This post originally appeared on February 14, 2014.
I always enjoy the beginning of the semester: new students, new classes, and new school supplies (I still love those, all these many years past grade school). This year, starting fresh, for me, also means a new university: I’ve recently started teaching at Heidelberg University in Ohio. It means a change in student population, a change in curricular expectations, and a change in the number of freshmen that I teach.
It also means that I’m able to take what I learned in my last job – including the critical thinking program that I coordinated for two years – and apply them in this new setting. And I’ve been thinking a great deal about the critical thinking part of the work that I was doing, in the context of this new job. My previous experience with critical thinking was in a program with a relatively set curriculum, or with at least a set paradigm of critical thinking that was to be applied to all disciplines. Here, however, I am freed from those constraints: I can pick what works and discard what hasn’t worked for my own teaching. And I think that my teaching is the stronger for it all, both from working within a particular program that forced me to reconsider my course objectives and the objectives of the various assignments in my classes, and from now having a bit more room to play around with other frameworks of critical thinking.
What I’ve noticed in my classes so far (and there have only been a few meetings up to this point) is how much of the critical thinking vocabulary has become normal for me. And more importantly, how many of the techniques I began to practice while working within – and eventually running – that critical thinking program emerged as I spoke with students this week. In running a brief class discussion, I found myself asking students to clarify their thoughts with more precise language (clarity and precision were two standards for evaluating thought that we worked with a great deal in our program); I found myself asking students to paraphrase what other students had said, to ensure engaged listening – and engaged thinking, another technique that I began to practice in earnest under the past program.
(Also, I should note that it’s always pleasing, at the beginning of a semester and the end of a long summer of writing and relaxing, to realize that you actually remember how to do the thing that pays the bills.)
All of this – the critical thinking experience, the new students, the movement out of a specific critical thinking curriculum – is enabling me to develop a more specific paradigm of critical thinking for my literature students, particularly the students in my survey courses. This semester, I’m teaching a survey of world literature, and I’m going to try to implement some of the ideas I’m working on in terms of deliberately cultivating critical thinking skills in a literature class.
It’s all a big adventure. I hope to continue to chronicle it here and elsewhere, and I hope you’ll follow along.