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.
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?Posted by Derek Mueller at March 22, 2004 9:33 PM to Dry Ogre Chalking