“Innovative Courses Teach Critical Thinking, Open Inquiry,” by Maria Klawe

How does one develop students’ ability to think critically, read carefully, recognize their own and others’ assumptions and understand multiple points of view?

Three professors at Harvey Mudd College have recently developed innovative courses that—each in its own way—are providing students with engaging and effective ways to think deeply, critically and openly about the subject matter covered in the course, but also about themselves and the world around them.

  • David Seitz, professor of cultural geography, teaches Star Trek and Social Theory. Each week, students read about social theory and then watch an episode of Star Trek that is relevant to the themes in the texts.
  • Vivien Hamilton, professor of history of science (pictured above teaching a class), explores fictional texts as historical documents in her Science in Fiction course asking students what each text reveals about cultural attitudes toward science in that time period.
  • Erika Dyson, professor of religious studies, teaches a course called Activism, Vocation, and Justice that combines community service with coursework. Course readings and themes vary each semester so students can take the class multiple times.

I spoke recently with David, Vivien and Erika about the innovative ways they are engaging students in critical thinking, open inquiry and reflection in their courses.

Maria Klawe: How do you approach teaching critical thinking skills in your courses?

David Seitz: I have found Star Trek to be a good entry point for helping students begin to see the social and political world structurally as well as through the perspectives of individuals who are exploited or excluded in some way. Sometimes the easiest way to get students to try on a new way of seeing our world is to start by looking at another world altogether. For example, we can read social critiques of economic inequality, but it can be easy in discussion to fall back on whatever we already think we know about inequality. However, if I also show a Star Trek episode about economic inequality on some other planet, and we apply the theory we are reading about, students start to connect the dots on their own terms.

The other way that I model critical thinking for them is by getting them to think about the lives of the theorists we read. For example, we read Frantz Fanon, a Martinican doctor who completed his PhD in psychiatry in France but who experienced such intense racism as a Black psychiatrist that he became a political philosopher and revolutionary. By learning about the life of someone who wrote influential works about the psychological, political and economic dimensions of anti-Black racism—and we connect his experience to some of Captain Sisko’s experiences on Deep Space Nine—students get a sense that people’s social location shapes the kind of knowledge they create. Students can see that they also have a social location, here at Harvey Mudd, that shapes the kind of science they are doing.

Vivien Hamilton: In Science in Fiction, we read five novels in which science is central to the story, starting in the early 19th century with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and ending in the 21st century with Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012). These fictional portrayals of science raise questions about the social responsibility of scientists and the relationship of science to the public. We ask how the day-to-day practices of science are being portrayed and what kinds of assumptions are being made about who gets to do science.

The biggest thing that we work on in class is figuring out how to ask questions about these novels and about their historical context that don’t have one easy answer. Students often think of history as something that is finished, just a series of facts to learn. I want them to experience what it is like to be a historian, and to see that that there are multiple perspectives to the questions we are asking and multiple valid arguments to be made.

Erika Dyson: A lot of what we try to do in the liberal arts is to teach students how to get out of their own way, so they can actually show up, and listen, and learn from others around them. One way I go about that in my Activism, Vocation, and Justice course is to combine a set of readings on a particular theme, Engaged Buddhism or Interfaith Activism, for example, and to have students do work with a community organization over the semester. Students get to pick their placement with an organization according to what they are interested in, and then they reflect on the work they are doing and on the semester’s themes in weekly writing assignments.

Because the writing assignments are reflective, there’s a lot of freedom for the students to think about who they are and how their work is meaningful to them. In class, students share the connections that they are finding between their experiences and the course texts. We talk about what the students are doing in their various placements. We talk about ways they can interact with others intentionally, with care and a real respect for and openness to being changed by others. A lot of discussion comes back around to what is becoming personally meaningful to them or troublesome. It’s not all about what’s inspiring them; it’s also about what’s really bothering them and what is running up against their ideas about themselves in the world, ideas that they may not have engaged with critically before.

Klawe: What are the some of the challenges of teaching critical thinking?

Seitz: I think a big part of what I’m there to do as professor/facilitator/coach is to help students move through what’s emotionally difficult about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, seeing what’s unjust about it through the eyes of someone who may be very different from them. When I think about teaching critical thinking, it’s more of an emotional process than it is a purely intellectual one. It’s about working with students as they build the empathy and the critical thinking skills and the humility, the disposition they need to see the social and political world structurally and through the perspectives of individuals who are different from them and maybe also like them, too.

