Truth in Society:
How do people come to believe what they do?

The Aquinas Program
St. Thomas University

Russ Hunt
John McKendy
Sharon Murray

Up front:

Here are some general things you'll probably need to remind yourself of fairly often in this course. You should not only read this document over with some care right now -- you should also hang on to it and come back to it regularly. We suggest you keep copies of all these documents -- we call them "prompts" -- in a binder. We'll distribute them with three punched holes, or make a hole punch available, to make that easier. They'll also be available on the course "Web site" (we'll explain how that works as we go). Like most things, this document will seem clearer when you come back to it again, after you've experienced some of the things it discusses.

Maybe the most important thing we can say about this course at the beginning is that you should keep in mind that it is a course about learning itself. We're hoping to help you become an even better learner than you are now. Most of the things you do will be aimed at getting some particular task done -- finding a book or article, explaining an idea to others in the class, persuading other people to do something you want to do, getting an electronic mail message onto the computer network -- but 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, how to read critically, how to explain things clearly, how to use the computer network.

And it's important to remember that learning can happen even if you don't succeed at the main task itself. When you come back from the library empty-handed, or when your reader says "I don't get it," or when nobody receives your email message, that can be just as valuable a learning experience as it would have been if you'd succeeded. In fact, we usually learn more from failures than successes.

In other words, even if you "fail" to achieve the particular job you were trying to accomplish, you're almost certainly 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.

Budgeting your time:

To help you plan, we're being very clear about how much time we expect people to commit to the course. We expect that, on average, you'll spend 24 hours a week working on tasks specifically connected with the Aquinas Program.

Many people begin university with the assumption that they should be able to get all or most of the work of the course done during the scheduled class hours. In high school, often that is the case; "homework" is something extra. In university, though, it's almost never true. In the case of the Truth in Society section of the Aquinas Program, where a great deal of your work will be done independently, in the library or the computer lab or in group meetings outside of formal class meetings, it's even less so.

What we ask is this: that everybody set aside all day Tuesday and Thursday (that's about seven hours each of these days) for Truth in Society, and budget at least 8-10 hours of the rest of their week as well.

We came up with these numbers by reasoning like this: we began by assuming that students in a full time academic program should spend full time -- 40 hours at least -- at their studies (that's including class time, reading and writing, group work, library research, computer centre time, etc.) Since this program amounts to three courses, or three-fifths of a full time program, it seems reasonable to expect 24 hours of work per week. It is not, in our experience, possible to spend less time on one's studies and still do excellent work in the Aquinas Program.

Having said that, we want to quickly repeat that we don't expect that all of that time (or even most of it) will be spent "in class." Attending plays, searching for information on the Internet, meeting with class colleagues in the cafeteria, examining old newspapers on microfilm, writing and editing reports in the computer lab, and sitting comfortably in a quiet corner reading will all be regular activities. Furthermore, we won't demand that you put in more hours than that: if we ask you do do something that can't be done in that amount of time, just tell us. Budgets work both ways.


Something else to know about this course is that we'll be using "texts" extensively and in a variety of ways. When we talk about "texts", we do not mean textbooks. Rather, the term refers to a large range of written material -- magazine articles, research reports from scholarly journals, novels, poems, chapters from books, and so on. It also refers to prompts like the one you're reading now, 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 through a prompt. Thus we'll be explaining what we want in writing, rather than by telling people orally. That's deliberate. We do it for three reasons.

As well as reading a large variety of texts, you'll be writing lots of texts -- texts of various kinds, texts that will also have consequences. These will be quite different from the usual consequences of student writing, which tend to be tightly enmeshed in the business of grading. Usually, for example, one way students write is to take notes in lectures, in anticipation of writing tests and exams. Or they write essays, which are to be read by the professor only, and, again, their main purpose is to get a grade. In this course, by contrast, you'll seldom write for us, and never write texts which will be graded. (That's not to say, by the way, that they won't be evaluated; the evaluation, though, will be the kind of evaluation you expect when you say something in a conversation. A joke works, or it doesn't; people are persuaded, or they're not.) The "audience" for almost all the writing you do will be others in the class -- sometimes everybody in the room, sometimes others in a smaller group, occasionally one person. You'll be in situations where you'll want to design your texts so that they inform colleagues of what you have learned, persuade them to make a certain decision, explain how to do something, or co-ordinate and organize your joint activities.

Equally important, your writing -- at least after the first few weeks of the term -- will be done primarily on the St. Thomas computer network. A great deal of our communication in this course will be conducted through this medium, using electronic mail, the World Wide Web, an electronic discussion forum, and shared word processor files. You don't have to be familiar with computers to start with -- we'll offer lots of help. But you will be comfortable with them before you know it.

How all this will work:

We expect you to spend as much time on the computer network as in formal classes (and as much again in individual reading, research, and thinking). As you already know, the program is designed to fulfill the stated requirements of the first year courses for the three disciplines -- English 1-200, Sociology 100, and Computer Studies 101/102. You also know that the overarching theme of this section of the Aquinas Program is "Truth in Society." It is by exploring this theme that we expect to approach and present the three separate disciplines.

By this "exploration" we have in mind an inquiry into how people come to believe what they believe -- not just what they have conscious opinions about, but what they assume to be true without thinking much about it, and how they come to make those assumptions. We'll be concerned with "big" issues: Death, Evil, Suffering, Prejudice, Science and the Supernatural. But rather than approach these topics abstractly, we'll focus the inquiry on specific instances or episodes of believing, dispute about belief, or change in belief. People don't make up their minds to believe things in the abstract, after all: they come to believe them because they live in certain situations, get used to certain things, read certain texts, see certain events and people on the street, on television and in movies, talk with certain people. We're going to try to explore how that happens.

