Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Getting to Expression

 Barbara Fister's "Why the 'Research Paper' Isn't Working" has some interesting observations about the teaching and assessment of composition, and I made the connection to the deductive/inductive divide I've been going on about lately. Let me reframe the latter as the "language/expression" divide as a preface:
  • A language is a set of knowledge that usually comprises vocabulary, methods, reference points of common knowledge, and a web of connections between concepts. Understanding a language is always a prerequisite to being able to produce it intelligently.
  • Expression is the illumination of new ideas, new connections, creation of new parts of the language to contribute to the existing corpus. It is realized with different styles in varying degrees of fluency, and allows the display of insights or brilliance.
This is the analytical/deductive vs. creative/inductive divide that I've blogged about before, for example in the previous post. We see this division everywhere. Learning how to use paint versus expressing yourself in the medium. 

A "life-long" learner must either become used to learning new languages all the time or else not plan to live long. My 'stack' of languages to learn currently includes R programming, German, and photography. I think of it in over-generalized terms as a progression from confusion to understanding to expression. I'll come back to that idea.

The "photography language" is one I dabbled in when it meant smelly chemicals and a long time between when you shot a photo and when you got to look at it. Nowadays digital photography obviates many of the skills that one needed, and it does something else very important.  It's not any easier to do digital photography--you have to master software instead of stop bath--but it's so much quicker to get from the snap to the view that you can learn from trial and error in real time. This is a huge advantage. Conservatively, the gap between taking a shot on film and holding a print in your hands is at minimum several hours (leaving aside Poloroids or other quickie formats). With digital it's a matter of seconds. So learning the language through sheer trial and error has been accelerated by a factor of, say 2 hrs/2 seconds = 3600. 

Photo: David Eubanks, some rights reserved
Different learners approach learning language in different ways. Some people like to read all the manuals first, and others start pushing buttons. My wife (laughing at the end of a long work day, above) learned Italian by working all the exercises in two textbooks and then spending a month in Italy. I struggle along with German because I don't have the patience to memorize vocabulary. I try to bridge the confusion/understanding divide by reading novels translated into German (it makes the language much simpler), and look up words that come up frequently enough. Her way is much more efficient than mine.

So, in this epistemological vivisection of learning, the challenge for faculty is to teach and assess the crossing of two metaphorical bridges:

Land o' confusion -> Understanding -> Expression

In "Complexity as Pedagogy" I showed how it's possible to take a very narrow road straight to Expression. That is, one can encapsulate a small part of the language and use it to get right to the fun part. Because, let's face it, creating is fun! And if anything distinguishes humans from the rest of the biological kingdom, it's our blabbing--we like to talk.
An art professor once told me how to learn to draw. He said, just draw your hand over and over again in different positions. After about 500 times, you should be pretty good at it. I don't know if he was joking or not, but this is an example of simplifying the language to the point where you can quickly become expressive.
The practice of assessment should be very different across this divide. Testing language fluency can take many forms, but it's always about correctness, speed, conformity to convention, and so on. One is not supposed to be creative on a spelling test. Otherwise I would have gotten better grades in grade school. Similarly, we're not suppose to invent better names for state capitals for that test, or help the Germans organize the genders of their nouns better. 

Assessing language seems easy because of this necessary emphasis on mastering form. Vocabulary tests, concept inventories, and the like are easily administered, and even testing understanding of subtle connections through the use of the language itself is straightforward. 
Example: In teaching logic, it's simple to write down a logical argument and ask students to justify each step with an axiom or theorem, or even let them find errors with the proof. The only way students can be successful is if they have a good understanding of the language.
This ease of assessment is a bane, and a great peril to learning. Let me finally get to the points I liked about the article I cited way back at the beginning of this piece. Starting with the idea of forcing students to master arcane rules of correct citations, the author notes more broadly that 
I have long agreed with Richard Larson who wrote way back in 1982 that the research paper as taught in college is an artificial genre, one that works at cross-purposes to actually developing respect for evidence-based reasoning, a measured appreciation for negotiating ideas that are in conflict, or original thought.
An artificial genre that is at cross-purposes with original thought. That's pretty damning. But it's these very mechanics of any language that are easily defined, easy to get agreement on, and easy to assess. It's a quick slide down the slope to standardization of a form that becomes inimical to the actual intent of the enterprise! This happens all over the place. Whole subjects taught in school exist only because of such inertia, like Geometry in high school--there's no reason kids should be learning plane geometry with rulers and protractors in this day and age, but it's been so deeply standardized that it's become part of the culture. But I digress.

Barbara goes on to illustrate the point with a fascinating example of how students react to the low-complexity standard we've set institutionally:
I hate it when students who have hit on a novel and interesting way of looking at an issue tell me they have to change their topic because they can’t find sources that say exactly what they plan to say. I try to persuade them otherwise, but they believe that original ideas are not allowed in “research.” How messed up is that? The other and, sadly, more frequent reference desk winch-making moment involves a student needing help finding sources for a paper he’s already written. Most commonly, students pull together a bunch of sources, many of which they barely understand on a topic they know little about, and do their best to mash the contents up into the required number of pages.
Does this sound like a road map from Confusion to Expression? It doesn't to me--it sounds like a Skinner Box: mash the button to get the food pellet.

It shouldn't be hard to fix this problem. That's the good news. The recipe is simple:
  1. Focus the language to a small useful subset. In terms of composition, it would mean picking a topic that's narrow enough to actually learn something about quickly.
  2. Demonstrate and assess--with feedback!--fluency in this new language. Have conversations about what confusion levels, what you know you know, and what you know you don't know. There are lots of creative ways to organize this with mind maps and such, and it also can be fodder for oral presentations, or other engagement activities. Develop fluency in real time.
  3. Emphasize expression and creativity over form as far as it can be pushed. This isn't always possible, e.g. in logic--you have to be 100% correct--which is why the focus is so important. If you have to absolutely master some topic in order to be creative, make it a small one. 
Note that I am not advocating "free form creativity" devoid of any content or ultimate value. This might be fun for the students, but I don't see how it accomplishes any useful learning objectives. But there's a lot of road between many of our current practices and goofing off in the name of creativity. 

Barbara's ending paragraph is apposite:
But if you want first year college students to understand what sources are for and why they matter, if you want them to develop curiosity and respect for evidence, your best bet is to start by tossing that generic research paper. As for those who will complain that students should have learned how to paraphrase and cite sources in their first semester – we’ve tried to do that for decades, and it hasn’t worked yet. Isn’t it time to try something else?

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