Sunday, November 4, 2007

Who Says There Are No Answers to Academic Questions? Three Readers Take on The Dreaded Book Report Problem. Installment #1 of "Big Thursday Question."

Our new feature, the Big Thursday Question, brought in more mail than we were expecting, and some pieces were extraordinarily thoughtful. Here are the answers we've chosen to share. Many thanks!

Q: How in God's name do you get your students to stop writing book reports and start writing actual papers with actual theses?

A1: I'm actually fairly sensitive about the thesis statement problem, having struggled immensely in my lit classes (which I loved, regardless) as an undergrad. I don't think I finally started to feel confident as a writer until I entered my doctoral program, where things finally started coming together for me. Therefore, I try to be generous when dealing with book report-type papers. After all, even the best critics summarize plot and other events when performing their analyses. If we present our students with critics who do that, how do we fault them for doing the same? Obviously, the problem is when students drone on and on, summarizing what we already know about "Moby Dick" and then jam the stake right through our collective hearts: They title their papers "Moby Dick." I have found Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's" 'They Say/I Say': The Moves that Matter In Academic Writing" to be particularly helpful on the the issue. They supply a series of templates that students can modify to fit their own writing, helping them move into a mode of argumentation a little more smoothly. The book seems somewhat elementary, but most students I've worked with--at the freshman comp level, mind you--have found it helpful. If they don't have thesis statements in their initial drafts, I can point them back to that book--as could you. And if they don't revise accordingly, following Graff and Birkenstein's paint-by-number examples, I'd say fail them. Fail them all!

A2: I build my literature classes around the idea of asking questions. We begin the semester with a challenging poem -- usually something fairly modern that they wouldn't have seen before -- and instead of my telling them anything about it, I simply instruct them to read it and make a list of questions. They pair up, see which questions they can answer, and ask more questions. With their lists of questions, we can talk about the 3 basic types of questions about literature (as I define them): Questions that could be answered by knowing more background information -- about culture, history, writer's biography, etc.; Questions that could probably be answered by reading more closely, more carefully, or (in the case of a longer text) further; Questions that could probably only be answered by analyzing or interpreting the text. We discuss some major branches of literary theory, but primarily in the context of what questions each theory asks about literature (How do socioeconomic issues shape the characters' interactions? What is significant about George taking on the typically feminine role of caring for the baby?). This sets the stage for what I tell my students all semester: scholars -- your professors, the people writing your texts and journal articles -- don't know all the answers. Scholars know which questions to ask. The class is then built around the students asking -- and struggling to answer -- questions. We are discussion-based from the beginning, and the discussions come directly from the students' questions (I only put forth my own questions if I think they are critical to understanding the text, and no one in the class has gotten there. I'm always surprised by how rarely this happens.) I make it clear that the "Questions that could be answered by reading more closely, carefully, or further" are questions that students should attempt to answer before coming to class. Once it becomes clear that if they bring those questions to class, I am not going to answer them, the students usually buckle down and get to work. When it comes time for the papers, I ask the students to write several questions about course texts. They work in groups and with me to evaluate the questions -- are they likely to have a complex answer? Is there likely to be an answer at all? When the student has a good, solid question, I explain that the paper should answer that question, and show the reader how the student came to the answer. The thesis to the paper is the answer to the question. Since students are comfortable with asking questions, with struggling to answer questions on their own, and with accepting that there may be multiple plausible interpretations of a text, most of them do relatively well. Even the worst papers I see are more complex than book reports.

A3: The key is to encourage your students write about something that genuinely interests them, even if the course as a whole doesn't. I've had wonderful results in my course on Intro-Astronomy-for-Students-Not-Majoring-in-Science, ever since a Fashion Merchandising major wrote her paper on space suits. The paper was great, and I learned a lot from it. She'd clearly gone out of her way to learn something about the science taught in the course, and to relate it to what she'd learned in her major. For example, her paper covered why the outer layer of a space suit is made of Kevlar (to protect against micrometeoroids), why the middle layers are Gore-Tex (for thermal insulation, since with no air in space to even out heating, an astronaut bakes in the Sun and freezes in the shade), why the inner layer is Neoprene (to absorb body moisture, since astronauts exert themselves greatly because the suit is so stiff because it's pressurized to prevent the astronaut from getting the bends)---even down to the details of the in-suit drink bottle and the modified adult diaper. Now, I give my students a list of suggested topics, sorted by majors. I also remind them that these are only suggestions: they're free to make up their own topics, which is why the list is always growing. Here's a sample of the list:
  • Psychology: Perception and Illusion through the Telescope / Stress During Long-Term Spaceflight

  • Education: Astronomy lesson plans for elementary / middle / high school

  • Biology: Could Earth Bacteria Survive in the Atmosphere of Venus?

  • Social Sciences: Human Mass-Migration into Space

  • History: American Rocket Pioneers / Astronomy of the Ancient Egyptians

  • Physical Therapy/Kinesiology: Spaceflight and the Human Body