During the first two weeks of the term, we'll be exploring some things that people here in this room think of as "true" -- that is, not the sorts of things that some people believe and others disagree with, and there's not much point in talking about, but things that are true. The sort of thing that means that you think of people who believe something different as just wrong -- respectable, reasonable people, but mistaken. We won't be looking at whether these things really are true or not, but, rather, exploring how it is that we (and others) come to think of them as beyond question, as fundamental, as true.

During the next couple of weeks, we'll be connecting these specific beliefs with larger, publicissues, and finding other areas in which people's assumptions about what's true are shaped by the world and by the society around them. We'll also be exploring the campus context for resources that can help us find out about such things -- for instance, by working in the library, learning about the computer network, attending campus functions and events, writing about them, and reading what others have written about them.

And we'll be beginning to investigate the ways in which Sociology and English and Computer Studies can offer some approaches and tools for understanding what we're reading and thinking about.

We call these first few weeks a stage of familiarization, because in the process of doing these things, everyone will also be introduced to the various ways in which the course will be conducted. During this time, we'll normally hold an opening meeting at 9:00, and an end-of-the-day meeting at 4:00 or 4:30. Between these times, you'll find yourself in any of a number of places and situations: working with a small group, reading in the courtyard, attending a seminar, searching for books or articles at the library, or preparing a report in the computer lab. What you'll be doing on any particular day will usually be spelled out in prompts, which we'll distribute at the opening meeting (and which will also be available on the course Web site).

Moving toward investigation:

After the familiarization stage, we move toward looking for some specific issues to investigate. During the next two weeks, everyone will examine a wide array of books, articles, documents, newspaper clippings, bibliographies, videos and other texts dealing with six potential "episodes." In the case of each episode, we'll start with material that the three of us have assembled over the summer. Then you'll track down additional sources. As this process goes on, you'll be reading texts you choose from among the range available, and recommending texts that you think others ought to read. At the end of this process, everyone will have read a different set of texts. You'll have written about them for the rest of the class members, read what others have written, responded, read responses to your own work, and thought about what you might want to read next.

Gradually we'll move toward a decision on which three of the six episodes show the greatest promise of opening up new and surprising and useful questions concerning belief. We'll then turn to research these three issues in depth during the remainder of the fall semester. You'll be working on one of the three, with a group composed of about a third of the class. Once we've decidedd on the three topics, who works on which will be decided at random -- so you'll want to make sure that the three topics we wind up with are all ones you can imagine finding interesting.

For most of the rest of the first term, each of these three "focus groups" will undertake an investigation of one focal instance --one "episode" of a significant change in people's beliefs about some truth. Individuals will read and report to their group colleagues about what they've found. These reports will be due periodically, and will be swapped around for reading and response -- and will be revised to take into account those collegial responses. Eventually the group members -- individually, in pairs, or in small working groups -- will edit collections of these shorter reports into larger texts that will serve as draft chapters in the focus group's report to the entire Truth in Society section. These reports, in each case, will be aimed at showing others what can be learned about how people in the specific situation investigated came to believe what they believed.

These larger reports will be read by everyone in the other two parallel groups, and each group will prepare "readerly responses" to the reports of the other groups, designed to help in expansion and revision of the first draft. This draft will go back to the original group for revision and expansion, culminating in a book-like publication that students can take with them on the Christmas break, and, perhaps, install in a public site on the World Wide Web

Looking ahead to the second term:.

During the first eight to ten 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). This time everyone will be involved in nominating the episodes on believing. In addition, we will focus more overtly on the three different disciplinary perspectives -- information technology, sociology, English -- in the second cycle.

During the closing three to five 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, if possible, an audience outside the class.


Evaluation in this section of the Aquinas Programme will have three primary objectives:

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 grade" 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 assured of a mark of at least B-. Missing a very few assignments and classes guarantees a base grade in the C range.

The other component 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 two further values:

These written "reflections on learning" will be invited at frequent -- weekly or biweekly -- intervals throughout the year. They will be submitted directly to the section faculty by email, and will be assessed by them.

Evaluation will be summarized 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 reflections of others in which your contribution to their learning is acknowledged, and a jointly composed reflection from the three of us.


During the year, we will be asking you to attend concerts, theatre productions, gallery openings or shows, and lectures and presentations, and to engage in a written discussion about your experiences (these will be conducted on an open "electronic forum" on the Web). As with much about the course, you'll have a good deal of choice about specifically what to do, but there'll be a framework of requirement -- in this case, that will mean you're required to attend and write about eight events each term. Sometimes such outside "Occasions" will be coordinated with topics addressed in the course, but not always. 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 activities of the culture around us is part of what we think is involved in that. We'll explain more about this as the course proceeds (see Prompt #10, when it's ready, for more on this).

You're not required to buy a set of course textbooks. You should, however, put aside the equivalent of textbook money (about $150 -- that may seem a lot, but check out what textbooks for your other courses cost, or ask someone you know who's taking introductory sociology, English, or Computer Studies how much they're being asked to pay for texts) for individual book and magazine purchases, theatre and concert tickets, diskettes, photocopying, etc. There will be times when it will be desirable for you to go to the theatre, or something else that costs money; we don't want to hear someone saying they haven't got the money till after they've already spent that $150.

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 the paper (prompts, reports, etc.) we generate in this section of the Aquinas Program. But if you don't manage to keep everything, most of it will be available on the course website.

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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