I’ve been focusing on students lately, not the craftsmanship of accomplished scholars. But it’s important to keep in mind that there is a close connection between what students are taught and what their teachers are able to do. When you give a student an assignment, even one that involves a significant amount of “independent research”, you are telling them to do something that you yourself could do. Like a conservatory teacher or an athletics coach, you need not presume that you could do it better or more easily than them. It’s reasonable for an aging master to be weaker in practice than the young apprentice. The important thing is that the teacher already knows what is possible, and is therefore able to evaluate the result, while students are only just beginning to discover what they are capable of. “The Great Learning,” said Confucius, “is rooted in watching with affection the way people grow.” Learning is always implicit in scholarship, and the student, therefore, is always implicated in the work of the scholar.
With this in mind, I want to suggest some assignments that can train and test the skills that scholars apply to their own learning. By means of these assignments, the skills can be passed on to their students and a culture of learning can thereby be conserved. These are high-minded ideals, but the assignments themselves are altogether practical and grounded.
Give the students two short texts by writers on opposite sides of a debate that is, or was once, central to your discipline. Let them be around 3000 words long, which implies that they can be read–once–in about fifteen minutes. Make sure that they either are or represent “classic” positions. That is, make sure that the students are exposed to the ideas of two major figures in your field.
Give them a week to read the texts and, on that basis alone, make up their own minds about the issue. What is the debate about? Which arguments do they find most compelling? Who is right and who is wrong? Is there a middle ground that seems more reasonable to them than either of the two positions that are being defended?
Have them write a five-paragraph essay of no more than 1000 words to present their position on the question. Have them read and grade each other’s essays. (You can give each student a number of essays to grade. But in a smaller class of, say, 20 students, you can also tell them to spend 10 minutes on each paper and have them grade them all. That’s 200 minutes of, I hope you will agree, very instructive work. I would recommend having them distribute the grades on a normal curve.)
Send the students to the library to inform themselves about the history of the issue you exposed them to in assignment #1. Have them locate the texts you assigned and the most interesting (to the student) sources they cited. Have them study the “impact” of the papers you assigned (or the authors who wrote them, or the classics they represented) on the discourse of your discipline by finding papers that cite them.
Give them a week to see what they can come up with. How important is this question today? What is the consensus among scholars? What sort of research has been done to test the relevant theories? What research is being done to extend and develop them? Encourage them to seek out work that disagrees with the position they took in assignment #1.
Have them write a five-paragraph essay of no more than 1000 words to present their results. Demand that they use a particular citation style. Again, have them read and grade each other’s essays.
Have them reread their solution to assignment #1. In light of their work in the library, what do they think now? Have them rewrite essay #1 to take stock of this research, either defending their position in a more sophisticated way, or taking a new position in light of the better arguments they have encountered.
This time, you give them the grade.
While you are grading assignment #3, have them grade each other too. This time, however, their job isn’t to evaluate it according to their own standards, but to try to predict the grade that you will give them. This is easiest to do if you grade on a curve, since the students will now have to distribute each other’s papers on a normal distribution. Their grade on this exercise will be based on how well they match the grades you give. If you don’t distribute the whole class set of essays to everyone (perhaps the class is too big), their job will simply be to rank-order them. You will then also have to rank each essay relative to the others.
I’ll let this stand without comment and offer some reflections on why I think this is a great way to spend a few weeks of your student’s time (and yours!) in subsequent posts. Do please offer your thoughts below in the meantime.