One step at a time

Any number of times during the course of a semester I run across a teaching problem and think to myself that I really should make a note to fix it next time around. I inevitably fail to make that note and find myself confronting the same problem the following semester. A good example is getting students to better integrate textual support into their written answers. For years this has been a vexing issue.

Students at all levels continually fail to back up their assertions with a careful and creative manipulation of the texts that documents support, or they do it with some feeble high school notion that "quote bombing" a paper equals good support. And it really doesn't matter if it's a first-year course or a senior seminar. Most students can't textually support their work.

On one level, this is understandable. Analyzing a text for relevant information requires some serious engagement with the ideas in the material. It means distilling the central rhetorical purpose, grasping key parts of the argument, connecting those parts into a cumulative whole, and evaluating the evidence for consistency and relevance. Unfortunately there are just no shortcuts for this kind of critical engagement. You have to learn it by doing it over and over.

So the problem is this: I am asking students to do some fairly high-level critical thinking when they have spent years in an educational system that (for the most part but not always) prizes content regurgitation, mnemonic text-taking gimmicks, and teacher-centered classrooms that stress getting "The Answer" rather than constructing it. Heck, why shouldn't they think there is a formula for the work I am asking them to do?

Only recently have I found a way of attacking this bugaboo. I have been toying lately with "scaffolding." Instead of expecting a high-level of critical engagement the first week and being irritated when I don't see it, I have begun breaking down thinking skills into smaller bits and scaffolding them into the semester. Here's what I mean. Most entering first-year college students can paraphrase a passage in their own words. So that's all I require them to do for the first few assignments. I tell them I don't want to see a single quote. Everything must be in their own words and cited. For some reason, students think the only thing that needs to be cited is a quote. So I break them of this habit right away. Paraphrase, paraphrase, paraphrase--and cite. The early assignments in class are simple paraphrases of what Homer says and their personal reactions to it. That's it.

I even have an exercise to explain why I do this. I ask who in class has read Hamlet. At least one hand usually goes up. Then I announce that I will speak a few lines from the play and my Shakespeare-reading volunteer will paraphrase the main ideas in her own words. I ask the rest of the students to keep their eyes trained on her face. Then I speak nine or ten lines from the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. When I'm done the paraphraser will often pause, scrunch up her face, glance up or down and knit her brow. "Stop!" I yell melodramatically. "Did you see that? Did you see what she was just doing with her face? What was going on there?"

"Well, she was, um, thinking," someone says. "Exactly! You cannot paraphrase without thinking, which is why I want you to do this." Okay, it's a schmaltzy and over-the-top exercise, but it makes the point. I want them to think, not type.

Three weeks in and I up the stakes. Now it's not enough to paraphrase. I want a supported generalization. I usually give them this example:

Warrior heroes in the Iliad have to live with the knowledge of their mortality. The Greek warrior Glaucus speaks of men's lives as leaves blown to the ground (VI, 150-151). Moreover, both Hector and Achilles have foreknowledge that they will die young. Hector acknowledges this to Andromache in Book VI (470), and Achilles has been told by his mother that two fates sweep him to his death" (II, 429). One of those fates, of course, is an early death.
We spend one 50-minute class period making generalizations about the Iliad and supporting them with three citations that must be pulled from more than one place in the text. I tell them from now on I expect every response to have paraphrase and at least one generalization. By the time we get to midterm I am demanding an inter-textual comparison. Paraphrasing and generalizing about materialism in the Satyricon is no longer enough. They need to contrast it with, say, Seneca's stoicism or the martial-warrior heroes' lust for bling in the Iliad. By semester's end, even the weakest student is doing some fairly sophisticated stuff. And the best part is they see it. They get it. They know they're getting better.

And to think, it only took me 19 years of teaching to figure this out. Sheez, by the time I retire I should be half-way good at this job.

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