Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Pedagogical Interlude

A Pedagogical Interlude

Hello, from the bus between Boston and Portland, ME. This is my regular commute this semester while on fellowship at Harvard’s Center for European Studies. The commute is long, but I work well on busses and appreciate the time to write. I will have to thank the Concord Coach Lines in my next acknowledgements.

I write now with a brief reflection on the classroom. Though I’m far from the classroom this year, it’s almost the time of the semester when I would be giving my pep talk to students embarking on their first with writing assignment. The talk offers suggestions to help them develop more nuanced (and frankly more interesting) analyses of the material at hand. I’ve pared this down to ten minutes or less. I never planned the talk to be a regular thing, but it’s proven to be quite helpful in one format or another over the twenty years since I started working with undergraduates’ writing as an undergraduate myself. It goes something like this:

You were likely taught to write a five-paragraph essay in high school, no? Let me guess, each of your three body paragraphs undertakes a point or a text and each of those paragraphs relates to an umbrella argument in your introductory paragraph. Now, chances are your thesis looks something like a list, strung together with commas highlighting what you’ll cover in these three body paragraphs. Am I right? This is a fine starting point, but my task is to help you to improve your analysis in terms of reading the material and understanding the context AND in written form.

Now, there’s some good analysis here already. Look at your conclusion. You’re doing something really interesting here. You’re starting to integrate your points. There are a few comparisons going. Let’s go back to your paper and look for where you might have flagged some of these points and developed the comparison further along the way.

Where you’re at is to be expected. My writing looks the same in an initial draft. Yes, really. I may no longer write in five-paragraph essays, but articulating an argument takes time, reflection, and several drafts!

Now your goal – and my goal for you – is to learn to push your analysis further by thinking comparatively, not just from one text or event to another, but between them. In terms of your paper drafts, what you should start to see is more cross-over between your example paragraphs as you think about connections – similarities and differences – and change over time. Here’s what I recommend for possible starting points… 

I hardly pretend that the suggestions that follow are exhaustive or that they work miracles. Nothing can replace individual conversations with the students as they work through the material. Still, some starting points can help to make revisions more approachable, especially for students who might not have had the time to revise or who haven’t had practice drafting in the first place. They work well, too, for the class as a whole as I guarantee students will recognize something of their writing in the generalizations.

Some Starting Points:

Quicker Fixes:

1.     Look at that conclusion. Chances are it’s a better articulation of your argument than your introduction. How about deleting it and pasting that at the top. No, don’t worry that you’ve lost your “throughout history” opening sentence. You’re drawing me into your actual themes / points of analysis far more quickly there. No, I don’t need the inverted triangle introduction. Nope, don’t worry that you’ve just deleted your conclusion either. You’ll have a better one that isn’t just a restatement of your argument. Trust me, by the time you’ve put your argument up top and paid attention to it along the way, you won’t need the conclusion to provide summary. You’ll use it to extend your analysis further – to some of those bigger “so whats.”

2.     Make your transitions work for you. There is a beauty to the bullet point or numbered list. (Yes, I’m using that now.) But, talk me through the transitions from one example paragraph to the next. Elaborate here. Chances are, the ways in which you elaborate will start to get you to make comparisons and/or to think about change over time. I really do urge them to avoid words like “also,” “furthermore,” and “additionally.” 

Brainstorming Exercises; or, a potentially more lighthearted way of inviting comparative

1.     ID Pairings. I’ve never been one to make miracles happen on a paper deadline of tomorrow. I hardly expect you to do that either. Instead, let’s work on a few exercises to let the comparative analyses flow. I like pairing ID terms. Rather than have you summarize one term then the next, I’m going to give you two together. You’ll tell me quickly what each refers to, but then you’ll spend the bulk of your time thinking of what draws them together – or what contrasts separate them – and why those similarities / differences are significant to the history we’ve been studying. No, the connection won’t be obvious, like a pairing of “Napoleon” and “Waterloo.” Rather, it might be something like “Waterloo” and “Peterloo,” or “Napoleon” and “Joseph de Maistre.” No, I don’t want you to try to read my mind. There is no singular right answer, there are a number of ways to draw out the analytic story – it’s kinda like how we’ve been talking about meaning and narrative in historical writing. You don’t need to write everything down. In fact, I want you to reflect, choose a way of comparing them and writing about that comparison. It’s OK to take time, here. …No, I haven’t chosen this pairing at random. There are ready connections to draw from class materials.

OK, no student will really think anything is fun when on a quiz. But, embedded every so often for practice in discussion, it can be genuinely entertaining – and informative – for all. It can be competitive if done as a review game before a final, too. And, it’s always useful to think about thematic similarities and contrasts and change over time. While I use this to have students think with the material in class, I use it as a tool in one-on-one conversations as well. The language of the ID Pairing prompt can get the ball rolling when necessary. Student A does not know what to write about for their paper, but tells me these were the texts from a particular unit spoke to them. That’s as good a starting point as any; it’s a natural place to be early in the writing process. They have no clue how they’ll bring the texts together other than point out that they belong to the same chronological period, geography, or broader thematic unit...

So, you have an interesting pair of terms here, what strikes you as some of the similarities and differences between them. Let’s brainstorm a few. … That’s a good list. Without ignoring x, y, and z, it sounds like you’re really ready to think about the story they can tell together about a. How about starting from there?   

-- Caroline Shaw