Select Lectures from Carl Seaquist's Course on Critical Thinking


When I worked at Bethel University, I was developing lectures for an online course in critical thinking. Since the lectures were designed as a unit, to guide people through a course, they frequently refer to one another. Other lectures I've developed, such as the one on Greek Civilization, are designed so that they can be listened to as independent wholes, the idea being that they could serve as resources for people taking a variety of courses, or for people who are just interested in learning about a particular subject. Many of the lectures from the critical thinking course talk about concepts like evidence and bias, but some of them discuss practical examples, for example how one should go about reading a scholarly argument or how scholars use evidence. I though I might draw some of these latter types of lectures together in one place, to illustrate how online lectures to help students develop some of the essential skills they will need in college -- without taking up valuable classroom time.


Demonstrating Reading Skills

It can be useful to walk students through a particular text, showing them how a skilled reader goes about the job of working through, and making sense of, a text of some sophistication. After providing one or two examples like this, demonstrating the skills we want our students to develop, then it may be appropriate to have them produce their own readings, with appropriate support. So here are three examples of how I demonstrate for students how to go about reading a particular text or argument.

The first example is from the introduction to the course. The lecture is designed to introduce students to strategies for reading scholarly texts, thinking about arguments that their authors make, and writing about those arguments. To do this, I talk about Neil Brodie's paper "The Western Market in Iraqi Antiquities," from the collected volume Antiquities Under Siege:  Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War (Altamira, 2008). First, I give students a handout that outlines the structure of the paper: I ask them to print this out, then refer to it as they listen to the lecture. [Note that I give the length of each lecture immediately after the link. I think it helps students to know how long a lecture will take when they're planning their study time. I should also say that this lecture is on the long side: I'd rather my lectures stay between 10-15 minutes, and this is twice that length. Fortunately, the software I use makes it easy for students to stop and then quickly find the spot where they need to pick up when they come back.]


Movie (24:31) ("Iraqi Antiquities")

A second example comes from the unit on how scholars use evidence to develop their arguments. In addition to handling narrative arguments, students need to be able to deal with arguments based on quantitative data, I take as my example the book Promises I Can Keep:  Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (University of California Press, 2005), by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. In their appendices, Edin and Kefalas talk about how they selected the sites for their research, and go into some detail about demographic data. As often in such situations, they include tables of select data, then have an accompanying narrative that walks the reader through their interpretation and use of those data. It's this discussion that is the focus of my lecture.

Movie (16:41) (Promises I Can Keep)

It is now common to use the term "read" somewhat metaphorically, to talk about how one reads a graph or a picture; I think this is a very helpful analogy. So my next example is somewhat different than the earlier ones, though as in the last lecture I'm still interested in the use of quantitative evidence. Here I take a discussion from the cable news network CNBC, considering an argument that one of their guests makes. I reproduce a graph that they used, and discuss at some length how the viewer of the program is expected to read it. The interesting thing about this example is that the spot is rather brief, and the producers expect viewers to "read" the graph while they listen to an argument that's being made orally. The total time a viewer can read and interpret the graph is quite limited, so this actually requires some rather sophisticated skills of the viewing public. And yet these are skills that anyone interested in the financial markets needs -- not just professionals, but also amateur investors or businesspeople in all kinds of industries who want to understand the larger economic climate.

Movie (18:36) (CNBC)


Preparing Students to Read a Particular Text

It is common in humanities courses, and sometimes in other areas, to have students read either primary sources or scholarly books or chapters. Except perhaps in some advanced courses where students are already professionalized into their disciplines, this can be difficult for students because they do not have all the background they need to contextualize what they have been asked to read, or they have not yet developed the skills needed to figure out how to approach a complex text: skilled readers will learn what questions they need to ask of a text as they read it, in order to figure out what the author is trying to do or how he has structured his argument. Unsophisticated readers may spend a lot of time on such a text, and come away with very little understanding. Here are two examples of lectures in which I prepare students for a reading assignment.

The first lecture comes from the unit on critical reading. I'm going to have students read the second chapter of Parna Sengupta's book Pedagogy for Religion:  Missionary Education and the Fashioning of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal (University of California Press, 2011) and then write a paper where they discuss the argument that she makes. I think that her argument would be interesting to the kind of students the course was designed for (students at a religious college who might be interested in things like missiology), and I always try to pick some readings that will expand students' cultural horizons, but I'm quite sure that some (maybe a lot of) my prospective students won't know where Bengal is or what a Zamindar was. Probably such students would be inclined to throw up their hands and quietly curse me, whereas if they had a little geographic and historical knowledge of the area and period, they might actually find the chapter interesting. So the lecture is intended to provide that background. The first half is devoted to geography and chronology, and the second explains technical terms that students might want to know. In theory, of course, they could look all this stuff up, but in practice they won't, and in any case, I think it is good to respect students' time because that's a way of showing them respect. If one of my learning goals is to figure out what a zamindar is, then I'll let my students google the term, but if I just want them to know it, then it's much easier to just tell them. I close by discussing Sengupta's use of the term construct in the phrase "construction of the person." This is standard academic-speak, and while people inside the university world talk like this without thinking abou it, it can be alien and perhaps alienating to some students. But once they understand the usage, hopefully they'll take if for granted just like the intended audience of the book does.

Movie (17:43) (Sengupta)

The second lecture is, again, preparation for a reading assignment. Here I want students to read a paper by Joanna Nathan titled “Reading the Taliban,” which addresses the Taliban’s communications and marketing strategy since 9-11. It's from a really interesting collection edited by Antonio Guistozzi, called Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (Columbia University Press, 2009). The irony, of course, is that Nathan uses the term "read" somewhat metaphorically, and I'm having students present a reading of her reading of the Taliban. I think students will find her paper really interesting, but as is so often the case with this kind of work, she inevitably discusses a lot of people and assumes a certain amount of background knowledge of geography and recent history. So again, I think students will appreciate an introductory lecture that gives them the necessary background in a concise fashion.

Movie (24:44) ("Reading the Taliban")


One More Lecture

In my critical thinking course I also have a number of lectures where I give briefer examples. I'd like to link to one of those here, because I particularly like it. In Tennessee, where I was working when I was developing this course, there's a lot of interest in music and in the music business, and in fact I'm writing these words in Nashville, affectionately known as "Music City." So in the unit focused on critical reading, when I've been talking about the use of sources in scholarly (and not so scolarly) books, I have a lecture where, in the second half, I look at a wide variety of books on music history. I hope you find it interesting.

Movie (16:41) (reading music history)