Chewing the pedagogical cud

One problem I have perceived in Shimer’s general approach to course design is that there is not much room for students to fully “digest” all the difficult texts that they’re working through. In part, this is due to the Iron Law of Curriculum Design — namely, that it is possible only to add to a curriculum, never to subtract, so that the reading burden will tend to grow over time. Papers provide one solution to this problem, but they necessarily only apply to a limited number of texts (usually two max), and the paper writing process itself would surely benefit from more digestion time for all the texts.

In the senior capstone class, the major writing comes in the form of “protokolls” (summary papers), which primarily summarize and respond to the previous day’s discussion. I am thinking that for my next upper-level class, I will partly adapt this model. Instead of summaries of the discussion, students will write brief summaries of a given day’s reading, with the goal being for the students to collaboratively generate a summary of all the course readings. The course would then be divided into two or three distinct units, and at the end of each unit, there would be no new reading except to review all the summaries for that unit, so that we could talk about how they fit together, etc.

I’m undecided on exactly how to implement the summary papers. My current thinking is that an initial draft of the summary will be due before class the day the reading is first discussed, and then they will be required to rewrite it in light of the class discussion and my comments. They will then present the summary in the following class to provide a review of the previous reading and hopefully create greater continuity. If there are still serious problems with the summary, a further rewrite could be generated and then distributed to the class (or stored in a Google Drive folder accessible to everyone).

Another issue I’ve been grappling with is how to change their habits in paper-writing to get them away from last-minute all-nighter type strategies. Currently the reading load militates against that, especially for working students (i.e., virtually all but the very most privileged students). In my current course, it has worked out pretty organically that the final text we read is both easier to read and very conducive to bringing together a lot of themes from the previous readings — so perhaps after the discussion of the final “unit,” we could discuss a text like that (no longer doing summaries as we go) and also build in a few writing steps (an outline or summary, an annotated collection of salient quotes, etc.) prior to the final deadline. Including peer review at some stage could be helpful, not just intrinsically but as a way of introducing “positive peer pressure” into the mix and making sure the students actually do the steps required.

There are many possible drawbacks. Above all, a lot hangs on making sure students provide summaries of passable quality — or even provide them at all. This doesn’t seem to be a problem with the capstone course, but then their entire writing grade depends on the “protokols,” whereas I am still including a traditional paper as well. I can think of punitive measures, but I don’t want to create that kind of atmosphere. Every other measure I can think of (such as letting others do a missed summary for extra credit or letting other students edit an inadequate summary) would seem to have hierarchy-generating effects that cut against the collaborative approach. I don’t know. Maybe you do.

One thought on “Chewing the pedagogical cud

  1. My classes are likely a bit larger than yours and my students are likely, on average, not as motivated as yours. So, the obvious “your mileage may vary” disclaimer applies. I have my students (whether it is a class of 65 or 30) do a weekly summary paper. I tell them about 300 words. Most write about that much, the more motivated ones will write more. (This means I’m marking almost a hundred assignments a week, obviously.) I require them to hand in the summaries at the start of class in the classroom and on paper. I do not accept late or emailed summaries. (Some students discover the “loophole”: they can submit a summary before class but do not have to stay.) The summary covers the material that is to be discussed in class that day. The purpose of this is twofold: one, it forces them to read (or skim or Google) the material before class and, two, they have a set of notes already prepared for when they come to write their essays (three per semester). Given the volume of assignments, I cannot comment in detail on them, but I try to make a few comments ranging from the superficial “yes” or “good” or “no” to the more involved. The other thing I do, in an effort to prevent last minute writing, is refuse to reply to any assignment related emails within forty-eight hours of the deadline. Having done this, I think that the average quality of my students’s writing has increased over the years and that the average student sees definite improvement in their writing and thinking over the course of a semester.

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