Monday, March 26, 2007

Students surprise me sometimes

Just checking in from 'grading jail' to tell a brief little story about something that intrigued me in class the other day.

I was taking class period to talk about why and how we do research, and how to judge secondary sources in doing research. (This is but one of three class sessions I devote to the "how to's" of research in a class where I'm having students write a research paper. This is the first time I'm doing this at the undergrad level. Keep you fingers crossed for me.) Anyway, I started talking about things like presses and journals and peer review, all rather dry stuff, especially on a day like that day, when the heating was still on in the windowless room even though temperatures outside had become spring-like. But for some reason, the students perked up when I talked about peer review. Frankly, a whole bunch of them seemed fascinated with the process. They asked all sorts of questions, including:

  • How many reviewers does a book or article typically have?
  • What happens if one reviewer likes it and the other doesn't?
  • What happens if one person's advice contradicts the other's?
And so on and so forth. I think I missed a "teaching moment" there, because while I answered all their questions about peer review and more, I think what they were really fascinated by was the fact that we professors still get "graded." And those "grades" can have some of the same issues as their grades -- one reader/teacher might have different expectations/idiosyncracies/peccadillos from another. And then what do you do? I should have realized this at the moment, so that we might have had a desmystifying conversation about grades and assessment.

Then again, maybe they were actually fascinated by peer review. Maybe the students asking the questions were thinking about academic careers and wanted to know more "behind the scenes" information. I have no idea what their motivations were, frankly. But I have to say, it was kind of funny and cute that they were so fascinated. Even the lone grad student in the course noticed this and she thought it was odd, in a good way, too.

Remind me next time students become fascinated with some little detail of a lesson or text or conversation to ask why. Maybe then I'll learn something.


The Combat Philosopher said...

It is funny you should mention this. I have had a similar experience, when describing the peer review process. I actually do this in my intro level class, although I usually get to teach this to honors students, which might skew the results. However, almost universally they are facinated by the peer review process.

However, I have gone further and asked them why they find it so interesting. It seems, in part, to be the process of 'seeing behind the veil'. However, the other big thing for them is getting some insight into why one thing on a subject is approved of, whereas another may not be. I often get questions about how 'Googling' rates, in this context.

It seems that for many undergraduates, or at least, for many of ours, the whole professor/university process is somewhat mysterious. They tell me that getting an insight into what we are up to, when we are not teaching makes their whole education process make a load more sense. I also often use the same topic to explain to them why it is important that they try and take classes from professors who actually publish, and why publishing matters in general. They like that too. Apparently, there are some similarities to various processes on Facebook and MySpace, so they can relate.

The Combat Philosopher

negativecapability said...

My students are usually fascinated with me being a graduate student. I have deadlines and get "graded" (evaulated would be a better word, I guess) just like they do. For some reason I've not felt a lack of respect from this, rather more for some reason; they seem to dig that I appear to "know" as much as their other profs but am still somehow like them.

So I think the "grading" is the thing that is intriguing them, because what I tell them is that their full professors keep going through this process...tenure, publishing, etc. Demystification is good.

i_heart_anderson_cooper said...

I'm a grad student, not a teacher yet, so go easy on me!

Since you had a grad student in the class, I'll assume it was an upper level undergrad course...

maybe they were curious about academic careers, but I think they might've been mystified by the concept that several interpretations are acceptable. When I was an undergrad, I thought that only the theory that everyone accepted was published (don't ask, I'm not sure where I got that idea...). I did not know that multiple interpretation were ok; I thought that academic writing was a battle to see who had the best idea, and that having the best idea automatically proved the other guys wrong.

the professors getting "graded" is also cool. It sometimes helps students to rank professors - e.g. I go to UMSL right now, and our Chaucerian is the top ranked professor by students because he is the most published and the hardest to get an A from...