Friday, 27 September 2013

Assessment design and critical (literary) theory

Once again I have been wrestling with the difficulties of a module designed to introduce students to critical theory.  This is particularly difficult on the degree course I teach, because English only constitutes 50% of the course - so however I try to fit critical theory in, it needs to be done effectively enough so that students have a confident grasp of it before they hit their final year, where an understanding of the relationships between text and theory become pre-supposed.

I have been trying to grapple with this challenge for many years now, and have variously gone through phases of:

  • questioning the value of critical theory altogether, and asking whether we really need it? (I eventually came to the conclusion that we do).

  • embedding critical theory in modules, rather than having a dedicated standalone module (but this led to repetition and confusion).

I have mucked about endlessly with the mode of delivery of the module - exploring whether to apply different critical theories to a single text, or each theory to multiple texts

Here, then, is the latest in my eternal quest for the golden bullet of critical theory teaching.  It involves thinking about delivery and assessment as synchronous processes which build gradually in depth and complexity.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Studying Literature: How to design assessment that teaches students what they need to know

For me, the first English module of the course is always the most difficult.  Introductory modules are often given the near-impossible task of providing students with everything they need in order to continue studying the subject at a higher level - but particularly in literature this seems to be an increasingly difficult task.

There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, while there are countless Study Skills guides now available for students to use, there is very little in terms of clear guidelines and support for how to do English literature.  In particular, the idea of 'textual analysis' remains on the whole largely undefined.  I have posted about this issue a couple of times already, so won't go into it again here.

The other issue relates to what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as 'cultural capital' or 'habitas'.  This notion relates to the extent to which there are often broad assumptions made about the basic levels of education people have - and I don't mean education in an exclusively formal sense, but in the sense of learning shared values and expected behaviours (whether those values or behaviours are ideological or not).  For better or for worse, many of us who teach literature at degree levels will have gone to University ourselves carrying a certain amount of 'cultural capital' - whether that takes the form of an educated family background, or some basic ideas about English literary history (enough to distinguish the major monarchs, for example), and possibly even a rough idea of what happens in Shakespeare's tragedies.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

English Dissertation: Three core questions

The most basic core of a dissertation plan hinges on three main questions:

  1. What do you want to know?
  1. How are you going to find out?
  1. What will you do with the answers?

The answer to the questions will hinge on your initial narrowing of a research area.   The range of research or project areas can be varied, but a very generic approach might suggest that for a literature project the answers could include:

  1. What do you want to know?
    • How or whether a text, or texts within a particular period demonstrate a particular characteristic, or reflect a historical or sociological context.

  • Whether concrete evidence can be identified which adds to our understanding of a particular text, or whether a group of evidences can be analysed in ways which allow for different conclusions

  • How different critical approaches to a text or texts can add to our appreciation / understanding of it.

  1. How are you going to find out?
  • Through primary research and close analysis of your key texts.
  • By looking at either primary historical documents, or through a critical review of secondary texts which explore primary historical evidence.
  • Through research of secondary texts (critical articles, essays, etc.), and a synthesis of theoretical ideas with your own.

  1. What will you do with the answers?
  • Conclude how they can inform our reading of the text, or our reading of the historical period, conclude how they allow the text to inform our understanding of ourselves or or society.
  • Conclude how they can inform our knowledge of the period or place in history, and with what degree of certainty.
  • Ascertain to what extent they either prove or disprove your hypothesis, and conclude how this result adds to our understanding of sociological contexts and behaviours.

English Dissertation: Structure of your topic

English Dissertation: Structure of your topic

Your literary dissertation might be one of the following:

An argument for or against an existing critic (or critical position) in relation to the author or group of works you are studying

• An argument about the importance of a particular influence of a writer, or influence exerted by him or her

• An argument for the importance of some particular piece of evidence to the discussion of the work of some author or group of authors

• An argument about the value of a theoretical approach to a text or set of texts

• An argument about the significance of a particular authors work

• An argument about some historical or literary-historical aspect of literature

• An argument about existing scholarly texts on a particular work

• An argument showing how a particular theme or concept may be related to a group of texts

English Dissertation: General advice on choosing a topic

English Dissertation: General advice on choosing a topic

1. Develop a topic that has interested you throughout your undergraduate career.

For some people this is obvious. Some students come to the dissertation knowing exactly whom they want to work with and what they want to write about. For others, the dissertation is part of the process of exploring. It may help to look for your patterns of interest.

