So I was at the First-Year Experience conference in San Diego a couple of weeks ago. There were many highlights — starting with a conference that is actually in my time zone, to my excellent walking commute —
— to the views from the conference hotel.
Another highlight came in a late session by Catherine Sale Green and Kevin Clarke from the University 101 program at the University of South Carolina. I wasn’t the only OSU person at this conference (far from it). After I got back to campus, I was helping Ruth, who coordinates our FYE, with an info session for faculty thinking of applying to teach FYS next year and she started to say “what? so what….” and I finished with “now what” – because while it was a content-rich session, that short phrase was probably the most memorable part of it.
It’s a guide to help students with reflective writing. Three simple questions to answer.
It probably won’t shock anyone to know that I find reflective writing pretty easy. It’s a reason this blog exists, and definitely a reason for the tagline. While the actual writing of some reflective documents (teaching philosophies, anyone?) kills me as dead as anyone, the how and the why of reflective writing has never been difficult for me.
Honestly, when I realized that it doesn’t come easily for every one (or even for most people) I started to feel more than a little narcissistic. I realized that pretty quickly once I started teaching — I’d assign the kinds of reflective writing prompts I used to see in classes, and I’d get back papers where the students really struggled with trying to figure out the right answers, or what I wanted to hear, but that lacked any real reflection of their own thinking. The problem is, when you’ve never had to (ahem) reflect on how to do something or why to do it — it’s super hard to figure out how to help people who are struggling.
What I like about these three questions is how they start with something relatively simple — description is usually straightforward — what happened, what did you do, what did you notice, what did you learn, and so forth. But they don’t let students end there. They push to more complex analysis — why does that thing matter? And then they push beyond that to something equally challenging (what does it mean for you) that, if students do it successfully, will also demonstrate the value of reflection or metathinking itself.
Well, here’s the thing – I will undoubtedly teach credit courses again and when I do I will undoubtedly assign reflective writing. So this is going to help me there, in its intended context I have no doubt
But I also think this is a fantastic way to think about the process of analyzing and evaluating information. We all know I don’t like checklists when it comes to teaching evaluating. Truthfully, I’ll argue against any tool that tries to make a complex thing like evaluation simple (seriously – it’s at the top of some versions of Bloom’s! The top!)
And I’ll argue against any tool or trick that suggests you can evaluate all types of information the same way without context and without… yes… reflection, on your own needs, your own message, and your own rhetorical situation. That’s my problem with checklists. At best, they are useful tools to help you describe a thing.
An example — the checklist asks, “who’s the author?” The student answers – William Ripple. That’s descriptive, nothing more. But think about it with all three questions.
What? The author of this article is William Ripple.
So what? Pushed to answer this question – the student will have to do some additional research. They will find that William Ripple is on the faculty of OSU’s College of Forestry, and the director of the Trophic Cascades program. He has conducted original research and authored or co-authored dozens of articles examining the role of large predators in ecological communities.
Now what? This question pushes the student to consider their own needs — what they’re trying to say, who they’re trying to convince and what type of evidence that audience will find convincing.
Now, move away from that fairly obvious checklist item and let’s consider a more complicated one, bias.
I’ve linked here before to this old but still excellent post explaining why identifying bias is not evaluation. And yet, we all know that this is still where a lot of students are in their analysis — they want facts, bias is a reason to reject a source. But bias is no different than author – identifying it, being able to describe it, that’s not evaluation.
What? I actually think this one could be a step forward in itself — instead of just saying a source is biased, a good answer will specify what that bias is, and what the evidence for it is.
So what? This could push a student to consider how that bias affects the message/argument/ validity of the piece.
Now what? And this is the real benefit — what does this mean for me? How does this bias affect my use of the source, how will my audience read it, how might it help me/ hinder me as I communicate my message?
Now, of course, a student could answer the questions “this source is biased, that matters because I need facts, so I will throw it out and look for something that says what I already believe.” That could still happen. And probably will sometimes. But I like the idea of teaching evaluation as a reflective process, grounded in a rigorous description and examination of a source.