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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Teaching vs. Research?

Posted by Matt Greenfield on 09/25/05 at 11:17 PM

What is the relationship between my research and my teaching of general education courses like composition?  Is there any relationship?  Rather than answering directly, I would like to offer a few parables.  I will leave the interpretation of them up to you, dear reader.

I am talking to a colleague about how my semester is going.  I find myself talking about “my work.” And I feel a twinge of uneasiness.  If my research is “my work,” what should I call my teaching?  Is it someone else’s work?  Is teaching work done on behalf of someone else, or work done by another version of me?

In my composition class, I point out an interesting technique used by an essayist: for E. B. White, it might be disjunction and the elision of transitions; for Joan Didion, the casual mention of a horrifying event as a kind of afterthought to a sequence of trivialities; and for Loren Eisely, the mixture of abstruse scientific terminology and a more colloquial diction.  I suggest to my students that they try to imitate the technique.  And I realize that I myself have never tried to use it.

I am teaching in an interdisciplinary program for first-semester students.  My composition course is linked to a biology course and a psychology course.  When I prepare my syllabus, I re-read work by Oliver Sacks, the surgeon Richard Selzer, Elaine Scarry, Wittgenstein, and Nietzche, among others.  Quotations from Sacks, Scarry, and Wittgenstein make their way into an essay I am writing on embodiment and pain in the work of Christopher Marlowe.


The metaphor of “fields of study” assumes that the separation and adjacency of the various topics is a natural fact which can be known. (This kind of metaphorical spatialization is one of the things Foucault talks about, and is analogous to the Westphalian multi-state system, which defers or evades political disputes by separating nations geographically and assigning them each its area of authority, and also analogous to legal and ideological individualism).

In truth, anything can be adjacent (or relevant) to anything else, and many of the big intellectual advances came when topics which had previously been thought unrelated are brought together.

By John Emerson, first poster on 09/26/05 at 08:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I like this post a lot, Matt so forgive me by beginning with a rather hamhanded statement of the implicit and obvious: the “vs.” is false. The difference, I think, lies in the difference between those of us with jobs that require, permit, encourage teaching in the core (be that surveys or freshman comp, or sophomore intro courses) and those very few whose jobs keep them returning, again and again, to their particular national literature and century.

Both teaching experiences have their advantages, but each leads to a different kind of scholarship, I think. Look, for instance, at the crazy breadth of many British professors, who, in a tutorial system, teach everything as opposed to the incredible depth of a specialist at a top public school. (The Ivies end up being their own thing, and often closer to a British model, perhaps.)

By Anne on 09/26/05 at 08:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trying to enforce or impose a prose style on freshman comp. students, instead of stressing a method of thinking, or analysis, generally does not work, or works only with the best students in the class.  The popular comp. anthologies feature these interesting complex essays by Didion, Eisley, Richard Selzer (Selzer is a superb writer though, really) etc., but I do not think the average freshman student picks up on the syntax or style or “rhythm,” even when the instructor points it out. Better to go for pure content and some critical thinking concepts (with some editing and organization tips) and work on having them produce some competent prose suited not only to the lit. course but to history or biology, etc.

The essays of a writer like SJ Gould are well- suited to this purpose; Gould’s writings on the evolution debate force the student to weigh and generally eliminate all his accumulated emotional and sunday-school baggage: if they want to defend creationism, great, but now they realize they have their work cut out for them. And the “cross-curricular” aspects of Gould are admirable, as are his touches of philosophy (Popper, informal logic). Though his skills in sarcasm and irony may not match a Didion or Wolfe, his clean, cool style (if sometimes a bit pompous) may serve as a model for student writing as much as the Joanie D. school of Freudian-lite cynicism.

The best hope for non-literary writing people-- composition, rhetoric, discourse analysis, etc.--is to jettison the postmodernism (and the hold of the MLA) and embrace the methodologies of the social sciences and hard sciences. Along with critical thinking, the APA format and statistical methods should be part of comp. classes.  I wouldn’t let students near Wittgenstein {or worse, Nietzsche and postmod.) until like their junior year in college.

