Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Writing as conversation and as process

For the past two days, my five sections of composition have been at the library for instruction. Each class has had 75 minutes with our instructional librarian, who has created a lecture and hands-on activites to get them involved in a research process that will eventually (by mid March), help them produce a draft of a researched essay.

The students have a tremendous amount of choice in their project topics, regardless of 111 or 112. They don't get to choose the product format, which is admittedly "academic" in an attempt to meet some of the learning outcomes of the courses. But at this stage of the game, they are just starting to figure out their topics and what they might do to learn about these interests. What's been most interesting to me has been to watch what happens when they are encouraged not to fixate on the target of the final paper that uses a minimum of 5 sources, but to explore the resources available to them to learn about their topic. 

Since the 112 students have wide open topics (I've used the Vlog Brothers concept of "world suck" as a frame for a problem-solution type essay, which I'll model after solutions journalism writing), we dialed back to concept mapping before we even let them into the databases. Some students were stumped by te idea of being able to write down any word they might associate with their topic. Yet, when I asked them questions like "where does that happen?" or "who does that affect?", they were able to ome up with more words. This makes me wonder what we can do to encourage better questions and makes me think that I might have to finally (in my copious spare time), go back and explore things like The Right Question Institute's work.

Kevin explained to both 111 and 112 students about how databases work and that computers are stupid. Most of them don't really understand how searches work, conceptually, and Kevin has a couple of really interesting anaolgies that help them see that computers don't really think about what a record means.

We also worked out a guided practice that forces them to look at a couple of different databases, record the process of searching, and pay attention to what the resources have to offer to help facilitate better results. Even still, many of them get so fixated on the search results that they don't see anything in the frame around the database. For example, one of the questions asked students to find the 7th source that comes up in their sarch of any database. One of the questions asks the students to write down the MLA citation for that source. Some databases, like Ebsco's, have a "Cite" link in the tools menu on the right have portion of the screen. But, since it wasn't in the center with the article, some students couldn't find this helpful resources. Another question asked students to identify the type of source the 7th record was. Some couldn't do that, despite the database's identifcation of the source as "academic journal" or "news article" in the list of results or from the title listed in the source field of the record.

All of this makes me question what we mean when we say that a student didn't pass a composition course. Is it that the student didn't have the information literacy skills to help them ask and answer questions? Is it that the student didn't have the academic literacy to write in a way that looked like it was "scholarly" or "school-like"? Is it that the student didn't have the motivation to engage in or sustain a research process? Is it that the student couldn't process the reading well enough to write about or in response to it? Or maybe is it that the student's material conditions (work, family life, transportation, etc.) came into conflict with the demands of the course?

I wonder how much of this gets unpacked when we talk about "failing students" or "failing schools"? 

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