Pedagogical Defense: Avoiding Soul Crushing Writing Assignments

Recently I’ve been working on decoupling/narrowing what I expect in my writing assignments. For those of us who teach 70+ students at a shot and do not have TAs , the prospect of grading their papers is not only daunting…it is SOUL CRUSHING.

Even if their work is well-intentioned with good editing and citation, most undergraduate student work is still under development in nearly every area: structure, readability, sophistication of hypotheses, strength of argument, etc etc etc…

In prior courses I’ve laid out complex rubrics with several categories, points, and lots of very specific feedback. The net result was not only that I hated reading blah papers, but now I had tons of blah feedback to provide which tended to overwhelm and demoralize my students more than help.

This semester I’m trying a different tack with my first-year students: Two developmental criteria per paper ONLY, plus an invitation for creativity. The first criteria is to advance the some aspect of their writing’s quality of thought, the second, to advance one aspect of formatting, the third is to save my soul.

Example: My most recent assignment is an early attempt at synthesizing and discussing the work of more than one author. (Preparatory work for eventual literature reviews) PLUS…and remember this part…I don’t want to have my soul crushed trying to read them all. Note the areas where I’m trying to stop them from killing my soul.

Author Synthesis Assignment (see what I did there?)
Cocktail Party Script: (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party with three prominent scholars who have published research related to your question. (**Questions and sources were developed and vetted these in a prior class.) Write a script that details the conversation you would have with these authors.

Content: Your script must include…
1. Your question and why it is important
2. Each author’s research and insights and how they pertain to your question. NOTE: Accuracy and specificity get higher grades, vagueness and misinterpretation get lower values.
(Writing Development Emphasis)
3. Potential disagreements and agreements between each member in the party—including yourself.
4. Humor or Drama of some kind. (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Formatting: Your script must focus on …
1. Careful attention to citation frequency, format, and accuracy. (choose any style you like but be consistent) (**Format Development Emphasis)

Dazzle me with your concision and creativity! No more than 6 pages. Focus on citation and accuracy. If you’re all freaked out about margins and font size you’re missing the point. 

I’ll post results next week. Wish me LUCK!

Public Health Simulation

This is a guest post from Sarah Fisher, Assistant Professor Politics at Emory & Henry College, written with Roger Yu, PhD Candidate in Biomedical Engineering at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

Public health crises require coordination between scientists, government officials, and the public. This past summer, we had the opportunity to combine courses on biotechnology (taught by Roger) and international relations (taught by Sarah). We created a simulation to illustrate some of the challenges officials face when dealing with epidemics. Prior to the simulation, students in the biotechnology course learned about viruses and watched 2011 film Contagion. The international relations students focused on state responses to the recent Ebola crisis (some resources included the Stuff You Should Know podcast and discussion of Ebola songs).

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How Do We Know What We Know? Active Learning and the Scientific Method

Positivist epistemology can be the topic of a very boring lecture in an introductory social science or methods course. Fortunately, an activity borrowed from an elementary math class can alleviate the boredom by asking students to identify the sources of their own beliefs about unobservable phenomena and to explore questions about what constitutes an explanation.

The basic outline of this activity, which I use during the second class session of most courses I teach, is that unusual objects are concealed in opaque fabric bags. Small groups of students must attempt to describe and identify the object as thoroughly as possible without opening the bag. A recorder observes the group’s discussion and notes what data points they establish, how they negotiate rival hypotheses, and what threshold or pieces of evidence convinced group members about their findings. The process of investigation, discovery, and persuasion is repeated with several different bags, so that each group gets at least 3 objects. We then discuss what they learned about the objects, and as I reveal each item I link it to concepts in positivist epistemology such as what constitutes sufficient evidence, whether we ever can know for sure without being able to observe things, the role of context in defining the meaning of an observed act, and precision and accuracy in measurement.

This activity has been around for a while; I published it in PS: Political Science and Politics in 2006. Since then, it’s been picked up in history, linguistics, and psychology classes. The article goes through sources, ideas, and materials in more detail than I can here. The objects you use can vary, but I strongly recommend that you keep the two bags with film canisters or other containers (one with cotton balls inside, one without), and the bag with a piece of fabric ribbon. These objects allow you to get at issues of precision, accuracy, unobservability and authority most efficiently.

My own set of objects has evolved, and it shifts from course to course depending on the points I want to emphasize. My methods course, for example, emphasizes the difficulty of doing measurement across time and space. To raise this point, one of the bags includes the cake topper from my wedding – a simple engraved acrylic block intended as an executive award or paperweight. Most groups identify that it’s plastic and engraved and probably a paperweight… but without knowing what the engraving says, its context is completely unknown and the object’s significance is vastly misinterpreted. Out of its original context, our identification – coding – of that object was totally incorrect.

I’ve been using this activity for over a decade now and haven’t made any major improvements or changes to the version described in the PS paper. I strongly encourage you to give it a try: let your students’ own curiosity drive their understanding of how researching unobservables works.

Learning Outside the Box

How do we get our students excited about class material? How can we encourage students to apply class concepts to new and unique situations? One avenue for increasing student motivation and encouraging students to make connections between course material and the “real world” is through co-curricular activities. By co-curricular activities I mean any experiences that happen outside of class but complement the classroom learning experience. In my classes¹ this includes: speakers, on and off campus talks or events, course-related films, and theatrical performances.²

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