Saturday, July 28, 2007

Responding to student writing

What's the best way to respond to student writing? I've received something over 3000 student papers so far, I think, along with thousands of drafts, and I still don't know.

I started out with the "more is better" approach. In my first year of teaching at Southern Illinois University, while working on my MA, I was nearly obsessed with the classes I taught. I'd write roughly a page of comments on every draft of every paper. It wasn't unusual for my comments to be longer than the draft itself.

Did these comments actually help the students write better? I don't know. I think the real message they sent may have been independent of the text: I cared. If your instructor takes the time to write a page of carefully considered comments on your draft, it's kind of rude to ignore that and fail to revise it.

I can't do that now. (I probably shouldn't have done it then; my research took a major nosedive when I started teaching.) So what can I do?

I can meet with each of my students in conference, as I try to do twice a semester. These conferences almost always strike me as helpful. But then, they're not for my benefit. Some students have complained that it's hard to remember all of the issues that come up in a conference. Granted, they can take notes (and some of them shyly ask permission to do so, as if I would mind), but even if they take notes, they can miss something important. They'd rather have me write everything down for them.

I admit to seeing some benefit to that. Certainly, I don't like the idea of presenting a helpful suggestion that will be forgotten. But although I do end up writing comments more often than I have conferences, I don't think I should base my decision primarily on what they want.

Students tend to want the input that will make their assignments as easy as possible. In many cases, that means specific statements of exactly what they should change. And I admit that this approach is easier for me, too. Again, however, the goal isn't to benefit me. It's not even to help the student write the best possible paper. It's to help the student become the best possible writer. And if I tell my students what to write or how to write it, then they end up writing my paper, not their own.

So I try to give them as much control as possible. I explain what concerns I have; they suggest ways to deal with those concerns. Then we evaluate those suggestions and work toward a solution. They take the draft home and attempt to implement the solution, and then I take a look to see how everything worked.

I vary that from student to student. Not everyone thinks the same way, so not everyone writes the same way or learns the same way. It's a balancing act--between giving them freedom and guiding them in the right direction.

I'm still figuring it out, and I expect I will be thirty years from now.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Social Constructivism

I've been putting some thought into whether I should be posting here regularly. On the one hand, I'm a single father raising two children alone while working on a PhD. I find I don't have a lot of time for things that don't really have to be done, and blogging probably falls into that category.

On the other hand, I found this blog (what there is of it) immensely useful last semester, during a class in the rhetoric of science. I could look back over what I'd been thinking on various subjects in the past, and then build from that in my current work. I imagine this blog will be useful for this sort of thing in the future, even if no one ever reads it.

So with that in mind, let me offer some thoughts I have on social constructivism, which has been mentioned in a lot of books I've read over the last year. Too many authors seem to use the term interchangeably to refer to the social construction of knowledge and the social construction of facts. I think the distinction is critical, especially if we're talking about scientific facts.

This distinction is based on the difference between knowledge and fact. Nearly every fifth-grader (not just the ones on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader) knows the difference; it amazes me that people with PhDs routinely blur the terms. It's really quite simple. Facts are facts whether you know them or not. Knowledge is knowledge only if you know it.

I do believe that knowledge is socially constructed. I have different knowledge than I would if I were, say, a Bushman in the Kalahari. This difference is based largely on the differences in our society. If I'd grown up in their society, I'd have their knowledge. (The physical environment makes a difference, as well, but because many of these differences are also related to our societies, I'll lump them in with social differences. My physical environment includes laptops and skyscrapers, both of which are a part of my society.)

As for whether facts are socially constructed, I think that depends on whether we're talking about facts of definition or facts of the Real World Out There. Is Pluto a planet? The answer is a fact of definition. It depends on what our society decides. It changes nothing about the Real World facts of the entity.

Does the earth rotate? The answer is a Real World fact. It doesn't matter how many people think it doesn't. It doesn't matter what our society decides, or what we know. The fact remains the same.

So if we say, as I heard a very bright PhD student say last year, "People thought that the earth didn't rotate, and that was one of their scientific facts," then we are either horribly distorting the meaning of "fact," or we're talking utter nonsense. This is very close to the argument Bruno Latour makes in Laboratory Science: The Social Construction of Scientific Fact. I find it amazing that anyone would take this idea seriously.

Now, if by "scientific fact," we're speaking of the facts of the social sciences ("All cultures have an incest taboo, although they define it differently"), then it's absolutely true that facts are socially constructed. That's almost a tautology. Of course social facts are socially constructed. But that isn't Latour's argument, nor is it the one I see in so many people influenced by him.

"But belief doesn't matter anyway, one way or the other. All those people who believed for all those years that the earth was flat never succeeded in unrounding it one bit." --Isaac Asimov. (I'm quoting from memory, but I think that's pretty close to the original.)