  • Make a list of classes you have taken as a student. Look at the essays you have written. Make a list of your favourite texts and authors. Make a list of things you like to read or think about. What patterns emerge? What topics and questions have continually interested you? Look for ways to connect seemingly disparate topics.

  • Start a file of topics that interest you. If you begin early, you'll have a jump-start on choosing a dissertation topic. If you're reading this because you are now at the dissertation stage already, a file can still be useful if you include ideas for later projects.

  • Most importantly, think about where you want to enter the conversation in your field. Few dissertations actually shift paradigms in their field. What you are looking for is a way to join and contribute to the conversation or critical debate. You must decide with whom and around which topics you want to enter the scholarly conversation.

2. Think about the top three issues you want to study and turn them into questions.

Sometimes we know the broad topic we want to write about, but need help getting an angle or determining the research questions we want to assess.

  • Conduct brainstorming or free-writing exercises. Write as much as you can for ten to fifteen minutes on a topic. Include all questions and comments you can think of. Don't worry about grammar and word choice. What you are aiming for is output of ideas. Do this several days in a row on one topic or on many. Then, go back and see what you've created. Do any of your ideas seem like promising topics?

  • Discuss them with fellow students, tutors, or friends. Can any be turned into workable research questions for a dissertation proposal?

  • Similarly, you may think about your top three issues and search for intersections between two or all three of those issues. This is often a fruitful path for dissertation writers to pursue.

3. Look for what other scholars say needs more study and conduct preliminary research.

You must of course find out what other scholars have said on a topic first. Then, you can begin to determine if the topic is exciting enough to you to grab your attention for a full years work. Then, decide where you can enter the conversation. A colleague of mine found that she had to narrow her topic because she had selected two nineteenth-century women authors to write about, but found herself engrossed by one and avoiding the other. Preliminary reading can, thus, awaken you to your own passions and interests.

  • Look at class notes; tutors may have pointed out potential research topics or commented on unanswered or interesting questions in the field.

  • Talk with tutors about possible topics. Many tutors are forthcoming with ideas for entire dissertations or for angles on a given issue. Talk to as many tutors as possible - not just subject specific tutors - as this can help you view your topic from a different angles.

4. Replicate somebody else's study.

Sometimes older, classic studies can be re-examined in a new context or with a more current methodology. But be careful not to enter into a debate that has long been resolved.

English Dissertation: What is it?

English Dissertation: What is it?

You’re (almost) on your own!

This dissertation itself is an extended project that will run the length of your final year.  You will have the opportunity to define your own area of interest and identify an area within it that you can research.  You will be able to research different aspects of it, identifying appropriate sources.  You will be able to write up your own conclusions with a depth, and sustained argument unlike any of your other assessments.  Through the dissertation, students are able to develop and demonstrate new levels of independence (both intellectually and in terms of using academic skills).

  • You will not be given an essay title.
  • You will not be given learning outcomes.
  • You will not be given a reading list.
The responsibility is yours to find a problem or issue, within a specific area, which you can research – and this is what makes the module both exciting … and daunting.  Think about your other assignments as learning to ride a bike.  The dissertation is when the stabilisers come are removed and the hand comes off the back wheel:  You are riding under your own steam, and are a fully-fledged undergraduate!

Why does independence matter?

It is this level of independence that makes your dissertation the ‘main event’ of any undergraduate degree.  It is where you demonstrate, more clearly than anywhere else, that sense of ‘graduateness’ which is associated with critical thinkers, and which employers still look for in job applicants.  No other equivalent qualification demands that you demonstrate the intellectual insight that can identify problems that need addressing.  No other equivalent qualification demands that you demonstrate the research skills and initiative needed to find the right information for any given task.  No other equivalent qualification demands that you demonstrate the analytical and evaluative thinking skills needed to draw convincing conclusions from the information you have found.

This is what employers want.  Not just people who can do what you tell them, but people who can work out how to do it better, without the need for constant supervision.  People with proven skills in time management and problem solving.

Aside from such practical values, the dissertation is often the most rewarding and satisfying experience degree students have.  Although (and this I guarantee) you will feel moments of utter despair and inadequacy, moments of frustration and of feeling overwhelmed – the fact that you have met such difficulties means the work you finally produce will be something you are more proud of that anything else you have achieved on this course.  Undergraduate dissertations, beautifully bound, tend to sit on the bookshelves of graduates proudly throughout their life: a constant reminder that they can achieve even those things that appeared impossible at the time.


