First Year Seminar. The Intellectual History of Information: 1680-2001
This is:

Wed. 05sep01.

Instructor: Tom O'Donnell, Ph.D.,

Greetings! I am currently a "Visiting Assist. Prof. of Physics, LS&A" here in the  Residential College.  and a post-doctoral researcher in nuclear physics in the physics department, amongst other things. Check out my web page for more details.

Contact information and Office Hours:

-Phone/voicemail (76)3-9642
124 Tyler, East Quad, RC  <-- Office hours Mondays, 4 - 5 PM (later when we're talking).
 240 W. Hall, Physics Dept. (Other times will be by appointment/announcement.)
-Web Page:


Welcome to your First Year Seminar (FYS)!

As you probably already know, the FYS is a rather special type of class, especially in the Residential College (RC), which is a rather special place from which to experience this vast institution, The University of Michigan.

-What's so special about your FYS?

You are first-year students, and, so, newcomers to college. So, we have to "break you in," "show you the ropes" and that sort of thing, because college is very different from high school.  This means that I won't assume you know what's expected like teachers will after this course, and, probably , in other courses you take this semester. Don't hesitate to ask anything -- this class is your chance to ask anything you like. Look at it this way: it is a very small class by U of M standards (only about 16 of you), and that means you'll be risking sounding weird in front of a lot less people than in your other classes. Actually, that's part of the idea of a small class -- to not only get everyone to have a chance to speak up, to ask questions and participate, but to help everyone feel free to speak up because you should all get to know each other pretty well pretty quick, and so get comfortable with participating. At least that is the idea. We'll see how it goes.


I'll take attendance the first day (and every day) and collect everyone's email addresses so I can make an email list to communicate with you. It is important to show up here every day, since this is a seminar and participation in class is a big part of the process (and the grade). We will base much of our communications on email, and you will turn in your assignments electronically. More about this later.


I'll ask you all all sorts of questions to help everyone to get to know each other. I'll ask about who you are, what country and city you came from,  what high school you came from, what language(s) your family speaks, what course you especially liked in high school, what hobbies and/or sports are you into, what you like to read (if you like to read), do you like to write and, if so, about what,  why you wanted to be here at U of M (if you did), and what sort of things do you think you might want to learn here, etc., etc . And, what do you think the major problem or two is in the world now. I'll try not to forget to give you time to ask me these sorts of things too.

-About the course

I might not say too much about the content of the course the first day, unless there is enough time. I'll show you a web page that gives a brief description, and hand out the first reading assignment. Mainly I want to make sure you all understand how the class will go and what is expected of you to be successful in this course.


-Being serious about ideas. Discussion.

This is a seminar, this means we will mostly discuss the readings. I will lecture a bit, mostly giving you background to help understand the readings. But, a very important aspect of the course is to develop critical reading (and thinking) skills. This means we will really take the readings apart.

There are two stages or aspects to this process. Some of the readings will be difficult. It isn't so much that the language is difficult -- though there will be some of that -- it is that a lot of the ideas will be new and new ideas are always hard. Part of the problem with learning new, complex ideas, is that we often THINK we understand what the author is saying, we think we get it, but we might not REALLY get it at all. The best way I know to check this is to discuss the ideas with others. We will learn to read and reread articles that are assigned before coming to class,  and to outline the main ideas. Having done this, we can recount, in the class discussions, what we think are the author's main ideas and main arguments for her/his ideas. We will often be surprised that other people, even other people who also very carefully read the same material, will have a slightly different, and, sometimes, a greatly different idea of what the author is saying. But, the only way to check this is to systematically go through and discuss the ideas.  Sometimes I'll have you bring in a short summary or sketch of what you understood from the readings, and we will use these sketches to aid our in-class discussions and to help compare our understandings of the readings.


Notice, we haven't gotten into what we think ABOUT the author's ideas yet. And, how could we? We might not even agree on what the author is saying yet! A very important thing I would like you to learn, something that is part of careful intellectual work, is to not mix all together  the process of understanding (and describing) what an author is saying with your opinion about what she or he has said. You will find that effective intellectuals (and you are being trained to be intellectuals here in college) take a lot of care to state carefully and precisely what it is a given author is saying and, only then, as they sort that out, do they begin to formulate their own, independent opinion as to the validity of these ideas they have read. One reserves judgment until they know enough to have an informed opinion. That is perfectly fine. The thing is to strive to have an informed opinion and to make sure it is based on as true an understanding of what an author actually said as possible.

-Cultural and historical and scientific references.

One problem I think you will have in understanding the material in this course is what we call "cultural references" and/or "historical references". You will sometimes find that, no matter how carefully you outline the steps in the argument that the author makes, you still can't really understand what they are saying, because they are making references and allusions to events, history and ideas you don't understand. Now, you should realize that everyone faces this problem in intellectual and research work. These unfamiliar ideas will turn out to be part of the
social, historical or scientific culture which well educated people (so-called 'cultured' people) have as a storehouse or reserve of experiences which are held in common and drawn upon as examples to communicate their ideas to one another.

