Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Question of Discipline

Lenny Sanchez, one of my students, came by to go over his last paper and plot strategy for his next one. When talking about future iterations of the course, he suggested to me that one way I might work more classroom dialogue into the class is by reducing my coverage of history by as much as half and making students much more accountable for their reading in order to obtain historical knowledge. The need to make more time for discussion is vital. Where we’ve had most of the open discussion is during the prep sessions. But it’s at that point that they’re most able to actually discuss the material, as they begin to argue with a background of knowledge. And the dialogues are superb. We do need more of those moments, though. Two or three a term isn't enough.

Of course this constructive engagement comes to me by way of one of the most methodical undergraduate students I’ve met in my career. I can count on Lenny to read. The same is not true of most undergraduates. But his point is well taken—I do mirror their reading a great deal. The current system is not adding as much value as it could. Lenny asked me what the central message of the course was. I told him that the central message is that while the content of any prejudice is entirely constructed, prejudice itself is endemic to human nature. The content of a particular prejudice is taught, but in the absence of that teaching, we’d simply go ahead and create new prejudices reflexively. The most that we can do is to internalize the discipline of trying to control our bias. This is a lifelong struggle. We will never be beyond the effect of prejudice. Lenny’s response was to say that my core message is getting lost in the history. What could be more disturbing for a teacher?

The multiple choice quiz is undoubtedly unpopular. What I used to do for students in the writing link is make them timeline, which frankly, seems to me to be far more work. Yet I’ve never encountered the resistance to the timeline that I do to the multiple choice quiz. It’s as if the students resent the very fact that they are required to use their memory. That itself I find offensive. One can’t speak coherently about the facts if one doesn’t know them. Yet if it is my goal to better prepare them for the paper, I personally think the timeline is more beneficial. Perhaps I should return to that.

I’ve never really liked the idea, but I might try using the Socratic method and just randomly call on people to present the material and assume they’ve internalized the data on a level necessary to discuss it. I don’t know quite what to do yet. I do know that I can’t teach this the way I teach an intro level class. In order to understand this, they must reach a higher level of discipline. If they don’t attain that discipline needed to understand it, it is definitely better that they not attempt it at all. I actively prefer that they not. The half-baked idiotically loose images that people have of this conflict are a core part of why it is so lethal. I refuse to become part of the problem. But Ellis has always made a point of telling me, “Look, Talal, I understand what you’re saying. But that isn’t going to shut down their curiosity. They’re still going to look for an easy answer. Slapping their hand and telling them to behave isn’t going to solve the problem.”

At the start of term, Glenn Mackin and I were having a conversation. He suggested that the ideas are what make the detail worthwhile. But the difficulty is that one can’t understand these particular ideas well without a strong command of the detail. But I need to find some way of making them want to master the detail. What they want is a fun little pseudo-seminar where they get a smattering of the tastes and colors of the ideas and get to play with them and explore. That’s absolutely out of the question. That said, there is a place for play and exploration, even with ideas as potentially lethal as these. But I’m having trouble finding the boundaries.

How do you make someone want an arsenal of facts at their command?


Dinur said...

I would go with the timeline idea. I think it forces the students to actually engage with the facts and use them, as opposed to rote memorization. I don't know how well the Socratic method would work for a class that doesn't read (the phrase "awkward silent pause" comes to mind). Otherwise, I'm unsure of what to do, but if I can think of something, I'll definitely let you know. I'll try to call in the next few days (sorry I didn't earlier, got tired after work).

And by the way, your idea of drinking powerade/gatorade worked wonders! Thanks!

Cuphound said...

Hey Dinur--

(1) Very glad you're feeling better.

(2) Your (and my students') bias against rote memorization is something that I don't get. If the ability to argue is going to be honed to a reflex, one can't always be groping for facts like a moron. I can get why my students' don't care. Many are simply interested in "sampling" ideas the way one nibbles for at a buffet. But YOU definitely aren't in that category. And you can rattle off LOTS of sports statistics and names. What gives?

See, I like timelining because it forces them to organize facts into sequence. What I like about the multiple choice approach is it forces them to actually KNOW the facts, rather than clumsily talk their way around them.

I've never tried the Socratic method before. I'd probably roll a twenty-sided die and call on them randomly. What I would do is simply make a point of dismissing students who hadn't read on the spot. Maybe give them three "passes" per term where they could recuse themselves from being called on in a session. The "awkward silent pause" is transformed to shame. It's worked well in limited doses. I've never used it as a system, though.

Dinur said...

