Truth in Society:

How Do People Decide What to Believe?


Russ Hunt

John McKendy

Thom Parkhill

Opening Notes

Here are some general things you'll probably need to remind yourself of fairly often in this course, because, in many ways, it's almost certainly very different from courses you've had before, or from other course you're enrolled in now.

One important thing to keep in mind is that this is a course about learning itself. We're hoping to help you become an even better learner than you are now. While most of the things you'll be doing will be aimed at getting something done -- finding a book or article, explaining an idea to others in the class, getting an electronic mail message onto the system -- they'll also be occasions for learning about the process itself. They'll be designed to help you learn things like how to find books, to explain things clearly, to use electronic mail. The learning can happen even if you don't succeed at the main task itself -- if you come back from the library empty handed, if your reader says "I don't get it," if nobody gets your email. In other words, even if you "fail" you're probably learning something -- and the more open you are to taking a risk that might lead to that kind of failure, the more you're likely to learn.

Something else to remember is that this course is about learning from texts, and so it's designed to leave time for just sitting and reading. We're asking for everybody to set aside all day Tuesday and Thursday for the Aquinas program, and to budget about 5-7 hours of the rest of their week for it. That, we figure, is about 3/5 of the time a student ought to plan to spend on school (being a full time student is like having a full time job). But we don't expect that all of that time (or even most of it) will be spent "in class." We think that quite a lot of it should be spent simply sitting somewhere comfortable and reading. You'll be doing class discussions and writing and library research, and lots of other things that look like "work," but it's important to remember that it's worth spending time with a text once you've found it and before you start writing about it. Don't think that once you've found it the idea is to "get the info out of it" and write it down: plan on spending some time with the written word, sitting wherever's comfortable, and just reading.

During the year you'll be spending quite a lot of time reading documents like this one, in which we explain in writing things that teachers usually talk about. For instance, almost every time we organize an activity we'll do it by distributing a note explaining it rather than by telling people orally. That's deliberate. We do it for three reasons.

One is that we know what we're saying is complicated, and much of it will seem pretty unfamiliar, and we want everyone to have a chance to read it at her own speed (there's only one speed to listen at, the one the speaker chooses, regardless of what suits the listener best).

The second is that we want to give you a chance to read it over, and to file it away and keep it to check later. Often documents mean quite a lot more, and are quite a lot easier to understand, after you've been engaged with what they're talking about for a while.

And a third is that we're taking every opportunity we can to use writing where people are used to using talk, especially when writing has advantages talk doesn't. We want to get everyone use to reading things that make a difference, right now; that, in other words, things that have consequences.

How the course will work

The course will fulfil the stated requirements of the first year courses for the three disciplines -- Sociology 100, Religious Studies 100, and English 1-200. The overarching theme of this section of the Aquinas Programme is, of course, "Truth in Society," by which we have in mind an inquiry into how people come to believe what they believe. We propose to conduct this inquiry, not in the abstract, but at the level of particulars. That is, rather than explore how people decide what to believe about such abstract concepts as Death, Evil, Suffering, Prejudice, Sexuality, or Identity, we intend to focus the inquiry on instances or episodes of believing, dispute about belief, or change in belief. We'll focus our work, to begin with, on at least three of six different specific instances or episodes of believing, of dispute about belief, or of change in belief. The particular choices of focus will be determined by negotiation and exploration from among these six general topics:

In each case, we'll start with a list of texts and videos, in the library, on reserve or available in photocopies. Together we'll explore these texts, writing to each other about them and narrowing the focus toward a few to discuss in detail.

Your writing, at least after the first few weeks of the term, will be done primarily through the medium of the St. Thomas computer network. Much course communication will be conducted through this medium, using electronic mail and shared word processor files. Students will be expected to spend as much time on the computer network as in formal classes (and as much again in individual reading).

In the process, we expect that you will learn to use the library and the Internet as resources; more important, you'll learn to use and teach others what they learn from these resources.

Scheduled class meetings will normally be within these times: TTh 8:30-11:30, TTh 1:00-4:15, and students in this section will be required to keep the entire day Tuesday and Thursday, until 5:00, clear for work on this course.

The course will begin with two weeks designed to introduce everyone to how the course will work and to give you an opportunity to become engaged with a particular topic or problem. During this period at least, and probably continuing on into the term, there will be a full meeting of everyone, every Tuesday and Thursday from 10:00-11:15; and another, shorter meeting at 4:30 each day.

After this introductory period, the schedule will probably change. Normally, each student will attend one full class meeting at 8:30 Tuesday and Thursday, and one seminar, with at least one professor and eleven other students, every two weeks; seminars will normally be held at 1:00 Tuesday or Thursday. Short meetings at the end of the day will stay frequent.

Each student will meet in a tutorial session with one professor and up to three other students, for a half hour every two weeks; and each student will meet individually with one professor at least once a semester. Increasingly, individual contact and consultation will be conducted through the medium of electronic mail, as students become comfortable with it.

Some more specific notes on organization

We will begin with two weeks dedicated to introduction and engagement. Students will collaboratively explore a wide array of books, articles, documents and other texts dealing with the six potential "episodes." You'll read a different sets of texts than anyone else, you'll write about them for the rest of the class members, read what others have written, respond, read responses to your own work, and prepare to make a decision about what ideas and instances you would like to explore in the first cycle of investigation. At the same time, you'll be introduced to the strategy and requirements of the course.

