Tuesday, September 26, 2006

More on Students and Analysis

In this post, I will whine and moan not about my freshmen but rather about my sophomore-through-senior students in my literature courses.

As somebody said in the comments to yesterday's post, one has to cut freshmen a bit of slack on the analysis thing because coming out of high school they don't necessarily have experience with the kind of analysis that is expected at the college level. I agree.

So what is the excuse for my upper-division class, filled mostly with juniors and seniors - and most of those English majors?

The assignment, in a nutshell, is this: For each unit (there are four in the semester), students complete a 1-page (it can be 10 pt., single-spaced if necessary, but I only will accept the one piece of paper) response-analysis paper. (I do the one sheet of paper thing because I had a professor when I was a senior give basically this same assignment, and I remember how challenged I was by it as a writer - for as English majors we learn early to write lengthy tomes that say nothing (as you all know from reading my blog, I've not totally broken myself of this habit)- and how much I learned about argument and structure by being forced into concision. The one page is symbolic of that: if you say two pages, somebody is always going to go those two or three lines over onto the third page, you know?) The assignment is the same for each of the four papers. They are to choose a pivotal moment in one text from the unit. They are to choose something that they believe is a crucial aspect (theme, tendency, formal element, whatever) through which to read that scene. The paper then should make an argument about how that crucial aspect comes through in the pivotal moment, and then they should relate that reading to the text as a whole and to the unit that we are studying.

To me, this assignment is great because it forces them to practice all of the analytical skills they need for more extended literary analysis papers - whether the traditional 3-5 page topic-driven paper with no sources or a longer paper with research. It's also great because it forces the crap out of their writing. There's just not room for all of the cliches and the passive voice and mixed metaphors.

And most of the time, students do quite well with it once they do the first one. Often, one of these papers will be the jumping off point from which they develop their topic for the research paper.

But this time, well, things aren't so good. Well, that's unfair. Most of them are doing fine with it. But I've got a couple who submitted papers that just don't follow the assignment. Papers that are all over the place and don't really demonstrate the ability to carefully analyze a passage in a literary text. Both students have taken many English courses. Both students seem fairly alert in class, and they come to class.

So what's the deal? Am I asking too much? Are the students just incapable of the kind of analysis I expect? Are my colleagues to blame, for not requiring similar kinds of analysis in their courses? (Answer to that last question: to some extent, yes they are, and I hate that I've got to deal with seniors who don't have the skills to perform identical tasks to those that I expect of my second-semester freshmen in introduction to literature.)

Won't you all be glad when I'm done with all of this grading on Thursday? I know I will be.


BikeProf said...

I like this assignment. In fact, I'm thinking of borrowing it to use in my lit classes, with your permission.

Seeking Solace said...

No, it's not you. It sounds like a case of laziness on the part of the students.

Dr. Crazy said...

You have my permission, bikeprof. Use it with my blessing :)

(And no need to cite "Dr. Crazy" on it, as the students might find that off-putting...)

Kelly J.S. McGovern said...

I, too, had a similar assignment from one of my fav profs when I was an undergrad-- it was part of the reason I liked his classes so much! It's just the first one-- give them the low score it sounds like they deserve, let them freak out, visit office hours, and get it right next time. Is there a teaching forum of some sort in your dept. where you can spread word to your colleagues about the merits of this assignment?

helenesch said...

I like the assignment, too (though I don't teach lit, or else I'd be asking to use it!). I can see that some students would find it difficult, though. But that's okay--you're teaching them to think for themselves and construct a tight piece of analysis. I wish you could send me your students after they've finished your class! Actually, some of the best students in my philosophy classes are English majors... Maybe because they know better than to think philosophy is all about memorizing what the prof says and spitting it out on tests.

Dr. Crazy said...

Helenesch - I bet that you could adapt the assignment to use in philosophy classes. Perhaps instead of focusing the analysis of a passage through the vague "some aspect" of the text you could be more directive and ask them to focus their reading through one of a list of philosophical concepts? Or through how the philosophical argument is constructed? One of the reasons I've had luck with this assignment in a variety of contexts is because it's very easy to adapt to the learning objectives of different courses. That said, I should admit that I was a consistent B-student in all philosophy classes that I took in college, much to my dismay, so what do I know?

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I have my honors Ethics course write abstracts of original texts. They had the same problem with the first one until I wrote them a sample. After that, they got it.

I do them pass/fail and let them revise until they get it passed. Each one gets pretty detailed comments and direction.

Of course, I can do this with the honors class because I have 16 of them and not 50 like in the regular classes.

It is my experience that they have a really hard time isolating the key passages, as that isn't how they've bbeen asked to think in the past. Keep doing it, they'll need those skills in graduate education -- many law students fail because they can't do that and try to memorize everything.