Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sigh --- never do I understand Foucault's microphysics of power more than when I am trying to teach students critical thinking

It's been a long day, yo, and I feel beaten down. In my office, the postdocs have had many conversations about how this semester, it's all about "making them do the work," and we have all tried in various ways to implement this. I, now that I have actually been through the readings one semester, am implementing regular reading quizzes (too hard to do when you yourself are frantically trying to finish in the 30 minutes of prep before class!). Postdoc 2 has instituted regular homework assignments (which she says are killer to grade, feel like they are in high school (and are producing more high-schoolish behavior) but are making them do the reading regularly) and Postdoc 3 has turned to presentations on absolutely everything, from grammar problems in the comp class to literary terms or leading discussion on the readings. She has also gone away from powerpoint and now refuses to show anything while she lectures (when she does lecture), because so few of her students were taking notes while she showed things on the slides.

Clearly, having them do the work --- the more actively, the better --- is a way better way of getting them to understand the work. And yet, there is still the "making" them of making them do the work, which I find exhausting. It is certainly clear to me that wherever power is exercised, so too is resistance, as my students have to be prodded, cajoled, reminded, nagged, ordered, threatened, and reasoned with, at every moment. Never can I simply tell my students to do something and have them do it. Well, Postdoc 2 reminds me that I didn't have this last semester until I did finally have my peeps all socialized to do things in the amount of time I demanded and I've just started over with a new group, but damn, I'm tired. And before I even start the nagging and the threats, I have to make very extensive directions for them to follow that they can't wriggle out of. And not only do I have to ride them to get them to do any work for me, but I also have to constantly be checking on them to make sure that the quality of what they are producing is acceptable. And nowhere do I get more resistance than anything having to do with "critical thinking."

Yeah, I'm still not sure what that means. My students can all talk about it --- they always have; it's a buzzword they all know to pay lip service to --- but they can't give an example or demonstrate it. In my experience, any decent answer to an open-ended question or hypothetical solution to a problem requires critical thinking. "So is the answer to that going to be on page 156?" asked one of my students today. "Dude, no. You're going to have to create an argument about it. You are going to have to use the text, but this is not about recopying a sentence from it and having that be the answer." As soon as I said that, the student got his oh-hells-no expression on his face. How should we know what the author thinks about X if there is not a sentence saying "I think this about X" in there? How can you ask us questions if there isn't a bolded word in the text that counts as the answer? I'm starting to worry that the strategy of having factual-answer questions as constant homework (like Postdoc 2) won't just be reinforcing bad anti-critical-thinking habits and expectations for profs further down the line.

The only thing I have more trouble with than critical thinking this semester is getting students to comprehend abstract concepts, and to not generalize out from their experience to entire societies and worlds. Actually, I'm having this in my comp class too, where several of my students --- ones who, I can already tell, are significantly weaker writers than the others; is this connected? --- are having weird reactions to the readings about the purpose of college, in which they project bizarre things about their personal experience onto the writers. For instance, being adopted. Dude, most of the people of the US were not adopted and you're just saying really weird things about parental expectations about college that neither the writer nor, really, anybody in the US believes. Can you not tell that your personal experience is not really a standard one?

But anyway, I've totally gone rogue and am being a sociologist --- I may actually print out some stuff from wikipedia on "agency" and systems and bring them in to my other class (anybody have some good exercises or writing exercises to get students at this idea of larger social structures shaping people in ways they are not really in control of?) Now I have my beefs with sociology and sociologists --- and have figured out that while I like teaching sociology there's no way in hell I could do research their way --- but I really really think that the ability to see and comprehend abstract structures in our society --- no, to think critically about abstract structures in our society --- is the most important thing students can take from college.

If that means I'm a heretic who is throwing over the study of literature, then so be it. I've already tossed all the "literary" type assignments and readings out of our textbook, and I may chuck the personal essays next. Read personal essays? Fuck personal essays --- my students can write personal essays til the cows fucking come home, and they can do it without ever having a thought. What they can't do is admit that their taste in music is at all influenced by popular culture, or that their gender assumptions aren't invented all by themselves, or that not everyone has undergone the same experiences as them, or even that not everyone in the US is 18. (Seriously. I don't know why I've run up against this so much already this semester, but multiple times I've had to stop while putting a brainstorm list up on the board and chide students for not varying their answers to think about age. "What about parents?" I ask. Then the next example is of an 18-year-old parent. "No, what about your parents? Grandparents? Expand your sample!")

