Monday, September 25, 2006

Independent Thinking in the Freshmen Writing Classroom

Yes, I am still sick, but I am feeling MUCH better than I was when I posted this afternoon. Six hours of sleep + Soup + Copious Fluid Intake really does make a difference.

But I'm posting because I'm back to the grind with grading (need to get through 9 papers) and I want to think about the resistance of students to tasks that force them to develop their own ideas. Now, this is the... fourth? time I've given this assignment in as many years, and the 7th section that's been faced with the challenge. It's a personal essay assignment, but the assignment is designed to emphasize all of the components of academic writing. I don't just want confessional schlock. Toward that end, the assignment is not phrased as a question; it is not the conventional, "tell me about x in your life and why it's important to you." If it were, I don't think that students would have the complaints that they have. They're familiar with that kind of writing and that kind of assignment.

Instead, I expect students to develop their own topic and structure in response to an assignment in which students need to construct an argument about their identity, choosing specific examples from the "text" of their life to support the argument that drives the essay. Moreover, they need to provide analysis of each example that relates each example back to the argument. In other words, this is an analysis paper assignment disguised as a "personal experience" essay. Only I don't disguise it. I tell them that's what it is.

The assignment is not, in fact, "vague" or "completely open." Rather, it's incredibly directive, but the way in which it is directive isn't familiar to my students, just three months out of high school. And so they freak out.

Now, this is the thing. I believe in my pedagogy here. I remember being a college student faced with truly open paper assignments - ones where you were just expected to "write a paper, due on this date" - and feeling at a loss for how to go about approaching them. And so I want to walk students through that process as early as their first semester so that they will have confidence that I didn't have.

But yet, there are always those students who even by the time they finish the paper don't really get that this is what it's about, no matter how transparent I am about my aims, on the syllabus, on the assignment, and in class. They just want to be told what to do. (This is also the same group of students that most resists peer review activities.)

Here is what I want students to learn from this kind of assignment:
1) I want them to learn how to come up with an idea of their own for writing, to devise a structure within which to articulate that idea, and to develop their own conclusions through their writing of the paper.
2) I want them to learn that they own their own writing, and that their writing is their responsibility and not my responsibility. Toward that end, if they need help or guidance, they need to ask for it. If they get stuck, they need to devise strategies for getting unstuck. I will be their guide through this, but at the end of the day it's their problem, not mine. This is important because when they complete the assignment, I also want it to be their accomplishment, not mine.

But so this is one of my ongoing frustrations as a teacher of writing. How do we convince students that what they think - on their own, without the intervention of a teacher - is interesting enough to put into words? How do we show them that their own independent thinking has more value than the bland, "correct" thinking that peppers so many student papers?

16 comments:

Nels said...

This is very similar to our opening assignment in our first-year sequence. Students analyze a conflict from their past, and the emphasis is on the analysis of the perspectives of people involved in the conflict and how those perspectives did or did not change over time. The analysis always gets them.

phd me said...

Glad you're feeling better!

As to how to get students to think for themselves, it's an ongoing battle. I know that giving students the option to devise their own assignments, to develop their own ideas and to collaborate with their peers is the key to self-sufficient thinkers. And you're doing all that. Time is also a factor, though. Freshman, just out of conformity-inducing high school where independent thinking is rare, are justifiably resistant, so I have a little more compassion for their confusion. Seniors (who I teach) who should have the ability to discuss thoughtfully and think on their own after years in college - less patience here.

Kate said...

One of the things I've experimented with this semester is audience. I have the students write to someone they care about, or someone they think would want to hear what they have to say. It's been going well. I'm considering having students write the first drafts of their final papers with this in mind.

There is one thing I plan to try, and I wonder if you'd find it helpful. Do you ever do in-class freewrites? If so, how has that gone? I think that could help students hear their own voice and appreciate it.

The way I want to do it is have them freewrite, then pair up and tell the other student their favorite sentence out of what they wrote. It doesn't have to be grammatically correct or anyting, it just has to have thinking of their own that they like. Maybe they can appreciate their own words better that way...

Laura said...

This is similar to what I do, as well, and a key topic of my dissertation. How do you get students, who've been taught to write by form, to really write, meaniing, to really think? I'm using blogging to do a little of that. On the blog, they tend to think out loud and begin to do a little analysis. I ask them to build on that. I've actually said to a student, who turned a really interesting post and turned it into a 5-paragraph theme, that they'd sucked the life force out of the paper. I then proceeded to praise what they had originally written and explained why it was good and asked them how they might build on the good stuff. It's hard, very hard. If you get any fantastic insights, let us know. :)

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comments, all! Only four papers left to go (sigh). But I'm allowing myself a little break, so let me respond.

Nels: It is the analysis that gets them. That said, I've had a few real gems in the bunch in this batch, and one of the reasons why I like this assignment is that it really does let me get to know my students, which I think really is important in terms of keeping these students in college.

