English Teacher: Students don’t know how to tie facts into their statements/arguments
Posted by iusbvision on October 24, 2010
The English Professor:
By the time that the students got to the research unit in my class, their stark underpreparedness for the task had already begun rearing its ugly head. As the article states, there is way too much emphasis in writing curricula across the U.S. on “self-expression” and creative writing. Students had not been trained to use facts to develop an idea. They had been fed garbage throughout their entire academic careers – the garbage that whatever they write down is OK and that their ideas matter. Students were aghast when I suggested that their ideas didn’t matter unless they had hard, concrete facts to back them up. Students had also not learned how to tie in facts to their statements – they would simply make a statement and list random facts that may or may not have supported it. So, while trying to teach the students how to use MLA format, create a proper Works Cited page, include in-text citations, and find information relating to their topics, I also had to teach basic expository writing skills that they should have learned many years ago. This proved impossible to do in the small time frame I had to do it. I was basically playing catch-up for years of writing training while at the same time teaching a complicated skill set that was brand new to practically all of the students in my class.
Teacher training is also grossly to blame. I attended a prestigious educational school (which did prepare me adequately on many levels), but I found many of my education classes to be highly lacking. My “Teaching Writing” course focused very little (if at all) at actual methodologies for teaching the various types of writing. Instead, it focused on “creating a community of writers” and “not focusing on the grammar or style – helping students to find their unique voices” and “allowing students to choose meaningful topics that will showcase their personal experiences”… you get the point. It would not be a gross inaccuracy to say that I learned absolutely nothing in my English education courses that would allow me to properly train students on this quite important skill.
Well I have news for this English teacher; this problem has gone on for so long that it is not just students who are struggling with this.
This is a critique that I have heard before from several teachers at IUSB. It is also something that I have witnessed first hand.
I have engaged in hundreds of political/economic discussions with students and professors in my years at IUSB and the English teacher is spot on. If you look at the arguments in the comments section of this web site up to the year 2009 it is also obvious that students cannot tie facts into their arguments. To them XXX statement they make is so because they say so and in their mind they have just proved the article writer wrong without even attempting to address a host of verifiable facts in said article. If you think I am mistaken just start looking at the comments section starting in 2006.
Before I started writing here at IUSB Vision I owned Page Two of The Preface, once again the feedback I received from detractors were mostly personal attacks, unsupported statements or some random fact that they could not tie into their argument.
During my last year on campus no less than four professors pulled me into their office and asked me if it was difficult to pass their class or do the assigned papers. In most of these classes the assignments ranged from not challenging to moderately challenging. These professors are baffled that so many kids fail out and cannot do assignments that are relatively easy. While for sure it is a case that some students just would not do the work, it was becoming clear that recent local high school graduates just couldn’t.
For those of us who graduated high school before the late 80’s what I just said is difficult to imagine, but it is a stark reality. This reality became even more stark for me when a young lady I have known almost since birth who is now in her early 20’s started attending classes at IUSB. She is failing out of W-131 because the concepts she is being asked to tackle and the assignments given are over her head. They are over her head not because said young lady is stupid, on the contrary she has comedian level rhetorical wit and is obviously intelligent, she is simply ignorant and unprepared due to a high school diploma that isn’t worth the paper it is written on.
One of the assignments she was given dealt with the communist/Marxist conflict theory polemic which is a theme in college that is crammed down most student’s throats semester after semester. When I mentioned the words “communist” and Marxist she had no idea what they were and it seemed clear that she had never been exposed to these two words before.
I experienced something similar from the opposite side when I took W-131. The instructor I had for w-131 is truly a brilliant man. I realize that the word “brilliant” is bandied about on a college campus but in his case the word fit like a glove. This was my first semester at IUSB. After the first assignment when the teacher asked a question that compared the two assigned readings no one raised their hand, so I raised mine and gave an answer to me which seemed perfectly obvious. After the class the teacher pulled me aside and asked me not to participate in class discussion any longer and that I was to speak about the assignments with him one on one. When I asked why this was his answer:
Chuck it is important that you understand that W-131 is not just a lit class that is designed to help teach you how to write college papers. It is largely used as an introduction to critical thinking. You are a critical thinking prize-fighter and the answers you give are more than just correct, you knock them out of the park. The students in this class by and large cannot do what you just did and with you giving answers like that they will feel intimidated and perhaps even inadequate. They will be intimidated into silence. What 19-year-old kid could hope to give an answer that could compete after your vocal dissertation. It is my job to coax them and to prod them into being able to do what you already do with ease, so from now on lets just talk about the assignments one on one.
