Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

So How About Something Not on Marx?

Ckelty over at Savage Minds has a set of pointers up on “How to Read a (Good) Book in One Hour” – it apparently seeks to up the ante on Paul Edwards’ “How to Read” – which provides strategies for reading non-fiction books in six-eight hours…

As is probably evident from my various teaching posts here, I tend to like getting my students to read very difficult material, very closely. Still, I find myself covering techniques like this – not to get students to spend less time on the reading, but because, if I don’t talk about such things, I find that students will try to tackle really complex material in completely new fields in which they have no background, just by picking up the text, starting at word one, and reading through sequentially until the final word (or, more likely, until they become totally lost and give up). Because they have no feel for the overarching strategy or argumentative intent of the text, they then feel betrayed to learn, for example, that the sections at the beginning of an article that they read most closely are often actually sections in which an author was summarising other positions – positions that the author intends then to criticise (do other people have this experience: where students will become very indignant that authors outline positions they don’t hold?). This isn’t even getting into the amount of pain students bring down on themselves trying to do literature reviews or orient themselves to entirely new fields for research purposes, when they don’t have effective strategies for sifting through large amounts of material rapidly in order to figure out what is worth reading closely…

At any rate, I thought it was worth capturing the links here, and inviting conversation on how others socialise students into the process of reading academic literature.

11 responses to “So How About Something Not on Marx?

  1. Nate October 2, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    I’m currently teaching a freshman course where the students are reading about 150 pages of v1 of
    Capital along with other material. So far we’ve done the first 3 sections of ch1, an excerpt of ch1, and all of ch4. It’s about 6-12 pages of Marx per reading. Next time I teach the class I’m going to have the amount of Marx per class slowly start to increase, because they’ve really started to get it – they can unpack his prose, they know most of the terms, etc. That’s pretty cool. Since the assignments are short I’ve also had a number of students (maybe 5 or 10, out of 26) either read ahead or reread multiple times spontaneously. That’s really gratifying, as is the level of conversation. I initially pitched it to them this way: “this is a really hard book. I expect at least some of you not to understand the reading. I expect you to keep reading even if you don’t understand. We’ll work out what confuses you in class.” I also try to push them to make arguments about whether or not Marx is right, and to push on the parts of the reading that seem weird, that they shouldn’t accept Marx’s claims just because he’s Marx. I also try to recognize when they come up with things on their own that parallel debates in the literature, like some of them came in with basically questions about the transformation problem. None of this addresses the data selection questions you raise, though. I feel like I’m still playing catch up on those areas in my own abilities.

  2. rob October 2, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    Your students read?!

  3. N Pepperell October 2, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    Well now, see Nate, this was supposed to be a place for people who don’t want to discuss Marx, and you go and spoil it… 😉

    It’s interesting that you mention that you tend to recognise when students come up with something that’s discussed in the literature: I do that a lot too – both to suggest to the students who might be unsure about their abilities, that they actually can think on this level, and also as an excuse to introduce, in a grounded and contextual way, some of the formal terms that they might run into in the literature, that are intended to capture the same issue they’ve raised in discussion.

    A couple of years ago, though, one of my students (a good student – someone I was recruiting for a PhD), mentioned that he had found this a bit daunting – that it sounded as though, whatever the class came up with, someone else had already come up with, as he put it, “300 years ago”… ;-P So I think I need to work on trying to be a bit clearer about why I’m recognising this… ;-P (Not saying this consideration would apply in your classes – just making fun of myself – it had honestly never occurred to me that students might take it this way, until this student mentioned it…)

    On the issue of encouraging students to think about whether the argument is right or whether it seems weird… this is very difficult. On the one hand, I do want to demystify this kind of material for students – to get them not to treat it “auratically”. On the other hand, I tend to push students to try really hard to understand what a text is trying to do, before they jump in with their own criticisms… This may be an issue of who we’re teaching: students at my current university tend to come in fairly well-armed in the scepticism and anti-authority front – primed, in a sense, to think that texts are nonsense (and also primed with a kind of negative relativism – of the “and it’s all nonsense” variety…). So a great deal of my teaching strategy involves trying to open students to the possibility that there actually are ways of exploring large, meaningful questions – and that some texts adopt extremely complex writing strategies to break some of those questions open… It’s a difficult balancing act…