Hey Talal,

The sports stuff isn't because I try to memorize it (rather, if something stands out to me, it sticks into the memory). But academically, I think it's more beneficial to wrestle with/integrate the facts (i.e. timeline, writing essays) than straight memorization (i.e. multiple choice). Herein lies the rub: In order to effectively integrate and use facts, one must have them (a case for memorization). However, what concerns me is that after memorizing a set of facts, the students would forget it (it's happened to me), and the facts become well, useless, because they've been remembered for a certain period of time, and not really used. Sorry if I've phrased this poorly, I'll try to talk this out more when we talk voice to voice (just remind me! =))

Michelle said...

What I would do is simply make a point of dismissing students who hadn't read on the spot.

Oh my is that bringing back memories of sitting in Belkacem Baccouche's class and having him pointing to us randomly and shouting out a verb and asking us to give it in the fourth, seventh, or whatever form and waving his hand in disgust when you or one of us poor girls couldn't do it...

Granted, I'd already had all that material before so I was usually able to shout it out right back -- or rather, meekly blurt it out. I may have known my shit most of the time but the guy intimidated the hell out of me (yes, I know, he got nice after I left).

At any rate, when it comes to this question I find I have a great deal of sympathy for your desire to have students master the details. I mean, you're so right that when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, you've got to know the details before you can have discussion or you do end up with lethal, foolish, half-baked loose images.

I guess for me what always makes me want to know an arsenal of details is having to argue a point knowing that it's only with those details will I win my arguement. Most of that happens in a paper, for which the timeline would be sufficient. But when one is discussing an issue verbally, you can't be groping around for a timeline. You either know your shit or you don't and it's apparent for all to see.

While it wouldn't work for this term, perhaps some sort of debate/student-led discussion/presentation, etc. might work for that. I know in Israel/Palestine courses in the past which I've been in, the inspiration to know the facts has sometimes come from listening to guest speakers either butcher the facts or use facts to prove a point.

I dunno. I suppose it's that you have to have some emotional attachment to the subject to have that hunger to know the facts. I don't think your students have much emotional attachment.

Cuphound said...

I want to thank you both. You've really helped me sort this. I think next time I teach Arab-Israeli, I'm going with the timeline approach. It worked in the past without creating too much resistance. Both of you have stressed that the will to memory is borne of interest and passion and an awareness that the price must be paid to express that passion. The level of internalization I am stressing is inappropriate for an undergraduate course.

The truth is, most of these facts will be forgotten irrespective of what I do. That's why I always try to instill critical reading and argumentative writing as a part ofe very course that I teach. They may not choose to internalize the skill once they've been forced to do it, but that is their choice. If I make them do it once, they can see what the discipline achieves and then make a real choice.

I'm not the Princeton Review. I don't want to teach the art of taking a multiple choice examination. While a clear mastery of the facts can indeed help them to be a better reader and writer, the multiple choice exam is not cost effective. Whether they are right or wrong to resist the method, they plainly do. Overcoming that is a cost. If I expend the resources needed to overcome that resistance, I lose too much in other areas of their mental development. Pushing for higher precsion doesn't pay off at this level.

There's a limit to how far I can take them. They'd have to want it more for me to be able to push them harder. Students who want it more will go to graduate school. They'll get it there.

I'll try to reduce lecture by a quarter, but not by half. Yes, more dialgoue is needed, but at their level of discipline, that much "exploration" time will turn the class into an "information buffet" where people sample ideas and "express themselves" by emoting all over the carpet. They surely don't need to be made that happy. This is a university, not Disneyland.

Discipline is the cost of being allowed to use the imagination, because discipline is the cost of making the imaginary real. That is not negotiable, because that's real life. I'll teach them the discipline if they want it, but I won't indulge their imagination without the discipline. Doing that would be a lie. I won't lie to them.

Yes, there's an upper limit, but there's also a lower one. Both have to be respected.

Sean said...

Two thoughts from the political center of the universe.

1) Lecture more. The dialogue was always a waste of time. Student engagment even at the graduate level was dubious and becomes dominated by a few individuals. Many students will not participate if they feel the direction of the teacher and prize students is veering in one direction or another. At AU we called it Duck and Cover.

The fundamental question are you the expert who the studentis paying to hear or are you running a communications course and debate class. Ask Jerry Hyman qualified to stand up here and espouse his position on Palestinian and Arab that the view point I want my students to hear.

2) Multiple choice exams should not even be considered, they are inaccurate and a waste of time. Essays only. Sure people forget things, but they should be focused enough on exam day to get through it.

3) I agree with throw them out. Not that its a shame, I doubt students are shamed about anything, its just a waste of your time. If you want particpation and ensure they read it make them write a 5 page book review on every book you make them read. One report for eveyr 350 pps or two a week. If they fail to do the review then they can't come to class. Make each paper worth 5% and each class particpation 10%. That should spice it up and get order and progress.

When in doubt ask yourself what Aquaman would do.