Teaching Philosophy of Religion to Junior High Kids


Yesterday I spoke in two classes, a 7th-grade class and an 8th-grade class, at Vineyard Christian School in Anaheim. Our topic? The Existence of God. I had a 2-page handout for them, and in 45 minutes we examined the value of evidence for what we believe, what it means to have evidence, and what sort of evidence there might be for the existence of God. This is not my usual audience and my biggest concern was that it would all seem boring and over their heads. I was mistaken. Here are three lessons I learned:

  1. Our kids care about these questions. They want to know what to believe.
  2. Our kids want evidence for the things they’re asked to believe.
  3. Our kids have natural strengths in assessing evidence about things that matter, but these strength need to be cultivated and tutored.

It was with some trepidation that I handed my outline to the office assistant for duplicating. I worried that she would take one look at the detail and sophistication and be hard-pressed not to snicker. She was more confident than I that it would work. The kids proved me wrong. We need to expect more from our young people, urge them to keep the questions coming, and invite them into a vigorous life of the mind. Let us not underestimate their interest and capacity. They are the next generation. And we are responsible for their nurture.

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How to Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #3


Is it even possible to document references to works researched using your Kindle?

Sure. But the technique isn’t conventional. While there are no page numbers, there are location numbers for every line of text. These appear at the bottom of each Kindle page. And they remain constant regardless of the font size you adopt for reading.

So the only thing you have to do differently when documenting a quotation from the Kindle edition of a book is give the location number where you would indicate the page number of a standard book.

This issue has been thoroughly discussed at various sites, including Amazon’s own Kindle blog. Many who write about this seem to be ill-informed.

Some books exist only in e-book format; indeed, some exist only in Kindle format. E-books are legitimate sources of information. It ought to be possible to cite them and to do so accurately and clearly. Even an academic paper evaluating e-books and reporting research about their contents would have to include specific documentation, even if the researcher was arguing that they are not a legitimate form of information dissemination.

There are e-books aplenty, and scads of formats among them. The Kindle has a proprietary format. Amazon’s well-known presence and general reputation worldwide should ensure that this format comes to be widely accepted.

Kindle and the Purpose of Citations

Let’s remember why citations are required in the first place. First, and foremost, they give credit to whom credit is due. This is not merely a matter of paying respects. It is a matter of protecting someone else’s intellectual property.

A secondary reason for documentation is that it is an aid to readers who might wish to chase down the reference and study the larger context of what is cited.

Both of these objectives are easily accommodated by using location numbers for Kindle citations.

A Possible Liability and Its Remedy

One liability of referencing material as it appears in an e-book rather than a traditional book has directly to do with the variability of formats from one e-book publisher to another. Readers of material that cites an e-book will often have more difficulty finding the specific source.

A partial remedy is to be sure to indicate that the source you cite is the Kindle edition of a book. This will prevent confusion about which e-book is cited. But the Kindle is not yet ubiquitous. A majority of readers may not yet have access to one. So they’re a bit stuck until the Kindle becomes more widely used—as it surely will. They’re only a bit stuck, though, because they may not have much trouble following up on a citation within a traditional book version of the material.

What about Citing a Kindle Book for a Term Paper?

Some have advised students to take care to consult their teachers before citing a Kindle book in a research paper with footnotes and a bibliography. That’s not a bad idea.

I must say that if one of my students submitted a paper with Kindle book citations, and without first confirming my approval, I would be very reluctant to deprive her of that option. There’s nothing irresponsible about what she’s done. But the student should be certain that her teacher’s syllabus does not explicitly prohibit the citation of Kindle books.

What about Citing a Kindle Book in a Book or Article for Publication?

There should be no concern that an author risks being accused of plagiarism if he cites a Kindle book, as long as he provides all the information needed to confirm his source.

Publishers themselves often have special citation requirements, a standard way they handle each kind of citation for their books, journals, or magazines. It’s an author’s responsibility to provide all the necessary bibliographical details when submitting a manuscript for publication. It’s recommended that he use the publisher’s guidelines for formatting. If a publisher doesn’t address the question of formatting e-books, the author has two choices, enter the data in a format that can be understood and revised by the copy editor, or consult the publisher for guidelines about the matter.

