Thinking creatively about outcomes…ideas for essays and readings…

I had the good fortune to be invited to attend Dr. Ken Bain’s Best Teachers Summer Institute this week.

The conference, now in its twelth (or so) year, brings teachers from around the world together to share best practices based on Dr. Bain’s work. He published an award winning book in 2004, called What the Best College Teachers Do that draws universal lessons from the work of master teachers.

Since first meeting Dr. Bain at a conference last February, I have adjusted my own teaching with impressive results. Much of what you will find in his book feels like common sense, but you feel like you are saving ten or twenty years of trial and error on your own part, and standing on the shoulders of the great teachers working around you (who may not be readily available as mentors in your own institution!).

A brief example I took from this week’s conference: assign readings based on questions that come up in class, rather than assigning readings to generate class discussion.

I increasingly use readings available through my university’s online databases rather than anthologies, and I frequently use very contemporary readings. For instance, I used five articles from the New Yorker magazine as part of my recent persuasive writing course in-class essay final. We had read Zadie Smith’s fantastic novel White Teeth, and I asked students to pick one of the following articles and then make a connection between the article and the novel. Since we had been working on these kinds of abstract connections all term, that was the only direction I gave. The articles:

o Our Own Devices: Does technology drive history?

· From the May 12 New Yorker by Jill Lepore

· Explores the impact of individual inventors (Edison etc.)

o Pixel Perfect: Pascal Dangin’s virtual reality?

· From the May 12 New Yorker by Lauren Collins

· Discusses the guy who retouches fashion photographs

o The Last Bite: Is the world’s food system collapsing?

· From the May 19 New Yorker by Bee Wilson

· Discusses market forces changing the role of food in our society

o After Empire: Chinua Achebe and the great African novel

· From the May 26 New Yorker by Ruth Franklin

· Discusses Achebe’s career against the backdrop of colonialism and post-colonialism in Africa. (You don’t need to know his writing to really enjoy this).

o Hungry Minds: Tales from a Chelsea Soup Kitchen (not available online)

· From the May 26 New Yorker by Ian Frazier

· Uplifting history of a soup kitchen in NYC

So students were able to enjoy some choice in what they read and I was guaranteed not to have to read the same essay 85 times, especially since the novel is so multifaceted. Between picking various scenes/characters from the novel, an article from the above list, and a particular issue from those long articles, I receive a wonderfully diverse set of essays.

Some of the connections were truly impressive. Here’s a long introductory paragraph linking the immigrant experience of Samad Iqbal, one of the novel’s central characters, with (of all things) the worldwide food crisis:

My parents came to America as immigrants. They were surprised at first to see the vast difference in cultures between American and India, but they were able to realize that change is imminent. They have to get used to things around here. In White Teeth, Samad and Alsana are immigrants to England. The difference between them and my parents is that they are reluctant to change. They do not let people help them or change their ideals. They also end up breaking their family because of their stubbornness. Similarly, in a New Yorker article, the same stubbornness can result in a major food crisis in the coming decade. Unless people decide to change their ways we may end up in a famine.

Another, linking Irie’s body-image issues in the novel to the “Pixel Perfect” article about photo-retouching.

What is the social beauty norm? Since 1857, artists have been retouching “those portraits for which the camera may be said to have laid out the foundation.” This allows us to assume that vanity over one’s appearance – to the point of altering a picture – is not a recent occurrence.

Irie Jones, a character in White Teeth by Zadie Smith, exemplifies a typical self-conscious, gullible teenager. She dislikes the shape of her curvy body and her wild, curly hair. Chapter 11 begins with her looking ata sign that says, “Lose Weight to Earn Money.” Knowing that losing her curves would take a long time, she decides to instead take matters into her own hands and change another facet of her appearance – her hair.

(then later in the essay – this one takes a non-5 paragraph approach)

The reason Millat doesn’t sleep with Irie until close to the end of the novel is because he is searching for flaws in the pretty girls. Altered pictures, such as the ones by Dangin, motivate us to find fault in perfect forms. When we see regular people on the streets, we see their “blips,” for instance, the boy with the slightly crooked nose, or the girl with frizzy hair – and we move on. Yet when we see a perfectly modified picture, our human curiousity drives us to search for her flaws, which may take a while to find, and we keep looking.

Millat has this natural curiousity; he spends time with pretty girls to find their “blips.” Irie, to him, is a girl he knows from childhood, and he already knows all of her imperfections, inside and out. He has a drive to see what else is out there, even if truly deep down he knows he likes Irie and thinks she is beautiful with all her curves and curls.”

These students (both essays developed the ideas much further – but to me they had a clearly original idea from the beginning) connected deeply with both the issues/themes in the novel and an idea from the article they chose. So this was a successful use of assigned readings; but I still predicted what they might want to read rather than letting our class discussion take us (in an investigative manner) to the readings.

There was a moment at the conference when the idea of outcomes assessment, and the gulf between what we actually DO as teachers and our real goals for our students, became very clear.

A journalism professor commented on the idea of giving feedback, and allowing students to experiment, before any formal grading. He did a lot of drafts with students, and while many students put considerable effort into these early versions, a number of students only became motivated when there was a real deadeline. Another set of students had trouble with the idea of a deadline – they seemed content to hand work in late, which as the professor said, could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the real world of journalism. “Meeting deadlines is an outcome,” he said.

Sometimes it is only when we try to explain a complex idea to others that we truly understand it ourselves.

Deadlines are important in many more disciplines than journalism. I taught in an interdisciplinary engineering program for nine years. Students wrote proposals, and we talked to them about industry, and how even the slightest deviation from the expected format/content (never mind being late) could result in a proposal being discarded unread.

But did we assess this crucial skill (or value)? Only in the sense of deducting points from late submissions. And even then the system was incoherent; some professors deducted points for late submissions, others didn’t.

I only had a brief chance to talk to the journalism professor. I wasn’t able to find out if his program articulated this crucial outcome in their academic goals, or if they stayed with higher-level abstractions. He had experimented with many approaches, none of them satisfactory. He felt the issue of deadlines and the quality of revision defied the rubrics approach, and I know what he means. If “timeliness” is a criteria on a rubric, and you get a Pulitizer-winning article two days late, how can the document even qualify for reading and grading?

This issue leads to the more general one of procrastination in students of all levels, backgrounds, and disciplines. We do very little in higher education to stack the deck in favor of our students, preferring to assign term papers in week 2 of the term, then collect 20 page documents in week 15 (many of them written in the 24 hours preceeding the deadline). That isn’t how industry works – what boss gives a new employee 13 weeks of unsupervised labor on a major project?

As for the challenge of designing an assessment for the outcome of “meets deadlines,” it seemed to me there were several opportunities.

One would be to get students comfortable with the challenge of completing work in a rush. Perhaps, at the beginning of class (the first class of the term?) the students must interview their neighbor and write a 250 word profile due at the end of class. Because it is a journalism class, the expectation would be “press ready.” With a few of these under their belts, enforced by a strict deadline, students would grow more confident in their abilities to write under stress.

As for revising in a journalism class, maybe some real-world tension could invigorate things. If 25 students are enrolled, perhaps the professor (the editor) tells the students up front that 10 of the 25 drafts will actually have to run as-is in the next edition of the magazine/newspaper. So students would be afraid that their rather shaky draft would be published…potentially motivating them to write better drafts.

This might be overly dramatic for some, but by the time students are in an advanced journalism course they should have editing skills, writing skills, and time-management skills. The expectation is fair, and would probably invigorate students rather than the standard “writing for the teacher” response to draft review.

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