Sample syllabuses

In this chapter we present an aid for an instructor in Research Skills: example syllabuses.

There are many effective ways in which one could teach the material as a set of tutorials. In the Research Skills Academy we have tried several approaches, and we have imagined others.

Each section in this chapter shows an example of a syllabus based on 12 tutorials, of about an hour and a half each.

Higginson and Kerelis 2023

Karina Higginson and Albert Kerelis ran the Research Skills Academy in 2023 and used this syllabus as a blueprint.

Lesson 1: The History of Critical Thinking

Why teach this:

Having an understanding of where ideas and practices come from gives a more holistic understanding of a topic, which is great, but also gives examples of how the skill that the students are actively learning has been used to change the world.

Main lesson:

If you can master critical thinking and want to make a positive change in the way the world operates today, history is on your side. Our generation is hyper-aware of political and social strife due to over exposure and saturation of media, seeing historic examples of people using a skill from their tool belt inspires the ability to see and eventually actualize change.

Pt. 1: Historic roots of critical thinking as a philosophical practice.

Moad, Omar Edward. “Comparing phases of skepticism in al-Ghazali and Descartes: some First Meditations on Deliverance from Error.” Philosophy East and West, vol. 59, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 88+. Compares two early philosophers from different areas of the globe and their ideas that revolutionized how we think about thinking. While these philosophies have an undeniable religious element, this article does a good job focusing on the ideas of skepticism above all else. This is admittedly a difficult text, but I think our advanced high schoolers will enjoy the challenge as it is definitely still comprehensible.

Potentially could focus on sections two and three, but the earlier does provide good context

Why has it been important historically? Challenging the Church

Andersen, Kurt. Fantasyland : How America Went Haywire : a 500-Year History. First edition. New York: Random House, 2017, pp.16-17. Offers a brief example of how Martin Luther inspired reformed protestantism, a direct result of critical thinking and skepticism of the churches current practices at the time… AND a religion that encouraged (some) critical thinking in it’s followers. NOTE: the language in this book can come across somewhat extreme, maybe find a different source

Pt.2 Modern Critical thinking and systemic change

How critical thinking is/has been/can be used to destabilize institutionalized power

Hooks, bell. Teaching Critical Thinking : Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge, 2010.

“Decolonization” Pg. 23-28, highlights how questioning one binary or power structure often leads to questioning other ways that same structure oppresses other groups. Critical thinking about one issue can lead to the liberation of others.

“Feminist Revolution” Pg. 91-94 highlights the role of lower and high education, how biases affect it, how it can change, and how it has changed

Lesson 2: Keeping Research Tidy

In this lesson students will learn how to find and manage information on their research topic. Research is only as good as the sources we access, and we can only make use of those sources when we can manage them effectively. By learning how to query academic databases, students will gain access to a wider array of quality sources of information and be able to use them effectively.

Students will also learn to use Zotero, a free and open source library and citation management tool, to track and organize their sources and generate bibliographies. By using a citation manager, students won’t waste time trying to find sources they forgot to write down, and will be able to better parse a long list of sources by using tags and notes.

Note taking is another critical skill in conducting library research, and by learning to experiment with their note taking strategies students will be able to find a note taking strategy that works for them. Good notes not only help us understand our material as we read, but also help us reference our findings quickly and accurately. They are a key tool in making as much of the information we’ve gathered from our research available to us as seamelessly and conveniently as possible.

Lesson 3: Good Writing: What it is, How to recognize it, and How to do it

Why teach this:

Being able to effectively and clearly communicate your thoughts is a tool needed for any field, but also for life.

Pt.1: What makes good writing good

Samberg, Joel. “Bad Writing Inc.” BusinessWest 32, no. 27 (2016): 14–.

Pt. 2: How to recognize good and bad writing

What it means, when referring to writing integrity, to do something in good or bad faith

Journalism in the age of the internet - Clicks over integrity - Rage baiting

Pt. 3: How to do good writing

Good writing in narrative

Abell, Stig. “Get to the Point: Irina Dumitrescu and Sam Leith on How to Write Well.” TLS. Times Literary Supplement (1969), no. 6101 (2020): 1–.

