Classes ended Friday, and finals week begins Monday, so now is the perfect time to post some reflections on final papers. I spent the better part of the past three weeks grading final papers (one section of The Modern American Novel and two sections of Literary Analysis and Research), and have spent a fair amount of that time rethinking what I do for final papers, and why I do it. Like my earlier posts, this one is an extended question, peppered by bits of ranting.
Every semester, I teach a mix of upper-division and lower-division classes. In the lower-division classes, final assignments (usually some mix of final essays and a final exam) are skill-oriented, meaning that I provide specific prompts to engage students in such a way that my students demonstrate knowledge of certain skills the class is designed to develop: writing, researching, employing literary theory, providing comparative readings, etc. One reason why I do this is because in my department, the “core” is skill-based (as opposed to using period/geographical surveys as the core). I have a love-hate relationship with this curriculum, but that’s a post for another time. Another reason why I teach these skills – and use final exams/papers to assess these skills, is because I will be working with many of these students again in my upper-division classes; I need those students to be prepared for the work will I expect from them. I very much enjoy teaching some of these courses, particularly Introduction to Literature and Literary Analysis and Research. In both courses, I am introducing concepts, methods, and skills to students who, more often than not, have not been exposed to these issues before (or have only been exposed to in the most cursory way). Truth be told, I enjoy building foundations. And the longer I teach here at Potsdam, the more important this work is to me.*
In my upper-division classes, however, I do not provide prompts for final essays. (I do for the final exam: I give students a list of four questions, and they are to select one, prepare ahead of time, and come to class with their books to write the exam. I find that by giving them the questions ahead of time, I get more thoughtful and better-supported responses.) The final essays in upper-division classes, in my opinion, should be opportunities for students to explore the texts, ideas, methodologies, theories, etc. that most engage them. These papers, I tell my students, are places where they can really explore something. I encourage them to draw from class, from their earlier work (in this or other classes), to follow some line of inquiry that they somehow can’t shake. What questions are they leaving unanswered, and how can they go about finding the answers they need? The final papers, in my opinion, are places where students can take control of their education; this is where they determine what they want to learn, and how they want to learn it.
And this scares some students shitless.
Admittedly, not all students are inclined to follow up on their own interests. Some students are only taking the class for a gen-ed, and don’t care about the material. Others may have other reasons for not wanting to take control at this stage. However, there is a growing (in my experience) number of students who are simply unprepared to do this kind of work; it’s not that they don’t want to do this kind of work, but rather that they have never been asked to take the wheel. For a growing number of students – thanks in large part to the way K-12 education is (mis)handled – “education” has meant being told what to do and how to do it.
In other words, I fear that a growing number of students are dependent on the kinds of assessment models that are stifling creativity.
Allow me to explain. As I’m using the term here, “assessment” is measuring a student’s ability to perform certain tasks. Students then receive grades based on how well they perform those tasks. This almost sounds like grading. Almost. And I say “almost” because when I grade final papers for my upper-division classes, I am doing more than assessing their ability to perform certain tasks. Yes, grading a paper means assessing things like: editing prose, constructing an argument, properly citing source texts, etc. But there’s something else, something that goes beyond simple assessment. Have the students worked with the most relevant parts of a novel? Have they exhausted the available research (as opposed to, say, demonstrated that they can use the library and work with both print and online sources)? How compelling is the argument being made? There are subjective parts to grading that I can’t neatly make fit into rubrics. In my lower-division classes, I’m more concerned with assessment; these courses are designed to build a foundation for independent study. I’m not at all concerned with originality, for instance, in lower-division courses.
What I am finding, increasingly, in my upper-division classes, is that many students don’t want to do independent work. Some are very much opposed to it. And many of these students are not, as one might mistakenly suspect, non-majors, or people generally uninterested in the arts or education. In fact, I find that an ever-growing number of students studying to be teachers are incapable of, to use another metaphor, working without a net. And while it’s easy in the immediate situation to blame the students for lacking imagination, that’s simply not the case. People today are not inherently less imaginative, less curious, less creative, less willing to take risks. Rather, they are trained to be that way. They are trained by the assessment-driven K-12 education they received. And for many Education students (in my experience**), the goal of education is assessment; many of them are learning – in their Education classes – how to “teach to the test” (to borrow a now common phrase). For an increasing number of future educators, there is no room for creativity and risk in education.
