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.