Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Things I Find Myself Writing on Assignments

“We don’t usually have strong data on the start of mankind.”

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6 responses to “Things I Find Myself Writing on Assignments

  1. Carl August 21, 2008 at 4:42 am

    Or the dawn of time.

    Data on throughout history is plentiful, but for this reason difficult to deploy effectively in 3-5 pages.

    “Some people” do indeed think various things, including perhaps this thing. Who exactly, and how do we know?

  2. N Pepperell August 21, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Carl, I also hear that various people argue various things – and that this is the main conclusion we can draw from all that data on throughout history…

  3. Joe August 23, 2008 at 11:13 am

    In what sense did you or your student mean by “mankind” and “started” here?

  4. N Pepperell August 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    lol – well, that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it? :-)

    The issue is that this is a very common sort of gesture, when students have the impression that they have to make a “significant” argument – and “significance” is taken as something that can only be shown with reference to timelessness, universality, world historical import, etc.

    For this course, students have free choice of their research topic, but must do some sort of original research, and defend what they choose to look at, how they choose to look at it, and what conclusions they want to draw, after they’ve looked in that way. There’s nothing in the course that suggests that anyone needs to look at something that has been going on since time immemorial (if anything, I’ve actually gone out of my way to expose students to research on subjects that might be considered ephemeral – precisely to try to open up the sense of what is an “appropriate” research topic).

    Most students are mainly investigating something that has caught their attention because it’s timely or topical in some way. And generally it’s clear from their essays that this is what makes the research attractive to them – the novelty or timeliness of the topic. For many students, though, it’s just tough to let go of the sense that they still have to justify their topic by claiming it’s important in some timeless and universal way. This leads to papers that show contradictory impulses – making clear, in part of the paper, that they are investigating a new phenomenon while, in another paper of the same paper, trying to claim the new phenomenon has been around since the dawn of time, etc.

    This isn’t… how do I put it: this is an iatrogenic problem to some degree. It emerges as students try to grapple with the requirements we’re placing on them, in light of their past academic experiences. So getting a gesture like this in an undergraduate paper doesn’t really signify something about the individual student or their project – it’s more like one of the common symptomatic responses to students’ early encounters with a new intellectual environment…

  5. Carl August 28, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Sorry, data are.

    It’s not just students who need their findings to be bigbigbig. How many conference papers have I heard and books have I read that claim to be a major contribution to / reconceptualization of our understanding of everything all at once, then cut to the data and it’s legume consumption and methane emission trends in medieval Thuringia?

    Why is this?

  6. N Pepperell August 28, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Now Carl, I’m quite sure my undergraduate work was on a topic quite closely related to legume consumption and methane emission trends in medieval Thuringia – why else would the medieval warming period have occurred – and what topic could possibly be more salient in its contemporary relevance? I mean, when I talk about people wanting their findings to be bigwig, some of us have findings that… just patently are

    (I’m always amused by titles in this respect – particularly when the direct object of the research is buried away in the subtitle… “Why Humans Are What They Are: a Participant Observation of My Local Laundromat on the Occasional Saturday”, etc.)

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