Research after writing

Here’s a question that has bugged me for a long time: how can we teach research skills at the introductory level? Or, even trickier, how can we teach research in a non-disciplinary skills course at the introductory level? This semester, I’m trying out a new answer: teaching research by having students research papers they’ve already written.

Every first-semester Grinnell student takes a class we call the Tutorial: a content-based introduction to college-level skills in writing, reading, discussion, presentation, information literacy, and more. (The course is famously overloaded with priorities.) My versions of the course emphasize writing skills, and in the past, I have chosen not to do much with research beyond quotation and citation skills and an introduction to our library facilities; that is, I have covered information literacy rather than independent research skills, leaving the latter to upper-level courses. In thinking about adding a research component for Tutorial, I have always gotten stuck on the problem of assigning research when students cannot read enough to get a strong sense of a research field. Under such circumstances, how can I avoid turning the “research” into the reading of a few semi-random sources, chosen for their vague relationship to a developing paper topic?

This semester, I will try a new approach: building research into the revision of papers. The students will assemble annotated bibliographies of secondary sources for the course’s final portfolios, and they will choose the readings based on issues that arise in my initial responses to their papers. Because the course is portfolio-based, we can identify areas in which secondary sources would help amplify and refine a given argument. The students’ research will thus have a sense of purpose often lacking in preliminary bibliographies: they will go to secondary sources to solve specific problems. Here is the assignment. Comments are most welcome. If this approach works well, I will work to generalize its application to other introductory courses.

Games and grading III: Dan Pink and motivation

How can we know how to motivate students for different kinds of tasks?

One reason, perhaps the primary reason, that teachers explore connections between video games and education lies in their longing for students who display gamer-like motivation. What Shakespeare professor doesn’t want students as eager to construct Renaissance London as SimCity?

In his TEDTalk on motivation (a precursor to his recent book Drive), Dan Pink outlines some social scientific studies of motivation. Pink summarizes his argument in this short CNN piece:

In laboratory experiments and field studies, a band of psychologists, sociologists and economists have found that many carrot-and-stick motivators — the elements around which we build most of our businesses and many of our schools — can be effective, but that they work in only a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.

For enduring motivation, the science shows, a different approach is more effective. This approach draws not on our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but on what we might think of as our third drive: Our innate need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

In particular, high performance — especially for the complex, conceptual tasks we’re increasingly doing on the job — depends far more on intrinsic motivators than on extrinsic ones.

If I want my students to focus on their own “complex, conceptual tasks,” I need to consider ways to activate their drive to “create new things,” and I want those things not only to be the occasional essay but also initiatives that shape the classroom experience fundamentally.

Games and Grading II: Dan Meyer

I present to you a games and grading post that is about neither games nor grading!

Dan Meyer gave a TEDTalk on his approach to secondary mathematics education: the talk is well worth watching, and it provides a good introduction to inquiry-based approaches to teaching.

I’ll return to Meyer’s talk as I continue this series of post, but for now, I’ll pick up on its literary side. Meyer quotes Deadwood creator David Milch, saying that bad television

creates an impatience, for example, with irresolution. And I’m doing what I can to tell those stories which engage those issues in ways that can engage the imagination so that people don’t feel threatened by it.

This is John Keats’s version of that sentiment:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . . .

I find repeatedly that writers on new media reinvent Keats’s wheel. Is Negative Capability the signature skill of the contemporary workplace?

Games and Grading I: James Paul Gee

Reader, I’m slowly concocting a new way to teach introductory literary studies. Care to join me?

I haven’t posted for a while, in part because I set myself too large a task: to integrate a number of pieces I’ve been watching and reading lately into a big old essay on grading, video games, and inquiry-based learning (a big idea at Grinnell these days–more on that to come).

Instead, I hereby begin a series of shorter posts about the sources for that hypothetical essay. I’ll bring them together later.

I’ll start with this Edutopia interview with James Paul Gee: “Games, not Grades!”

Gee points out that video games are assessment machines, but they don’t alienate their players the way educational assessments alienate students because, Gee argues, games don’t separate learning from assessment.

I find this initial point powerful but too simple: many classroom environments do ties assessment to learning consistently, even if periodic larger assignments constitute the graded material. Gee seems implicitly to assume that and equivalence between assessment and grading.

My objection may be mostly semantic, however, so I’ll move on to what I see as Gee’s two most powerful insights:

1. Course textbooks ought to work like video game manuals, in that they should function as references that help students solve problems they have encountered in a process of exploration. I realize that in advanced seminars, I do teach students to use critical sources in this way, but I have not achieved the same effect in lower-level courses.

2. “Passion communities” such as those who produce fan fiction “tend to set very high standards” for their members, offering copious feedback to help new participants meet those standards.

As this series of posts continues, I will imagine ways in which college English courses might combine these two insights by creating “passion communities” that learn to navigate the texts of literary study with self-guided intensity.

Wait: am I an academic?

Am I an academic?

Yesterday’s post by the excellent Danah Boyd has me wondering. Boyd a researcher at Microsoft Research New England (on the blogroll to the right as “apophenia”), yesterday blogged about her answers to the question, “Am I an academic?” Boyd’s description of scholarly life in a research lab is fascinating; her description of the academic life is harrowing–but it doesn’t describe my life as an academic.

I don’t mean simply that I find academic life more enjoyable than you’d guess from Boyd’s description, though that’s true. I mean something more fundamental: the whole complex of institutional structures, professional incentives, and teaching environments that Boyd evokes arises from an assumption that being an “academic” means teaching at a research university. And that assumption pervades most writing about the digital humanities. When I see descriptions of how academics teach, or do scholarship, or hold office hours, or do most anything else, writers almost never capture my experience at a liberal arts college. Or my mother’s experience at a branch campus of a community college. Or my dad’s experience at a small liberal arts university. Or my brother’s experience at a New England preparatory academy. We all have advanced degrees in the humanities, and we’re all, I think, academics.

One aim of this blog, then, is to enter conversations about teaching, scholarship, and the digital humanities from an unusual institutional position. I teach at Grinnell College, an institution fundamentally unlike the research universities I attended but also unlike my parents’ institutions and other types. Grinnell is small (about 1500 students), rural, Midwestern, highly selective, well endowed, teaching-oriented, and increasingly dedicated to interdisciplinarity and faculty-student research collaborations in all fields.

Teaching at Grinnell, I have no graduate students but terrific, ambitious undergrads. No immediate colleagues (in British Romantic literature) but a strong sense of interdisciplinary collaboration. No research library but skilled, flexible librarians. Good funding for scholarship but demanding institutional service obligations.

How do new models of networked teaching and scholarship translate to such an environment? In these new ways, can I be an academic, too? Let’s see.