Speed Dating

Getting student writers to develop their compositions more slowly (i.e., using a process approach) is the reigning pedagogical orthodoxy.  And it's a good one because left to their own devices most students will sit down--usually the night before a paper is due--and invent, compose, revise and edit all in one go. 

What they usually fail to do is test out various approaches, drop arguments that aren't working or even rethink their original idea.  Too often the deadline looms and the deadline dictates. 

So structuring the stages of the writing process inside the work of the classroom really helps.  At one class period you ask them to choose the prompt they will respond to; the next time you begin to work out the thesis and think about evidence; at a later time you ask for a CFD (crappy first draft).  Anything you can do to slow them down and stretch out their thinking and writing process is good work.
That said, there is a moment during the process where it's fun to speed things up.  Yesterday in the first-year honors seminar, for example, I had the students working out the logic of their papers.  They had already thought about the prompts they wanted to write on (or written their own prompts).  So I asked them to write out the thesis they wanted to defend.  Among these were the following:
  • A consistent theme in all the authors we've read from Plato to Swift has been the dual nature of humanity.
  • Human beings are no better than Swift's savage Yahoos.
  • Victor Frankenstein had the potential to be an Emersonian Man-Thinking, but he failed to trust in his vision in the way Emerson recommended.
We spent some time work-shopping what textual evidence might support these theses and I had them try to state the larger significance or the implications of their arguments (in other words, why do you want to make this argument?  Why does it matter to you?).  After 30 minutes or so they ended up with a loose one-page outline that was ready for speed dating.

So they paired up, activated the stop watch function on their phones and Ipods, and each person in a pair had 30 seconds to state a thesis, the arguments and the larger significance of the idea to a partner.  Then they switched to a new partner and did it again, and again, and again.  In a few minutes they could run through the logic of their argument four or five times.  I kept the pace moving and hollered out "Switch!" every 30 seconds.

Next came the interesting part.  I asked them to do it once more, but this time they had to change the thesis to the opposite view, or use the same thesis but come up with at least one new argument in support.  The aim was to create a fun, fast moving, almost physical way for them to play around with their thesis and arguments.  I don't want them to get locked into a set way of seeing things, and they do tend to get locked in.

They will stick with a bad argument when they could easily tweak their forecasting statement to make it work.  They will write a paper that doesn't support their thesis, panic as they realize this and then just go with it, when they could simply alter the thesis to fit the paper.  Making them see new possibilities in the evidence overcomes something cognitive psychologists call field dependence, the tendency to see the data set before you in only one way.

Speed dating an argument is silly and fast-paced so it communicates that this is low stakes play.  They can screw up, flub an idea and fool around with bad or weak arguments that really don't work.  Nothing is fixed.  The evidence can change, the thesis can change, even their opinion can change as they play around with ideas.  In other words, they are just dating the field.  Their argument doesn't have to be Mr. Right,  just Mr. Right Now.

I suppose there is some fancy pedagogical word for why this works and I doubt I'm the first person whoever came up with the idea.  But the students seem to have fun with it and it seems to help them see new possibilities. 


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