Friday, March 4, 2011

Alienation and pedagogy

Sometimes students seem not just disengaged but positively yearning to rid themselves of their chains. I have thought occasionally that they seem a bit like alienated workers as Marx describes them:
Marx famously depicts the worker under capitalism as suffering from four types of alienated labour. First, from the product, which as soon as it is created is taken away from its producer. Second, in productive activity (work) which is experienced as a torment. Third, from species-being, for humans produce blindly and not in accordance with their truly human powers. Finally, from other human beings, where the relation of exchange replaces the satisfaction of mutual need.
It seems that ownership might be the solution. If students get to keep and work more on their products (I'm thinking in terms of papers) then they might be happier about producing them. This also makes comments more meaningful. They also might be happier if they had more say in what they wrote about, what sources they used, how much of their grade any given paper counted for, and so on. They might be even happier if they had some say in what percentage of their grade was for papers, what for exams, what for participation, etc. And alienation from their fellows might be reduced if they had opportunities for group work.

The obvious drawbacks are that students might end up being expected to run before they can walk (knowing what is a good topic to write on, what is a good source to use, and so on), that allowing revision means more grading (which takes time away from other work and might discourage students from trying to get things right first time), and that this kind of approach might lead to chaos, with probably too easy a time for students and too much work (grading and keeping track of student choices) for professors.

But I wonder. You could always offer limited choices. E.g. have a default assignment plus the option of writing on a subject of your choice, so long as you check it with the professor. And I always feel more justified in being a tough grader when I know there are opportunities for revision.

I'm toying with the idea of counting papers as either 30 or 40%, the final exam as either 30 or 40%, and class participation (including a grade for a debate and possibly a report--see below--and reduced for lack of preparation for class*) as either 30 or 40% of the final grade in my courses (so whichever of these was the student's strong point would count for 40% and the others 30%). And one of my colleagues says he has students report in class on three papers they have found on a course-related subject of their choice. This works very well, he says. It sounds possibly worth a try.

Here's what I'm thinking of doing. In introductory-level courses there would be no in-class reports on independently found journal articles (in higher level courses there might be), but there would be three in-class debates over the semester, with each student given the opportunity to take part for credit (with a grade based on preparation and performance). Those who choose not to participate would have to write a paper instead. For most students, the debate grade would be 10% of their final grade and general class participation would count for an additional 20%. Students would lose points for not bringing a short written response to (i.e. on) the reading assigned for each day's class. Those whose participation grades were really high could have this whole grade be expanded from 30 to 40%.

There would also be six (short) essays to write. One could be blown off completely, but all others would have to be at least written to passing standard or else this part of the grade (30 or 40%) would be reduced. Of these good-enough-to-pass essays, the best three (for 30% total) or four (for 40% of the final grade) could be re-written as many times as humanly possible. Only the best essay grades would count at the end of the semester.

And then there would be a cumulative, all essay exam (four essays written in three hours) which would count for either 30% or 40% of the student's final grade.

I wonder what others might think, and whether the connection with Marx has been made before. I'd be surprised if it hasn't, but I don't know what has been made of it. Has any of this been tried and found to fail? Is it all too confusing? Anyone else do something similar with good results? Or have I left it all too abstract for anyone to judge (or even tell what I'm talking about)?

*I dislike the idea of giving credit for proving that you have done the assigned reading (since its being assigned  ought to mean that all students do it or else do not meet the basic criteria for passing the course), but I quite like the idea of taking points off students who fail to provide evidence that they have done it. The kind of evidence I mean would be bringing a very short response to the assigned reading each class.


  1. If you're worried about this kind of thing, I hope you're keeping track of the recent discussions at In Socrates' Wake.

    I tend to dislike dropping things from one's grade; everything counts (for me). You don't get to drop your worst report--or the one you didn't do--in the "real world." I think we should try to make class expectations at least somewhat like the real world, or at least make it clear that what's going on is "real," counts. (But maybe I just don't like the idea of calling it "blowing off"...) But doing so can also presumably take into account improvement over time.

    I also find that most students tend not to be very good at developing their own topics (unless the scope and formal instructions are pretty specific so that they have some kind of clear template to start with--I'm going to try something like this soon), but giving them options gives them some freedom (though too many options might be a bad thing, too, given the paradox of choice).

    Finding ways to incorporate revision seems good to me, and it's something I've been working on. And it does give you grounds for grading harder (more realistically). This can go both ways. In one class (the team-taught Honors classes I'm doing), revision is mandatory and students are expected to incorporate suggestions. They tend to need a lot of help here, especially in thinking about revision more globally rather than as just glorified proofreading. This IS very time intensive so wouldn't be good for a large class. (E.g. my 40 student intro class.)

    In the intro class, revision is an option (up to a certain amount of added credit) for students not happy with their grade the first go-round. Students have been making use of this, and I'm trying to keep myself grading the assignments hard (viz. honestly). In the past, I've been too prone to give credit for effort on smaller assignments, and that leads to disappointment.

    The lore seems to be that you can get more from students by asking more of them (up to some critical point, I'm sure) good luck with whatever innovations you try out. Be resolute. (I even think that many students are receptive to an interested in hearing our rationale for these sorts of things, and so you might try to mine the students for ideas and feedback, too.)

  2. (Sorry, I've been out of town and couldn't respond till now.)

    Thanks, Matt. Right after I posted this I wondered whether maybe the only place to discuss this kind of thing is at In Socrates' Wake. I certainly will be following the discussion over there.

    "Blowing off" was probably not the best choice of words. What I do now is assign six essays per course, but drop the lowest one. In effect this means I assign five essays, and let the students choose which five of the six they will do. I don't think that sends too much of a message that each one doesn't matter. It does mean, though, that if they do one and it doesn't go well then they can discard it (as long as they haven't already passed on one). Maybe that sends a bad message, but I like to give them some choice, and requiring six essays seems like a lot to me. It's certainly a lot of grading if I let them re-write, which is starting to seem like the only thing to do.

    The only choice they currently have otherwise is that I offer three questions to the class and they vote on which one they want to do. That might be enough choice, though, since, like you, I think they are usually not good at choosing their own topics. Basically I'm trying to think of ways to get them more invested in the work they do, but there might not be any radical solutions or magic bullets out there.

    As for asking more of students, I have spent my teaching career asking for more and more until I go too far, then backing off, then asking more again. Right now I think I'm in an asking more phase, and it's going pretty well (except for the students who were expecting an easier ride and are slow to adjust).