April 02, 2001

A former student e-mails

Last night, a student from the fall e-mailed me. Over the course of the last semester, she and I had a running correspondence about the teaching of the course as well as the substance of it as well. She's an older student who, for a variety of reasons, was justifiably irritated at some of the structures I impose for younger undergraduates. I learned a great deal from her comments, which pushed me to think about what I do and why. One exchange, first her:

Here's my take on your comments. First that you detected a lack of respect for the writers you are asking us to read, and observed little or weak paraphrasing. Cool, you're right. Both counts. Writers should be respected even if they're wrong and it's an attitude that is easily corrected. It seems to me that you are defining respect for a writer by direct references and this paraphrasing you've requested. To me that was all a waste of words because you read the stuff, I've read the stuff and the paper only serves to show how we relate and respond. Another student pointed out to me that your aim might just be to have our papers readable by some outside person who possibly hasn't read the article in question. Ok, I'll buy that; surely that will improve with awareness. . . .

Looks to me so far that my papers are associational with the readings, but you're probably hearing way more than you care to about what we already know, and not enough about what difference it makes 'by direct reference/paraphrase'. To be honest, reading these articles hasn't presented me with much new information, but then we're back to the 'respect the writer of the readings ;-) and the teacher, aren't we? :-) By the way, there were a couple of things I'd have included in those papers, but couldn't fit all that into 600 words and pull off paraphrasing too!

And my response:

I know that at times a focus on the "text" makes teachers seem like we most value the pinning of authors down for close study, maybe making me an academic-as-lepidopterist (or butterfly collector). Please have pity on this poor reader, though, as I try both to gauge each student's understanding of the material and also respecting the nuances of all your thoughts. Specific references help with both of these tasks, because I face many times each week a passage of student writing that is ambiguous. Is the ambiguity intended, a reflection of writing late at night, or a sign of some misunderstanding? Discussing details helps me understand writing.

Teachers with small numbers of students—and students who have time to reflect and respond—have a great advantage in this effort at communication, in that a conversation can often sort out what the student is understanding and thinking. With more than 100 students, I do not have that option (I refuse to call it a luxury). The result is a horrific Catch-22 in which students most lacking patient guidance and coaching, in medium to large classes, are those where they most desperately need the skills that only such close teaching can provide.

As I wrote to another teacher afterwards, "My wife, who is taking classes for a masters, often chides me about this "textuality" of academics, and at least I have an answer now for her (and myself)."

Posted by sdorn at April 2, 2001 11:47 AM | TrackBack
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