Tuesday, December 16, 2008

That's a pretty good essay, if I do say so myself

Grading, grading. It certainly goes faster when you're missing a bunch of assignments. Or perhaps I'm in denial that they will all come back to haunt me in even more annoying ways later. Ah well. Not my problem (at the moment).

Ever get this situation? You're reading through a student essay that raises the argument that the flying wombats in Sir Peeble's Posthumous Pessiary are in fact allegories for the Catholic Church, and you are reading along nodding sagely, of course, of course, there, and there, pleased and not at all surprised by the turn the arguments are taking, because this essay is almost exactly the reading you presented in lecture and through questions during class, and you are struck once again by how right --- nay, brilliant! and original! --- your mental perambulations were, and how you still find it quite a nice little reading, even if a lot of the subtlety has been sanded off in the process of being summarized by a student.

Just how important is it to you that your students produce an original argument rather than repeat the lecture or flow of the discussion?

For me, it is very important. When I control the course, I like to assign multiple short works by an author and make every effort to get students to write on the texts we did not cover in class. "We beat poor old "Confessions of a Scoundrel" to death in class. Why don't you write about "A Scoundrel's Retraction" instead?" I'll say, and even write it into my prompts as a requirement that they must choose something we haven't discussed extensively.

Even if they take my exact same argument, framework, format and bite-size chunk of theory from class and then apply it decently well to one of that author's other texts, I am happy. In fact, being able to reproduce what we talked about in class on a new text (as long as they actually applied it in a way that fit with the contours of that specific text) would be the perfect proof for me that they understood what we talked about so well they could extrapolate it onto something else. Plus, they usually open up all sorts of interesting little details and readings in the new text that I hadn't noticed, or that inspire me in some way. Those are always quite good and interesting, and even the ones that try to follow the framework too formulaicly and end up doing violence to the new text in a Procrustean fashion tend to teach me, at least, interesting new things about the text through their very failures of argument.

But being able to summarize accurately what we talked about in class, even if it means rearranging our discussion into a more orderly and linear format, does not seem to be a complex enough skill to be worthy of college student writing. Thinking about it, I guess that being able to remember and reorganize a bunch of stuff you heard and then to go back and reread the text and successfully pull out all the quotes again that prove that argument could be a fairly complex process, but still, I am meh when I receive those essays. It could be a factor of their increased youth this time. And actually, it may be a case of the bite-size theory chunk being absolutely amazing and so mind-blowing that the student had to spend a lot of time just repeating it in order to process it, an obsession with just comprehending it having to come before realizing that, as a theory, it can be extrapolated or tested in many different contexts. (Think: OMG No Way! Gender! It's, like, constructed! Whoah! Well, it was a little more up-to-date a theory than that.)

* * *

On the flip side, I got one of those essays where the opening line is so damn good that you start drooling in anticipation, fireworks going off everywhere in your brain with great new insights into the work and you are just amazed and ready to publish your own article on the topic right then and there.

Think like saying Author X is using Darwin's theories alongside geometry to make a very complex statement about class and gender divisions in this novel. And you're like, ZOMG! Of course! Darwin! It's totally all over the book; why haven't I seen it before? How the hell is geometry going to come in here, and be integrated with Darwin, I'm so excited I can't wait!

Then you continue reading and discover that the analysis consists of mentioning Darwin and mentioning the events of the novel, sometimes even in the same sentence, and also in pointing out the repetition of certain geometric figures, which happen in the novel, and oh yeah Darwin. He existed. And you say, oh. That was a disappointment. And then you keep reading and realize that the student did not need to invoke Darwin at all, because the point that is being made is that courtship happens in this text and that men tend to use ostentatious clothing and behavior to attract women to choose them over other men, and you are frustrated, because this actually could be a really interesting argument specifically about the mechanics of Darwin's theories, and because there are a lot of references to squares and angles in this book, and arcs; in fact, you can think of five or six more for every one that gets plunked into a paragraph here without any analysis, and yes, you think, there is something very interesting and very original to be said about this topic that would be totally worth publishing, but this essay doesn't really get at it.

So I guess the question there is, is it ok to grab this idea and run with it in a publication of one's own? Would that be ethical? Would it require acknowledging the student paper? And if you were to build up this kernel of an idea into a really cool teaching presentation, and then it blew one of your student's minds and they summarized exactly what you said in some future student paper, would it exactly resemble that first student's attempt, a la Pierre Menard's Quixote?

8 comments:

Belle said...

What an interesting idea! And I'm going to watch comments with bated breath, as I've no idea how to handle such a thing. Since my research/writing is so far from what I teach (unfortunately) I can't imagine encountering this issue.

medieval woman said...

I say, yes! Run with it - in the acknowledgments you can say, "Many thanks to Jane Doe for bringing this use of geometry in X novel to my attention." You don't have to say it's an undergrad paper. Is this an English major? Is this person likely to pursue this topic in a thesis, etc? If so, you might want to just let them know that you'd like to pursue it and say that you'll, of course, acknowledge them.

Dance said...

I think you can run with it---I wouldn't even give JD as much credit as Medieval Woman, though, sounded more like "Many thanks to Jane Doe for mentioning Darwin in conjunction with this text."

While grading, I had very similar thoughts about essays that rehash my lecture, and applying to new texts. With you all the way on summarizing not being college-level work. Although, now, I'm inclined to design some assignments that *do* require that, so as to highlight the difference and show students how to build on it.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

This happened once to me -- as a student. I said something in class that piqued my professor's interest, and she wrote it down right then and there so she could investigate it further. Later, she published an article about the topic and footnoted, "Thank you to Fie Upon This Quiet Life for bringing this issue to my attention." It made me feel good that I inspired a whole article. I think that if you acknowledge the source of the inspiration, it's fine.

Dr. Crazy said...

I was going to suggest what others have about acknowledging the student in a note.

As for the summary thing, I think building in summary assignments is especially useful with freshmen, and something I've historically done when I teach freshmen writing. One of the things I've found in doing this is that many of them don't actually know what summary *is*. They do it because they think that is what *writing* is. And until they understand summary, they can't really understand argument or analysis in support of an argument.

Another way to get them out of summarizing is to have them propose their own topics, and to set up the proposal assignment as a series of questions about what they want to think about. If they summarize or seem inclined to summary, you can require them to revise the proposal until it's not just that, and they haven't yet wasted your time with a whole paper. I typically do this in upper-level courses.

squadratomagico said...

The student's paper simply gave you an idea, just as lots of different interactions can give one an idea. All the work of investigating Darwin, re-reading the text for Darwin references, analyzing the resonances and overlaps between the text and Darwin's work, will be entirely yours. Of course you can and should investigate it. I don't even think you need to acknowledge the student, though it would be a gracious gesture to do so.

de.borea said...

Lovely post, & I agree with Medieval Woman.

Ortho said...

Ideas do not belong to anyone. Take the triangulation -- Darwin, novel, geometry -- to its conclusion.

I give C's to summaries -- they are a waste of my time.