In my first year writing class, my students are working on their research paper now. The basic assignment is that they have to come up with a real world question they care about and don't already have a strong opinion about, research the question, and write a paper detailing their answer, or the current state of knowledge. (That "opinion bit" means that someone who is completely sure of some social issue doesn't bore the dickens out of me repeating old arguments. But it also leaves open a way for someone who's truly trying to figure out how they feel about a serious social issue to research the issue and come to a position.)
Yesterday, we used about half the class for group brainstorming. In preparation, the students spent a few minutes free-writing and making a list of the things they need help with most as they work on their essay. They prioritized their list, and each had to share the most important or urgent item or problem with the class, one at a time. Then the class brainstormed together to try to help solve the problem or make good suggestions about finding a solution.
Sometimes that meant we brainstormed together to come up with questions from a broad topic. Even though, from the beginning, I've tried to frame the assignment in terms of questions, a few have been thinking in terms of a topic. Our group brainstorming was another chance to try to redirect their thinking to the question approach. For example, a student might say he wants to write about diabetes, without having a specific question about it. With another person from the class writing on the board, we all come up with as many specific questions as we can, from causes to treatments to genetics and chemistry. Pretty much any question's fair game to go on the board. And when we finish, the student has a bunch of potential questions, and (I hope!!) a stronger sense of trying to find an answer to a question rather than writing about a topic.
Sometimes, all we could offer was a suggestion to talk to a reference librarian about finding resources. That's a good reminder in any case, since librarians know how to find lots of things more efficiently than most of us.
I want students to think about who knows answers and information about their question because in the world outside academics, knowing who's likely to know something makes the world so much easier. One of my students yesterday had a question about an political issue, and I remembered from an earlier discussion that he's taking a political science class. So I asked him if he'd asked his political science prof about the question. He hadn't. Well, gosh, I said (except not really), you should! We professors spent however many years working in some field to learn a ton about it because we find it fascinating, love it, and want to talk about it. And then we sit in office hours... and if a student comes in with a question about our field, well, we just go wild! What could be better than having someone want to talk about stuff we love with us? I think he's going to go give it a try!
Yesterday's session was especially good. This class has a lot of sharp, engaged students, and they really go to town together. They stayed really focused, positive, and offered good ideas. I love when someone sets up a problem, and another students says something like, "oh, my sister works with X, you could interview her." That happens more often than I would have expected when I started doing this assignment. The personal connection usually means that the sister is willing to give my student a few minutes, when she wouldn't necessarily respond so positively to a random request from a total stranger, even if the stranger knew to ask her.
The class was also non-judgmental, in a good way. I mean, I want them to judge writing, to recognize when something's done really well, uses evidence well, has really effective organization and so forth. But I also want them to be non-judgmental about questions. As long as it's a real question, I want my students to be able to ask it and learn about it. And this class was great about that, with no awkwardness when someone said she wanted to know why many gays want to be able to marry, or when another person wanted to know about the long term effects of anorexia.
All in all, a great session; I wish all my teaching worked this well!
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