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Spring Semester, 2020



Dr. Dennis M. Weiss

Office: HUM 154

Office Hours:  MWF 12:00 - 1:00,

T 1:30 - 3:30, and by appointment

Office Phone: 815-1513


Course Description

What is Critical Thinking? While there are many accounts of what constitutes critical thinking (and what a course in critical thinking ought to cover), my approach to critical thinking has been shaped by a couple of similar accounts of its nature. Sharon Bailin and Mark Battersby, for instance, emphasize coming to a reasoned judgment in their account of critical thinking. They define critical inquiry as the process of carefully examining an issue in order to come to a reasoned judgment based on a critical evaluation of relevant reasons. This serves us as a very good definition of what is entailed in critical thinking and highlights what we should be taking away from this course by the end of the semester. Somewhat more simply, Joanne Kurfiss defines critical thinking as the mental work involved when we investigate complex questions.

At the home page for The Foundation of Critical Thinking we find the following definition of critical thinking:

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

See their full definition HERE.

From these initial accounts, we can say that critical thinking is simply the careful, deliberate determination of whether we should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim--and of the degree of confidence with which to accept or reject it. In this course, we will consider various methods, techniques, and precautions that will enable us to listen and read carefully, to evaluate arguments, to look for and find hidden assumptions, and to trace the consequences of a claim. Our ultimate goal is to enable ourselves to make wise decisions about what to believe and what to do.

Why study critical thinking? I believe that critical thinking is the cornerstone of a college education. It's a fundamental outcome of both your general education and your major courses. Why is critical thinking important? Consider some of the following:

  • David Brooks, New York Times columnist: "Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo."

  • Edward B. Rust Jr., chairman and CEO of State Farm Insurance Companies, observes that "at State Farm, our employment exam does not test applicants on their knowledge of finance or the insurance business, but it does require them to demonstrate critical thinking skills" and "the ability to read for information, to communicate and write effectively, and to have an understanding of global integration."

  • The AAC&U reports HERE that companies are more interested in your critical thinking and problem solving skills than they are your major.

  • And then there is Google, which more than any other company has sung the praises of humanities students and intends to recruit many of them. "We are going through a period of unbelievable growth," reports Google’s Marissa Mayer, "and will be hiring about 6,000 people this year — and probably 4,000-5,000 from the humanities or liberal arts."

  • For more on the value of critical thinking and the humanities, see "Fear of Being Useful."

What are students saying about this course?

Every semester, York College students are asked to complete a student observation survey regarding their classroom experiences. These anonymous observations help faculty improve upon their teaching and classroom delivery. As part of my own critical thinking practices, I review these observations, and I have made many changes to this course on the basis of student observations and recommendations. To see what students said about this course in previous semesters, CLICK HERE and CLICK HERE.

How will I conduct class?

Most of our class time will be spent working on exercises, going over the homework, and discussing challenges we have faced completing the day's assignments. My expectation is that you will carefully (and critically!) read the assigned pages in the textbook, complete the assigned homework, and then come to class prepared to discuss the day's work. I'll spend relatively little time lecturing or covering the material in the book. Instead, we should expect our classroom to be a hands-on class in which we work through exercises you have completed prior to class.


A Practical Study of Argument, Seventh Edition, Trudy Govier

You will need your textbook for this course practically every single class day. You must bring your book (either in hard copy or electronic format) to class. Exercises from the textbook will be assigned almost every single class day and we will review these exercises in class. If you don't have a textbook or don't bring your textbook to class, your time in this course will be wasted and you will not be able to succeed. Please note that if you choose to access the textbook electronically, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND that you do not do so on a smart phone. You should use either a laptop or tablet.


There will be three exams given during the semester, covering the material from the textbook. Exams will include problems similar to those encountered in the textbook exercises as well as extended writing assignments. Exams may be given in class or as take-home exams. The Final Exam will be a cumulative assessment of your critical thinking skills.


