15 February 2014

Four Years Prostrate to the Higher Mind

At our house, it's known as "The Ballad of the B- Student," on the strength of that one verse (you known the one). Lots of doctors of philosophy around here, and strangely, they often share an interest in B-grade movies.

It's only life, after all.

Teaching at a reasonably selective institution means teaching students who are really good at going to school. For some, that skill set includes intellectual curiosity--they know there's a lot of interesting stuff they don't know yet but that they want to learn about. For many, intellectual curiosity has nothing to do with education. For the latter group, being good at going to school means being really good at receiving information in preselected clumps (the course content) and repackaging it in prescribed ways (the course requirements). They know how to hit the high scores on a learning rubric, but they don't actually know how to learn anything and many of them seem to have lost the capacity to recognize that anything else might be the purpose of their education.

Who can blame them? Many of them are squeezing their studies around 20+ hours a week of paid employment, and many are acutely aware of the debt they and their families are accruing. They've been coached by increasingly test-driven K-12 curricula, and they see college education frequently framed in terms of preparation for a career. They have lots of good reasons to ration their energy, to stay narrowly focussed on getting good grades, and to resist anything that looks like a waste of time.

Darkness has a hunger that's insatiable, and lightness has a call that's hard to hear. Students know, from their own life experience (no matter how limited) that there's more than one answer to many questions, pointing them in crooked lines. Should they move out of the dorms? Is this a healthy relationship? Do the benefits of owning a dog outweigh the hassles? Did their parents' divorce solve more problems than it created?

They know the world is a complicated place, but they expect the content of their courses to resolve into simple, test-ready answers. When prompted, they can frame questions that sound like legitimate questions, but are in fact meaningless: What caused the Enlightenment? When did women become liberated? How could slavery exist at the same time Locke was writing about freedom?

These questions show the seeds of genuine curiosity on the part of students, but they also show students' bafflement about how to talk about the past. At a certain point in time, people in general seem to think about things in certain ways, and then something changes and they think about things a different way: how does that happen? Sex differences cash out into gender differences in different ways at different times: how does that work? Slavery existed: WTF?

The challenge is to keep students from sailing their ship of safety till they sink it. The apparatus of academic success can keep students to getting to the core of the thing that they want to know.

If students have gotten as far as a 200-level class at my university, they have have a mental category, "the research paper" and they have some tools for crafting that thing. What they don't recognize is how that category relates to anything they might actually want to say.  FYC instructors work hard to get students to recognize the connections, but the habits that made them successful throughout high school are ingrained, and confronted with a new writing challenge students fall back on the five-paragraph essay format that they're familiar with.

Is more research writing, in a variety of media, the answer?  Sort of. Marc Bousquet argues that "we need to construct meaningful opportunities for students to actually engage in research—to become modest but real contributors to the research on an actual question." We also need to give them real-world ways to share that knowledge--not just "papers," but
presentations and posters; grant and experiment proposals; curated, arranged, translated, or visualized data; knowledgeable dialogue in online media with working professionals; independent journalism, arts reviews, and Wikipedia entries; documentary pitches, scripts and storyboards; and informative websites.
No question, that kind of undergraduate research is preferable to the "smash and grab assault on the secondary literature" that Bousquet (following Rebecca Schuman) beautifully describes ("Snatching random gems that seem to support their preconceived thesis, they change a few words, cobble it all together with class notes in the form of an argument, and call it 'proving a thesis.'")

The end result of good undergraduate research will be a narrow sliver of knowledge from the academic discipline and a broad understanding of the conventions of research in it--and it will take a great deal of professorial coaching.  There's a place for it, but there are also a lot of other things that can happen in an undergraduate class that involve writing, particularly if students are to take on board the kind of broad swathes of information that need to be in place before they can begin to formulate an answerable research question.

Students learn by processing information for themselves--and that's why instructors continue to assign the college essay (NOT, pace Schuman, to supplement their meager adjunct salaries by writing for paper mills).  Students come to recognize the complexity of the past, not by hearing an instructor explain it, but by wrestling with it themselves in an effort to explain it.  It can't always take the form of original research.

The quickest way to improve student writing is to tell them NOT to write essays.  If we grade their performance and claim to see through it, there's little room for learning to take place.  "Just answer the questions," I tell them.  "Write your answers in a way that's coherent and make sense--but don't think you have to make a regular college paper out of it."  Freed from the pressure to produce a set-piece with an introduction and a conclusion, students will actually think about what they're being asked.  They'll try to formulate intelligent answers that square with both the information provided and their own sense of how the world works.  They'll skip the turgid lugubrious diction that they've learned to equate with academic writing, and they'll actually try to say something.

A well-crafted assignment will have many parts: the expectation that students share answers and discover that, in fact, there's more than one answer to these questions; opportunities to change their minds and refine their ideas; occasions to think about the characteristics of a definitive answer: how do scholars recognize the truth when they've hit upon it?  Students may find themselves twice as cloudy as they were the day before when they went in seeking clarity, but a good assignment will give them time to work their way through the confusion.  Such an assignment will also lay bare appalling, breathtaking, depressing gaps in many students' understanding of the past, but it will also make it possible to fill them in, to bring the students closer to fine.


  1. Hi, coming from a different direction, it would help if the STEM folk tested for the same things you are looking for. As an example, on my last GChem1 test a 20 pt. question was to synthesize what I had been lecturing on wrt the structure of the periodic table and electron configuration. Some made it, some got close, and some. . . .but they will learn.

    What there was too much of was simply reformatting the question as an answer.

  2. Students seem increasingly adroit at reformulating questions as answers--I've noticed this. So much so that I've wondered if at some point along the line they're getting coached in one-size-fits-all content-free aproaches to dealing with unfamiliar material.