Monday, December 21, 2009

Explaining How to Be Original

"How to be original in our quizzes in order to make a higher grade would have been helpful."

This comment stood out on my course evaluations for this term.

My standard for a good grade - a B - is that students tell me back what I told them. I think this is often the high-school standard for an A.

My standard for an excellent grade - an A - is that students tell me back what I (and the course readings) told them, in detail, and that they add something original.

Some students find adding something original to be the easy part. They think about what we are studying and make connections with other things they have studied all the time. The hard part for them is demonstrating mastery of the official curriculum.

Other students, though, like the one above, have a different reaction, that is somewhat surprising to me. Most Centre students are very good at rising to expectations. This kind of student poses a kind of paradoxical problem: how to explain that I expect the unexpected?


Emily said...

They haven't made the connection, yet, that the things they think are interesting and cool outside of class are relevant academically. That is something you don't learn in high school because the classroom stuff is so separate from the not classroom stuff. It takes time to understand that and I was fortunate enough to find one that was pretty direct as my primary focus-privilege is an obvious sociological topic.

Gruntled said...

Was that because you were supplied with the academic term - privilege - at the outset? If your interests, were, say, horses or graphic novels or "American Idol," would it be harder to see that each of those also provides excellent examples of sociological concepts?

Emily said...

Probably. Though all of those things have sociological impact. Looking at American Idol (for example)--who watches it? what advertisers are attracted to that show and what market are they trying to reach? who auditions for the show and of those individuals that audition, what makes the successful ones, successful?

Learning to see, ask, and then start to answer those questions is the tricky part.

Katie said...

I remember that it took me a full term to finally earn an A in your class. I'd never felt more elation over a grade.

I, too, found it very difficult to understand exactly what it was that you expected. It wasn't that I lacked creativity. It was more that it took me a whole term to believe that I had anything worth saying. I thought that you wanted revelations so profound that a ground-breaking PhD thesis could be spun off of each and every paper, and I would often get terribly anxious feeling that I didn't yet have the knowledge to say something truly, completely original.

I can sympathize with your student. For me, as a student, perfection was often the enemy of good enough. I wonder if your student has a similar problem.

halifax said...

I never expect undergraduates to say anything original, but, if they say something interesting, that's a start. Many of the Centre students were the best students in their respective high schools and were pampered and spoon-fed the information that they were supposed to regurgitate on their assignments, which is why you hear nonsensical complaints about not being taught how to be original. In any case, I don't think that there's much originality among the professoriate so you can't expect much from undergrads.

Unknown said...

I was always on the former end of the spectrum. When asked why I majored in sociology I always tell folks that when I took my first class I realized sociology just put names to the way I already thought. Because of this I had no problem adding original thought to questions because I only understood the concepts by relating them to things I already thought or were aware of, so I just talked about those things. I had the most trouble with the academic theories because my understanding of the material was based almost completely on my own examples which I verified in class.

Maybe some examples at the beginning of class of some real examples of the "original thought" that previous students have used in quizzes and papers would help. Some folks learn better via example than explanation (myself being one). You could give examples from other classes so that folks can have an idea of the expectation, without actually giving away the answers.

I think examples (or more of them) would help those like Katie who probably have good observations, but don't know exactly what is expected and are anxious about giving an incorrect answer. Most students (especially those taking their first class with the Gruntled grading scale) have nothing to refer to when trying to measure up to your expectations

Katie said...

If I remember correctly, examples were provided. So, that's not the problem.

For me, the problem was rooted in my own personality. Especially then, I was a people-pleasing, rule-following perfectionist who wanted very clear guidelines so that I could be absolutely certain that I was doing something exactly right. So, for me, being told to "be original" was far too broad of a request at a time when I felt I lacked the knowledge to be truly original.

Maybe a little more individual guidance would help for students who seem to be working hard and thoroughly grasping the material but not quite getting A's.

Gruntled said...

Thank you for this is exchange. It is helpful to me, and illustrates the range of responses that I get from sociology students to this originality standard.

No, I don't mean "original in the history of the world," just original for this class. Really, what this usually means is connecting things that you have learned somewhere else with what we are talking about in class right now.

It is usually students who were good at meeting expectations in high school (especially people-pleasing women) who have the hardest time breaking through the "89 barrier." I don't know who made the evaluation comment that I quote in the blog, but my guess is a woman who primarily studies science because it has definite answers and standards of excellence that you can reach by persisting.

For natural sociologists, like Paul, who discover that sociology gives them terms for things they have been thinking about already, originality is not the hard part. I had noted that the hard part is demonstrating mastery of the course texts, since you are ready to go apply the basic ideas of the texts to your own settings. I had not thought about the other kind of difficulty - grasping theories that go beyond our ordinary experience.

And Emily, you had the unusual advantage of coming in with a sociological concept that you had been thinking about. Neither kind of preparation came from your prior formal schooling.

Much to mull.

Victoria Wheeler said...

Just to toss in a little comment, I agree with Katie in that students really psych themselves out. I had numerous students come up to me this semester, ask what I had made on the quizzes, and then beg me to tell them how I did it. I explain it's a simple formula: tell him the answer, then tell something you thought about the answer outside of the book. And it's not that they didn't think of it outside of the book, but they honestly would go, "But I didn't think anything -that- interesting" and I couldn't get them to just write it.

I think students psych themselves out over expectations that they think are higher than they expect. They don't think "My thought on my little brother" is relevant. They hear original and think they have to make or break the writer's thesis. I don't think it's an issue of Centre students not rising to expectations, I think it's trying to over-rise and becoming terrified.

Gruntled said...

So is there a better word than "original" for "not in the book, even if it is not earth-shaking"?

Katie said...

Maybe this?: Draw insightful connections to real life or other readings.

Gruntled said...

Is "insightful" less scary than "original"?

Nonetheless, I will try it.

Katie said...

Maybe not :)

I was trying to find a balance between not seeming like you're lowering your standards and providing an easier sounding goal.

Don't stress over the whole issue too much, though. Don't forget that I went on to get perfectly fine grades for the next 3 years in your classes and switched my major to Soc after that first term. Being really challenged isn't a bad thing. Students who love the subject matter will not be scared off.

Unknown said...

Yes, "insightful" is less scary than "original" I think. Insightful implies something that is interesting and enriching, original implies something that is new and different.

To put it in musical terms, The Beatles were an original band. The Monkees were an insightful look at the comedy inherent in The Beatles originality and its effects on the culture. Which of these two bands cast the greatest shadow and is thus "scariest"? It's no contest.

...and you can use that example the next time a student inquires about "original thought". It is both an explanation of your expectation and an example of an insightful (if I may say so myself) connection between two seemingly unrelated topics. I'd even go so far as to say that no one has ever referred to those two bands in this manner, so it's original to boot.

Man, I love sociology!!

Gruntled said...

The Beatles/Monkees analogy is lovely. Do young people know who the Monkees are?

Gruntled said...

I received this by email, who gave me permission to post it anonymously:

I am a 1972 Centre graduate with a strong academic background.
I remember (vividly) getting a "thought paper" back from Professor David Hughes (Government) in 1970 which bluntly stated that the views contained therein were entirely pedestrian. To this day, I try and avoid stating the obvious. And if I fear I am, I usually preface my statement with reference to this term internalized from my academic past. Talk about influence!!