Finding your voice, make bad habits charming (while still grammatically correct)

Exercise: Writing your writers manifesto

Williams, Paul. “A Writer’s Manifesto: Articulating Ways of Learning to Write Well.” New Writing (Clevedon, England) 17, no. 1 (2020): 71–79. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790726.2019.1566366.

Lesson 4: Progress

Relevance:

Much of our economic system today is propelled by an idea of progress. That the more we create and invent, the better our lives will necessarily be. However, this idea that more technological innovation is necessarily a good idea has led to the creation of a wildly unjust and violent economic system. Without taking time to step back and understand the impacts of the systems we participate in, we risk complacency with mass violence.

  • Max Weber saw industrialization and the movement of people into factories not just as something which increased production, but also turned peasants into laborers.

    • While industrialization made it possible for one laborer to make far more of a product that was possible before, they didn’t spend less but more time working!

    • Manufactured goods were cheaper to aquire, but the quality of life for those making them decreased.

  • In One Dimensional man, Herbert Marcuse takes note of how technical progress had diverged from its original stated aim - the amelioration of human life.

    • For Marcuse, technology is no longer primarily something which we produce to make our lives better, but is something which creates necessities for us.

  • Climate change is a great example of the massive unintended consequences of our technological advances

  • The silicon valley motto “move fast and break things” is great when what you’re breaking is some new video game or entertainment system, but when what you’re breaking is the social fabric of myanmar because your social media platform doesn’t have a system of moderation and is allowing for hate speech to spur a genocide, you have to question wether the ends of technological progress unilateraly justify its means.

  • But obviously some technology is good - how do we progress responsibly?

    • Ecological sustainability - by forefronting questions of how sustainably a technology can grow, we can avoid destroying our planet.

    • Afrofuturism - science-fiction has always spurred forward technological progress from the submarine to the metaverse. Afrofuturism has provided a way for Black writers to envision what technological progress that is inclusive of marginalized people could look like.

Lesson 5: Measurement, Method, and Parsimony

Relevance:

How we evaluate truth claims is central to our idea of research. To some extent, science simplifies Truth for us: p<0.05. While the rigors of the scientific method allow us to make truth claims about our world really effectively, they can sometimes obfuscate mistakes from us if we’re not careful about it. By looking into how science measures and interprets data, we can better understand what studies are really looking at.

  • prediction and parsimony

    • “A key feature of scientific ideas, as opposed to other types of ideas, is not whether they are right or wrong but whether they are logically coherent and make unambiguous, observable, and generally quantitative predictions. They tell us what to look for and predict what we will find if we look at or measure it.” CLUE - Chap 1

      • Scientists look for the simplest possible explanation that predicts accurately - parsimony

        • Analogous to okham’s razor

          1. In evolutionary biology, we can build trees of relation between species, locating which ones had more recent common ancestors, by cataloging traits of each of the species and building that tree of descent which requires the fewest mutations.

          2. Have people download mesquite and do a parsimony simulation?

  • Pseudoreplication <https://faculty.washington.edu/skalski/classes/QERM597/papers/Hurlbert.pdf>

    • This landmark ecology paper critiqued how ecologists had historically worked on experimental design.

    • It raises really great questions about how we structure trials that allow for deep investigation into what a modern data driven scientific approach to understanding looks like and where it might go wrong.

    • Leads us to a question about what we are actually measuring when we collect data

  • Operationalism!

    • Here’s a piece I wrote for the Quest a long time ago that goes into some fun detail on how scientific measurements work.

Lesson 6: Cultivating Curiosity

Why teach this:

As future researchers and academics, curiosity is a fundamental attribute the students should be cultivating.

The five dimensions of curiosity and their motivators

Jones, Dan. “How to Be Curious.” New Scientist (1971) 256, no. 3408 (2022): 38–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0262-4079(22)01862-0.

