thinking about discourse when you don’t know what it looks like

We have 3 online assignments that all beginning composition students complete before coming to the library for a library session.  They’re designed to encourage a broad exploration of a topic, to support a research process where students develop an argument/thesis out of their reading instead of doing that at the outset, and to encourage students to try a variety of keywords and other searches on their topic.

The first two are working pretty well.  The broad exploration piece I’m particularly happy with, and the developing a thesis out of research, well, there’s a lot of history and baggage to overcome there and I’m pretty confident that we’re overcoming some of that.  Given that most research texts counsel narrowing a topic before starting research, and many students learn a paper-writing process in high school that explicitly tells them to develop their thesis statement first – we’re doing all right.

What I’m struggling with now is with assignment 2 – we ask students there to look at their topic and to think about how the keywords that will be successful when they search the popular media might be different than the keywords that will be successful in the scholarly literature.  We are failing miserably with this assignment, I think.

We have a variety of examples to show them – and the examples work.  They’re good examples, clear and when I talk to students they understand the concept we’re trying to get across.  What they can’t do is apply it to their own topics.  And I’m completely blocked about how to break this assignment down further, or reframe it in such a way that they can be successful on it.  You see, I think the problem isn’t with understanding the concept that the language might be different in these contexts – the problem is that we’re asking students to predict something about one of those contexts (the scholarly discourse) when there’s a good chance they’ve never actually seen it.

We ask them to generate a list of potential keywords out of Wikipedia and they do a great job with this – they come up with lots of keywords that would work really, really well in scholarly journals.  But when we ask them “what keywords would scholars use” they don’t list those – and how could they?  Without ever reading scholarly journal articles, how could they predict how scholars frame arguments, how they articulate arguments – or even how narrow and precise some of those scholarly arguments actually are?  They can’t – what we’re asking them to do is not reasonable.

So what would be reasonable?  I’m really not sure.  I can’t figure out how to introduce the concept AND give the students the info they need to be successful – on their topics (which can be anything) in a relatively unmediated online assignment.

In an ideal world, we’d probably be thinking more seriously about Barbara’s suggestion that this kind of thing is really being introduced too early when we introduce it in FYC (first-year composition) and that we could scaffold this learning much better.  Our world isn’t ideal – our surveys suggest our students don’t do as much writing and presenting as students at comparator institutions do.  And our required composition sequence isn’t a sequence at all – it’s one 10 week class.  But for some of our students it’s the only writing from sources they’ll do for a while – maybe even until their Writing Intensive Course.  We feel a lot of pressure to introduce the concept of academic writing at this point, particularly because it is so new to most of our students.

So I’ll keep working.

8 thoughts on “thinking about discourse when you don’t know what it looks like

  1. I’ve been thinking about this issue throughout today. I don’t really know how we could expect students to know what word would be “scholarly”, and I’m not sure what could be done to magically elicit the “right” answers from them. I’m going to try some in class brainstorming with them about this issue in the fall and hope that my presence/input can help them sort it out a little. I’m at a loss. Good luck in your quest.

  2. Hi, Julie and Anne-Marie.
    Yeah, I’m at a loss, too. Reminds me of last fall, when I was working on my paper for Teaching of Writing class. Vicki Tolar Burton asked us for a proposal, including a list of what keywords we were using. I already had a lot of good ones, but when I browsed Michael Faris’ blog I realized I had been missing some particularly precise keywords. So finding keywords is just one of those messy recursive processes, isn’t it, even for experienced scholars.

    So, ummmm… Wr 121 students can either 1) swim around in the scholarly literature they already know about / have, 2) chat with more knowledgeable scholars (talking to their instructor, as Julie will invite hers to do in the fall; skimming other scholars’ blogs like I did, etc), and/or 3) find some kind of keyword dictionary in their field (didn’t you say, Anne-Marie, there were such things?).

    But I’ll keep thinking re ways to work something along those lines into the ILP. Tough.