At first I thought that the teacher was pulling my leg, but in time I realized how correct he was. The teacher and I ended up having an excellent intellectual relationship and have become friends. This was freshman level material. Students should not have been stumped by the assignments to the point where they were too afraid to raise their hand. In most of my classes I showed restraint in my answers after that. Only in a few of my political science classes and economics classes did I “let er rip”.
In another instance a Business & Professional Communication prof pulled me into the office and asked me to take an exam that said professor had just given to the class earlier in the day. The professor said that a great deal of the students failed the exam. I never took the Business & Professional Communication course and all I knew about it was from personal experience and the couple of days we discussed it in Dr. Lambert’s S-205 class. While a missed a few questions that posed exact questions about the reading material that I had not read, I passed the exam. As long as the communications student understood a few basic concepts and exercised what I thought was common knowledge, it is hard to believe that many could have failed the exam especially after having the benefit of class time and the textbook, but that is exactly what happened. It is not that I am some super brilliant wiz-kid student because I’m not, it is just that our public education system is graduating students that are woefully unprepared to deal with simple concepts and absorb them form the class reading and lecture. Most any average 35 year old who took this exam with no training or class time could have done almost as well. The exam was really that simple.
I KNOW that many of you professors feel the same way, if you wish to post anonymously your privacy will be respected and assured.
UPDATE – STUDY: The Twilight Generation Can’t Read:
Boston, Mass., October, 2010. A newly released study by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW) strongly suggests that two factors—a fragmented English curriculum and a neglect of close reading—may explain why the reading skills of American high school students have shown little or no improvement in several decades despite substantial increases in funds for elementary and secondary education by federal and state governments.
The ALSCW report, entitled Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, And 11: A National Survey, analyzes the responses of more than four hundred representative public school teachers who were asked what works of literature they assign in standard and honors courses, and what approaches they use for teaching students how to understand imaginative literature and literary non-fiction.
Among the study’s major findings:
(1) The content of the literature and reading curriculum for students in standard or honors courses is no longer traditional or uniform in any consistent way. The most frequently mentioned titles are assigned in only a small percentage of courses, and the low frequencies for almost all the other titles English teachers assign point to an idiosyncratic literature curriculum for most students.
(2) The works teachers assign generally do not increase in difficulty from grade 9 to grade 11.
(3) Teachers do not favor close, analytical readings of assigned works. They prefer such non-analytical approaches as a personal response or a focus on a work’s historical or biographical context (for instance, class discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird that emphasize the Scottsboro Trials or Jim Crow laws in the South, rather than the novel’s plot, characters, style, and moral meaning).
“These findings suggest that the way reading and writing are taught today by many high-school teachers may be impeding college-readiness for many public high school students,” said Sandra Stotsky, Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and the study’s principal author.
“College courses not just in English but in many disciplines routinely assign difficult texts and expect students to understand, analyze, and write coherently about them. According to ACT, a major reason why college students end up in remedial courses or drop out of college is their inability to comprehend and analyze complex texts. An incoherent high-school curriculum that rarely advances beyond 9th-grade-level texts and that expects little more than impressionistic responses to them is a prescription for educational underperformance or outright failure at the college level,” Prof. Stotsky said.
Susan J. Wolfson, President of the ALSCW and Professor of English at Princeton University, said: “Beyond college readiness, skill in literary analysis—especially close attention to the artifacts and designs of language—is vital to an informed, capable citizenry. This important study should, in my view, be required reading by high-school English teachers, high-school administrators, and boards of education throughout the nation.”
The ALSCW recommends that:
(1) high schools revise their English curriculum to incorporate a progressively more challenging core of literary and non-literary texts with cultural and historical significance for our own country and other countries;
(2) English departments at colleges and universities emphasize the analytical study of literature, especially for those students planning to become secondary English teachers;
(3) the U.S. Department of Education and state legislatures give priority to the funding of professional development programs that emphasize teaching close, careful reading.
The complete, 36-page report (and its appendices) may be read on, and downloaded from, the ALSCW’s website, at www.bu.edu/literary/publications/Forum4.pdf.
In other words, we need to pursue excellence, get back to a classic liberal arts education, and ditch the pop-culture based feel good gen-ed nonsense being taught now.