Sigh. In short, I am about to hit the part of the semester where I usually get the "well I have never seen/experienced this kind of discrimination, therefore it doesn't exist!" And this class has already been very resistant (ok, some more than others) to any notion that social structures shape us or affect different people differently, and I think this semester once we hit this new topic is going to be brutal. I still have people in this class who refuse to believe that words can't mean anything they want them to mean; that language is a social endeavor. "Really?" I shout. "Look, I have a feminism! I am sitting on the feminism! Would you like to trade me my feminism for your misogyny?" I say, pointing to someone's pencil. They giggle, but nope, there is still a segment of my students who are not convinced. "You don't get to make up word meanings and still communicate!* Groop fleep balp meebeltephooo!" I holler. Nope, some of them are still shaking their heads. "That's only your opinion," they say. "These words have a personal meaning for me that's whatever I want."

Do I have any sociologists in the audience? Got any special tips or tricks that could help me get them to understand abstract things like social structures? Or is it, like critical thinking, one of those things where there's no shortcuts or speedups, just the long, hard work of slogging through and practicing and beating it into them? Jeez, what a semester it's going to be. I better get out my whip.


Sisyphus said...

*Yes, I know it's more complex than that, and we could talk about connotations, and the ability of individuals to influence slang, or how Shakespeare introduced about 500 words into English, but all of those are really about exceptions to the rule that we are born into our language and it exists before and after we do and we adapt to it more than the other way around. And really, my students are not yet capable of this nuanced of thinking.

And yes, I *am* avoiding grading right now, how nice of you to ask!

P said...

Glad I'm not the only one who is experiencing intense frustration with her students.

Alls I can say here, Sis, is that I teach a class, but only reach a few of its students. If I prep earnestly and come to class with energy, then I'm doing my part.

In other words, sometimes just let yourself say "fuck it." You're not responsible for their *desire* to think critically.

minerrva said...

This blog by a Sociology grad student reflecting about teaching Intro to Soc (among other topics of reflection) could be useful:

Feminist Avatar said...

Sorry if I'm about to be a sociologist here- but surely, the point in studying literature is because of social structure. If each text was just the idiosyncratic writing of the individual, it wouldn't have resonance with the reader and so wouldn't be significant as literature (and certainly what would be the point in endlessly analysing the views of a single text if all it told us was about the single writer and not the society of the writer?). Also, if they don't believe in social structure, what's the point in university? The information we teach is premised on the idea that society is 'society'- that the things we study extend beyond the individual, can be repeatable, that there are structures.

Perhaps you need to set them some neuroscience about how brains are formed through language and communication- can't argue with biology! So that the 'structure' imprints on us bodily as well as psychologically.

Bardiac said...

So the personal meaning you give to "F" doesn't matter, so they won't mind seeing it on their work. /nod Yes, I totally believe that.

I'm sorry, but your students sound incredibly frustrating. :(

Vellum said...

This "words can mean whatever I want them to mean" thing might stem from the influence of a certain type of theory that seems to have overtaken literary studies.

I like to think of texts as a way of communicating information that relies upon certain interpretive conventions -- which is why reading really old texts is so hard. We don't have the same conventions anymore.

But so much of the theory today focuses on only one side of the equation. Kids are told in high school over and over that it's not about what the author means, it's what you read in it. And the problem is, sometimes it really is, at least in part, about what the author means. Or at least what the author could have reasonably expected his or her audience to have as preconceptions.

Sisyphus said...

but surely, the point in studying literature is because of social structure. If each text was just the idiosyncratic writing of the individual, it wouldn't have resonance with the reader and so wouldn't be significant as literature (and certainly what would be the point in endlessly analysing the views of a single text if all it told us was about the single writer and not the society of the writer?)

Oh, no, I think both authors and literary critics are far more interested in the way a text represents a particular unique individual rather than it be somehow representative of society. The people who I call "author people" are especially like this --- the ones invested in author societies and trying to canonize or preserve or bring to light a specific author. And several of the historical studies I've done have actually shown me that this one novel is not representative of the community's experience at all, but filtered through the author's particular and very fucked-up experience.

And the sociology peeps that I loathe (I guess there was actually a circle of them practicing at my old school) I've heard called "sociology of the obvious," where when I read their research write ups they don't tell me anything I didn't already know as a reasonably well-educated American about that group --- it doesn't add anything to my understanding, at best, and at worst appears to blindly corroborate conventional platitudes.