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.