Why quizzes? Research shows that low-stakes quizzes can greatly help in the learning and retention of new information. READ: How Tests Make Us Smarter. So, over the course of the semester there will be ten quizzes covering the material we are working on in class. Each quiz will be worth 10 points. You can drop the lowest two quiz grades. You cannot make up any quiz that you missed, regardless of the reason for missing it. If you miss a quiz, that will be have to be one of the grades you drop.


Why do I assign so much homework? Because learning critical thinking is a lot like learning any new skill, such as riding a bike or learning how to swim. The more you ride your bike or swim, the better you get at it. The critical thinking you do, the better you get at it. Homework helps you learn the important skills of becoming a critical thinker. Completing homework will also help you do well on your exams.

Regular assignments will be made from the chapter exercises of the textbook and should be done prior to coming to class. These assignments will be discussed in class. At the end of class I will collect each assignment and note that you have completed it. At the end of the semester I will award up to 100 points for homework, deducting five points for each assignment you failed to turn in.

  • You can only turn in assignments on those days that you attend class.

  • You cannot have other students turn in assignments in your absence.

  • Late assignments will not be accepted.

  • If you are caught preparing the day’s assignment in class I will deduct 10 points from your final homework grade.

  • There will be no exceptions granted to these policies.

  • You will be permitted to miss three homework assignments with no penalties.

Final Course Essay

Throughout the semester we will be reading and critiquing op-ed articles from major newspapers, news magazines, and web sites. At the end of the semester, you will be presented with a series of documents addressing a specific issue and I will then ask you to write an essay, something analogous to the op-eds we will be writing addressing an issue that arises in these documents. More information on this assignment will be given as we near the end of the semester.

Course Engagement

In her article "Feminist Epistemology" Naomi Scheman argues that it is misleading to think of epistemic agency as ideally exercised in solitude. Knowing and coming to know, Scheman contends, are social and interactive. "They are things we do, and things we are appropriately held responsible for doing, in social and cultural settings that variously help and hinder our doing them well." I wholeheartedly agree with Scheman that knowing is a practice that ideally occurs in a social setting. Each of us is responsible for participating in a variety of communities of knowers and it is a responsibility we ought to take seriously. Our class is one such community, a community in which we must actively participate in the social practice of knowing. To encourage your participation in this community of learners and to encourage you to come to class prepared to discuss that day’s issues, at the end of the semester, you will receive a grade based on your class participation throughout the semester. The grade you receive will be based on, among other things, your regular attendance, your improvement over the course of the semester, and, to the greatest extent, your willingness to contribute in a meaningful way to the daily class discussion. Other indices of an engaged student include:

  • Your willingness to engage the texts and issues associated with the course in the spirit of learning more about yourself and the world you live in.

  • Your ability to respect a diversity of opinion as demonstrated by conducting yourself in a civil manner and by refraining from interruptions and ridicule of others.

  • Your ability to listen and participate during class.

  • Your ability to offer relevant, on-topic commentary.

  • Your ability to arrive at class on time and prepared.

  • Your ability to focus on class during class time. Habitual entrances and exits during class sessions will result in a grade penalty, as will holding private discussions during class and disruptions arising from cell phones, watches, pagers, and the like.

  • Your ability to avoid complaining and asking questions whose answers have already been provided (e.g., “Can I make up the quiz?” and “What is the response for next time?”).

  • Your ability to let me know ahead of time if you have to miss an appointment or conference.


Course Engagement Rubric: This engagement rubric details how you can assess your preparation and participation in the course and how I will award you points at the end of the semester.

A Note on Moodle and Grades

Most of our course documents and course information is available through this webpage and an additional webpage (linked at the top of this page) that has our daily assignments on them. I will occasionally use Moodle but don't use it daily. I especially won't be uploading grades to Moodle. I believe that as adult critical thinkers, you should be able to track and monitor your progress in this course, and that includes keeping track of your performance and your grades. And therefore I won't post grades to Moodle.

E-Mail Addresses

You are expected to have an active York College e-mail address and to check it regularly during the semester. I will send e-mail only to your address. If you wish to use other addresses, such as private internet service provided addresses, you should set up your YCP address so that it automatically forwards your mail to that address.