    I also teach theoretical materials differently from the way I would tackle, say, reading strategies in one of my research methods courses. In the methods classes, I’m much more overtly geared to the sorts of strategies discussed in the linked materials above, because students often have absolutely no idea how to begin to get their heads around the relevant literature – or even how to tell which literature is relevant. It looks completely overwhelming, and students panic and then shut down completely in paralysis at the thought of what they think they need to do – so there’s a major practical need to get a grip on this very quickly.

    For theoretical texts, it’s a bit more complicated, because I really do want students to pay attention to every word – and I’m generally trying to teach them to appreciate the nuances of the texts. And I’m obsessive about students learning to confront primary texts – I assign very, very little secondary material, and when I do assign it, it’s often with the intention of sort of showing how the secondary discussion isn’t doing justice to the primary text… (This is, of course, in introductory theory courses – we don’t really offer theory courses here for students who already have this introductory background.)

    Still, I don’t want students to engage with a text as a sort of “flat” document that can only be read in a certain fixed order, from beginning to end. So I talk about how to get a feel for what the text is trying to do, in order then to get more out of the hard work they spend reading the text in detail…

    But I have no definitive position on this – just working thoughts…

  4. N Pepperell October 2, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    lol – sorry rob: I got interrupted while writing to Nate, left the comment box open, and then didn’t realise you’d commented in the interim.

    I actually make my students read (and it really, honestly, is a coercive process): in my theoretical courses, I’ve taken to making students post reviews of the text before they come to tutorials. To get credit, they must post a review, and participate actively in the discussion. The students generally don’t like doing the reviews (though there is always the odd exception); the marking load is awful, on my end – but the discussions are fantastic and, by the end of the term, students are pleased with themselves for having done the reading and writing, even if they didn’t find the process particularly pleasant.

    For the research students, it’s a whole different game, of course: they must read – and more to the point, they have to make their own decisions about what to read. So they find themselves confronted with… er… an “immense accumulation of discourse”, and they are highly motivated to figure out how to approach it…

  5. Nate October 2, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    NP, I’d love to see what the review assignments are, maybe I’ll start doing the same next term.

    I’ve assigned what exceeds the minimum for ‘writing intensive’ and which feels to me like a lot of writing (and to the students, I said there wasn’t any writing today and one – one who likes me – said “oh thank god” in an exasperated tone). It definitely increases the quality of discussion.

    It’s gratifying that you do the same “you’re talking about a debate topic” and for the same reason. I’d not thought of the “it’s all been done” response. I don’t go into much detail so maybe that helps? 🙂 I also am explicit with praise when I say it – “that’s an insightful question, you’re raising something other commentators have tried to address, it’s cool that you thought of that on your own.”

    Not to turn it into a Marx discussion – it’s not _really_ a Marx discussion, it’s a teaching discussion where I just happen to be teaching Marx… 🙂 – but today they really impressed me. We read ch4, where Marx says that value valorizes itself in the circuit of money as capital. Several students pointed out that this seemed in tension with the idea earlier that value is labor time. They said “if I buy a commodity for $100 then sell it for $110 I haven’t changed the time required for production of the commodity, so where did the money come from?” and went around and around on it. They’re convinced that value is labor time socially necessary, and they’re convinced by chapter 4, and don’t know how to square those. I was a bit coy and kept pushing them to answer each other’s questions. It was a lot of fun. One of my students also pointed out (not in so many words) that for Marx the miser is making a sort of category mistake – the miser who takes pleasure from having a pile of money to display status or feel safe or roll around in or whatever is treating that money as a use value other than being part of the continual series m-c-m’. I thought that was insightful and succinct on her part.

