My provocation builds off one of the many questions from last week’s class–how can we teach “off the template” in a way that still teaches technique? In other words, how can we teach our students to engage critically with the course material without employing convenient but stale “templates”? In teaching writing, for example, are we bound to teaching the five-paragraph essay or paragraph structure, in order to understand the function of claims, evidence, and analysis in written work? Isn’t that template the easiest way?
After this week’s readings, it seems to me that the problem goes deeper than this question of method. It goes to the very assumptions of the course itself, which is tied to specific learning objectives. These learning objectives assume that “learning” occurs when the student can demonstrate her skills for “critical thinking” and “analysis”. For example, I’m including the learning objectives from the English 220 course I teach at Hunter college.
- Write thesis-driven analytical essays on all three genres (Poetry, fiction, drama) that incorporate evidence from the literary texts and demonstrates close reading skills.
- Write an analytical research paper of at least 6-8 pages that demonstrates close reading skills and the appropriate use of evidence from literary texts; the ability to create a clear thesis statement; and the ability to incorporate and engage scholarly critical sources as part of a well-organized, thesis-driven argument.
- Discuss fiction, poetry, and Shakespearean drama verbally through the use of close reading skills and, where appropriate, basic literary terminology.
- Demonstrate some familiarity with literary criticism in class discussion or writing, or both.
- Demonstrate the ability to compare and/or contrast literary works.
All of these objectives boil down to some basic requirements: demonstrating “close reading skills”, the “appropriate use of evidence”, argumentation, “familiarity with literary criticism” and ‘basic literary terminology”, in the form of “thesis-driven analytical essays” and class discussion. Reading over these requirements, it seems to me that the course is not so much encouraging students to think critically as it is teaching them to mimic a process that has been time-tested in teaching literary analysis. If the student can demonstrate familiarity with literary terms, criticism, and close reading skills, and the proper use of evidence and argumentation, all within thesis-driven essays, then she will have passed the course. But none of these requirements address the student’s personal response to the text, what she brings to the table, and her grappling with the text.
The problem, it seems to me, is that we are measuring students on performance, on the final product, rather than on process. Amelia Abreau writes about the difficulty of quantifying moments of struggle and emotional toil, which often occurs in caregiving. She begins her article by saying that, currently, there is no way to quantify caregiving (such as the work of caring for a young, dependant child), and suggests that we ought to imagine data gathering in ways that empower caregivers and other low-wage laborers, rather than aim for “near-perfect, near-universal metrics”. Abreau questions: “Rather than seeking to perfect measures and standards of that work through statistical working-over, can we envision workers taking their own data to management to improve working conditions?” Abreau’s article encourages us to apply quantification in new ways, in order to measure what has previously been overlooked or has been unmeasurable.
My provocation, then, takes this example from caregiving into the classroom: How can we assess students on their moments of difficulty and struggle, rather than on the final product? What specific ideas do you have for “measuring” student’s challenges with the course material?
And, to take this in another direction—how can we employ the “connectivist” nature of learning with digital tools (a topic touched on by many of our readings) in order to enhance the way that we measure moments of difficulty and struggle? I’m thinking specifically of the opportunities opened up by collaboration and group work across networks. The Femtechnet Manifesto, for example, asserts that “Collaboration is a feminist technology”. How can we make the struggle that students undergo when grappling with new concepts more visible by assigning collaborative work?