If a publisher refuses to allow Kindle book citations, get another publisher. Alternatively, if there’s a good chance you’ll wish to cite a Kindle book in what you’ll be writing for a specific publisher, discuss it with the publisher before signing a contract. A publisher will most likely accommodate you, and even express their approval in the contract for publication.

A Future for Kindle Books Among Scholars

Every time I see my high school daughter leave for school with a book bag loaded with heavy textbooks I wonder how she manages. Wouldn’t it be great if she could get those same books on a Kindle and just carry that in a shoulder bag or something? All it would take would be for Amazon to perpare Kindle versions of those books.

I can assure you that Amazon is pursuing this avenue. As it is, they already have a growing list of textbooks available in Kindle version. I’ve been surprised to see many philosophical texts used at the university level available in this format. The day may come when a student can get every textbook on a Kindle . . . and get a substantial discount to boot.

Here’s an advantage that hits closer to home for me. If I wish to conduct sabbatical research at a remote location, it would be unrealistic if I had to ship all the books I think I might wish to consult. I have friends who have done this, but time and cost would be prohibitive for me.

What I might do, though, is browse the Kindle inventory at Amazon for books related to my research. I could download these before I leave on sabbatical, or on location while on sabbatical. The crucial thing for me would be to be able to quote accurately from a source of valuable material. A Kindle version would make that possible. After returning from sabbatical, I could, if I felt the need to, check my Kindle citations against traditional book editions and convert the documentation. (Or I could assign this to a research assistant.)

New to Kindle? Check it out here.

For a good resource on electronic documentation, see Diana Hacker’s book Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age

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Kindle Your Reading Habits

How to Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #1

How To Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #2

How to Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #4

How To Cultivate the Reading Habit


Reading takes effort. But with the right habits and tools, it is richly rewarding. Here’s a list of tips for improve your reading skills and achieving more of your reading goals.

