Saturday, September 20, 2014

a couple notes about teaching difficult texts, 1

We read some tough stuff in my general education Professional Ethics and Bioethics courses, ranging from overstuffed academese to extremely dense philosophical reasoning. I tell my classes at the start of the term that the reading will not be like a textbook, is not written for a general audience, or even a college-student audience, and that they will have to work to understand. Most of my students have difficulty with it. Each student fails to understand at least one significant article or key concept in an article.

My impression is that my students' default strategy when they have difficulty reading is to pass over the difficult passage, or even skip an article altogether. Some prefer to read the article abstracts (when present). They wait for me to tell them what the article was about. If this has been a successful strategy in their schooling, it may be because they have been rewarded for attending to the teacher's explanations, and not for working out what a complex text means. It may be a more canny strategy, expressing a desire to expend least effort to obtain a completed degree requirement.

I attempt to block that strategy, because key goals of my courses are to help students develop their abilities to analyze complex texts and to follow and critique complex reasoning. In short, I am trying to provoke them to do the opposite of what appears to me to be their basic go-to approach.

One of my counter-strategies is challenging them directly, by playing devil's advocate to a position taken by an author and asking for its defense, or by suggesting that the author is trying to trick them into believing something they shouldn't. I want to suggest to my students that they need to protect themselves against charlatanry, or act in self-respect and not accept something told to them by an authority. This is low-stakes, and I guess works to encourage about 1/4 of students to take up the task.

Another counter-strategy is requiring that each student discuss the texts and ideas of articles in detail, in papers they write. Obviously this is high-stakes, and as a motivation to read and analyze, fails overall. I don't remove this requirement from papers, though, because it's justified intellectually. I know that requirements motivate students, at least to comply with the letter of them, but I also know my students have wildly disparate ideas about what it means to "discuss" the articles, let alone "in detail." Still, this does motivate the most grade-anxious.

A middle-stakes counter-strategy is small-group discussions about textual passages. I break the class into groups of 3-5 (depending on class size and numbers of questions or passages), and give each group a question regarding an assigned reading. I instruct them specifically to go back to the article text, find the relevant passage, explain how it answers the question, and then prepare an answer to present to the whole class. They take notes on this discussion, as a group.

There's a lot going on in this activity. I can't control all of it, even if I wanted to. The students interpret their task, keep themselves on the task, interpret their question, interpret the text, compose an answer to what they interpret the question to mean, and, I hope, question themselves and one another about their interpretations, about the text, about their question, and about their task. It could have a self-recursive aspect, in other words.

The questions range from broad, highly conceptual or applicative questions (e.g., "How does the author's idea of 'best interest' help explain what's at stake in the Ashley Treatment?" or "What is 'horizon of ability?'") to very textual (e.g., "What does the author mean by 'the best interests of an incompetent person are simply speculative?'"). I think both poles of this range are important. Most group discussions include some of each.

Students respond in various ways. Some groups present detailed written answers that the groups spokesperson reads from their notes. Some groups misunderstand absolutely everything about the task. Some groups are clearly unprepared. That all shows up when they present. I believe all the students can easily hear the differences.

Although I often reflect on my own responses, I have never set down for myself any sort of guidelines or rules. Here's what I think I do.

As groups present, I take dictation, typing on my laptop connected to a data projector. I type verbatim, or a close paraphrase, under the typed question they are answering, in a Word document. I type whatever they say, for good or ill, whether they have really followed the prompt or not. I do not scold individual groups for failing to be prepared or for missing the point of the task or question or text.

I do, however, correct them, in one of several ways. One approach I take is to open the floor for other comments or responses. I imagine that if other students point in the direction of a more accurate understanding, it sounds different than when I do so -- by which I mean, it may motivate and encourage differently. It also makes more students at a time responsible for doing this work. It also provides a chance for other students to try out their interpretations or to express their own difficulties.

Another is to correct them directly, which I often do when a group has gone terribly wrong. Often I highlight the text I just typed from their discussion, and delete it from the Word doc, while beginning to explain how the response missed the point. Often I go back to the text, and read it aloud, and then open the floor to ask what it means. Often I break down an individual sentence or phrase, or even a single word, to try to show how the meaning of a passage, and thus a concept, is constructed by an author. By doing this, I try to demonstrate how they could themselves do that work while reading, and I hope that my students hear a meaningful and satisfying connection between that analytical reading work and answering the question I asked for the discussion. I also give them the meta-remark that this is the kind of reading work that is sometimes required.

I have mixed results. Maybe there's too much going on in this activity. I like complexity, though, and I also believe these discussions almost always lead into the best, most productive class sessions. I have two main dissatisfactions, about which I'll write more later. First, these group discussions, while they can bring groups of students together, also divide students, into what I'll call for short intellectual haves and have-nots. Students who are following and diligent sometimes help bring around those who are not, but often the students who are successfully doing the reading work are impatient with those who are not. Second, classes, groups, and individual students, vary in their focus and effort, for a variety of reasons, and so group discussions are inconsistent. Two sections of the same course have very different experiences and rates of learning based on this, and a class or group culture starts to emerge that reinforces either productive or unproductive habits.

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