PhD Me: I agree that it's important to cut the newbie Freshmen some slack with this - and if experience is any indicator, the majority usually really do come around by the semester's end. I suppose the frustration, though, in part does relate to the fact that they don't come in with better preparation. I don't get it. I mean, their teachers went to college. Why doesn't that translate into the kinds of assignments they give them?

Kate: Weren't you saying that you were reading Peter Elbow this semester? The things you note are things I've used (and continue to use) in my classes. The thing that I notice is that there is often a disconnect between doing that kind of work in class vs. what they turn out in their "formal" assignments. What I've found really does help with audience, though, is that at the beginning of the semester I assign peer review groups that are responsible to each other throughout the semester, in additional to doing more traditional kinds of "switch your papers with a partner" peer review in class. This helps to instill the idea that they are writing for an audience that is beyond me, and it helps to foster the feeling that the class is a writing community. Students also like that they're getting feedback from 3 or 4 different people on each formal assignment, so if one person slacks on peer review, his/her partner isn't screwed.

Ok, more in a minute...

Dr. Crazy said...

Laura - I have no fantastic insights. I think part of it is just keeping on keeping on until it finally clicks for them.

negativecapability said...

I am intrigued by this assignment...and have been thinking of doing something similar in the class I'm planning for the summer. Would you mind e-mailing me a copy of it? Minus any indentifying details if you would like :) (or if you don't want to send it, that's cool, too)

Jill said...

I'd also love to see a copy of the assignment - I can't completely figure out how you'd explain it to them and am interested in having a go!

BikeProf said...

This sounds like a great assignment. I have tried to do something similar with similarly mixed results. I think you're doing something important in asking the students to create the assignment and take responsibility for the direction that it moves. A big part of the writing process, in my opinion, is thinking about what you have to say and devising some sort of frame to say it. Simply answering a question is not the same thing as writing a thoughtful, thought-provoking essay. I'd say that your frustration might arise from the fact that you're asking your students to do something that they are not really used to doing, at least in a class--thinking on their own and not trying to get the "right" answer.

Hilaire said...

Yes, like Nels, I think it's analysis that gets them. Last year I had a *definition* of "analyze" in my syllabi for lower-level courses. I figured that this year, teaching only upper-level courses, I could get rid of that. But I find they still don't get what it means to analyze. Good grief.

MommyProf said...

I think having low risk opportunties is important also. I teach a two-course sequence that requires analysis and creation, although it is not in writing. Course 1 is about teaching them the rules. Course 2 is about teaching them how creatively breaking the rules sometimes is how your work goes from competent (read dull) to inspiring. They have a LOT of trouble with this idea in Course 2, so I give them a lot of credit/no grade work. It's a pain to grade, but by the end of the semester, most of them do get it. I think some if it is a characteristic of the millennials that they like to be told exactly what to do.

Dr. Crazy said...

I totally agree, Mommyprof, about the "low risk" opportunities. I assign a LOT of ungraded work, and I have a really huge emphasis on revision, which almost nullifies grades in the class. I do think that this does help.

Question: do we really think that this is a "millenial" thing, or is this just a common thing related to any student? I ask because sometimes I think that the label "millenial" is used as a kind of pejorative category that allows us not to think about our students as individuals.... I mean, didn't teachers accuse my generation (Gen X) of the same thing?

negativecapability said...

I am intrigued by this assignment and have been playing with a similar idea - would you mind sending me a copy of it so I can see how you lay it out? (without identifying details, if you like) Or, if you don't want to send it all, that's of course cool, too.

The type of students I teach in this program (my big Fancy Research U., as you would call it :) couldn't be more different than yours in some ways (from what I read at least), but one thing they have in common is an inability to break from the mold in a certain way - I'm trying to get a way to get them to realize what *analysis* truly is without them parroting out some pre-fab version of that they think it should be. I think talking about themselves, instead of about the "great and timeless themes of poetry" might be one way to do that.

negativecapability said...

Ok, I'm a big idiot and didn't realize that the comment I left yesterday went through (I got a weird Blogger timed out thing). So, same request with more info.

And I just checked my e-mail, so thanks!

MommyProf said...

I don't know - I'm an X and I remember our generation being accused of being more pro-establishment/conservative, but in doing this, we were going against our parents' values. Doesn't that still count as independent thinking?

Soma said...

You could add another step to your assignment...have them do a standard, "high-school" type non-analysis at first...so they are working with something familiar...and then teach them how to revise it into a more substantive analysis. I've met very few freshman with any clue whatsoever how to do a good analysis, so perhaps their resistance is masking confusion.

As a post-paper assignment, you could then have them do a rhetorical analysis of their first paper vs. the revision, to force them to articulate the different functions of each and why the revision is more effective and compelling.