  1. Relate your reading goals to your larger goals. If you’re powerfully motivated to achieve some larger goal, try thinking about reading as a component in achieving that goal. One goal will fuel another.
  2. Understand that you don’t have to read everything on your list to benefit from the reading habit.
  3. Set specific reading goals. How many books do you want to read in the next year, or month? What kinds of books do you want to read? Make a note of the specific reasons you want to read these books.
  4. Select several books to have on hand to read at the same time.
  5. Use procrastination to your advantage. If you’re procrastinating about reading a particular book in your pile, use that procrastination to read another book in the pile.
  6. Select books that are practical and books that are theoretical. Books of the practical sort recommend solutions to interesting problems, provide guidance for self improvement, or explain how to do something. Books of a theoretical nature expand your knowledge base and enlarge your powers of critical thinking.
  7. In each broad category—the practical and the theoretical—include books that fit different subcategories. You might pick one book from each of ten subcategories: literary fiction (a novel), light fiction (another novel), short fiction (a collection of short stories), poetry (an anthology of works from a specific period, or on a common theme, or by the same writer), biography, history, inspirational literature, cultural commentary, and two practical books (for example, a book that will help you improve your writing and a book about sea kayaking).
  8. Make a note of the primary reasons you have for reading each of the books you’ve selected. Don’t settle for mere enjoyment. Assume that you’re going to enjoy the books you’ve compiled and refine your reasons for reading each book. Is one book in your pile because you want to improve your motorcycling skills? Is a book in the history category going to help you understand some event in the present? Will a particular novel enlighten you about a personally puzzling aspect of the human condition? Will the poetry you’ve picked improve your powers of imagination, or help you see the ordinary in extraordinary ways? Are you reading this book on cosmology in order learn the latest theories about the origin of the universe? Is that book about the narcissistic personality disorder going to help you understand a difficult colleague at work? Write these aims into each book.
  9. Keep these books together in a place where you feel relaxed and are most likely to have the inclination to read. This may be a cabinet next to your bed. Otherwise, use your imagination.
  10. Develop the habit of reading whenever your book stash in nearby. If you have a varied selection of books in different categories, just read what most suits your mood at the time.
  11. Pre-read each book to get an idea what it’s is about and how it’s organized. This will save time in the long run. It will help you decide whether to read the book more carefully, how to re-read the book to achieve your specific goals, and how much time to allocate for a closer read.
  12. Guard against time consuming eye movements. Keep your eyes moving from left to right, without regressing (even if you feel you’ve missed something). Train your eyes to “land” (ever so briefly) on points along the trajectory of your reading path, without moving your head. Work at reducing the number of “landings” for each line as you subconsciously scan for key words and phrases in the line.
  13. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Based on your pre-reading, decide which books deserve to be read more closely.
  14. While reading more analytically, pace yourself to fit the specific goals of your reading and the nature of the material as it changes from one passage to another. Skip over the bits that you already understand, or are repetitive, or don’t serve your reading objectives. Slow down for the complex parts, where key concepts are explained, or crucial details of a plot are revealed, or the line of a major argument is delineated.
  15. Mark your book in pencil as you read. Underline, circle, add symbols in the margins to identify a feature of special significance (for example, asterisks, question marks, explanation marks, bracketed numerals for lists or numbered items, arrows, horizontal lines for significant but unmarked breaks in the progression, check marks, squares, triangles). Create a simple shorthand system with letters of the alphabet for frequent kinds of marking. (If a passage is quotable, I draw a ‘Q’ in the margin. If it should be noted elsewhere in my files, I draw a cursive ‘f’.) Use vertical lines. Bracket sections with corner marks. Experiment with squiggly lines, double lines, light lines and heavy lines, and lines that are mostly light with brief stretches of heavy lines.
  16. Write unfamiliar words in the top or bottom margins—and look them up in a dictionary. This is the best way to improve your vocabulary. Over time, you’ll write fewer words and have a record of the growth of your vocabulary.
  17. Write out questions that come to mind—questions stimulated by what you’re reading. Interrogate the author. (Or, if you prefer, have a “conversation.”)
  18. Draw simple charts to show relationships that have been describe.
  19. Create your own index to the book, using the back endpages. Index key terms and concepts. If necessary, invent names for concepts.
  20. Reserve space in the back endpages to index passages that relate to research, writing, or speaking you may be doing. If you have an abbreviated title for each project, you can use this title for indexing purposes. Later, you’ll be able to return to these notes and enter them elsewhere as needed.
  21. Keep track of the structure and progression of the book.
  22. Write a summary and/or general outline of the entire book into the front endpages, and make a note about the general value of the book relative to your purposes. You may want to draft this on separate paper or with a word processor, and then transfer your final version into the pages of the book. Another option is to use Post-It notes that are nearly the size of a trade book and stick them into the front of the book with these notes and comments.
  23. For maximum portability and time management in pursuit of your reading goals, buy a Kindle and learn how to use it efficiently. (See separate posts with Kindle Tips on this blog.)

***

NOTE: Some of the ideas described in this post can also be found in How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. As the subtitle says, this is The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.

Hacking the ABD Life: Part 2 — The Intellectual Virtues


The academic life has an intellectual component. Duh. But what does that mean?

It means, in part, that an exemplar of the academic life manages his or her life with intellectual virtue. An intellectual virtue is a character trait that improves the chances of believing well—of conducting inquiry in a responsible way and living responsibly on the basis of what is learned through inquiry.

I believe that all members of the human community are called to intellectual virtue, insofar as they are able. Intellectuals should be models of acting from intellectual virtue. I question whether a perceived intellectual is a genuine instance of such a person if he or she is severely lacking in intellectual virtue. The true intellectual must have a suitable measure of intellectual virtue. Diplomas are no assurance of that.

The Ph.D. candidate has already been initiated into academic life—the life of the guild, as it were. One can only hope that this also has included initiation into the intellectual life. The ABD life is a test of intellectual virtue, and an opportunity to grow in intellectual virtue. Certain particular virtues are especially salient to commendable intellectual practice at the ABD stage in one’s career. Here are three of them:

  • Curiosity
  • Courage
  • Moderation

Intellectual curiosity is a natural goad to dissertation research. Intellectual courage is needed to sustain research and overcome obstacles. The virtue of moderation curbs excesses of various kinds. Dissertation research tests the expression of these virtues.

