Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Essays for the untutored

I haven't had a drink in a solid week, and I am grumpy.  I'm fighting a rather stubborn ear/sinus infection – with multiple antibiotics, yay! – that has the unpleasant side effect of making me wake up dizzy every morning as my middle ears try to right themselves.  I have to budget extra time in the mornings nowadays if I plan to drive anywhere, since it often takes an hour before my head is steady enough for me to get behind the wheel.  Fun.

I'm trying to distract myself from my grumblings by focusing on my winter break work, since I cranked out the last of my grading a few days ago.  Aside from trying to assemble some reading lists for syllabi, I'm hoping to re-tool the syllabus for my intermediate-level course, Pseudology of Area Studies.  In particular, I want to jettison most of the reading quizzes and replace them with short papers.

Here's the thing: how do you assign a paper on material that you expect students to understand poorly?

The aggravation I feel toward this class is largely due to the fact that it attracts a fair number of students who are interested in learning about the geographical region of my research – after all, it's my Area Studies course – but who are largely or totally ignorant of the discipline of pseudology and how we pseudologists go about things.  Sophomores through seniors can generally register for a class in any discipline they choose, no matter what their major, even if there is a prerequisite.  This odd combination of qualifications means that the prerequisite really applies only to frosh, and once they've taken the disciplinary prereq, they can register, too.  (One of them did exactly that for the upcoming semester.)

In practice, this means that many of my students expect to be given a neatly presented plate of facts that they can digest with little effort — hors d'oeuvres, if you will.  They are then unpleasantly surprised to discover that I am not butlering cheese and crackers, but am instead trying to get them to strap on aprons and learn to do some cooking.  (If I may continue with my cuisinary metaphor.  Did I mention that I'm feeling peckish, as I often do before going to bed?) 

The reading quizzes I gave were, if I may confess to my readership, often a scandal of incompetence in which the students frantically tried to remember a few facts, slap those facts down on the page, and hope that I would be good enough to fill in some ideas around those nuggets of factuality.  For my part, I quickly recognized this problem, but I felt helpless to remedy it in any comprehensive sense.  Never mind my neophyte fears of freaking out my students (and myself!) by retooling the syllabus on the fly.  I just couldn't figure out what the point of Pseudology of Area Studies would be if I didn't make the students focus on both parts of the course title. 

So how do I structure some short papers that make the students engage with the abstract ideas as well as some concrete facts when I cannot guarantee that the students will have already learned the basics of what pseudology is and how it operates at the undergrad level?  I don't want to set them up for failure – gee, déjà vu there – but I want them to understand as well that they have to work, not just absorb.  Surely this is a common issue for social scientists teaching in college.  How does one split the difference so that the students get a decently scaled challenge and the prof gets papers worth the trouble of reading?


  1. Sorry you're sick. I've been battling a cold since Friday...Post-semester sickness, perhaps?

    As far as your question, I would suggest to the non-pseudologists that they pick up some of the terminology and concept from pseudology from a specific book or resource. Make it clear that you expect them to answer the questions from a pseudological point of view, and not, say, a hamster-fur weaver's perspective. Deduct points if they fail to do so.

  2. Hm... Well, I for one would never assign more papers than I had to, but I also have a 4/4 and 200+ students. Could you assign them some discussion questions instead that they could write a bit about? Maybe you could assign questions that would get them thinking about bigger ideas that they could reuse later in a major revision for a big, end-of-term paper? Responding to discussion questions is better than multiple choice quizzes, as far as critical thinking goes. But maybe they would be easier to grade because they wouldn't have to be in a totally organized essay form.

    I think haphazard is right -- you're going to have to point them to the terminology that you want them to use if you're not just going to sit there and be pissed. In all of my classes, I give students a LOT of vocabulary, because I mainly expect them to know nothing, and rarely am I wrong about that. (After all, I'm teaching people who think Shakespeare wrote novels.) So if I use even a basic term, like "allegory," I make sure they know what I'm talking about. Yes, it's kind of like teaching preschool. But it's also gratifying when they start using the vocab in their papers and start sounding like they are competent enough to talk about literature on a level above "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." When I show them "how" to write/speak like a literature aficionado, they at least have a chance at sounding like they are competent human beings (in my classes).

    1. By "easier to grade" above, I mean that responses to discussion questions would be easier to grade than formal essays, or even short writings. (Not multiple choice quizzes. Need more coffee...)

  3. I think area studies classes can have the potential to attract students who are interested in something like travel narratives (what you call hors d'oeuvres maybe). I know you want them to learn about pseudology, but would it be possible to teach from a pseudological perspective, but stress the material from the area? For example, could you set up some of the lessons by examining the popular narrative woven around that area and then unsettle or complicate that narrative with your academic material? Could you force students to ground the comments of the area within the books and articles you provide for them? Could you also focus on current events and have students contextualize those events with the history or ethnographic material you provide? When you want to bring in the pseudology, could you explain by saying for example "this is a term we have in pseudology and it means xyz. In this context it is applied in this way or used to understand this practice"?

    These are just some suggestions. I have a feeling that we share a discipline and I know that area studies courses can be a pain. I took area studies classes in college and I really enjoyed them. Reflecting back to that time I now realize that the professor took great pains to represent that area in a nuanced and complex way.

    I really hope your starting to feel better. Hang in there!

  4. I'm not sure what the specific skills are that you need your students to know, or how they compare to what I do in my own classes. But I've learned that I have to do at least a mini-review of poetic terminology and the strategies that facilitate a strong close reading of a poem (or a passage of dramatic verse) in pretty much all my classes. In lower-level ones, I give them a sheet of terms (which they're responsible for filling in as a result of our class discussion), as well as in-class work and some short assignments preparatory to the first essay to make sure they have adequate practice. (In upper-division classes, sometimes all it takes is 30min of in-class review before I'm sure 85% of them are up to speed; but even good students can benefit from that kind of spot-checking.)

    Most importantly, I think it's crucial to be explicit about what you're doing, and why. TELL THEM that what you're doing in class, or their short homework assignments, are meant to prepare them for the first essay: that you're helping them build skills and giving them low-stakes ways to practice thinking like a pseudology major, before grading them like pseudology majors. Students tend to respond well to work that they feel has a purpose, and they appreciate believing that your expectations are clearly articulated (sometimes the appearance of clarity is more important than the reality, I admit. . . and, ahem, it often helps with evals to stress over and over again how aware of and attentive to their needs you are, even/especially if they wind up getting Cs on their essays anyway).

    So, in the early weeks of my Shakespeare survey, when we're working on scansion and close-reading, if I make the class stop in a scene read-through and spend 30 minutes walking through a single speech, attending to its meter, imagery, emotional switches, and that sort of thing, I'll say things like, "I know we're spending forever on this one speech. But this is exactly the kind of work your first paper expects you to do. So now that we've gotten a sense of the weird stuff going on here. . . if you were writing your paper on this, what kind of thesis might you construct about this passage?"

  5. I like what Flavia has to say about terminology and close reading. Can you do a "Pseudology vocab journal" type-thingy where you assign a different pseudological term each week and they have to go define it from some list of reputable sources and explain how it relates to the issue/topic/readings for that week?

  6. Is there a better discussion forum for pedagogy than academic blogs? I think not! These ideas are exactly what I was hoping I would get from my readers. Thanks, everyone!

    There are many good ideas to explore here. I'll start kicking around different scenarios to see how they would mesh with the readings I'm planning. How fun to think about this stuff, rather than how to grade another damn essay exam!