Tag Archives: college teaching

The Humpty Dumpty term paper exercise: helping your students recognize shortcomings in their narratives

When I discuss a term paper assignment with my students, I explain that readers need to understand  a paper’ s purpose and the logic of its organizational structure. To prepare them for writing a rough draft, I ask them to write a detailed outline, with section headings, introductory paragraphs, and prospective topic sentences. Despite this request, when I read their drafts, I still find that I have a hard time understanding how they got from their opening problem statement, through their literature review, and eventually to the conclusion. Gaps in reasoning along the way bring me up short, as I search for the links between sections and paragraphs.

Humpty Dumpty as puss in boots
Humpty Dumpty before the fall

Students are surprised when I tell them that their term papers lack a strong narrative. They often don’t understand the marginal comments I’ve made in which I flagged narrative gaps and suggested remedies. In trying to explain what I mean, sometimes I resort to dramatic metaphors to drive home my point. For example, in asking for more explanatory sentences, I told them that they were writing as if every additional word they committed to the paper was tearing off a little piece of their soul. Why hold back, I asked them? But they didn’t get it.

So, I came up with what I call the “Humpty Dumpty” exercise to create a compelling physical demonstration of my critique. It involves physically manipulating bits of paper, accompanied by the visceral experience of being misunderstood by a peer. It is designed to get their attention in a way that my written comments do not.

The assignment begins with requesting a rough draft of the paper, after I’ve already made comments on the outlines used to create the draft. Next, I print out two copies of each paper and then cut them into paragraphs, keeping the headings and subheadings together with the paragraphs that immediately follow the headings. The dissected papers are placed into envelopes or folders. (In a big class, you can ask the students to do this on one another’s papers.)

I then pair the students up with someone else and each receives the folder with the paired student’s  paragraphs. Students also receive dispensers of transparent  tape. I ask the students to take the scrambled pile of paragraphs and sort them into the order in which they should be placed, following the logic they discern from reading the bits and pieces. When they are confident of the proper order, they are asked to tape the paper back together. Doing this requires a sizable amount of workspace on a desk or table.

After a few minutes, it becomes clear that the task is much more difficult than they had imagined. Poor organization, missing transitional sentences, mangled topic sentences, and so forth make some papers impossible to reassemble. Laid out on the desk in isolation from one another, a paper’s paragraphs often look like an arbitrary collection of words and sentences. However, some students have worked from strong outlines and have provided enough clues to allow a passable reconstruction of the original.

For students who finish early in assembling the other student’s paper, I then have them work on their own paper. Or, if they discover they can’t figure out how to organize the other student’s paper, then I suggest they at least try it on their own paper. For poorly organized papers, that can be a challenge!

The final step in the paired work requires students to work with their colleague to explain why they had trouble figuring out how to order the paragraphs. What did they try to use as cues to determine the order? What signposts were missing? What could the author have done to signal what was coming next and how it related to what it come before it? It’s at this point that I see the light bulbs come on. Students discover that they had taken a lot for granted and in leaving things out, or not fully explaining them, had left their readers in the dark. I ask them to work together with their partner to edit the draft, on their laptops, while the disappointment of being misunderstood is fresh in their minds and they can immediately test the interpretability of the rewritten text.

After the exercise is completed, I take a few minutes to emphasize the main takeaways. First, many of the problems arise because the students worked from an incomplete outline in drafting their papers. An outline should externalize the logic of the paper’s organization, whereas many of them simply used bullet points or listed ideas they wanted to cover, without writing out a summary of the argument itself.  Second, I explain that the structure of the paper should give readers guideposts to the major arguments in the papers so that readers can anticipate, early on, where the paper is going. Students are often surprised at their peers’ confusion, and hearing their peers explain the source of that confusion often opens their eyes to why the left out or incomplete material undermines their paper’ s coherence. Third, this exercise gives me another chance to repeat what I’d initially told them when I urged them to write full outlines: your readers can never know what’s in your head until you put it on paper for them to read.