Curiosity stimulates creativity and supplies the initial energy to launch a dissertation project. It’s often difficult to sustain that level of curiosity throughout the research and writing process. The Ph.D. candidate needs to have ways of staying engaged with the chosen topic. As long as new questions emerge with the progress of research, there is evidence of curiosity.

Courage helps the researcher stay at it. The intellectually courageous person believes in the good to be achieved by the research that has been undertaken. Courage fills the void when curiosity dries up, and finds fresh sources of curiosity in the act of persevering. This virtue is threatened in numerous ways. Among the most sinister are the negative judgments of others.

Moderation is probably the least appreciated of the three. Moderation protects the researcher from excesses that would lure him or her away from efficient realization of the primary objective. One can research to excess. The sociology of the ABD experience reinforces the sense that it isn’t possible to “over-research” a topic. Turning over every rock, however promising it may seem in advance, feels responsible; but it is really counter-productive, and hence irresponsible.

Future installments on “Hacking the ABD Life” will focus on specific intellectual virtues. Please chime in with thoughts you have about the connection between the intellectual life and doing scholarship from virtue. Let me know what virtues you think are most salient to realizing that dream of passing from ABD to Ph.D.

Hacking the ABD Life: Part 1 — “Good” Means “Good Enough”


ABD—”All But Dissertation.” This label has a distinctly demoralizing drum to it, especially as a designation for someone—the Ph.D. candidate—who has accomplished so much, usually comparatively early in life.

Of course, writing a doctoral dissertation is a huge undertaking in its own right. And it can make or break a Ph.D. candidate’s academic career. There are two main challenges. The first is as much psychological as it is anything else. You have to have “internal fortitude,” the ability to take small steps toward the completion of a big project, to manage hurdles and set-backs, and to survive the comparative loneliness of the process.

Second, you have to impress your dissertation committee with the quality of the finished product and with your prospects as a scholar. So the work has to be good. This, obviously, relates closely to the first main challenge.

Let me repeat the best advice I received while writing my Ph.D. dissertation: “Think of your dissertation as the last paper you write during your formal education, and keep in mind that it really doesn’t have to be longer than a hundred pages.” It didn’t hurt that this counsel came from a member of my dissertation committee.

The suggestion about length is probably situation-specific. It would be wise to consult with your committee about appropriate length. And “consultation” is the key word here. You should be able to share your own ideas about appropriate length, given your topic and the way you plan to organize your material. It is generally believed that the best dissertation topic is a narrowly focused topic. It would stand to reason that in many cases narrower focus translates into fewer total pages. There’s a saying, “Don’t beat a dead horse.” There’s another saying, “If the horse is dead, dismount.” The goal shouldn’t be to come up with a topic that will require X number of pages, but to come up with a topic that makes a worthy contribution to the field and establishes the author as a capable scholar, regardless of word count.

The more general principle in my advisor’s comment is that the dissertation isn’t a book. It’s not even a published paper. I caution against approaching your dissertation as if you were writing a book manuscript that will be ready to submit to one of the top academic presses. Your dissertation committee is large enough with the three to five people that play that official role. No point trying to write for the vague target audience for a book on the same topic. Save that for later.

Let me put it this way. You’ve got three people on your committee. Maybe one of them knows quite a lot about your topic. The other two are conversant. Are there others in the discipline who have go-to expertise on your topic? Probably so. Will they be in the room during your dissertation defense? Probably not. So you can forget about them.

Your work has to be good. I said that before. But how good does it have to be? Answer: good enough (lower-case “g”). So estimate how good that is and make that your goal. And I do mean estimate. Don’t calculate. Members of your committee have responsibilities. They should be able to advise you about what their expectations are. No one else’s opinion really counts, especially if they don’t see the work before the defense. (That includes the expert on another continent, and it includes your doting grandmother and admiring spouse—if you happen to be married.)

If you’re ABD, let me know your thoughts. If you’re on a dissertation committee for someone who is ABD, your comments would be especially valuable.

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