    I’m curious NP, how do you run discussion? I was under the weather a bit today and felt off my game at first so I had a hard time getting students to talk initially. I resorted to calling on someone. When she squirmed a bit I asked the class that someone else let her off the hook (she replied “yes, please”), and then people started jumping in to help her out. That’s what led to the conversations above which ended up quite good. That’s something else I try to do, whenever the students bring things up in discussion that I find genuinely thought provoking, I make a point to say so (especially if they’re generally a quieter student – I’ve found that the students talk more after that, at least the ones who had the insightful comments).

    Re: the research courses, I’m not aware of much like that at all in the US for undergrads, other than individualized programs for higher level undergrads (independent studies etc). The students mostly ‘just’ have to manage reading a large quantity of difficult material, they don’t have to find that material so much. At least that’s the case in my department.

    take care,

  6. Nate October 2, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    Sorry to post twice, but thinking again about class today I remembered that I also try hard to use the terms and examples that the students bring up if at all possible, like if I have a term and an example prepared and they propose a similar one I try to go with their’s or at least start from their’s and transition to what I’d planned. Like one said that in reading the c-m-c and m-c-m’ stuff he kept making them into longer chains (c-m-c-m-c etc) in his head, so I tried to talk about the continuation of the circuit of money capital in those terms. I’m not totally sure but I think it helps them feel like I take them seriously.

  7. N Pepperell October 2, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    In terms of how I run discussions… I may not be the best person to describe what I do – discussions are my favourite form of teaching, and I have a tendency to sort of lose myself in them (whereas lecturing, for example, still feels very unnatural to me, and I think I’m at best passable at it).

    Assuming that I’m using the sort of structure I talked about above, where the students have written on the text before they come to class, and I can therefore count on their having done the reading in a quasi-serious way, I generally spend the first part of the class doing nothing but listening and scribing. I ask students to tell me what the text is doing. This information comes out relatively randomly: I don’t ask any specific questions unless the students are profoundly stuck. But, as people toss things out, I organise the material on the white board – so a structure is being set up out of the discussion, which I can then use for the more organised “mini lecture” that I’ll often give to close the discussion off and clear up any issues that I don’t expect the students to be able to get from what they’ve read.

    I also use the students’ own terms and vocabulary very heavily – but I also often use a side board for more technical terms, which I’ll then explain in the mini-lecture bits in the interstices of the discussion. So, a student will be talking, and I’ll write some synopsis of what they are saying, using their words, on the main board – and then I’ll wander over to the side board and write a technical term, or the name of a theorist, or similar – I don’t interrupt the discussion, but sometimes this will prompt associations in students who have their own background with these technical terms, and it gives me a scaffolding for comments I make at the end.

    (Funny side story: I generally know, of course, which concepts and terms are going to come up in discussion, because of course that’s what I’m trying to get at by assigning specific readings. One day this past term, I was teaching while wretchedly ill, and I wanted to save myself some effort in the classroom, so I got there a bit early and wrote the side-board material in advance. Then, as issues from the side board came up, I would just circle it. It turned out that this really weirded a couple of students out – I got these, “How did you know what we were going to say before we said it?!” comments – and, even funnier, “Do you, like, plan these classes?” ;-P This last suggests that perhaps I’m going a bit too far in giving the impression that my theory classes are spontaneous and student-driven… ;-P I frequently get comments that students expect, when they hear how the class is going to run, that it will be completely disorganised and they won’t learn anything – and then they get surprised at how much can be covered this way…)

    At any rate: my general approach is to let the students take things as far as they can without anything from me. Then I prompt with questions. Then, after that runs down, I’ll do an improv lecture that brings things together, basically shows the students that they have drawn out a great deal more in the discussion than they usually realise they have – and then that provides the sort of “secondary” background that they rely on me for – the connections to broader academic discussions, etc.