Attending class is a key factor in college success. Not only does regular attendance help you succeed, it also helps the class work well and succeed. As my course engagement guidelines make clear, a classroom is a community of learners in which we are all engaged in mastering material. It's far easier to do that when everyone attends regularly. When you fail to attend class, you lose points for your missed homework, your course engagement grade suffers, and your classmates lose out on the opportunity to collaborate with you on the day's coursework.


While I won't be taking roll in class each day, your homework will provide me with a record of your attendance. Attending class is a key factor in college success. Not only does regular attendance help you succeed, it also helps the class work well and succeed. As my class participation guidelines make clear, a classroom is a community of learners in which we are all engaged in mastering material. It's far easier to do that when everyone attends regularly. When you fail to attend class, you lose points for your missed homework and your class participation grade suffers. Additionally, if you miss the equivalent of one's week's classes, your final grade may be lowered by one-half grade (.5). If you miss the equivalent of two weeks of classes, your final grade may be lowered by one full grade.

I do not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences. A missed class meeting is a missed class meeting. There is no need to provide an explanation as to why you were absent, since I do not excuse absences. I recommend that you do not miss class for trivial reasons.

If you miss any class, please be responsible for getting class notes, assignments, etc. from another student in class. It may help to have available telephone numbers or e-mail addresses of one or two classmates.

Activities outside of regular class hours

As part of the regular course requirements, you will be expected to occasionally participate in events outside of the regular class hours. You may be asked to watch videos on your own time and attend evening events. Additionally, as part of the English and Humanities Department's efforts to encourage student participation in college cultural activities, I will ask that you attend two events during the semester. More information concerning this will be provided in class. Following your attendance, you should write a brief 250 word reflective analysis of the event you attended. This must be turned in within one week of the date of the event. You will receive 10 points for each of the two events you attend and write-up.

Electronic Submissions

Please note that I do not accept electronic submissions of assigned work unless otherwise detailed in specific course assignment instructions. You are responsible for insuring that I receive a hardcopy of your work by the assigned deadline.

Laptops in the Classroom

Your use of a laptop in class is a privilege and not a right. You are required to bring your readings to class and some of these readings are available electronically. I have no objection to your bringing your laptop to class in order to access the readings electronically or take notes during class (thereby cutting down on printing costs). You should know, however, that a number of studies have indicated that students who use laptops in class often perform poorly in comparison with students who do not. Laptops also are a source of constant distraction which take away your focus from the class and diminish your engagement with the course. For this reason, if I feel that your laptop use is undermining your engagement in the course or if I discover that you are using your laptop for other than class purposes, your laptop privileges will be immediately and permanently revoked for the rest of the semester.

Your Responsibilities

Please review YCP Academic Policies so that you better understand the standards that we will adhere to in this course.

It is your responsibility to remain apprised of all assignments and any changes in the syllabus or grading policies. I reserve the right to make changes to class policies and the syllabus as I deem necessary. I expect that you will be in class daily, having prepared your work and ready to discuss the material. 

You should obtain the names and contact information from several of your fellow classmates so that you have someone to contact if you must miss class. You should not depend on either e-mailing or phoning me to learn what you missed in class or find out your assignment for the following class.

I do not post grades to Moodle. It is your responsibility to track your performance in this course. Keep track of your graded assignments and track your performance in completing homework assignments.

You should strictly observe the following policies:

  • Attendance is not optional but strictly required.
  • Class begins promptly at the appointed time. Don’t be late.
  • Students should come to class prepared, having read and completed the day’s assignment, ready to discuss it.
  • You should bring the day's readings with you to class each day.
  • There is to be no sleeping in class. Stay awake and alert.
  • Do not leave the room during the class period without prior permission.
  •  Do not carry on private conservations while class is in progress.
  • Treat all class members with respect and civility.
  • Make sure that all cell phones and other electronic equipment is turned off.

If you are interested in studying Philosophy at York College, pleas check out the brochure I have prepared:

Studying Philosophy at York College

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