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NaBloPoMo 5

5 November, 2006

NaBloPoMo 5

Remember, remember.

What we didn’t know is what our students don’t know — only arguably more so

I’m reviewing a draft for one of my freshmen. The paper is a review of a scholarly article. This may be one of the best drafts I’ve ever read — and it’s an absolutely crap paper. It’s written badly (OMG — the sentence structure, or lack thereof!). It’s hugely self-referential. It’s just pretty awful, full stop. But it’s teaching me a lot.

The review is of ‘Ancient Historian’s “Ancient history Article on something Important” ‘[sic — ish]. The student picked out the thesis, and then tells me that it’s a very bad article. S/he does this in no uncertain terms. Why is it bad? Because the author has included passages in some other unidentifiable language (Student then asks how people are supposed to understand all that and the author should have translated or something). There are also abbreviations (e.g., “Cicero (Att. 14. 13a)” and “SC”) that are unclear. The student is very clear in their (I know, but we’re doing anonymous pronouns here) complaints, and gives specific examples — in fact, s/he is doing what s/he should be doing, albeit in pretty bad English.

While I’m a little upset that the student didn’t come to me to ask for help, I’m very proud of them for basically forcing their way through the assignment and getting this done. And I’m actually grateful. Sometimes, we forget what it’s like to be introduced to this academic stuff. We forget how alien scholarly writing is to many of our students. Now I know that I need to not just say that a peer-reviewed article (that’s the first part of the assignment, to select an appropriate article) is written by a scholar for other scholars, but I need to take the time to point out the challenges that a student might have, and to let them know that it’s OK to ask when they hit passages written in other languages. I can also remind them that they should be thinking of themselves as junior members of this scholarly community; while it’s appropriate to point out that an article is difficult for a neophyte, the students should also revise their own expectations and their criticisms to reflect an understanding of audience, etc. It’s also a good time to point out that the reason I ask them to get some basic books on their article’s subject is precisely so that, if they run into abbreviations and other such problematic things, they can look them up — which should help them to understand how a book is put together. Don’t laugh — many of my students have never really thought about the structure of a book — why is there a ToC? an Index? a list of abbreviations? a bibliography? Hell, yesterday DV told me that JSTOR is so popular among his undergraduates at Grad U that few of them ever check the stacks!

So this is a painful project, but I really feel fortunate when I am allowed this kind of insight.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 November, 2006 5:25 pm

    …the fifth of November!

  2. 5 November, 2006 9:58 pm

    Umm… Does that really count as today’s blog entry???

  3. 6 November, 2006 1:54 am

    nope — I’ve got one on teaching that I’ll post later, but I have a ton to do and wanted to get something up — and it needed to be done early!

  4. 6 November, 2006 3:34 am

    I get a lot of students who want to respond to readings in this manner — particularly in their first or second year of university. I tell them when the assignment goes out that they need to consider the intended audience of a work — is that specialist monograph or article something that is likely to be targeted at the general interest audience or relatively advanced researchers? What are the skills those researchers are expected to have — be able to read Latin, French, German, Italian, etc.?If they actually get that far in their thinking process, they’re learning a lot about what’s expected of at least one kind of historian. Most of them go running back to modern, North American topics at that point.

  5. 6 November, 2006 3:43 am

    This was a good reminder that people really don’t know what it is that we do — nor do they understand what kinds of skills we have to acquire to do what we do. It helps to explain a lot about why academics — and especially historians (because ‘anybody can do history’) are undervalued in our society.

  6. 6 November, 2006 11:28 pm

    This makes me think of how we box ourselves so tightly into our little categories of study.The first time I ran across “PLRE” in a citation, it drove me crazy . . . It kept coming up again and again, but there was never enough context to decipher it. I finally managed somehow, and I remember being particularly surprised because my advisor didn’t know it, either. In retrospect, though, she studies Hellenistic monarchs–why would she ever have needed the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire? If it’s so hard to read across one little subfield, no wonder neophytes have such a difficult time.

  7. 7 November, 2006 1:05 am

    Seriously. And really, I think that we should make sure to not abbreviate without an explanation. And I’ve used the PLRE any number of times, but wouldn’t have recognized that unless there was a reference to “Jones, Mattingly” (It is Mattingly, isn’t it?)I keep forgetting to add you to my blogroll!

  8. 15 November, 2006 6:10 pm

    Oh, you’re so right that students really haven’t been taught to think about books (or articles) as physical AND rhetorical structures. This sounds like a great exercise.

  9. 17 November, 2006 11:57 pm

    (Re. using “their” in the singular: Chaucer did it, and so did Shakespeare, so it’s got a pedigree!)

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