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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Surprise, surprise...

I actually did some work today. Actual work, on classes. I looked briefly at some of the stuff I was working on for the SF class, but mostly I worked on the handouts for the 101s--and although I think things are more clear, they're also still way too wordy and long. My experience has been (and continues to be) that if a student can possibly misconstrue or just plain miss an important directive, he or she will do precisely that. So the challenges are, 1. defending against "But you never said..." 2. defending against "But what are we supposed to actually do?" 3. doing both of those things, simultaneously, using the minimum number of words and words of very few syllables (and that will be comprehensible by students with extremely limited vocabularies).

The latter is why I don't refer to "explicating" a text any more. I don't think any student I ever taught understood what the fuck that meant--even when I defined it and provided a little footnote on the writing assignments that required explication, giving the definition again. Hell, they don't understand what I mean by "contextualize"--which seems like a more familiar word (though I'm not sure they know what "context" actually means) but turns out to be just as opaque to them as "explicate."

Some part of me still has a very hard time accepting the simple fact that the vast majority of students simply do not know how to evaluate and synthesize anything anyone else has to say. How does this idea fit into the context of the original author's argument--and how does it fit into the context of your argument? What's it doing there?

And suddenly, I might as well be speaking Swahili. Whaddaya mean, "what's it doing there"? It's just there: it is what it is... (and I proceed to tear my hair out and gnash my teeth).

But it occurs to me that I didn't say anything about that--the context of an idea--in my explanation of annotation or expanded notes, and I should. Years ago, I was very excited by a presentation at a professional development event in which the speaker demonstrated three very simple diagrams for how arguments work. I even found the handout I tried to use with my 101 students, from which I extracted the following:

This is taken from a presentation given by Dr. Patrick Grim, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at SUNY-Stony Brook.

Arguments have only three structures. Every argument (making a point through using specific evidence) will take one of those three structures. They look like this:



1                      2                                  1          +          2                                  1
                                                                                                                       
                                                                                                                        2
            3                                                          3
                                                                                                                        3
Independent reasons                           dependent reasons                             
supporting a conclusion:                     supporting a conclusion:         a chain of reasons
each would be a little a                       the argument works

argument on its own                           only if you have both


I tried to get my students to look at an article they'd read and determine which of the three structures was being used--and what the major premises were for the points in the structure--and they could not, could not, do it. But I feel like I may need to go back to it, find a way to make it work for them, so, to use the cliche, they not only see the trees but actually understand how the trees work together to create the forest.

Damned if I know how to do that, however. I mean it: no clue whatsoever about how to get students to do that. As I think about it, however, I realize it's actually more complicated than it seems at first, as the first step that's required is for the reader to be able to corral sentences/ideas into categories, seeing connections, what goes with what. (Also, there are usually more than three "reasons" in any really good argument, which adds a complicating factor.) But I really do want to figure out how to at least begin to get this across to students, not only in terms of their understanding of what they read but in terms of understanding their own arguments and how to structure them.

And yeah: this is why I love what I do for a living. This is the kind of mental challenge that is at once wildly frustrating and energizing: a combination between puzzle solving and psychology, trying to understand the student mind well enough to put something together that will click. That perpetual search for the magic, golden assignment that will produce the desired result in at least the vast majority of the students.

I mentioned in some recent post that I would love to work on all my handouts with a group of students, but my ambitions are even larger now: I'd love to spend an entire semester with students, working on figuring out what they understand, what they don't, where their assumptions are so radically different from mine we are speaking mutually incomprehensible languages.... I'd be a much better professor, and they'd be infinitely better students at the end of any such process. Oh, how I wish we could use seminar hours to actually hold seminars!

Well, dream on, dream ever, but meanwhile, get on with the slog at hand, I suppose.

Shifting gears, I would like to make note of my 15 seconds of fame (I don't think we get 15 minutes any more). I think I may have mentioned firing off a letter to the editor of Time magazine, in response to yet another article that focuses on how important community colleges are as job-training centers and ignoring the liberal arts aspect of two-year schools--and much to my surprise and delight, a portion of my letter actually made the "What you said about..." page of this week's issue. This of course is not at all in the same league as my kid sister being consulted as an expert for an article (as she was some years ago), but still, I'm pretty pleased with myself about it.

Oh, and by the way, speaking of the whole "I can only do two things in a day" thing? I think the laundry is going to have to wait a day or two. I do have to get to the grocery store, but that and my work on 101 handouts constitute the "two things" for today. In fact, I actually got a third thing done, resolving a problem with a missing router from last September. That feels awfully nice to get crossed off the "to do" list after all this time. I'd like to get out for a swim, too, as it's too hot for any other form of exercise, but that would be a fourth thing, so ... well, unlikely, is my guess.

And we'll see what tomorrow has in store. 

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