Tuesday, November 21, 2006

College Writing Assignments

So, unless I'm mistaken, here's how college writing assignments go now:

1. Many professors simply don't require papers any more.

2. If professors do require papers, then they assign papers that are either merely research papers or "personal reflection" essays. I.e. either reporting on the work of others or bullshitting. (There's some place for both, but neither should be the norm.)

3. When they assign papers, these papers are often very long, and, consequently, graded in a superficial manner with little substantive feedback. A few comments scrawled in the margins if you're lucky. (It takes me about an hour to grade and produce typed comments on an average 4-5 page paper. The idea of doing this with two classes worth of 25-page papers is preposterous. And, incidentally, the other 20 pages would be superfluous anyway. Within a couple of pages the quality of the work becomes clear.)

4. When writing assignments are given, a very large minority of students simply cheats. The really lazy students just Google something, and they can be caught, though that often takes even more time than it does to grade the paper. Even moderately intelligent and energetic cheaters are hard to catch.

5. Then, of course, there are students who simply buy essays from the evil companies that sell them, or from other students.

Students who can't write usually can't think. And not that many of them can write. Something's really going to have to be done about all this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

While you're fixing this knotty problem, there's another one that's coming in a wireless world of ubiquitous communications - how can you keep testing honest? Administer tests in a Faraday cage with security at the entrance?

Or of necessity will education need to inculcate the ability to recognize quality and correctness instead of facts and skills? That might not be so bad, since the goal of teaching facts and skills is to teach valid reasoning constrained by reality. It certainly would have helped with Duhbya, both directly and in helping voters detect his BS.

One question, WS: Do you find that your students' stolen work matches the level of their oral participation in class? This is a common red flag for my sister, the English professor.

Last, high schools solve this with process. The teacher gets a look at the outline, the notes, and the drafts, and that's harder to fake. It's probably not appropriate to babysit the college writing process that way, but it might become necessary to require submission of the writer's process documents to prove its real sources.

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

or require an oral presentation of the paper, with a follow- up q&a session. even if the paper was stolen, the student would at least have to learn the material, and thats better than nothing.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You, Mr. Smith, are a grumpypants.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What would you suggest in liu of a research paper?

2:11 PM  
Blogger Orlando C. Harn said...

I don't think I've ever had to write a paper that wasn't a "research paper" (consolidating what we learned about the work of others). What other kind of paper could a student write? You're in a class on a topic that you haven't learned about before, and the class has a particular syllabus, and the elements of that syllabus contain what you know about the material.

6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) Why doesnt anyone learn Latin anymore?

2) Why do textbooks cost so fucking much?

3) Why aren't more universities truly concerned with the quality, breadth, and depth of education thier students acquire and / or thier faculty can provide?

4) When did secondary education become simply another maneuver one must perform towards the greater end of wealth and the "american dream?"

5) When did the pressures of publishing for the sake of tenure grow so great as to encourage apathy on the part of professors vis a vis the student body?

6) Oh, and when did Liberal Arts colleges start refusing funding from the state.....oh...riight

These factors just scratch the surface of enormous problems in the typical American university. Given all the above, combined with the additional pressures students endure (both real and imagined) is it any suprise that they cheat?

Is it any suprise that professors let them get away with cheating?

7:59 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

So, I teach a lab class for an engineering subject. I make the studnets right their lab reports (4 or 5 over the smester) as engineering memos. Half the grade is on content, the other half on style and structure.

Most of them hate it. But, they do get practice writing, and they have to think about what they did in lab.

They could cheat, given a friend's repoorts from a previous term. I don't see much evidence of this, however.

For grading, I use some of the students from previous terms who were strong writers. It seems to work well.

But, I have it easy in the sense that the students have to do something, think about what they did and the results they found, and then try to summarize it and draw conclusions. I can see that this woulkd be harder in other fields.

12:14 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

ascetic s.,
I don't wanna say that there's no place for research papers...but at least some papers should require some reasoning/analysis. Even in intro courses there are some points that students are capable of reasoning about.

Yep, the academy is a mess. I wonder whether every institution looks this chaotic from inside? I sure as hell hope not...