Don’t be.  You are not going to be expected to do this without support.   You will have a supervisor who can guide you and offer you advice throughout.  Not only that, you have this module to introduce you to the skills and approaches needed for a dissertation project, so that when you come to begin your own you will feel more confident that you know what is expected of you, and how to meet those expectations.

For more information about dissertations, here is a useful video (can't remember where from, but I think it was Sheffield Hallam University) discussing the value of dissertation modules:

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Can using social networks lead to better essays?

This is my first blog of the new term, and is rather conveniently facilitated by the fact that I forgot to pre-order my books at the British Library, and have a rather pleasant wee wait until the real work begins. In fact, getting back to blogging is something which is long overdue – for no other reason that I have found the process of blogging a necessary form of exercise, and this has made me think quite a lot again about the value of social networks for study purposes.

I remember once getting some very good advice from a journalist colleague, who said that I should make sure that I write something everyday. Of course, that is never going to happen – but I can certainly testify that if I let myself go too long without writing anything not only do I struggle more to write when I need to, but even my thinking seems to calcify. It is almost as though the process of writing forces us to solidify thoughts in a way which we might not otherwise do – and until we solidify our thoughts they remain ill-defined and vague. For example, this blog contains a great deal about education and politics – and if anyone were to ask me what my thoughts were about either subject, they would soon have the pants very much bored off them. However, although I have spent rather a lot of time over the last few weeks reading about Syria, and about the international political reactions to events there, I have done nothing more than be a passive recipient of swathes of information and other people's opinions about it. If you were to ask me my own views on the subject, I would not even be able to gather my thoughts enough to clearly explain how massively ill-qualified I am to have any opinion about it at all.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 – 1835)

To some degree this seems to accord with what 19th-century philosopher Humboldt referred to as the 'inner linguistic sense', or “the entire mental capacity, as related to the formation and use of language”. Humboldt argued that our capacity to frame thoughts is enabled through the interaction of our innate creative energies (energeia), and the existing formulations of words which express ideas and concepts which are infinitely adaptable (ergon) – which in effect means that all our ideas about things are actually “the fusion of what is produced independently from within and what is given from without”.

In other words, in a way which can admittedly lead us towards the problematic area of ideational theory, Humboldt makes the argument that our ideas cannot exist with any clarity or determination apart from the process of language:

Intellectual activity, entirely mental, entirely internal, and to some extent passing without trace, becomes, though sound, externalized in speech and perceptible to the senses. Thought and language are therefore one and inseparable from each other. But the former is also intrinsically bound to the necessity of entering into a union with the verbal sound; thought cannot otherwise achieve clarity, nor the idea become a concept.

In other words, expressing our ideas through language not only solidifies those ideas, but makes them available to our senses – which can then enable our rational mind to evaluate what it senses.

Why is this important? Because it suggests that the union of language and ideas enables us to continually re-evaluate and refine those ideas. We form an idea, and we express that idea through language, Having done so, we can then re-evaluate those ideas.

Have you ever said anything and then thought to yourself 'actually, that sounds stupid out loud'? Have you ever said anything and thought 'no, that's not what I really mean'? Have you ever written anything which you then look back on and think 'crikey, did I really write that?!'

We are better able to rationalise and refine our ideas once we have expressed them through language. It is language which facilitates that process, and unless we habitually use language to express our ideas then there is a danger that our ideas will remain ill-defined or under-developed.

Hence this blog.

But there are more reasons why I am making this point. It is often difficult to persuade students of the need to start the process of writing early enough in the term. Often students think (as I did when I was a student) that the majority of the term should be spent reading and receiving information, which at the end of the term you write down in your essay. The idea of writing pages and pages of notes and drafts which will never end up in that essay seems like such a waste of time and energy. However, Humboldt's argument suggests that the very process of writing might be the thing that enables us to refine and develop our ideas – as well as to polish our writing – more effectively.

Today, students have a range of opportunities for continually combining their learning with language. Social networks can be used to engage with people in discussions about what they are learning, so that students can conveniently and easily ensure that throughout the term everything they learn is something which they are reflecting on through language. Every idea is something they need to express and defend.

I suppose my question then is really this: Does writing really help us develop our ideas? If so, can using social networks throughout a term to write about and discuss ideas lead to better essays?  Perhaps more interestingly still – how can we find out...?

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