By Jake on 09/26/05 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jake, Anne and Matt,

I’ve withheld commenting on this post because the mention of Didion makes my chin quiver and my heart ache--and yes, I realize how sentimental that sounds, but read Didion’s essay before you judge me--but I think you’ve all hit the nail on the head: when research informs writing, you end up with the best of both worlds.  That said, I actually find the stream flowing the other way.  I teach an introduction to literary journalism course, but my academic work doesn’t influence my teaching so much as my teaching influences my academic work.  Not in the propagation of ideas (as Matt argues), but in the desire to communicate the complexity of what I study to a generally intelligent audience.  I think academics are trained to speak to those who will already understand what it is other academics argue; but I think the goal of academia should be to uplift ("No, I can’t find a more loaded word, so I chose this one") the intellectual standards of John and Joan Q. Public.  This is why I’ll one day be satisfied teaching composition at a community college while my wife (a medievalist) pursues her successful career within the academy.  While I love nothing more than digging through archives and reading once popular, now esoteric works, I can easily imagine myself being satisfied teaching composition to students for whom whatever minor improvements in their prose a quarter in my class can effect will have a material impact on their lives.  I know, I belong in Stand and Deliver...but if you’re in this to teach, shouldn’t you be in this to teach?  (That sounds far more self-important then I mean it to.  But you catch my drift.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/26/05 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In my experience evaluating comp classes, the more the teacher brings his or her research into the room, the less the reading and writing skills of the students improve.

By on 09/27/05 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d like some elaboration on that point.

And how about other folks’ research?

By Jonathan on 09/28/05 at 10:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m assuming you (Mark) are not talking about those of us whose research area is rhetoric and composition. At any rate, I too would like some clarification. Cf. my recent treatise that touches on this topic.

By Clancy on 09/28/05 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, the tendency I see is for younger scholars and grad students in other fields (not comp) to bring their dissertation or book topics into the comp classroom. It’s an understandable move, given the pressures to complete their work. But to unite the scholarly topics with the comp classroom is a stretch. Students enter college today with such poor reading and writing skills that to focus on ideas or “critical thinking” is to neglect their actual needs. Better to have students do writing exercises such as composing a 2-page summary without using any “to be” verbs, or two versions of a short paper with one in low diction and one in high diction, or a short paper that alternates sentence length from less than 10 words to more than 30 words . . . These have little to do with humanities research, and they can make for drudgery for the teacher. But the more sophisticated the course content, the more distracted students are from their writing.

By on 09/28/05 at 01:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Does that describe students at Emory?

And what would these exercises be about? Summer vacations? Writing is not content-neutral. Thought precedes it. The logical extension of your approach is having students compose papers in imaginary languages, as someone suggested recently. And how could you do that without Wilkins, Leibniz, Borges, etc.? You could, but it’d be cheating.

By Jonathan on 09/28/05 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Composition instructors should require students to compose 3rd person summaries of readings and annotations of academic research in addition to argumentative writing; no one denied the importance of developing syntax, diction, etc. but skills in those areas seem to follow effective analysis or argumentation rather than the other way around. A bibliography assignment to supplement the APA or MLA-sort of research paper works at the freshman comp level as well (from anecdotal reports and also according to some comp. research). Why is that opposed to critical thinking? I think writing an effective, value-free synopsis of any sort of factual-based research requires a certain attentiveness to arguments and data.

Comp. people, at least the ones I typically interact with in Gulag California, generally don’t want to emphasize that sort of objectivity and attentiveness to data or claims or “warrants” (really a fancy name for a premise); the ideas of someone like Steven Toulmin have been mostly disregarded in favor of ideology, or of those Didion or Gary Soto or Angelou or White “reflective” types of things, though eventually most comp. people will bring in a Mitford or Gould essay or Milgram’s study or similiar material; though I would agree with traditionalists (if any remain) that exposing them to CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” essay or the savage yet eloquent irony of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is not such a bad strategy.  It is the primacy of the Didion/White/Eisley stuff--or the rhetorical “modes"--that should be questioned.

By Jake on 09/28/05 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Unfortunately, the writing skills of students at Emory—and of too many of the top 50 institutions—are weak.  Not only that, but the graduates of those programs don’t fare much better. Check out any recent surveys of employers about the writing skills of recent hires and you’ll find the comments severe. I don’t know if comp scholars have begun to address the poor performance of university composition instruction, but pressure from the business community on administrators is growing.