I believe that by adding movement and emotion to the process of improving rough drafts, students gain insights into writing that are much more likely to endure than if I had just written marginal comments on their drafts. Struggling with their peers to create better narrative structures adds a social dimension to the feedback that also enhances the likelihood of the lessons being retained.

Should We Assign Professional Journal Articles to Undergraduates?

My syllabi for undergraduate students almost never include any professional journal articles. In contrast, many of my colleagues choose many of their readings from journals such as the American Sociological Review, Social Forces, or the American Journal of Sociology. When I challenge my colleagues about their choice of reading material for undergraduates, they offer three rationales.

An author's dream wall
Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

First, they argue that undergraduate students ought to get it taste of what our field is like by reading the best articles written by the top scholars in the field. Reading articles written for professionals gives them insights into way sociologist think about problems and the analytic strategies used to answer important social scientific questions. Second, they argue that professional journal articles represent the state-of-the-art thinking in our field, and it is our job to make certain that students read examples of the progress being made in our discipline. Sometimes they object to what they see as the “dumbing down” of material for undergraduates in textbooks, social media, and the popular press. Third, some instructors take a more nuanced position and argue that it’s not appropriate to assign journal articles to lower division classes, but that juniors and seniors in advanced courses are ready for the challenge posed by professional journal articles.

I explain my choice of reading materials by emphasizing why I object to assigning professional journal articles to undergraduates, even those in advanced classes. First, articles in the top journals are written for people who have PhD’s in the field. Published articles are the survivors of a rigorous selection process in which only 5 to 10% of the submitted articles make it through the review process. Typically, two or three people with PhD’s in the field have had to certify that the article meets a field’s highest standards of conceptual thinking and methodological prowess. If our undergraduates can truly understand articles that have made it through this gauntlet, then what is the point of asking people to earn a PhD in the field? If you don’t need a PhD to understand articles published in professional journals, then why not just settle for a bachelor’s degree and save a lot of expense?

Second, my colleagues sometimes answer this objection by saying that they tell students not to bother with the technical parts of the article. Instead, they assign only the non-technical parts of the article and tell the students that the rest will be explained in class. I wonder whether it’s prudent to essentially insult students’ intelligence by telling them that even though the article is important enough to assign in class, the students don’t have enough knowledge – – are too ignorant? – – to understand everything they will be asked to read. The professor, as the expert, will explain it to them. If that’s the case, why not just lecture on what is in the article in the first place, rather than assigning it?

Third, in my observations, I’ve noticed that instructors who assign current journal articles then need to spend significant amounts of class time, explaining the article to frustrated students. Such exercises puzzle me because an instructor who has had five or six years of graduate training must find a way to simplify the story enough that students with no prior background will understand. If that’s the case, why not just lecture on the article from the start and not assign something that we know students can only partially understand? Asking students to read material over their heads seems like too much effort for too little reward.

Rather than try to reconcile these dueling positions point by point, I suggest a better way to think about the issue is to use the backward design approach to syllabus construction. Instructors should ask themselves, “why am I assigning this article? What do I want to achieve? Is there a better way? Is this the only way?” If the goal is to show students state-of-the-art thinking in our field, instructors could choose an article from journals published by professional associations that represent the public face of the discipline to people without PhD’s in the subject.

For example, here is the description of Contexts, a journal published by the American Sociological Association: “Contexts is a quarterly magazine about society and social behavior. Published quarterly as the public face of sociology, it is directed to anyone interested in the latest sociological ideas and research. Contexts seeks to apply new knowledge, stimulate fresh thinking, and disseminate important information produced by the discipline. Articles synthesize key findings, weave together diverse strands of work, draw out implications for policy, and debate issues of controversy. The hallmarks of Contexts are accessibility, broad appeal, and timeliness. By design, it is not a technical journal, but a magazine for sociologists, social and behavioral scientists, and others who wish to be current about important developments in social research, social science knowledge, emerging trends, and their relevance.”

Instructors can assign articles by authors who are excellent at translating social scientific research into accessible prose, such as Malcolm Gladwell. For example, rather than assign technical articles on social networks by authors such as Mark Granovetter, Brian Uzzi, or Ron Burt, I assign Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.” Through his superb analysis of what made a Chicago activist a powerful figure in local public policy debates, Gladwell illustrates most of the important concepts in social network analysis. The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, and news analysis articles in papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, provide excellent content that can generate well-informed classroom discussions as well as providing as examples for instructors’ lectures.