    I don’t know if this kind of general description gives much of a sense, though, of what I do in the room… Or even if the things that I’m aware of doing, are really the things that make discussions “work”. My sense from comments I’ve gotten from both students and observers is that what I’m doing strikes people as chaotic at first – that it looks like it’s “risky” or that it might not “come off”. I don’t experience the process this way at all. I’m often surprised at how fantastic the student contributions are – at the really difficult things they do with no assistance from me. But, as long as the students actually have done the readings, there’s really not much risk, from my point of view, of the discussion “failing”.

    In terms of the tacit question you’ve asked about what to do if no one wants to talk: I will call on people if needed (I’m not actually calling on people quite as randomly as it probably looks to students – you can see from body language who is “ready”). But I also have to admit – to my embarrassment – that I’ve structured my class assessments so that students must speak in order to get credit for the reviews they’re writing: the students take turns taking brief notes on the discussion, to keep track of who’s participating. I quietly make exceptions to this requirement to students who are really struggling to speak publicly, but the assessment is structured such that students receive credit for a single reading-review-cum-discussion assessment each week (they can do these for as many weeks as they like – I count the best [x] of these toward their final mark, leaving them room to bail on a number of weeks if their schedule is overwhelming).

    This is incredibly heavy-handed and, as I’ve said, I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it – I’d love to think I could just “inspire” the students into reading and participating, but I’m not that naive… My courses are very demanding, and tend to sit well outside the students’ other classes – students initially don’t think they can do the work required for the class. The heavy-handed assessment requirements break through this very quickly and show the students the benefit of the work I’m asking them to do. I can tell that, at least for a significant percentage of the students, there’s a shift that then takes place after a few weeks: students write on much more than they “have” to, and they attend sessions even when they haven’t done the writing for that week, and therefore don’t get any “credit” for attending. But there’s a bit of… er… primitive accumulation going on in those early weeks…

    In terms of the research courses: those are new, at least at this university and in their current form. The thing is, a standard Australian undergraduate degree is three years (there are exceptions!); Honours degrees involve an additional year, and are sort of quasi-postgraduate courses: you can go straight from an Honours into a PhD program, without getting an MA en route… At the same time, if you’re a research student pursuing an MA or PhD, in many universities here there is no coursework – so that period of professional socialisation into the literature relevant for your field, that takes place in the first year or two of postgraduate coursework in the US, often isn’t available here. There are also generally no comprehensive exams… (Again, there are exceptions, depending on field and university…) So, somehow, in the 3-4 years allocated for a full-time PhD here, students have to orient themselves to their literature, without the coursework and exam support provided in the US… I realise, from having done the US process myself before coming here, that postgrads don’t necessarily perceive the coursework-and-exam system as a form of “support” (and I think it could often be better implemented…) – but there’s a level of sheer terror involved for students being pulled directly from undergraduate work and told – okay, now go off and write a thesis! 8-o So the issue of how to orient yourself to a literature you find – even for “undergrads” doing an Honours – becomes a sort of emergency situation in a way that it often didn’t (in my experience, at least) in the US…

  8. Mike Beggs October 2, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Just what kind of a course do you teach, N.? I mean subject-wise…

  9. N Pepperell October 2, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    I’m a bit of an odds-and-ends person, filling in for courses no one else wants to cover, for the most part. Currently (the past couple of years), I’ve been teaching a variety of research methods courses (and my techniques for those courses are different from what I’m discussing above), economics as a “common core” course for first-year social science students (with a strong emphasis on economic history, and on schools of economic thought in relation to problems in social history), and social theory to advanced undergraduates and postgrad students who specialise in planning, environment and urban design. In a previous life, I taught continental social theory and intellectual/social history, solely to postgrads…

    But next year, for all I know, I might be teaching something else entirely – or nothing… Although I’m teaching full-time, my situation is not exceptionally stable. The uncertainty of my teaching schedule, I have to admit, has probably driven me to think of teaching very heavily in terms of skills I want to convey, rather than content I want students to learn – I’ve always tilted this way, I think, but the conditions of my employment have certainly given more far more opportunity to think in terms of skills, than to practice how I want to cover specific content…

