How to bootstrap student diction.

>> Friday, February 05, 2010

(The rest of the post is quite long and requires you already be interested in how to teach students how to acquire a credible academic ethos ... but since a few of you emailed me saying you are interested in that, I'll post the first fourth of it here. The rest of it [including the footnotes] can be found at my place.)

When you teach composition, you quickly learn that although you only instruct students for 10 weeks, professors in other departments have the rest of those students' academic careers to complain to the academic senate about the terrible job you did.

"How is it possible," these hypothetical professors sputter, "that three years ago these students passed your research and methodology course?"*

Because lower-division writing consists of equal parts remedial buck-passing-correction and advanced training in how establish and maintain an academic ethos, what triggered these professors' outrage can be almost anything: students whose grammar seems like evidence that they find pleasure in its repeated violation; students with fifth-grade vocabularies, for whom "nest" is a noun they recently left, not a verb to be performed on clauses; students who are actually able to weave money-words into complex sentences, but who still fail to meet an imagined or remembered standard of what constitutes college writing; etc.

When I hear complaints like this, I say nothing. What can I say?

"Three years ago, I spent two months doing my damnedest to teach students who don't read how to sound like an academics who do nothing but."

That's an honest, but wholly inappropriate, response; after all, when complainants are attempting to pass the buck retroactively, the last thing they want to hear is that their reliance on the Great Scantron in large undergraduate lectures means they might have helped create the situation they declaim.

Because no one who never practices the skills they barely acquired will be any good at them three years later, I spend a lot of time in the classroom teaching them to study the way their sources write. They may not remember every last thing I taught them, but if they remember how to model their prose, they can fake like they do.

Quick background: the core text for this section of the research and methodology course is the terrible, terrible self-help book Happier. It has the imprimatur of academic writing—the cover proclaims it to be "the backbone of the most popular course at Harvard" and there's a conspicuous "Ph.D." after Tal Ben-Shahar's name—so on the first day of class, I analyze the rhetoric of the cover in order to disabuse the students of the notion that everything written by a person with a doctorate is authoritative.

"We will be concentrating on the claims he makes and the evidence he cites to back them up," I tell them. "Not the little letters that follow his name."**

Because he provides little in the way of evidence and cites what little evidence he provides with all the rigor and clarity of a seventh-grader, Ben-Shahar functions as a perfect foil.*** The students are annoyed by his sloppiness the way I am with theirs, and I cultivate their frustration every class, because they may not remember how to cite something properly three years later, but they will remember the annoyance they felt during, for example, peer review sessions. They begin to appreciate and crave the exactitude of a well-sourced article, which is good, but they still need to learn how to write like the writers they now want to emulate. How do I teach them to do that in 10 weeks?

I devote one class to pretending.

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