Academy 0.5

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In the CCR program here at Syracuse, we encourage our students to take electives outside of the program. In fact, the program's small enough (and the graduate course offerings sufficiently limited) that it would be a challenge to complete the program coherently without recourse either to independent studies or courses from other departments. In my mind, this is good.

And so it's been nice over the last couple of courses that I myself have taught to have non-CCR students among us. Last spring, we had participants from other institutions, and in both my summer and fall courses, I've had students from other programs on campus. So far, so good. There's a danger in a small program of becoming excessively insular, and in a freestanding writing program where we train PhDs who will most likely take positions in English departments, it's even more urgent. I worry sometimes that we don't prepare our students here sufficiently to deal on a daily basis with colleagues who may or may not respect the kind of work they do. While it's by no means a given that they will struggle in this fashion, it's also by no means that unusual.

And I guess I'm getting a lesson in that myself. I've learned over the past couple of weeks that another department, a couple of whose students are taking or have taken my course, aren't receiving credit for the course towards their majors. Needless to say, I'm less than pleased. There are multiple reasons, and while I could take issue (easily) with each, one of them in particular is especially galling to me. Allegedly, the students in my class "aren't doing enough writing."

It would be more accurate to say that my students aren't doing "the right kind of writing," which appears to be the real objection. I've written in this space before about the ways that I'm currently using CMap and asking students to do visualization work rather than the end-of-the-semester, stay-up-for-48-hours, binge-and-purge model that results in a 20 page essay that may or not may ever get read and almost certainly never goes through any kind of response, feedback, or revision process. Can you smell the bitter in that sentence?

As well you should. I've been meaning to blog for a couple of days now about John Unsworth's talk on New Methods for Humanities Research (Tip: MGK), the talk he delivered upon receiving the Lyman Award for technological innovation in the humanities. Please, please, please, read his talk. It's worth it. But it was pretty ironic to me, after having read this talk, to be told (albeit indirectly) that the work that I was doing in my courses wasn't "rigorous" enough for this other department.

Setting aside all of the issues that I might have with the so-called rigor of the seminar paper, and setting aside the issues I have with what I would describe as rampant current-traditional writing pedagogy on the graduate level, what I think is going on is simply a lack of understanding. Because for me, Unsworth's talk (and by extension, a fair bit of the work that I do) is not just about generating new methods for turning out the same kinds of academic products. A big part of the nora project is visualization, developing not only new methods and finding out new things, but learning to express them in new ways, and developing the tools to do so. It's easy for those of us who are really interested and excited by all of this possibility to simply assume that, once we do these things, their value will be self-evident to our colleagues.

What are my students doing in these projects? (or rather, what have they done, since the map was only one of two separate projects, and they've already turned the maps in.) Each of them had to assemble a collection of 25 sources for a particular area of inquiry. They had to familiarize themselves sufficiently with these sources to be able to see the patterns and relationships among them. In most cases, they had to learn a new piece of software. They had to articulate those relationships visually, write an executive summary of what their map reveals about the area, and present their work to the class.

In my mind, all of the various activities that resulted in their maps are activities that I myself have performed (and am still performing) in order to write scholarly articles. But there are two major differences. First, obviously, their articulation didn't take the form of a seminar paper, and so they weren't required to make claims that--let's face it--most graduate students are underprepared to be able to make. In other words, what I'm trying to do is to separate out, just a little, the related processes of "knowing" a field of inquiry and asserting your place within it. Seminar papers, in my opinion, tend to conflate the two, even though most of us (I think) realize that it's almost impossible to succeed at the 2nd without spending much more time than a few months working on the 1st. In fact, I would argue that it's precisely the repeated conflation of the two that helps to ill-equip students for writing their dissertations and to do research/scholarship once they leave graduate school. I think that this is one of the things that we have to unlearn to be successful academics.

The second major difference is that the projects my students are doing may prove to be useful to them for more than just having their professor submit the grade. Even if they don't keep up their maps or add to them, the value of spatially and visually articulating relationships among a healthy set of texts will persist. As they go on to do work in their areas (I encouraged them to think about potential exam areas as topics), they'll have a much better start for doing so than if they had synthesized a fraction of those texts in order to make a 20-page argument.

But hey, that's me. I like a good 20-page essay from time to time, but it's certainly not the only genre (nor medium, for that matter) that I think in/with/through, and often, it's not the best to say what I want to say. More to the point, I simply don't believe that the only way to learn how to write a good article is to just write simulated articles over and over and over and over until you either sink or swim. The scholarship process is made up of lots of and various micro-processes, and learning how to handle some of the earlier stages of the broader process can make the later ones more manageable. But of course, this requires us to actually think about that process, which is not especially encouraged by old school writing pedagogy, where good writing is the expression of inherent genius rather than the result of any kind of work. And where rigor is defined, by and large, simply as "what we do," despite plenty of evidence to the contrary (or at least, to the complicating).

In my little corner of the universe, there's actually something a little more rigorous (and a good bit less Pavlovian) in what I'm trying to do in consciously eschewing the seminar paper.

That is all. And see, I made it through this entire entry without having to refer to the insult of receiving an email asking me, out of the blue, to defend the rigor of what I was doing in my course. Well, almost, anyway.

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Great to here the kind of work you're doing with grad students. I've only begun to use concept mapping software and other kinds of things to work on my dissertation (back and forth between word, evernote, brainstorm, and a concept mapping program). It's been extremely valuable--
good also to hear about cmap. I've done trials of inspiration and mindjet-- was going to try freemind (free) but will give cmap a try. How'd the students do with it?

I've been really happy with it, Robert, but part of that was my interest in finding something that was cross-platform and easy enough for them to use without much prior training. You might also take a look at Tinderbox, which would require some $$$ but has a lot more flexibility for storing text, for example...

Your work with new media in grad courses has been such an intellectually enabling experience for the grad students that it puts pressure on the rest of us to rethink how we teach and how we define "writing." So be forewarned: you're going to be asked to guest in the Authorship class(es) next fall!

Collin, I checked out Tinderbox-- only for Macs (though many promises of "Tinderwin" sometime in the near future). Any recommendations for something comparable for a PC?

Hi, Collin,
I'm reading this post because Donna blogged on our class blog about this. You were saying that with the concept map you ask them to make and see connections between these sources. One of the things I'm learning in graduate school are these connections that I see between all of these sources, and I want to talk about the patterns. In a seminar paper, I have to narrow the topic and I can't talk about all of these connections.

I've learned so much in Donna's class, and I've been worried that I can't articulate all of that in a seminar paper.

I'm sorry to hear that there are people who do not believe your work is rigorous. As a high school teacher, I was told that my class wasn't rigorous because I had students choose what they wanted to read and write and we made time to read and write in class (other teachers assigned books that they thought students read, but most were just reading Sparknotes).

So, colleagues can think those things, but I'm just glad that there are teachers out there who think differently. Most of the time we just ignore the changes around us and the classroom stays the same (this weird Pleasantville that isn't so pleasant).

So, thank you. It's not easy to be the one of the first to do things differently, but it is so important!

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on November 15, 2005 3:55 PM.

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