Dyson: I like what the late Jonathan Z. Smith said about  the purpose of a liberal arts education, that it teaches students the importance, or the requirement, as he put it, to bring their ideas and opinions into public conversations about consequential issues, and to do so with people they may have little in common with. He phrased the last bit as, “to learn to negotiate difference with civility,” but I would add “and with clarity and compassion.” This is essential work, especially today. The challenge is that this work is not just intellectual, but relational. It requires knowing what makes an idea or an argument reasonable, but it also requires mindfulness or awareness on the part of a writer or speaker about their own ways of thinking – including blind spots, enthusiasms, unexamined assumptions, or other pet obsessions. Students regularly feel empowered to make all kinds of arguments, but they also need to anticipate how their argument is going to be received and to figure out how to present it more clearly, more powerfully, and more persuasively to their specific audience.  They have to inhabit two spaces at the same time—the audience’s imagined mindspace and their own.

Klawe: How do you teach students to read texts critically? is there a concrete approach or method you take to reading texts?

Seitz: One of my colleagues, Ambereen Dadabhoy, says this, and I find it helpful to say to my students: read with the grain before you read against the grain. Do your best to summarize what the author is saying on their own terms but in your words. That kind of reading is about thinking, but it’s also about empathy. You are suspending your own opinion, you are mindful of your own reaction, but you’re also just trying to figure out what the text says on its own terms. Once we can lay out the author’s argument, we can bring our opinions back in, evaluate it, talk about what it does and what it doesn’t do and what its limitations are.

Hamilton: I often launch the class by saying, “Let’s pretend that we are historians 2,000 years in the future, and these five novels are the only evidence we have of the practice of science in these two centuries that we cover.” I try to get the students to come to these texts without any preconceptions. I don’t explicitly teach a set of methodological questions that I want them to use to approach every text, but instead I teach them to think consciously about two different stances: to sometimes try and suppress yourself and be detached and attentive, and then to also bring yourself back in and ask: What do I really care about? What do I want to know?

Dyson: We teach students to pay attention to texts differently and to read them more than once. Students (rightly) think they know how to read, but they often can’t locate or articulate the problem that the author has set out to solve in the text. So, in class, we start our discussion of texts in the same way each time, asking a series of questions and creating our understanding of the text together. What is the problem this author is trying to solve? Why do they think this is a problem we should pay any attention to? What might be their motivation for writing it and what in the text makes you think this?  Who is their intended audience? What are the kinds of theories, examples, or exhibits that they’re going to look at in order to solve this problem? Once students are done reading for what is in the text, then we move to responses: what in the text intrigues us or troubles us; what do we want to look at more closely? How might we do things differently? Once students start engaging with texts, or media or even current events in this way, it becomes a habit, and they gain confidence in their abilities to enter into conversation with any text, field, or author.

Klawe: Why is teaching critical thinking important?

Hamilton: I want our students to go out into the world and approach every piece of information that’s being offered to them with some attention to who is writing it and why. And to think about the evidence. It can sometimes take a bit of extra reading to really think through what the foundation is for a claim that’s being made. So many opinions and ideas are offered without clearly showing where the evidence is, and it can be very easy, especially if you’re reading something that already gels with what you think to be true, to just absorb ideas unconditionally and not be critical.

Seitz: Critical thinking is about different ways of seeing how we might have gotten into a crisis, what some of the longer roots of the crisis are, as well as what some of the foreclosed but still possible alternatives to that crisis might be. To do that you need history, theory, geography, and you also need empathy, I think, for people in different times and places who have also been trying and working and organizing and thinking really carefully about the world. Some of them have failed, but I think we have a lot to learn from failure as well.

Dyson: Moving into the world and trying to effect change is daunting and complicated. I think helping students see how they can actually make a real difference is important. Community engagement work requires critical thinking, and it deepens students’ capacity for it. They become more confident in engaging others and in solving problems by actually doing so, working alongside and learning from people often unlike themselves. They face problems with complex roots and significant consequences, which require creativity as well as critical capacity to address. Meanwhile, students also think critically about themselves and the options and consequences for the kinds of actions they want to take. They actually get to rethink community in a more meaningful way. I think that’s essential for students, and I think that’s essential for all people.

This text is reprinted from President Maria Klawe’s Dec. 27, 2019 Forbes.com blog post.