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Resisting the Robo-Assignment
May 2, 2012 - 9:14pm

Last week I felt depressed about how many automated approaches to producing and grading writing were coming on the market and I ended my gloomy thoughts with an exhortation.

Think about your assignments that ask students to find sources and write about them. What are you hoping students will learn? Are they learning it? Is there a way to make the whole process less mechanical?

I got an email from an acquaintance suggesting that it would be useful if I actually tried to answer that question myself. Fair enough; I’ll give it a shot, and then open it up for others to add their ideas.  At this time of year there’s a good chance you’re either in the throes of grading final projects or you’re catching your breath and perhaps wondering what you might want to do differently next time.

Let's start at the beginning. The way we teach writing from sources or researched writing in the first year is generally intended to prepare students for college-level writing and give them experience finding and using the kinds of sources they will be expected to cite later as they explore ideas in the disciplines. The trouble is that writing papers based on a robotic set of practices - finding sources, extracting a few quotes, knitting them together – is not easy, but manageable if you adopt some shortcuts that then become ingrained habits. It’s the rare first year student who can read and understand difficulty papers, extract main points, think about the implications, write something insightful about them in a way that is clear, organized, and formal but not fake – and has the motivation to do all this time-intensive work for an audience of one. We know from Project Information Literacy and other studies that students tend to establish habits early that they use throughout college. We are tutoring students into habits that will not serve them well - unless writing robo-papers is the goal.

There is no reason that we have to teach navigating the library, evaluation of sources, close reading, organizing ideas in written form, citation rules, and how and whether to summarize, paraphrase, or quote directly from sources all in a single, high-stakes assignment.

If you want your students to practice working with sources, there’s nothing wrong with giving them sources that you know are worth reading and writing about. Or if you want them to get the idea that sources are real people talking to other people, have them seek out sources through the citation network rather than throwing keywords at Google or a library database. Google is a terrific tool, but it’s not like the Memex machine that Vannevar Bush envisioned as a precursor to the Internet in 1945. He envisioned us being able to establish “trails of association” through which we could follow ideas. Yes, that sounds like hyperlinks – but it sounds even more like the citation network formed by scholars connecting their ideas with others’ through acknowledging and commenting on related work. (This is very different than the idea students have that citations are a required list of ingredients provided in fine print that nobody reads.) Google and library databases are designed more like shopping sites. The social nature of knowledge is not particularly apparently when you’re throwing keywords into search boxes and selecting articles from the results list.

While research and writing seem naturally tied together, they dont' have to be assigned that way. If you want to engage students in seeking and using information, rather than tie it to a paper, you might have students do research on the fly in ways that contribute to the course. The more impromptu and driven by curiosity these research tasks are, the more it will convey that inquiry is a normal part of everyday life.  For example, you could:

  • Develop a rotation of students assigned to find answers to questions that turn up during class sessions and have them report out at the beginning of the next class.
  • Three or four times during the semester ask students to find how scholars have tackled the issues raised in current news related to your course.
  • Have students look up and provide biographical background and context for authors whose work you are reading in class.
  • Have small groups provide a briefing paper on a key reading or concept that puts it in historical context.
  • Have students create a glossary of key words for the class using reference sources in the library.
  • Have students fact check a dubious news story or website related to the course.
  •  Have students use Google Scholar’s citations to trace the influence of an assigned reading.
  • When starting a new topic, ask students to bring in information about it to create a timeline, a glossary, or a list of important people related to the issue.

Those are my first thoughts on how to answer the question I posed last week. I'm also stashing resources on this topic in a public Zotero group. Feel free to add to it.

What ideas do you have? Are there things you've tried - or would like to try - that involve students in the intellectual inquiry that research paper assignments are intended to foster - but so rarely do?











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