Monday, March 22, 2004

The Loving Resistance Fighter

Last chapter of Postman's Technopoly for class tomorrow. After that, 106ers are on to a series of articles about Powerpoint and the problems with tech-dazzle mesmerization, the rhetoric of blurb and bullet (adapted heavily from Traci Gardner and Nick Carbone at TWiaOW).

For the past day, I've been grinding over how to respond to an email from an instructor who teaches two sections of the online version of 106 I developed. Since I'm the developer, I field questions from the instructors of the various sections from time to time, doing what I can to tease out effective practices or, in some cases, return to the drawing board to tweak the curricular plan. Here's the note:

I made a small accommodation-change this past term, one which may be worth sharing. I required students to include their thesis statements right below the title to help me with grading actually. I was amazed; only [a few] students [...] completed this task with some degree of competency; some did get better, but all-in-all it was an enlightening experience concerning these students.
Their inability to express what they meant to do was, of course, manifest in their essays. At least I had a clearer how-to-improve target.
Thanks, F.

The forces bearing on this predicament are considerable.  The practice suggested by F. is not one I want to wrap my arms around in an affectionate bear-hug.  But I think I understand why he's doing what he's doing (and although I paused before bringing this issue to EWM, I decided that I want to take up more issues related to teaching writing with a heavy dose of technological mediation).  So here's why.  One problem is that the institution has a rather flexible set of admissions standards for students who enroll via distance learning (from one of several campus centers). Not unlike Mina Shaughnessy's efforts with Open Admissions at CUNY, we are involved with an institution whose students vary tremendously in their confidence, preparedness and experience with writing before crossing over to the University's lower division courses. And it seems to be a more difficult enterprise (teaching as enterprise?) when we come at basic writing issues online, exclusively in writing.  In this arrangement, we are hampered by the absence of oral discourse to lend succor and support to tenuous processes whose fulfillment depend on skillfulness with both print literacies and digital media. So it's tricky. And I can understand F.'s accommodation, although I will probably suggest something slightly different, something, perhaps, like having the student italicize the essay's central premise in context (which might mean locating it in one or two places, or more than one sentence). Insistence on perfect, one-line theses reminds me of the kind of reductive oversimplifications ideologically embedded in PowerPoint--the very roots of which are under heavy scrutiny for their failures in situations depending on nuanced, elaborate arguments and expositions. So, while there could be a fair amount of protracted debate about whether a FY writing classroom (be it online, even) is the place for nuanced, elaborate, subtle, sophisticated arguments and expositions more than their formulaic counterparts (five-paragraph, etc.), I almost always prefer the complex to the simple on this score.  Something about floating a one-line thesis statement to the front, slotting it like an epigraph atop the lead page troubles me for the way it privileges that one line and diminishes the sorting out and wrangling that is the better body of the written attempt. And, of course, this could be a gross oversimplification of the problem.

So how would you respond to the email pasted here?  What do you think of the practice of migrating the thesis to the top, floating it like so much balsam to the murky water's edge?

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 22, 2004 9:33 PM to Dry Ogre Chalking

I can certainly see uses of a student's being able to reduce their central idea(s) to a thesis sentence, but I think your correspondent's rationale just as problematic as you do. To add to what you've said already, I think it's a disservice (to both students and their teachers) to tell students that writing is a straight-line process of 1) make a thesis; 2) write an essay explicating that thesis; 3) revise, &c.

I've been trying to get students to think of their theses as something that evolves as a result of the writing that happens. If they're myopically focused on a thesis statement that arises before the communicative act takes shape, it seems there's a higher chance of a mismatch between the intent and the instantiation. (Why am I going on and on here?) Consider suggesting your correspondent take his idea and use it differently. If there's the opportunity for peer review, have each student who reads a paper suggest a thesis for it, and see how many come close to matching the author's intent. Have each writer figure out what about the cues they wove into their writing gave the readers a "mistaken" notion of the central point.

Alternately, and this one's a little tougher to implement, but have you ever played the board game Balderdash? Have each student supply their thesis and supply three non-theses to both give students insight into the cues that readers use to make meaning, and to encourage them to read carefully. Score points for the students if they determine the right thesis, and have the instructor score points if they louse it up. The points can be traded in for some common class bonus (or something). It enacts a community model of meaning-making, and gives the thesis-identification exercise a little more pedagogical value (imnsho).

Of course, both would work, too.

Posted by: MisterBS at March 23, 2004 8:40 AM

Your suggestions helped me generate a few satisfactory alternatives. Thanks! It's difficult because these courses are delivered online to students all over the globe, and the curriculum is tamped out from section to section. Writing in alternative schemes gets kind of messing because some of the rigid components of the courses would then contradict the alterations.

I have had students locate and annotate (offset with underlining or italics) what they conceive of as their central premises or organizing ideas. And peer response scenarios often ask students to hone in on a thesis or central claim. I worry that the practice of floating the thesis to the top, especially when it results in easier grading, goes right along with the efficiency model of "how many essays can I read and grade? how quickly?". So it bothers me to think that we might use technology (thinking of the AutoSummarize function in MS Word) to centrifuge the most vital bits of student writing so that we can find them with greatest ease. Isn't that one of the root criticisms of the five-paragraph theme--that it is designed for the convenience of the reader (who needs to know, unequivocally, where the thesis statement rests)?

Thanks again for your terrific comments. -DM

Posted by: Derek at March 24, 2004 5:46 PM