The benefits of curiosity
  • Creativity and curiosity often go hand in hand

  • Reduced anxiety with a curiosity based reframing

  • How to avoid judgment (the killer of curiosity)

  • What might be limiting our curiosity? Often, it can be biases, conscious and unconscious, that create fully formed and unmovable opinions on something without due diligence

What are biases
  • How are they created

  • How can we recognize our own and others?

  • How can we challenge our own and others?

  • Why curiosity makes some people uncomfortable

Requires them to think critically and sometimes independently

This often comes with a lack of validation from others

Beliefs have kept them safe

Whether perceived or actualized danger, some belief systems are held so strongly by people because it currently or at some point has provided safety or security for them

Disagreement

It’s possible to disagree but respect why people may be hanging on to their beliefs, after all, it’s about your journey not theirs.

Lesson 7: Epistemology, Hermeneutics, and Pragmatism

Understanding how and why we evaluate truth claims is central to well, existing in the world. However qualitative humanistic data requires different methods than science has to offer. Hermeneutics and Pragmatism offer two sorts of reckoning that expand past quantitative measurement and into the examination of human art and culture.

In this lesson, students will learn about three concepts that can help us parse information and make sense of the world around us.

Henri Bergson’s intuitive approach asks that we first approach problems from the level of the question they are trying to answer. Often we take questions to be a neutral starting point for inquiry, but Bergson tells us that questions can carry with them assumptions and contradictions that can easily find their way into our work if we’re not careful.

The hermeneutic circle is a concept that takes many forms for many thinkers, but its basic premise is that better understandings are always generated from partial misunderstandings. Our knowledge of a subject never comes to us ex nihilo, and we must both be confident enough to procede with incomplete knowledge, as well as humble enough to recognize it as such. The hermeneutic circle tells us that understanding is not a final destination of perfect knowledge, but is constituted by a continued striving for better understanding.

Pragmatism gives us a simple yet powerful evaluative framework for our ideas. It sees knowledge, ideas, and truth, as tools. Pragmatists evaluate claims based on how well those claims let us achieve our goals and attain more useful worldviews. This leaves us with an immense responsibility in how we define our goals. We need to have an idea of who we want to be, what kind of things we want to achieve, before we can be good pragmatists. But once we are able to attune ourselves to a sense of that, pragmatism lends a powerful tool in parsing information and making sure our knowledge and truth align with our values.

Lesson 8: Introduction to Absurdism

Why teach this:

Entering early adulthood, you’re told to start searching for your purpose, “what are you here to do?” Absurdism offers an alternative to narrowly defining your existence to a purpose, and to only one of them.

All based off works by Albert Camus, especially The Myth of Sisyphus

Pt. 1: God is dead

the scientific revolution brought about nihilism, the philosophical idea that according to science, there seems to be no God. Since before then, all moral and ethical questions, as well as lifestyle, had been answered according to religion. For people of science though, this no longer seemed like the correct solution. Man discovered life has no prescribed meaning.

As a reaction to nihilism, two schools of thought formed, existentialism and absurdism, existentialism (Existentialism is Humanism by Jean-Paul Satre) believe our actions create life’s meaning and our purpose.

Pt. 2: Absurdism

(I find when teaching philosophy, it works well to lean into quotes so the students have something visual to parse and understand rather than just talking abstractly. Parsing quotes give philosophy a place to ground itself. Ideally these quotes would be from Satre and Camus.)

Absurdism does not try to find meaning or purpose, but rather enjoys the freedom of a meaningless existence

Trying to find meaning is philosophical suicide

The only “purpose” of life is to live it, to do whatever it is that prevents you from killing yourself

AAA I LOVE ABSURDISM!!

Pt. 3: Puzzles

(this would work best as a round table discussion, as there are no defined answers to these huge questions!)

How do we grapple ethics?

How do we operate in a very un-absurdist social structure?

What are the places absurdism falls short?

