impressed and encouraged by the way students took up the task. They would spend whole class sessions flipping back and forth, reading passages and debating their interpretation.

In the syllabus for that course, I described the distillation exercise as follows:

A distillation is a structured, in-class exercise in deriving coherent meaning from an original source in philosophy. It takes the form of a worksheet to be completed under controlled circumstances: the only items you may use during the exercise are a pen, the worksheet and a few pieces of scrap paper, and the book itself. These will be evaluated using the sub-rubric for theoretical understanding.

The “sub-rubric” – I need a better term for it! – was an expansion on the theoretical understanding criterion on the more general evaluation rubric of the course. I provided students both the general rubric and the sub-rubric along with the syllabus at the beginning of the term, and I reminded them of it often.

The distillation worksheet itself consisted of four questions, connected directly to the criteria on the sub-rubric.

  1. Domain

In a few sentences, using your own words, describe the domain across which the theory applies. What phenomena is it intended to explain and/or justify? To what phenomena does it not apply?

  1. Assumptions

List the key assumptions that inform the theory, each expressed as a complete sentence: What claims about the wider world would have to be true for this theory to be valid, or even plausible? Point out ways in which assumptions might be weak, problematic, and/or open to criticism.

  1. Specialized Vocabulary

List important terms used in the theoretical framework and provide a one-sentence definition of each. If the term is also used more broadly in other contexts, write a second sentence to specify how the more specialized use of the term within the theoretical framework departs from general usage.

  1. Synthesis

In a few paragraphs and using your own words, set out the core ideas and connections of the theory, including key inferences or arguments that hold the theory together; note any instances in which connections or inferences might be especially weak.

Make reference to the original source as necessary, providing page numbers and/or other standard reference numbers.

As I noted yesterday, though, I think I had mixed success with this approach.

The best of it was that students really did dig into the books, working together in groups to sort through them with relatively little guidance from me. I did provide some framing questions, and a few short lectures to clarify one point or another, but the students marked up their books and quoted passages to one another.

It seemed to me that a fair number of the students – though I only have impressions to go by – with a good initial grasp of the language of theory.

The worst of it is that I had students work through three books in quick succession, which made the first weeks of the semester a hard slog for them, and also created some distance between the theoretical work of the first part of the course and the practical work of the second part of the course.

If I use this approach again, I may start the course with a practical project, drawing from students own background understanding, to give them a sense of why some theoretical insight might help in unraveling complex problem situations in political decision making. Then, I would have them work through just one book before getting back to practical problem solving, or perhaps as part of a practical project.

In each of my current courses in practical ethics, I’ve taken the approach of starting with just one old book – Aristotle in one case, Aldo Leopold in the other – and providing other theoretical perspectives through shorter excerpts and chapters. I am not using the distillation exercise, though I might still do so in more theory-intensive courses like political philosophy.

I may “cover” fewer books that way, but coverage is not the point of my approach to teaching and learning.

The point is for students to come away with understanding of what theory is for and how to use it as a tool for discovery in practical problem solving.

The point is also for students to learn that old books are worth the trouble of a close reading.

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