For the record

I just want to go on the record as saying that I’m keeping my instructions to my students intentionally vague, to a certain extent. I’ve been getting a lot of comments from them on the last few papers, and the comments tend to revolve around “This class is harder than other classes. Why aren’t you just telling us what you want and giving us the template for how to write it?”

To which I say, “You’re supposed to be figuring this out for yourselves now!” Not to be mean, it’s just that that is part of the pedagogical point. There’s a method to my madness here. Particularly in writing, students are coached all the way through high school as to what writing is “supposed” to look like (five-paragraph essay, anyone?). And now I’m intentionally giving them directions only on things like how to develop a thesis, how to attack someone else’s arguments, how to evaluate and incorporate sources, etc. On the first paper, they got to choose from a list of approved topics, and then on this next paper, they had to choose a topic themselves and get it approved by me. Little do they know that on the next one, they’ll have to choose and be out on their own with no approval!

I don’t know whether to be happy or sad that my students are scared by so much freedom. On the one hand, I’m happy that they’re realizing this is a challenge, and, while they’re struggling, they’re beginning to find their way. On the other hand, it worries me that they may be too far gone into Borg-land to break out and really find their voice now. Some of them are really anxious that I haven’t given them a specific template.

Regardless, I maintain the pedagogical value of not giving them explicit instructions for what the paper “should” look like. After all, their history or econ or psychology professors aren’t going to sit with them and discuss how their thesis could have been stronger or that their topic isn’t a good one. Instead, from here on, they’ll just get “NO” and a grade if their paper doesn’t “look right.” (Actually, I know some English instructors who will write that as well …) They need to begin getting comfortable with the uncertainty and learn to ask questions if they’re unclear on what’s expected.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Don’t let my students tell you otherwise…

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