  3. Hi all,

    One resource that I know I have underutilized are the Works Cited’s and Bibliographies provided by published scholars. I don’t think that a lot of students realize they can turn to the back of the book or article and immediately find 20+ other resources on the subject.

    You are absolutely right, Anne-Marie, that students cannot be expected to find general and specific source materials on their topic at the outset of their research. Perhaps we could put more emphasis on the process of getting from general to specific….for example…(1) find a book/article that seems like a good overview of the topic (keeping in mind that it is general enough that it may not make it as a quoted source in your paper) (2) follow the bibliography, and keywords found in chapter headings, suggested further reading, index, etc. (3) track down the second wave of more specific, more focused sources.

    Best, Peter

  4. Good conversation here! The idea to get students to look at the works cited page is really useful – I mean we tell them, but maybe during class we could actually look at the works cited in our example essays as a frame of reference for discussion.

    And also, we could do some in-class work with the index of our textbooks – could even be a fun challenge – who can fastest find whether the index has a listing for XYZ etc. “Does Easy Writer mention Toulmin? where would you find it?” that sort of thing.

    Which doesn’t get us to the question of keywords. I wonder if we could do anything with a thesaurus. Students often use it – incorrectly often, substituting a perfectly good word with some stilted latinate marsh bird – but they do use the tool – would there be a way to tap into that? Is there an online thesaurus that has enough variety? What about Online Etymology.com online etymology

  5. Hey there – thanks all for the great conversation. It sparked some thinking for me and I’ve been playing around with some ideas all afternoon. And as Sara points out some of these ideas will be great to build out more, even beyond the question of keywords.

    Back to keywords – I am skeptical about the thesaurus idea for this reason – because I don’t think getting students to understand that there are different keywords that get at the same concept is the issue.

    I think the issue is that they have trouble predicting WHICH of those keywords will be most useful in the scholarly discourse. So what we need to do is figure out a way they can be working from a scholarly article on their topic as they do this exercise. That’s what I’ve been playing with today.

    Thanks all – keep those ideas coming :-) !

  6. Well, in grading this term’s set of argument papers, I noticed some trends – lack of scholarly journals (oh they had scholoarly sources some times – like UC Berkley – but that’s not a journal.) They didn’t seem to get it about a journal – that it is refereed adn that it has a bibliography etc. And they seemed not to find sources I could fid in an instant. So the question is, – how do I know what kinds of key words to try? Not that I am already right – because heaven knows I send emails to Loretta for research help when I can’t find things that ought to exist. But for me, is it just that I have been researching longer and have read more? Surely that helps – and that’s not something we can do for our students in 10 weeks. Would it work to give them a quiz – I know that sounds like busy work, but if they don’t pay attention to the examples we give them, they will always pay attention if they think it’s worth points. Could we find a scholarly article on a subject they know really well – such as Facebook – and then compare the keywords at the pop level and compare to the keywords of an academic on the same subject? What keywords would academics use to find information about Brittney Spears? And here’s a related point that came up in Laura’s recent blog post about the video – that students write much too superficially and in generalities – whereas sometimes the specific terms are the keywords that get us somewhere. For example, one student writing on the effects of a shipbuilding enterprise on the Oregon coast – got bogged down in one aspect – invasive species – but did not find some obvious sources that I found pretty quickly from the Newport newspaper – fisheries and tourism and even the simple word “opinion” or “controversy” can often have great results. Also, I got some good sources fast using Google images – then reading the original site where those images appeared. Haven’t tried Cuil yet, though. But if students cannot be specific enough with keywords about something they know well, how can they be specific – and with academic jargon – about a topic they don’t know. Could we do this — ask them to just look in the etymology for the source of their word – to find out if “invasive species” had earlier meanints – like what Laura said about grammar & Glamour. Let’s see if I can remember her link and do it right
    cultivated pages
    (Also I don’t have glasses on right now, which doesn’t help!)

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