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Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

Points-o-lightAh yes — it’s time for the “You’ll probably get a C” lecture for my undergraduates. This is the lecture in which I point out that everyone enters my class with a C because I can only assume they are average. Some people, over the course of the term, will demonstrate that they are below average, and a few will be above average. But it takes effort _beyond_ the ordinary expectations for the class to earn something above a C.

Wailing and gnashing of teeth often ensues, sometimes accompanied by the crunching of a snowflake heart. You may all be ‘special’ in your own way [and surely we are, given the latest research on the average # of mutations in human beings], but not all of you are special in the academic sense.ChamplainPath

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First, a quick excerpt from one of the blogs in the sidebar, Larval Subjects:

However, having witnessed twenty years of critiques of ideology I’m led to wonder what critiques of ideology have ever done to really change anything. The conception of politics as ideology critique seems to largely result among bookish academics that believe it is books and discourses are the primary real and who are therefore persuaded that change takes place through books and discourses. Like the obsessional– who might this obsessional be? –who talks endlessly precisely to avoid saying what really should be said, this conception of the political endlessly dissects various narratives and cultural formations to create the illusion of acting without ever hitting the real. Indeed, there’s a very real sense in which those literary studies types so delighted by Zizek seem to be more motivated to find a justification for writing about their favorite movies and television shows rather than changing social organization in any significant way. [full post here]

I remember being told by one of my undergrad mentors that critical theory evolved out of the frustration of people who saw the energy of the ’68 era, taught it to their students with fervor, and then discovered they’d produced a generation of smug middle-managers.  Something was wrong; agency and social innovation wasn’t happening; the revolution had been pre-empted [and this was before the tech boom!].  Something new had to be sorted out, or at least, the reasons why “NEW” was so difficult needed to be sorted out. Okay, fine.

In graduate school, critical theory morphed into cultural studies, and it can be a fun game to play, but I sympathized more with the rusty Marxists who were doing actual archeology over in the remnants of the steel mills, sifting through records and interviewing whoever was left who remembered the mills in their prime.  I wanted a closer relationship between the talking about and the making of things.  Let’s talk about the steel, the RotoVap, the wings on a fruit fly.

Much more recently, I was on a search committee, and could hear colleagues speaking the critical/cultural theory language again, and it was like looking through a haze, or into a Turner painting.  I kept thinking: there might be a ship in that painting somewhere, or the echo of a ship, or an cluster of ideas that people have agreed in the past to fit the concept “ship”…..if there was a ship, there would be people working on it, setting sails, adjusting the rigging to best make use of the wind. And all the theorizing about ship-ness would’t matter one jot to the people just trying to get their work done and get home.

Second, go see an expert at work: Angry lets the light dawn upon a student: if you haven’t bothered with a class, don’t expect its prof to help you graduate!

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brickline-grassMost of my Spring Break has been haunted by student papers.  Or rather, the commenting and grading of student papers. I like to give constructive comments, but I also need to give clear indications of how far they’ve gotten towards adequacy at this point [and at this point, for most of them there is a very long way to go!].

The problem with coaching outside the sporting world is that the transition to accountability/assessment is much more arbitrary — in NCAA basketball, a coach does what he or she can to get the team ready, but the real TEST isn’t administered by the coach; it’s administered by the next game, meted out by the opposing players. The scoreboard, referees, and stadium crowds give feedback that go far beyond what a coach could ever say.

When I grade students, I’ve shifted gears from coach to judge, and some students never really grok that I am playing two very different roles simultaneously; they just think faculty are fickle….since along comes the next assignment, and suddenly I’m coaching again, until the next judgement day.

leiacloseredeyeThe irony is that I myself am in the assessment spotlight, but without benefit of coaching.  Leia may be adorable, but she can’t help me with tenure.

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Okay, so there’s death, taxes, and last minute crazy scrambles before conference travel.  I know this.  I’ve known this since 1984, when I was taken to my first 4Cs [no, that has nothing to do the official anything of the Davis family].  Why I ever imagine it will be different is beyond me.

But still…

Anyway, I leave y’all with the peer review instructions I’m leaving my science students to perform on each other’s Research papers [really, literature reviews] about issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay watershed:

Reviewing is a tedious, but serious, part of being a professional.  All those peer-reviewed journals out there?  Yes, the peers doing the reviewing are performing gate-keeper roles, but they are also supposed to be looking carefully at how well-constructed the arguments are, and how accurately the writers have represented their sources/their data.  One day you might get to be one of those reviewers [it’s a sign your opinions matter to the rest of that audience].

But for now, you get to review each other’s work in class.

The first step in this review process is to have everyone in the group read [or have someone read out loud] the Introduction/scope section of the document.

Make your predictions for the rest of the paper, and write those down.  What should be covered in the paper?  In what order?  What reason do they give for the importance of this topic?  Do you think they are tackling the right sub-topics?  Why or why not?

Now, for each subsequent section, read, then discuss what you’ve learned from the paper.

Write:  Did you get what you expected?  If not, what did you get instead?  In either case, was the material broken into reasonably-sized paragraphs?  Were there subheadings to help direct your attention?  What kinds of literature were they citing, and what makes you think they have covered the topic well?  If you think there are gaps, what kind of information would you like them to provide? [This is not a guarantee that they can actually _get_ that information, but it will help them to know what you were expecting!]  Are there visuals [diagrams, maps, charts, data] to help support the points they are making?

When you get to the end of the draft, write out what do you think of the conclusions. How well are those conclusions supported by the group’s review of the literature?  What other paths might that group consider?  Were there areas that went beyond the scope set out at the beginning of the paper?  Should those areas be trimmed out, or should the scope be adjusted?

At this point, you can take the draft apart — each group member should take a section of the paper and go over it to assess how well it is written — write on the draft and make your recommendations on how the writers in the other group could make it better.  Write your name on the section of the draft that you review, so you can get credit later.

MAKE SURE you get the draft, and your group’s analysis of the draft back to the other group as soon as possible!

For Thursday, the groups should be able to have their own drafts back in their hands, and the task is to post a statement summarizing what you’ve learned from your reviewers and what you are going to do about it before turning in the final version next Tuesday when I’m back in town.

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Today’s contestant in the Festival of Bad Writing:

“Only in a research article will a reader be able to find an
example that is shown above relating towards graphical information;
which can create a table to better understand.”

Fire for the pyre

Long before there were blogs, long before the web was populated by advertisers, I’d wanted to have an online place where a randomly-selected sentence from my fine collection of horrible student-generated sentences could sit on an animated pyre. Contributions would be welcome. We could gasp in horror at the latest form of man’s inhumanity to language.

I never got around to coding the thing, and now I don’t know if there’s really a call for it. But I still remember when the denizens of the Humanities and Social Sciences graduate computer lab talked of taking the “winning” entry from the contest and using it to light the torch, which would then be run around the campus before being used to light a bonfire of our own dissertation drafts.

Haven’t a clue where those former grad students are now, but there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve read a draft and thought of Montserrat Miller’s use of a great dismissive phrase: “That won’t stick together with snot!” [I think the comment was originally in Catalan, since her area of research was market stall ownership in Barcelona].

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