  10. Nate October 5, 2007 at 12:59 am

    hey NP,

    That sounds quite similar to what I’ve been doing, which is nice to know (feels like I’m doing something right). I can definitely see how it would look unstructured (it feels like that to me sometimes) but I make sure we cover all the material. And the bonus is that students will regularly try to answer each other’s questions and will try to reason stuff out together. That’s really cool and often I barely need to say anything at all in response to that stuff other than to affirm that the answer is right and to restate it a bit more neatly. As a side note and question – do your students disagree with each other very much? It hasn’t come up very much by my students seem very nervous about disagreeing with each other directly, anything that starts to feel like an argument turns them very apologetic and conciliatory (“I didn’t mean…” “I can see what you mean…” “It’s just my opinion…”).

    I do get a little nervous that no one will talk, especially on days when I’m tired or sick, but other than an occasional long moment this has yet to happen. In those moments I’ve just said explicitly – “or, if you prefer, we can sit here in awkward silence.” That gets a laugh but it’s also serious. So far the students are at least as uncomfortable with those pauses as I am so they like to avoid them.
    I don’t feel bad about being heavy-handed at all. I think it’s entirely appropriate to cop an authoritarian posture in certain ways in the classroom if it accomplishes things that are worthwhile. I do the same kind of stuff, and I’ve said “some of you aren’t talking enough, you need to talk more or your grade will suffer.” I do think instructors should be very careful about actually giving poor grades for courses (at least here in the US that can impact their financial aid), but grades or threats of grades in the class aren’t the same as final grades for the class.

    take care,

  11. N Pepperell October 5, 2007 at 11:45 am

    That sounds quite similar to what I’ve been doing, which is nice to know (feels like I’m doing something right).

    That. Or both of us are just flying off track… 😉

    Although I’ll confess to feeling reassured on my guilt about heavy-handedness… Basically, I like the results I get from the assessment structure – and end of course feedback from students suggests that, while they do complain about the assessment structure, most students also like the results: I’ve asked whether they could recommend a better way to get them to do the reading, and they’ve admitted that my strategies are probably required…

    I don’t think I’m that tough of a marker – or, at least, I tend to give lots of chances for students to improve and to replace poor assessments with better ones (on the reading reviews, for example, I tend to count the best x of the total, and so students can afford to bomb on a few, etc.)

    The awkward silence comfort level is funny: there’s a pattern in who steps forward to fill these silences (at least in my classes), and I feel a bit guilty leaning on these students regularly, so I’m probably as prone to call on people randomly (usually making a joke about it). But in general the process I’ve been using recently to assess participation seems to be breaking through most of this…

    In terms of the issue of whether my students disagree with one another… In postgraduate courses, yes. In undergraduate courses, not so much – which can make discussions a bit like what I’ve heard called “one on many ping-pong” between me and the class… This is not ideal, and I’m still working on it. I didn’t have this problem in the US – my sense is that perhaps the level of discussion I’m requiring in my classes might be somewhat unusual here, and students don’t have as much experience negotiating it? (I’m not making any general claims about Australia – just my particular institutional setting.)

    On the other hand, my major classroom management challenge from the US, doesn’t seem to happen here at all: when I taught in the US, I had to work very hard to prevent a small number of extremely assertive voices from just burying everyone else. Here, it just hasn’t been an issue – so, when people do argue with one another, they are usually good about making room for other people to speak.

    Also, in twinge-of-guilt mode, I should indicate that of course I’m writing about what I do ideally – I stuff up my own teaching technique on a rather regular basis, and walk out of the classroom thinking “I talked too much”, or “I tipped my hand there and weighed in with my own argument”, or “I jumped in too soon with questions”, or whatever… There’s usually something in need of further improvement…

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