It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks, gearing up for the new term, and also standing in for a colleague who has been away. It’s a strange thing, taking someone else’s course for a brief period of time – particularly during the first couple of weeks of a new term, which tend to set the tone and expectations for the rest of the course. I wonder just how far I’ve deviated from what they would have done with their students early on.
The course is called “Social Construction of the Self”, and I’ve had a great deal of fun watching how the students dealt with this concept. For the most part, they have dealt with it as many academics do (at least tacitly): treating the concept of social construction as what L Magee often calls “an irregular verb” – expressing positions that can best be characterised as: he is constructed; she is constructed; you are constructed; they are constructed; I am objectively true… Over and over in class discussion, the students expressed that they understood this social construction stuff – no sweat: all these other societies, all the rest of human history – constructed. No problem. But they persisted in using metaphors of unveiling, of discovery, of peeling away the layers – such that their current perspective somehow always ended up being positioned as the unconstructed truth that all those other – visibly constructed – positions just hadn’t yet managed to reach.
It was lovely – I had enormous fun with this. I gave examples, I drew pictures, I asked questions, I poked and prodded – and I completely, utterly, and absolutely failed to put a dent in the reflex asymmetry and exceptionalism of the students’ positions. It’s not that the students rejected the notion of social construction – that would have led to a very different sort of interaction. It’s that, as far as they were concerned, they were accepting the notion (which itself is interesting, and perhaps indicative of the students’ belief that a course with this title “expects” them to accept its namesake concept – by rights, I’d expect at least some students to query the premise – but I’ll leave this issue aside). It’s just that the position they thought they were accepting, involved some kind of recognition of how all those benighted and unenlightened other folk had constructed things – thus covering over the truth that we have now unveiled. It was glorious – I don’t think I managed to communicate to a single student the question of what it might mean to think about the “construction” of their own positions. So now I’ll be missing the course the rest of the term, wondering whether I would have remained so ineffective if I’d had the whole thirteen weeks…
While I was being ineffectual in other people’s courses, I decided I would do further damage by evangelising my particular views on academic writing. I do this, of course, to my own students all the time – but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to interfere with someone else’s students, as well. I have three major demands for student writing: that they treat other texts as arguments, rather than as authorities; that they empathise before they criticise; and that they write in order to effect a change in their reader.
The first is fairly easy to explain, and is basically just an iatrogenic issue related to how they were taught to write in high school: most students come to university inclined to treat all texts like encyclopaedias – as repositories of consensus information, rather than as arguments or attempts to effect a particular change in their readers. This leads to students seizing and rephrasing random bits of text, and then tossing a Harvard cite to the source in parentheses, with no attention to whether that text might be making a tendentious claim, whether it might disagree with the text they cite in the next sentence, etc.
The second is also reasonably easy to communicate, although very difficult for most students to do: I want students to demonstrate that they’ve made the attempt to make sense of a text – by paying very, very close attention to what it says, and how, before they leap breathlessly into judgement, telling me whether they agree or disagree. Learning to get into someone else’s text is difficult, and students don’t get as much practice doing this as I’d like (I gather this must be more of an issue for me than it seems to be for many other staff – which makes some sense, given that I’m generally teaching history and theory, while many of the other courses students take will focus more on pre-professional training). When the course theme allows it, I tend to spend a great deal of time on this issue in my classes.
The third is perhaps the strangest thing to attempt to teach. I used to express this point by telling students that academic writing involves making an argument. This seemed like a close approximation of what I was after, given that students in my courses are generally writing academic essays. This instruction, though, seemed to lead students in some strange directions. What I tended to get on initial assignments was something I’ve been calling “argumentative show-and-tell”: students would write whatever they were writing and then, in the final paragraph, and often with no relation to what came before and no supporting evidence or analysis, would suddenly burst out with something like, “But I think x…” End of essay.
I found this pattern very confusing, until I realised that this was how students were interpreting my request that they “make an argument”: they thought an “argument” was, essentially, a stance – a declaration of their position. And they treated this stance or position as if it were something like a static and fixed possession – something they could describe, but not something that had any intimate connection to the process that structured and motivated their writing as a whole. More fundamentally, there was something strangely autobiographical in their approach – the reader was somehow not in the frame – they weren’t writing to persuade someone else to think a particular way, or to effect some transformation in another person, but rather to make some kind of authentic declaration about themselves. I’ve found that this final point – writing for a reader – structuring writing to attempt to effect some specific transformation in those who encounter the writing – the most difficult to communicate successfully.