This past semester, one of my Education majors – a very bright and hard-working student, one who is passionate about children and genuinely interested in literature – became frustrated when talking to me about her final paper. She came to my office and wanted to know what she should do. We spoke about the books she was most interested in, the ideas that she found most compelling; I tried to get her to talk through what was happening in her head, to show her that she was not as unprepared to begin work as she feared she was. She explained that I was asking for something she had not done before; this was her first class where she was told to write a 10-page paper and given no specific prompt. This was the first time, in other words, that she had to generate the idea from scratch. As we spoke, she explained to me the kind of work she does in her Education classes. Yes, she told me, she has to write research papers for her major. However, she explained, her professors give them their research topics, have walked them through how and where to research those topics, and the students know ahead of time what they will find, and what conclusions they will come to. The more she spoke, the more it sounded like – for those classes – “research” was an exercise is leaving trails of breadcrumbs for the students to follow; students are then assessed on how well they follow those breadcrumb trails.***
This model of research is slowly coming to define other aspects of my university. For instance, I have spoken with multiple librarians at my university about buying books that could be used by students in my classes for their research. Because of our limited funding and space – which no doubt is a serious concern for any academic librarian, particularly those at smaller schools – the library is primarily interested in buying materials that students will use in their research. For those faculty who give assignments along the “breadcrumb trail” model, it’s easy to identify the materials that the library should purchase. For those of us who define research as independent exploration, however, it’s much more difficult to identify useful materials. Which biography of Jack Kerouac, for instance, should my library own? Each biography is useful, but they are not interchangeable. I have directed students to different biographies, depending on their research interests. Which recent works in narrative theory, Native American studies, Modernism, African American literature (all courses that I teach), should I ask my library to purchase? We can’t buy them all. But I also have no idea where my students will want to pursue their own research projects. (And the growing availability of online resources certainly is a boon; however, online access is still painfully limited, given the small number of academic books available full-text online.^) The last time I talked to one of my university’s librarians, I was told that the best way to make sure that the library would purchase books is to make sure that the students used them; I was told that if I included the “research prompt” in my request, the library was more likely to buy those materials. Unfortunately, I told her, I can’t do that. I don’t assign “research prompts” in my upper-division classes. I don’t know what the students will want to investigate. I don’t know what the scope of their projects will be.
In other words, I have no idea ahead of time what my students in any given semester will ant to explore when I hand them the reins.
And, in my opinion, not knowing is one of the best parts of my syllabus.
I could assign research topics. It might even make my life easier. Last semester, a student approached me with a research topic. She wanted to know if her idea was any good. It was very compelling. It was, I dare say, original. The student was, for personal reasons, interested in a very particular line of inquiry that I had never come across in my own research on the Beats. This is not to say it hadn’t been done before, of course; the first stage of research would be determining what has been done and where the student might take the conversation. I was very happy that she had identified a line of inquiry, she explained why it was important (both to her and to our understanding of the writers she was working with), and she was excited to do the work. This kind of engagement is exactly what I want from my students in these courses.
Then she asked me if she would be able to find enough materials to work with. I don’t know, I told her; step one is finding what’s out there. She suddenly seemed confused; didn’t I know what was out there? Not in this case, no. But I was just as curious as she was to find out. I knew there had been work done on those authors, and there had been work done on the idea in other contexts; I just didn’t know if anyone had considered these writers in this way before. And this, student dropped her head, thought for a minute, and then asked if she could change her research topic. Why? I asked her; this is fascinating. Because, she replied, she didn’t want to waste her time if it turned out that nobody had done this work before. I tried explaining that even if she’s the first, that’s a good thing; she could start a new conversation, and bring together research on those authors and research on that idea. This, I told her, is how we advance our understand of the field. But she was unconvinced; she wanted the certainty of the well-trodden path. She wanted assurances that she could find exactly what she needed, and that the materials would be available in our library. She wanted, in other words, a breadcrumb trail.
In the end, she wrote a very safe paper. Well-written, well-researched, and on the whole a perfectly fine example of the kind of work she needed to do in order to secure a good grade. It was an idea that several of her classmates worked with, one that they knew the could find materials for because we had specifically discussed them in class. Because I have used them in my own research.
I have many problems with assessment-based thinking when it comes to education. But my biggest problem is that assessment-based thinking doesn’t reward risk. In fact, it actively discourages risk. In other words, it stifles creativity.
I very much want my upper-division classes to be chances for students to define their own set of interests, identify their own research questions, and explore their contributions to the larger conversation around these works, authors, movements, periods, etc. I want my students to feel empowered to take risks, and to know that even when they hit a dead end, they have still learned something valuable. (I tell my students all the time about my own research dead ends; I also tell them what I have learned in the process and how my own work has evolved. Risk, I tell them, is the only way to reward.)
Unfortunately, it seems that the “Education industry” is less and less interested in risk. It’s less and less interested in creativity. It’s less and less interested in allowing students to discover what their education can be.
For those of you reading this, how do you encourage your students to take risks in their research?
*I repeatedly tell people that Introduction to Literature is my favorite class to teach. I think some of my colleagues are finally starting to believe me. I generally teach between four and six sections of this class every year.
**Which, at this point, is pretty significant. In any given semester, most of the 100+ students I teach are likely to be Education majors. SUNY Potsdam’s mission is the education of future educators, particularly arts educators.
***I am certainly not trying to characterize the entire field of Education. However, from where I sit, it does appear to me that more and more people in the field are preparing their students for the “teaching to the test” situation our next generation of teachers will be walking into. The root of the problem – and I cannot stress this enough – is the institutionalization of assessment-based education, and not the many people trying to do their best in a system that has been designed to satisfy politicians, not students.
^At this point, I’d like to give a shout-out to my library’s ILL department; they do wonderful work, and have provided valuable help to my and my students over the years.