-Methods and habits of intellectual and research work.

A big part of my job will be to explain these unfamiliar social-, historical- or scientific-cultural references to you. But, another, perhaps even larger part of my job will be to teach you little by little how to find out these things on your own! A lot of this entails teaching you useful techniques. These might include how to use the library here effectively, or the internet; how to keep bibliographic references so you know who are the originators of a different ideas; how to write clearly; how to submit papers and get feedback from me and from other classmates electronically [online], etc., etc. However, perhaps the most important part is not technique, but to help you learn the habit of learning on your own -- of recognizing when there is some idea you have come across in your readings that you don't really understand, and of going after it -- of looking it up, tracing its history, talking to other people who might know something about it.

It is just as important to have a clear idea of what you DON'T understand as it is to know what you DO understand, This holds for any kind of intellectual/research work -- whether in social sciences, humanities, languages, mathematics, engineering or science.

Perhaps this all sounds a bit pedantic or like some strange preoccupation I have , but I just want to give you an idea, up front, of what we will be trying to do here.


As you probably already know, this seminar is a writing course as well. Being RC students, you have to show a certain level of proficiency in writing. I'll hand out a flyer on this from the RC. The amount of writing will be around two-three pages per week, or about four-five every other week. I tend to favor the weekly approach, as writing is a skill one has to practice a lot and often to get fluent a it.  Many of the assignments will be to write a summary of a reading and, perhaps, a position paper or paper on the historical or scientific significance of the ideas in the weekly reading. Occasionally you will write for particular types of audiences: such as pretending to write for the science page of the New York Times, of, say, of a popular science magazine, etc. This will help you practice explaining scientific ideas to non-scientific audiences, and, you will find, that in the process you will usually come to understand the ideas better yourselves.

-Sweetland Writing Center at UM

The "Sweetland" center is in LS&A to help students hone their writing skills. Students who are doing good work go there to get professional tutoring and advice to improve their writing, AND students having problems go too for the same reason. IT IS FOR EVERYBODY, and I will have an ASSIGNMENT which includes EVERYONE going and seeing a tutor there at least once. (If I see you are having great difficulties with writing, you may be required by the RC's FYS writing board to go there. They will want to see two of your written papers by 19Sept01 if I think you may be a candidate for extra help. More on this in class.)


I will almost always comment on your writing, and I will keep copies of everything you write and use these to make a folder or portfolio. The aim here is to help me (and you) get an idea of your strengths and weaknesses in writing so that I can give you as specific help as possible, or to refer you to sources which might help the most. In short, I don't anticipate anyone being surprised by the grade and/or assessment they get of their work as we will be talking about your work constantly throughout the semester.


Everyone always wants to know how they will get their grades.  Here is a general picture which I will adjust a bit as needed, depending on how the semester goes.

-> 40%  Participation (includes in class and office hours) and quizzes on readings. This means you will lose considerable credit if you miss class. Sometimes things happen no one can avoid and someone has to miss a class. However, you can compensate for this by seeing me in office hours to discuss what we did. This is the way to avoid losing credit.

-> 50%  Papers and rewrites. There may also be in-class tests/exams occasionally if I think it useful.

-> 10%  Misc. projects and presentations

-Grading papers

When I grade papers, I usually divide them up into about three or so separate categories or aspects. For example:

i) Mechanics: grammar, spelling, syntax, proper use of references and bibliography, etc. (10 points).

ii) Factual content: how well you get the author's argument, how precisely you express it, etc. (10 points).

iii) Insight: how well thought out and sophisticated and clear your ideas and opinions about the author's ideas. This is connected to how well you deal with and stick to the point at hand (10 points).

What I usually do when grading papers or projects is to have a 10-point spread for each aspect. Each category starts at about a six (6). A six is an average, basically "Okay" level. As I read through, if the work falls below average, if there are problems, I deduct points from the six.  If there are especially well done aspects, I start to add points onto the six.

In the end, your score is eventually the fraction of the total possible points you got, and eventually, at the end, it gets converted into a grade. Grades I give are relative to your classmates' performance and to my standards. What I mean is that, I decide what numerical grade in this classan A would be and a D. Then, I set everyone's grades relative to these high and low numerical grades. This should get pretty clear as we go along, as soon as we have a couple assignments done and graded. Sometimes students convince me there work is a bit beter than I realized, but, seldom is it the case that this puts someone ahead of someone else. It is a lot easier to see the RELATIVE quality of student's papers, participation, assignment, etc. than what the ABSOLUTE letter grade shoud be.


Occasionally, I may give a brief quiz on a reading when class begins. My idea here is to encourage people to do the readings CAREFULLY and come to class ALREADY having gotten a pretty good outline in their heads of what the reading had to say (i.e. with it in your journals/notebooks [see below]) -- to be prepared to have a serious discussion. I won't do this when I think it isn't necessary.