Seen through the lens of a backward design approach, the choice of undergraduate reading material is made with course goals in mind. What are the instructional objectives of the course? What are the goals for each day within the course? How will an assigned reading enable an instructor to create a context in which students can learn course concepts and principles?

If a primary course goal is to get students to think like professional sociologists, then I would expect to see a staged sequence of lesson plans in which students are gradually brought up to speed so that they can read and understand the current literature. Course content will probably be subordinated to learning new analytic techniques. If, however, the course is described in the course catalog as designed “to help students understand the causes and consequences of social inequality in advanced capitalist societies,” the readings should be chosen with that goal in mind. Textbooks, nonprofit organizations’ websites, blog posts, magazine articles, and so forth are all possible vehicles for supplying the material needed for such a course. I suggest reframing the debate about whether to assign professional journal articles. Instead, we should think about how assigned articles help instructors achieve course goals. There may be some specific conditions under which it makes sense to assign current journal articles to undergraduates, but that choice should be made with course goals in mind, rather than a general desire to “show students the current state of the field.”

POSTSCRIPT: My colleague, Neal Caren, told me that he recently learned that the MCAT social sciences section has students read and interpret article summaries. He likes them because he can get a sense of what they are like from the practice ones on the Khan Academy website.

https://www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/mcat/social-sciences-practice/social-science-practice-tut/e/socioeconomic-gradients-in-health

In Neal’s opinion, these passages strike the right balance by introducing students to research and theory testing without overwhelming them. 

Teaching: It’s Not About You, It’s About Them

In reviewing a performance of the Dorrance Dance Company, a New York Times critic praised Michelle Dorrance, the company’s founder and lead choreographer. The critic commented on their excellent collective work as well as the virtuosity of their solo performances. After noting that Michelle was the most prominent and ubiquitous tap dancer in America, he pointed out that it was easy to tell who she was – – she was the company member who had the fewest solos. Although it seems odd that the head of a company would give herself the fewest solos during a performance, it made a lot of sense to me. Like her father, Anson Dorrance, the winningest women’s soccer coach in the NCAA, Michelle emphasizes creating the conditions that allow each of her troupe to realize their full potential. The performance was not about her, it was about them.

As I reflected on the simplicity of her genius (she won a 2015 MacArthur genius award), I recognized that it exposed all that was wrong with what I’ve been observing on my occasional strolls past a local  classroom during the past semester. The instructor usually left the door ajar, and so was easy to hear his booming voice, echoing down the hall. In the first week or so of the semester I wasn’t surprised to hear only him, but as the weeks turned into months, it became increasingly clear that his was usually the only voice to be heard from that room. I peered in – – there were about 15 students, sitting around a set of tables arranged in a square .The instructor stood at the front, next to the screen on what he was projecting PowerPoint slides, talking. And talking. And talking.

I thought I must just be passing by at inopportune moments. In a humanities seminar, students surely would be offering their own observations on the material. I even shared a running joke with one of my colleagues whose office was near the classroom. She knew the instructor and so occasionally I stopped by her office after observing another monologue and joked that I still hadn’t heard a student’s voice. She said she knew him and thought that he must be a good instructor, but by the middle of the term, I demurred.

 I noted that he was teaching a class organized around his own views of the material, his own interpretations, not theirs. Out of 15 students, surely there must be other views. When will they have an opportunity to test their understanding against others? How would they even know how their classmates interpret the material? He walks into the classroom,puts his voice on play, and then dominates the next 50 minutes. It’s not about them, it’s about him.