Lesson 9: Energy and Thermodynamics!!

Relevance:

Some basic understandings of Energy are super important for building models of how scientific systems work. The principle of minimum energy is one of these big central ideas that gets used across scientific disciplines. While it’s simple to state, the minutae of the second law of thermodynamics can give us a more rigorous understanding of what energy is and how we apply these concepts.

  • Understand energy graphs - Show in chemistry - fusion, bonding - But also in physics - potential energy in gravitational systems

  • Activation energy! - Definitely a chemistry concept but applicable to so many fields

  • Entropy - Second law of thermodynamics - S = k log(W) - Micro-states and macro-states

  • Relate to other systems

    • Ecology!

      • Biodiversity = stability

        • On a big picture scale, we can understand this from an entropy lens

        • Those ecosystem macrostates which have the most possible configurations or microstates will be more likely to arise.

      • Alternative stable states

        • When ecosystems degrade, they are often put into states that are hard to get out of, even if they are not the most stable, because they would have to transition through unstable states!

      • Disturbance regimes - Many ecosystems tolerate and in fact depend on occasional disturbances as long as those don’t pull them entirely out of their stable state

    • Economics - Corporations and other economic entities often work to minimize costs, which are kind of like energy in an economic sphere.

    • These concepts can also be used in coarse non-quantitative ways.

    • Minimum energy can also be thought of as following the path of least resistance - People tend to follow the path of least resistance! We do what’s easiest for us. - This is a super useful rule of thumb for everything from navigating your relationship with others to good game design.

Lesson 10: Poetry and the space between life and death

Why teach this:

What better way to study the power of words than to see it’s potential to move the reader into a metaphorical realm that exists outside of time and space!***I’m using an essay I wrote about this topic, so there’s much more detail and sources to add here, just wanted to get the general outline.

Pt. 1: “Here,” “There,” and everywhere

Location descriptors act metaphorically to create a location, the location of the poem, that exists outside of time and space. It refers to the here of the reader, the here of the word on the page, and the here of the speaker

Pt. 2: The Lyrical Present

Locates the reader in the poetic realm, where they are participating in the action with the speaker. “I walk” as opposed to “I walked.”

Pt. 3: Immortality through words

The poets version of themselves, the speaker, can exist as long as there are people reading their poems in that poetic realm. You can put that version of yourself, the reader, into that poetic realm that exists outside of time and space, and walk with the speaker and by extension the poet.

Lesson 11: The Surrealist Art Movement and Imagination

Why teach this:

The Surrealist Art movement prioritized creativity and imagination, which as we know from earlier, goes hand in hand with curiosity. Art for the sake of art, and learning for the sake of learning. I’m using an essay I wrote about this topic, so there’s much more detail and sources to add here, just wanted to get the general outline.

Pt. 1: The history and philosophy

Started in the 1930s france

About allowing the unconscious mind to explore, emphasis of creativity and imagination Leaning into the impossible

Pt. 2: key works

(show key pieces, and artists and a brief progression of their works over time)

How did this artist embody or shape the surrealist art movement

Pt. 3: the value of imagination in an industrial world

Surrealists valued creativity for purely its own sake

A rebellion against commodification, artists who had the skills to capture accurate portraits or realistic landscapes (and could have gotten paid to do so) instead chose to make art that was just for enjoyment

Lesson 12: Gender and Queer Theory Primer=

Relevance:

Taking a critical eye to gender is important both personally and socially. By understanding how gender both gratifies and constrains us, we can develop sounder and healthier relationships with ourselves and expectations of us. By understanding how gender has been historically constructed, we are better situated to intervene in instances where ideas of gender are not serving us or our communities.

I have a whole presentation I gave to a philosophy club at my highschool a couple years ago ready to go, replete with resources for further study. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1la5dCgxDn7xPGfBVXwa80srXa8APQRTa?usp=sharing

Here are some rough outlines for lessons. I tried to include the main talking points and some extra sources, as well as different methods of teaching that might work best.