- Syllabus, papers and  your FIRST ASSIGNMENT

-General plan with the syllabus and course pack

Here's the deal: I have a very extensive list of readings on what I call "The Intellectual History of Information". I had three different students from the UM UROP program work with me over the summer to search out readings in books and journals and elsewhere which would be appropriate for this FYS class. (A couple worked for a month each, the third has been at it for about four months and is still doing more work this semester.) We all read and discussed many of these in quite a bit of detail (twice a week - it was fun).  So, I have tested this material quite a bit, but, I know from experience, that there always are surprises.

In particular, since you are first year students, I have no idea of your backgrounds and preparation for this material are (which can be rather difficult). So, I decided NOT to hand out the syllabus or to turn in the course pack to the copy shop for the first couple classes. I will instead hand out readings xeroxed for the first couple classes. After one or two writing assignments are in, I will give you the syllabus and the course pack will be at one of the copy stores (probably Dollar Bill).

-Today's assignment

-- a note on e-skills (electronic skills):

We'll go to a computing center soon to make sure everyone knows al the ins and outs of email, the web, printing, and, esp. the UM system here, which is one of the best in the country. If you want to, I am happy to teach you all sorts of things about making web pages and using electronic library resources, etc. We'll have someone come in soon from the UM libraries to explain about how best to take advantage of one of the largest academic libraries in the country! (By the way, if things go smoothly with the readings, and we have time, I will give you a brief introduction to computer programming and you can run some programs illustrating math/logic ideas we are learning.)


--First: read all this stuff I have written. This means: FIND IT ON THE WEB SITE for the class. The URL (web address) is at the top of this handout).

-Send me email AS SOON AS you get onto the site and have printed out this first-day handout. You will have to access the site often, and so I want to make sure you can do it. I'll help you with the process in some detail as we go along.

Get a spiral notebook or a good-sized composition-type notebook to use as a JOURNAL -- you'll need it. You'll be bringing this to class with your reading notes in it and your outlines (I'll explain this in a moment), and your notes on in-class discussions will be here too. YOU WILL OCCASIONALLY HAND THIS IN, or SHOW IT TO ME in office hours.

-READ the handout on Leibniz. It's  from the book:
"The Universal Computer," by Martin Davis, Norton Press, 2000. This is the first chapter and the Introduction.

Read it more than once!

-The first time jot down the main points as you go along -- in the margin is best at this point, but it is up to you. But if you don't write this initial stuff in the margins, make sure you write the page number next to the points now and then, so you can correlate your notes with the text later on. In general, each main point in the reading should have an entry that characterizes it (just a few words or a sentence) - probably at LEAST one per page. Include ideas/concepts/words you don't understand (put a question mark next to these) that you will go back later to figure out.

-Now, go back and reread the text and as you do, use your earlier notes to make a more precise, detailed, structured outline of the text IN YOUR NOTEBOOK). you should now be able to look at your outline and explain the main points to me or to someone else, and the main arguments. You should also know what points you DON'T understand.

-Spend some time looking up one or two concepts you didn't understand or need to clarify for yourself. Jot down the reference(s) you used (encyclopedia, a history book, some science book, etc.) and a couple sentences about what you learned and the page(s) it was on. TELL YOURSELF a STORY that outlines the points. This will help you with your reading comprehension. Better yet: if you can grab someone willing to listen: TELL THEM THE STORY. They'll have questions and this helps you get your ideas straight.


-Now use your outline to WRITE  about two pages on the reading (perhaps a bit more or less), single-spaced. The top RHS of the article should have your name and uniquename and the date on it. Don't forget a simple TITLE line too before the paper begins. Skip lines between each of these sections and one line between paragraphs.

--Think of this as a 'book report' or, perhaps, a book review. It should first and foremost (mainly) EXPLAIN back to me (a synopsis)  what Martin Davis said about Leibniz. Then, and only then, based on this, tell me one or two things you think are significant, that gave you some new insight or idea. That is, comment on what you have read/understood. If there are things still unclear, it is good to simply say so. These we will be discussing in class. This is not the be all and end all of what you will eventually get out of this reading.

-EMAIL this to me anytime BEFORE CLASS starts MONDAY (I'm at, as PLAIN TEXT. I will explain this in class a bit. You can compose it in MSword or whatever program you want, including in your email program, but then put it into the BODY of the email as PLAIN, ASCII TEXT. Make sure you SKIP LINES BETWEEN PARAGRAPHS. If you have trouble, send me email. If you have trouble with email, ask people at the computing center for help or try giving me a call at my office, etc.

I know this sounds a bit detailed and perhaps complicated, but it will all get to be second nature pretty quick. I will then be able to send you comments either on printouts or electronically (email) between classes, etc.

-Examples on web page

I will often put examples of good or typical papers on the class web page for everyone to read. Don't be shy! This helps everyone and reading other people's writing helps tremendously to hone your own writing skills!

WHEW!-- Have I said/written enough here! :-)  I hope it is clear though, and that writing it all out makes it more objective, so you can go back and look up things later -- even though it's probably BORING!

------- The END of First-Day Handout ---------