Starting Fresh

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​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.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.