As for content, it’s best to expose students to serious writing. But we can’t expect them to do much with it. Most of them struggle just to come up with an accurate description of the material.  With something like Milgren, the best they can do, in most cases, is to summarize the experiment and its implications.  Ask them to do more and they slip into clichés, which distract them from the labor of building vocabulary, varying syntax, etc.

By on 09/28/05 at 02:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How do you think you would judge the writing skills of these members of the business community? I suspect you’d find them lacking in many, many ways. An important point about arbtirary standards, I think.

By Jonathan on 09/28/05 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you assessing them on style or on ability to adequately convey information? If your rubric is based on conveying information and ideas effectively, I think generally business majors (tho you might diagree with their economics) will fare better than those gloomy Gaulois-sucking nerds and Sontag or Toni Morrison-wannabes who mistake their little rhetorical and persuasive fantasies as some of proof. I’d rather be involved in producing a writer such as SJ Gould (or even the likes of Geroge Will) than contributing to the development of more Didions or Angelous.  Go APA

By Jake on 09/28/05 at 03:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you are going for style and literary hipness and irony etc. why phuck around with the journalistic whines of Didion or Angelou or EB White anyways: teach Kafka or the Beats or Orwell or Pynchon, etc. Let’s start with like Candide.

By snake on 09/28/05 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Business communication is but one style, to be sure, but it is a clear and direct one. The business world has spent a lot of time trying to eliminate passive-voice bureaucratese and go for concise, active expression. The reason why is simply economic: with information being the primary commodity for more and more of the American business world, language that takes time to understand or that is unclear or ungrammatical is a financial cost.

There is a danger, though, if education takes business communication as the sole or highest prose model. If you look at the guide to the NAEP reading exam for 12th Graders, you’ll see that the sample passage is a 1040EZ Federal Tax Form. That’s a problem.

By on 09/29/05 at 11:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, imitation is a very valuable and underused technique; I encourage you to engage it as often as possible. Eat your own dog food as often as you can: do the imitations you ask your students to do. I would guess that 99% of teachers (in all fields, not just comp) have never done any of their assignments. Without a doubt, my courses have improved measurably since I started doing all the assignments I wrote (and revising them and doing them again).

The worst sin we can commit is assuming our students can’t write and that we need to dumb down composition so they can learn. Quite the reverse; the bar should be raised, raised. We *should* be asking first-year students to write like Swift, White, or Gould (or Derrida or Nietzsche). The next worse sin is presenting decontextualized and “content-free” writing assigments which force students into abstraction. Outside of classrooms, writing is never without strong contextualization and motivation; it should come with similar frameworks inside them.

By Bradley Dilger on 09/29/05 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I agree completely with your suggestions.  I try to ground my own composition teaching in the passions of my students, and I often find that a hitherto unsuccessful student becomes extraordinarily eloquent when writing about modifying car engines or scratching as a DJ’s technique or slavery in modern Liberia or a dad’s optometry office.  I tell them at the beginning of the semester that I want them to write something publishable, and a surprising number of them do.  It always irritates me to hear mediocre teachers (often those who aren’t scholars, either) disparaging my school’s students.  If they don’t write well, it is because they have not been taught well.

By on 10/06/05 at 11:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If they don’t write well, it is because they have not been taught well.

Matt, while I can’t agree with this statement any more, I also can’t place the blame where you seem to.  When I taught composition--and now too, even though I’m teaching literary journalism--one of the things which I absolutely cannot forget (or I’ll completely lose the will-to-teach) is that I have these students in my class for ten weeks.  That’s it.  A teacher, no matter how talented, cannot improve the quality of a student’s writing in ten weeks.  The best he or she can hope to do is create habits which, it they take, will allow the students to improve their own writing in the quarters or semesters after they leave your class.  For example, one rationale behind my courseblog is to model daily writing.  As my colleague (and former beat reporter for The Washington Post) Amy DePaul says: the students need to overcome their fears and WRITE, dammit.  Sure, I can teach them them the basics as Mark advocates (and I do); but I cannot accomplish anything permanent if I don’t change the way they relate to their own prose.  If they don’t care, and can’t be made to care (and despite my historically effective Stand and Deliver approach, even I can’t reach ‘em all), then there’s little we, as teachers, can do.  This pill ain’t easy to swallow...and that’s something even I, despite being one of those rare birds who considers himself a teacher first and a scholar second, have had to come to terms with.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/07/05 at 12:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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