You have probably played the game in which there are three people, and the first person whispers a message to the second, the second whispers the message to the third, and the third tells everyone what he or she heard. Often the message is garbled beyond comprehension. This game illustrates a common phenomenon--people do not always perceive, understand, and remember the information with which they are presented. This phenomenon will undoubtedly recur in many areas of your life, including this class.

As the instructor, I plan to present you with a wealth of new information. I have gleaned this information from various sources, such as journal articles and conversations with colleagues. If I had not found it exciting or relevant in some way, then I would have forgotten it, and you will too. What is important, from the perspective of this course, is not what you forget, but what you can remember--and use.

To succeed in this course, you must take ownership of some of the ideas in the course and weave them into your own network of understanding. You will summarize, criticize, and evaluate them--you will pick them apart and reassemble them. In the process you will make use of a form of memory of which everyone should become a deft manipulator: external memory.

External memory is memory that exists, for example, on paper (or on computer) in some form of alternative representation. There are many possible forms of representation. Some are better than others for certain purposes, such as giving a speech. We will strive to perfect the form of representation that has perhaps the most drawbacks, but that allows perhaps the greatest subtlety--namely writing.

Because strengths and weaknesses in understanding are likely to diverge in different students, we will make use of every possible opportunity for mutual correction--including discussion by students with one another. However, in-class discussions are typically only beginning steps toward the subtlety that is this class' aim. Therefore, we will employ an alternative version of peer commentary that is actually quite typical in academic journals. Authors who have written particularly good papers will have them published on the web, and other authors will contribute written peer commentaries on these papers, to which the original authors will respond. Because the publication outlet attracts many visitors (over 13,000 per month), this process has the ancillary benefit that authors' work will be read by many persons interested in their chosen topic.

Last modified March 2003
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