The class will then divide into three groups of approximately twelve, each of which will, for most of the rest of the first term, take on an investigation of one focal instance of a dispute over belief and truth.

To begin this process, we've prepared basic lists of resources (a) for each of the instances and (b) for each of the disciplinary approaches. The students in each group will divide into three groups, one to approach the phenomenon from a Religious Studies perspective, one third from a sociological one, and one third from a literary/linguistic one. These subgroups will begin by preparing reports for other members of their group, and finally that larger group will prepare a joint report for the rest of the whole class.

In each case, these reports will be read by everyone in the other parallel groups, and each group will prepare "readerly responses" designed to help in expansion and revision of the first draft. This draft will go back to the original group for revision and expansion.

In general, groups will work most closely with the appropriate professor -- that is, McKendy will work with the Sociology oriented groups, Parkhill with those working on a Religious Studies perspective, and Hunt with those working from a literary and language perspective. Thus, in effect the class will be divided on two different bases into groups with common interests; the three "Topic" groups and the three "Discipline" groups. Any of these groups might meet as a seminar (a group of about twelve) or as a tutorial group (about four). What this will mean is that at any one time you might be a member of three different groups -- the whole class, of course, and also a group working on a particular topic, as well as a group of people interested in a particular disciplinary angle.

Over two weeks of work in the library and the computer lab, each of the disciplinary subgroups will prepare a report on the topic which will be read by the other two subgroups working on their topic. Those other groups (and the professors) will respond with oral (through a seminar) and written (in the computer network) questions about the reports, designed to elicit more information, elaboration, and clarification, and the groups will revise, expand and elaborate their reports in light of the feedback. This will involve, in every case, further research as well as editing.

Finally, each topic group of twelve will edit their reports into a larger document designed to be read by the other two topic groups, and, on the larger scale this time, the process of reading, responding and revising will be repeated. The three larger reports will be edited into pamphlet form in time for students to take the publication with them on the Christmas break.

In parallel to this topic-oriented activity, regular interactions between the parallel disciplinary groups will be organized, for the purpose of promoting critical reflection on questions of method and approach.

During the first 8-10 weeks of the second term, a second, parallel cycle of research and reporting will be undertaken, with new groupings and new topics (and subject to adjustments as appropriate, depending on our experience in the first term). Each student will work on a different disciplinary perspective in the second cycle.

During the closing 3-5 weeks of the second term, the focus will be on synthesizing what has been learned, reflecting on disciplinary approaches and generalizations across instances. Students will work independently or in self-chosen groups on preparing a final report on the course theme, either in the form of a written, edited, printed and published course book or other public presentation, with an audience outside the class, possibly the rest of the first year class, other Aquinas Programme sections, or high school students.


Evaluation in this section of the Aquinas Programme will have three primary objectives: to inform you of your standing in the course; to help you learn ways of reflecting on and assessing your own learning; to help you learn how to acknowledge the work of colleagues who have helped you learn. Of course, it will also have the objective of certifying levels of successful completion of the course to the rest of the university community (otherwise known as generating a mark -- in this case, marks in three first year courses).

To accomplish these objectives, each student's evaluation will have two main components. A minimum or base mark will be determined by quantifiable aspects of performance such as numbers of classes attended and assignments completed. This means that simply by doing everything that's asked you'll be able to be sure you couldn't get a mark less than a B, and by missing only a limited number of assignments and classes, a mark in the C range. The other part of your mark, the part that will raise it above the minimum determined by simply counting how much you've done, will be determined by three more qualitative factors. First, a mark, added to this minimum, based on the quality of your work as indicated in written acknowledgements your colleagues make of your contribution to their own learning; then, a further potential addition based on our agreed assessment of your acknowledgements of others; and, finally, a further potential increment based on our assessment of the your learning, as evidenced in your acknowledgement of others's contribution to it.

Evaluation will take place three times: at the beginning of November, at the end of the first term, and at the end of the course. Each time this process occurs, you will receive not only a mark, but a numerical breakdown of the way in which the mark was determined, an edited compendium of the acknowledgements of others and a jointly composed reflection from the three of us.


You'll be required to block off two full days per week (Tuesday and Thursday, for a total of about fifteen hours) for the course, and will be expected to spend at least six hours beyond that, primarily in reading and writing. That's because we think students in a full time academic program should expect to spend 35-40 hours at least at their studies (including class time, reading and writing, group work, library research, computer centre time, etc.) Since this course amounts to three-fifths of a full time program, it seems reasonable to expect 21-24 hours of work per week.

You're not required to buy common textbooks. You should, however, put aside the equivalent of textbook money (about $150) for individual book and magazine purchases, theatre and concert tickets, diskettes, photocopying, etc.

During the year, we will be asking you to attend concerts, theatre productions, gallery openings or shows, and lectures and presentations, to buy books, and to write about the experiences on an open electronic bulletin board. In so far as possible such experiences will be coordinated with topics addressed in the course, but we think it's more important to help you connect with the cultural life of the campus than to restrict activities to those which are directly relevant to our current investigations. In an important sense, this course is designed to help you become a participating member of the "academic community," and engagement with the culture around us is part of what we think is involved in that.

Finally, hang on to this document (and all the others we hand out or which you receive from others). It'll be useful later. It's probably a good idea to get a binder specifically for keeping records for this section of the Aquinas Program.

And last of all, welcome aboard. We're expecting this to be an exciting voyage this year. We're looking forward to learning a lot along the way, as part of this learning community, and we hope you are too.

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