In this era of flipped classrooms,active learning, and student-centered instruction, why does such archaic pedagogy persist? When I can figure out a polite way to introduce myself to the instructor, I suspect I will find that he is well-intentioned and probably not conscious of the extent to which he dominates the classroom. (I hesitate to say“classroom discussion” because I never really heard any.) But he has approached the design of this seminar from the wrong direction. Instead of thinking about ways to achieve the learning goals of the seminar by empowering the students,he has designed the class so that he is telling the students what he knows.Students have few opportunities to tell him what they know (or, probably, don’t know). As I pointed out in several of my other posts, talking is not teaching.In seminars, instructors who do most of the talking are like captains who add so much ballast to their ships that they sink of their own weight.

Even if you are the world’s expert on the topic of your seminar, follow Michelle Dorrance’s lead and allow your students to show their stuff. Listen to them more and talk less yourself.

Teaching a class? Be the 1st to arrive

When I leave my office and head for class, I’ve noticed that my step quickens noticeably. I feel excited about the class I’m about to teach and eager to share with the students what I’ve learned about the day’s topic. However, I also walk briskly because I want to arrive in the classroom before my students do. My goal is always to be the first to arrive so that I’m there to greet the students as they enter. This may seem like a minor detail in the greater scheme of all things pedagogic, but I actually have a well thought out plan for this tactic.

Workers in the Great Depression

Men arriving at work

First, arriving early gives me the opportunity to engage in small talk with individual students about the course and how things are going for them. Information gleaned from these discussions may generate a question that I bring to the general class discussion or may lead to modifications in an assignment I had planned. For example, students might point out some better contemporary examples of the principles discussed in a reading or they might have seen something in social media that’s worth mentioning to the whole class. I also find out about what’s happening in their other classes, which is information I can often work into our class discussion. Some students will be motivated to show up early because they want to hear what I’m telling other students – – they don’t want to miss anything.

Second, chatting informally with the students who have arrived early gives me a window into college life in general. Has sorority rush started yet? Is anybody in the class a candidate for election to student government? Are students excited about an upcoming appearance by our women’s soccer team in the conference tournament? Some of what I learn can be used subsequently as examples in the class discussion. For example, issue-oriented student groups are very active on my campus and their organizing tactics make for great examples in a social movement course. Generally, I get a good sense of the pulse of the campus and the rhythm of students’ daily lives.

Third, students are often willing to share things with me before class starts that they would not mention when their peers are seated around them. For example, did they find the readings for the day difficult? Why? Are they worried about meeting deadlines for the term paper? Revealing such anxieties to everybody, once the class is underway, can be a daunting experience for shy students. By contrast, as I walk around the room before class starts, engaging in small talk, I find they are more likely to open up and reveal such concerns. Speaking to students individually, or in small groups prior to the start of class, is particularly helpful for students who are nervous about speaking during a large class session.

Fourth, my students often use this time to ask me questions about how I spent the weekend, how I feel about recent political events, and so forth. Students often seem surprised that I have a life outside of the classroom, one that includes children and grandchildren. Sharing – – but not over-sharing – – some recent events in my life helps to humanize me as more than just their instructor. In my experience, this also helps in making students feel comfortable about coming to visit me during office hours.

Fifth, showing up early carries significant symbolic value. It signals to the class that you take teaching seriously and are prepared to put in whatever time it takes. When students realize that I will be in the classroom 15 minutes before the official start of class, they start showing up early as well. Often, almost all the students are seated several minutes before the “beginning” of class. Few people walk in late, where “late” is defined as not being seated at the official starting time. In contrast, were I to set a bad example by coming in just before class started, I would be encouraging my students to do the same.

Sixth, setting aside time in your daily schedule to leave your office early to head off to class will give you a bit of extra time for those unusual circumstances that sometimes disrupt your schedule. If a student visiting your office hours has an issue that needs more time or if an emergency phone call keeps you in your office for a few extra minutes, you will still arrive well in advance of the starting time. Do not treat arriving early as an option or you will end up finding the time occupied and you won’t ever get to class early. However, on rare occasions when “stuff happens,” you will still arrive on time for the start of class, given your new routine.

I strongly suggest you try out this practice at the beginning of the next term. Make it a routine practice for all your courses. Arriving 10 to 15 minutes before the published start time will make a dramatic difference in how much you know about your students, how much they know about you, and in creating a more comfortable and positive classroom atmosphere.