A Shot in the Dirk
Growing up as I did in a strict, religious household, surrounded by hundreds of books on or about the Old Testament, I tend to associate research with enlightenment. It all seemed pretty simple to me as a child: I know little to nothing now about subject A; I would like to know more. Once I discover even a little bit more than I previously knew about A, I feel a palpable sense of light, a kind of dawning going on in my mind. One tiny match (to paraphrase a saying of the Rabbis) has now dispelled a whole lot of my darkness.* True, hermeneutics isn’t the same thing as research, but when I read Dirk I see some parallels. Dirk talks a lot about the importance of Prompts, and I agree. The first tenuous steps of inquiry matter; no task is too great if you chip away at it; and you don’t have to be afraid of what you don’t know, because a little bit of progress will transform your feeling lost in one particular context into the passion and confidence to journey forward into another.
I could quote a great deal of what he writes. I might toss in a few of my favorites, below; but, overall, I can’t say I found Dirk all that helpful. This may sound petty, but he doesn’t show me how to address my greatest nightmare: how to grade the research paper. If I am teaching transferrable skills (and I think that I am in ENG 1101), I am all alone come December in assessing them within the walls of my class/house/wherever I am grading. No Anthropology or Sociology professor comes to my aid, even though I feel I will have helped them a great deal come spring semester.
But okay, at least I know that others share my woes. Dirk writes: “The research paper has caused our field decades of warranted stress over its place in the curriculum, yet research is so pivotal to every discipline—and to many careers—that it would be imprudent to banish it from writing courses…In the 1980s, continual dissatisfaction with student papers often prompted instructors to discontinue the use of this assignment (Ford and Perry). Indeed, even today, most scholars still seem unsatisfied with the results, as research papers are often introduced as necessary evils (Blue; Moulton and Holmes; Sutton).”
Necessary evil, indeed. I teach a lot of things in my 1101 classroom — everything, probably, except English. I teach music appreciation, or the history of photography, or how to get a date. I talk about real topics and real things in the hopes of demonstrating, modeling, or otherwise showing the students (rather than telling them) how to get “there” from “here” with the act of writing. However, I never seem to figure out how to make the mother of all assignments, the Research Paper/Project (call it what you will, and Dirk lists a bunch of ways) transferable to what the heck I want to accomplish in MY classroom. The students’ future professors should thank me. I think I have taught skills (is “excitement” or “open-mindedness” or “confidence” a skill worthy of mentioning alongside of source evaluation?) that transfer to their disciplines. That said, on my end, having gotten past the hurdle of dismantling the students’ pre-conceived notions about the five-paragraph essay, I have little time or energy left to disembowel the enemy of a given class’ research paper expectations. Their issues are so different. Some want the high school paper to stand in for the college paper (Dirk points this out); some lack the English skills to sustain the writing of a long paper, period, and are too terrified to try. And of course, the dreaded Thesis Statement. No other course, from what I can tell, seems to demand a Thesis except mine. The students gain tons of knowledge in our in-class discussions, but I am left grading for lack of arguable, problem-driven, give and take. Why? Because I teach English. Which seems to be different than Knowledge. At least in terms of my Research Paper Grading Rubric as it stands now.
Yes, I do sound a lot like Dirk when he says: “…a person who thinks situation B is like situation A, when encountering situation B, might act in B as he/she did in A (Russell, “Rethinking” 515). As a result, students who have written previous research papers may come to freshman composition with preconceived notions about what all research papers should look like, thus creating papers like those they have previously written no matter how different the situation. We see this often when students arrive in our classes and turn in a five-paragraph essay for the first assignment—a common occurrence that illustrates how students try to transfer previous writing experiences to present ones.”
But all that talk about genre? All the Bakhtin…not so helpful for me, except, again, as an aid to talking about pedagogy with all of you this coming spring. Perhaps some of my colleagues can help me make the jump from grading anxiety to genre chat: “Russell and Yañez argue, ‘students are alienated in part because they don’t see the genres assigned as part of a human activity that makes sense that has uses beyond pleasing the teacher to get a grade’ (351). Yet genres are developed not as stand-alone texts but as integral parts of activity systems that Bakhtin calls ‘spheres of human activity and communication,’ which each ‘give rise to particular genres, that is, certain relatively stable thematic, compositional, and stylistic types of utterances’ (64). Does that pleasing the teacher part get you, as it did, me?
It’s my sincere hope that by creating this new pedagogical conversation between 1101 and 1121 we will alleviate some of my own, personal, issues. Why must research in English 1101 and the innate Human desire to wonder — to go beyond limits — be so different? Isn’t, to paraphrase yet another Rabbi, “all the rest commentary?”
With any luck, I can transfer my childish outlook into something that will help all of you during PD this term. Meantime, I am reading all the other assignments, and finding more to like than I did here.
*[Literally, the “room” of]