As for publishing pushing out teaching...do NOT even get me started on THAT. I've published some pretty damn good papers if I do say so myself, so I don't think this is merely sour grapes...but:

1. It's numbers that matter, not quality. Lots of "lines on your CV" is what really counts.

2. Lots of lines on your CV means, for the better departments, that it simply DOES NOT MATTER how shitty a teacher you are.

3. Being a good teaching SIMPLY DOES NOT MATTER if you have an insufficient number of lines on your CV.

4. To the extent that teaching does matter, what matters are "student evaluation" scores. Now, aboslutely no sour grapes here, as my scores there are quite high. But that's because I work damn hard on my classes. Many profs, though, get high scores simply by giving high grades, entertaining the students, and letting class out early on a consistent basis.

It's a God damned mess.

As other have noted: prof.s want to be writing, students want to be drinking, and classes are often a sham in which teachers pretend to teach and students pretend to learn so they can both get back to doing what they really want to do.


11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder whether every institution looks this chaotic from inside?

Yes, I think so. My experience in the bizarro world of software companies is filled with:

- management by fad, known in the trade as vision

- a reliance on metrics that measure whatever's easiest to measure and are easily manipulated

- the careful centralization of authority, paired with the dispersal of responsibility

- the path to success is fobbing your work off onto others but claiming credit for it anyway

I could go on, but I'm taking a vacation day, and I don't want to ruin it with this topic.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh, don't freaking get me started on "metrics that measure what is easy to measure and are easily manipulated"...

our school is in the process of changing "critical thinking" assessment exams beause the other (i.e. non-philosophy) critical thinking courses don't show any improvement on the exams.

The problem is that those courses are NOT REALLY CRITICAL THINKING COURSES. But the school wants to say that every student has had a CT course. But they don't want to hire enough philosophers to do it. So teachers in other departments just change the titles of their courses to include 'critical thinking'. They they myteriously get no improvement on post-tests.

So the obvious solution is to make up a new test.

I'm serious. The school wants to make up its own test, tailored to non-CT CT courses, so that those courses can show improvement.

Right. Enough of that today.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Interesting. I myself have a low opinion of the academy. Both instructors and their ignorant students are more interested in spewing than thinking, teaching or learning.

(We shall exempt our host WS from this, as it appears he takes his job seriously.)

It seems a democratic (small "d") if not entirely just idea that the students should have to read each others' bilge, and grade and comment. I'd think they're more afraid of each others' comments than the instructor's grade.

The instructor could grade papers by reading first the criticisms, which would enable him/her to locate the occasional actual idea in a paper instead of having to read every word.

If I were an instructor (especially in critical thinking), I'd grade with at least equal weight a student's dissection of his fellows as his own original paper, and this vetting process would take a lot less time than wading through the nonsense that characterizes, say, the comments section of many blogs.

12:11 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Some people do things vaguely like that, Tom, but I've always viewed it as a way for the instructor to get out of work...

But your points are making me re-think that opinion...

In fact...it's a fiendishly clever idea that just might work.

One more thing:
Thing about college teaching is, roughly:

One quickly hits the point of rapidly diminishing returns re: teaching prep. You can do *absolutley nothing* to prep, and still teach a semi-respectable class. Every small increment of improvement takes tons of work. So the difference between classes for which you prepare almost not at all and classes you prepare your ass off for is relatively small. And, hell, if you're personable and funny and grade easily, the students can't really tell the difference and don't much care. So this kind of natural incentive structure makes it hard to motivate oneself to put in the kind of work the job deserves.

Professors lie along an astoundingly flat curve in terms of ability and effort. I know full professors who aren't even of average intelligence, and some who haven't read a book or written a lecture in 30 years. I know other people who are downright scary smart and who do almost nothing but work.

Academia, she is a weird, weird place.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I see academia as a lot like the law---an approximation of reality, and of wisdom.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

like a reflection in a fun-house mirror, it sometimes seems.

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WS, are you aware of turnitin.com?

9:33 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Ah, Turnitin.com...

Please do not get me started.

Our Faculty Senate, of which I am an exasperated member, voted against adopting Turnitin.

So far as I can tell--though I'm not really sure--and remember, I was *present* during the deliberations--we voted it down because we could only think of about three good arguments in favor of it, whereas there were at least four *bad* arguments against it.

Oh, and furthermore, it made some prof.s feel icky because they prefer to trust their students.

Those who think think. Those who can't think teach.

9:48 AM  

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