If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

On Scholarship: A Rambling and Exploratory Post

I'm teaching a class this semester that has both graduate (master's level) and undergraduate students. It is a small class with an applied theme and group sessions are a mixture of seminar and project meetings. This is the first time I am teaching undergraduate students. Next semester I'll be teaching a larger course with only undergraduate students, although in my department we rarely get undergraduates before their junior year. I tell you all this as background to my thinking lately.

In class yesterday we had a prolonged discussion that covered several sensitive topics (race, gender, poverty, politics). This is not unusual for the class and the conversation went well by my standards. By which I mean everyone was respectful and thoughtful; we probed and pushed ourselves to get deeper into the topic, we tackled underlying assumptions, and we included both personal and professional experiences as evidence. I consider this type of activity engaging in verbal analysis and enjoy it when I can get a group of students to go there together.

After the class, as I walked to my afternoon meeting, I thought about 2 of the students who did not contribute much to the discussion. They are both seniors in their last semester. I could tell they were engaged in the discussion through their nonverbal behaviors. I also knew they had done the reading and had thought about the topic. In fact it is not unusual for them to remain quiet when the discussion gets deep. Nor is it only in this class that I have a few students who hang back once we are engaging in this type of intense discussion.

My first thought was what am I doing wrong? Why can't I engage these students in the discussion? But then I started thinking of the skill involved in engaging in a verbal analysis via a group discussion and I thought back to my own early experiences. I grew up in a literary and intellectual family where dinner conversation often consisted of analyzing a book, an author, sexism, politics, etc. My mother and my three older sisters were often far more skilled than I was at engaging in the discussion. But I learned how to see/hear the arguments and eventually to develop, propose and defend my own arguments. However when I went to college I felt like this skill did not transfer with me. In fact it was not until I was fairly well into my graduate career and had worked in my field (where these types of discussion were common and necessary) that I felt I owned the skill enough to engage in it in the classroom.

I hadn't quite worked through all of these thoughts before arriving at my meeting. It was a working meeting to recreate the course objectives for an undergraduate introductory course in an interdisciplinary program at my university. I do not teach directly in this program but do cross-list my courses there and I'm committed to it's success. I have never taught this particular course; never took a course like it as an undergraduate; and, as I mentioned earlier, have very little experience teaching at the undergraduates level. So I wasn't sure what I could meaningfully contribute to the tasks but I was willing to give it a try.

I'm often frustrated by committee work. Academics aren't trained to be administrators and I tend to think we avoid doing the actual work by talking away the time. I have a significant amount of administrative experience from my previous life and would rather just get to the task at hand. A lot of the excess discussion revolves around complaints, such as life in academia, the university, administration, and/or students. Now I like this group of faculty, so I mean no disrespect by them, but rather that this seems to be the norm for any type of meeting I attend.

So we are sitting around trying to discuss this particular course but are digressing onto what students are capable of, what our expectations are of students, and what can we reasonably expect to cover in any one course (or even in any one program). The word "scholarship" came up and people started talking about having students act like scholars, believe they are scholars, become scholars etc. The word "analysis" also reared it's head and someone asked for a clarification on what we actually mean when we say we expect students to analyze. There was also a discussion on whether analytic assignments could be in written form only or if other forms of analysis, such as verbal analysis, would work (writing assignments are problematic because students don't know how to write. The consensus seems to be that teaching students to write is (a) close to impossible and (b) no one's actual job).

This is where I need to go back again and think of my own road to scholarship--especially in terms of verbal and written analysis--which I believe started way before high school no less college, but didn't really "take" with me until sometime during my 2nd graduate program. I also need to keep in mind that I was someone who wanted to "be" a scholar. I went to college with that as a goal. I do not believe that is true for the majority of the students at my university.

As faculty I think we are frustrated because we are not able to teach the scholarship of our subject areas, which we love, to students because they do not yet have the skills of scholarship and may not want them. Instead they are probably better served by learning some of the skills of scholarship but we need to recognize that obtaining those skills may happen years after they leave us. These skills are taught through the content of our areas. That seems an important distinction from teaching the scholarship of our area. I feel it is unrealistic to expect them to "get how to be a scholar in X" from an intro course so that by the next level up they can engage in the scholarship of X.

But back to my students. Perhaps following a rich and thoughtful verbal analysis without playing an active role is an important step in my students' ability to think critically, both generally and with regard to the topic. Perhaps I worry too much about having everyone at the same level of participation and I just need to chill and accept both the way and the pace of how people learn?


Hilaire said...

My worry with students not learning how to write is that it prevents them from *thinking* fully. Students can write themselves into new knowledge, often. When I see bad writing, I sometimes see a circling around...so much potential for new knowledge...but they can't quite hone in on it because they don't know how to write.

Or something.

Sometimes I too wonder about my feeling despairing about the lack of writing skill. But I think it matters because it is so often a route, a conduit, to creative thinking.

Brigindo said...

I totally agree. I think I'm naturally more of a skills-oriented teacher and I'd rather focus on helping them write and discuss as a way to think creatively and critically and use content as a means to that end but I recognize that a lot of professors want to (or are only comfortable with?) focus solely on content. I think they see the ability to write and discuss analytically as a means to scholarship. I guess I'm struggling with how I define scholarship.

life_of_a_fool said...

I agree completely! I would consider it a success that you can tell these particular students are engaged and thoughtful - how they express it may differ, and may change over time, but you are getting through to them.

You're also right about academics' lack of administrative skills -- this is so frustrating to me!

k8 said...

The other thing to keep in mind is that not everyone participates by talking in class. Part of this is just differences in personalities. Some people like to take time to think things through before they speak and that's ok. This is one reason why I like using blogs and message boards for my students' journals. Some of the quieter students in the class have a lot to say and will post it, respond to their classmates, etc.