Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When Doing Poorly on an Assignment is a Crisis

I knew, when I decided to come to Stanford, that there would be days I would wish I had gone to UCSD instead (just as the reverse would have been true).  I did not expect that one of those days would come so early.

Those that know me know that I care little for grades.  I am perfectly capable of assessing my own learning.  What I desire, instead, is feedback, constructive criticism, helpful advice.  Harsh doesn't hurt.  On the contrary, the more direct the feedback, the more specific the criticism, the better.  I want to be a better writer, a better thinker, a more skilled lover of wisdom.

In one (or two) of my courses this quarter, however, I'm feeling something of a crisis of purpose.  The course is a core requirement for all Stanford PhD students, a course that, in principle anyway, is at the heart of what we're doing and learning as future researchers.  The course is a methods course, an introduction to research methodology and thinking.

It is in this course that we recently read a piece by Jerome Kagan.  The piece was the first chapter of his "The Three Cultures," and, frankly, it's one of the worst pieces of writing I've read in a long time.  Its point - that different research methodologies* have different cultures - was blindingly obvious, but its construction was totally inane, ranging from disorganized to grossly oversimplified to needlessly complex.  Phrases like "the critical point is" appeared over and over, often referring to disparate ideas, while the phrase "to put it simply" appeared in front of one of the most complex formulations in the text.  A single paragraph mentioned algae, bees, and ferrets in an effort to make a point about language, but the point got lost in the bestiary. 

* That is, the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

All of this was prefaced by two inexcusable writing decisions.  The first was a table that shouldn't have been a table. The table charted "dimensions of research cultures" against those cultures, with the horrifying result that some cells contained whole sentences formatted like bad poems.  Note to self: anytime you put a 20 word sentence in a table, try to make the cells wide enough so that you do not to have one word per line.

The other decision - perhaps graver - was an invocation of Ludwig Wittgenstein near the opening of the text.  Wittgenstein, if you don't know, is famous for destabilizing theories of language and meaning with his not-always-clear, fragmentary texts.  He challenged the assumption that words meant the same thing all the time, and ultimately convinced everyone from philosophers to linguists to social scientists that context is really important - perhaps the only thing that is important - to meaning.

Kagan uses Wittgenstein, then, to begin his treatise on the three cultures.  His citation of the philosopher is made to preface his own observation that, within different research paradigms, different words have different meanings.  Fear, for example, means a different thing to an English professor than to a Behavioral Psychologist.

Which is all well and good, of course, if blindingly obvious.  No, the offense here was pointing to Wittgenstein as the divider of the disciplines.  It perhaps did not strike Kagan as supremely ironic that Wittgenstein himself probably would not have been all that excited by the theoretical division of the "three cultures" of modern academic research, that Wittgenstein's ways of thinking were in equal part scientific, social, and humanistic, that his methodology was not easy to categorize by the very system that Kagan found Wittgenstein to be the father of.

Behind my disgust at reading page after page (after page) of the drivel in "The Three Cultures"* was a lurking fear.  You see, this was not something I was reading on my own.  No, this was one of the first pieces that I was meant to read as a PhD student at Stanford University.  In some sense, this was canonical, brilliant, an important work for me to contemplate and consider.

* I prefer to be a generous reader, but in this case I cannot think of a single redeeming quality of the piece.

With even greater horror I turned to my assignment: I must summarize this monster and, what's more, apply its reasoning to my own potential research interests.  The written summary is, I think, a poor piece of pedagogy and assessment as is, but it's doubly hard when the work in question is of such poor quality.

Being the contrarian that I am (nicht diese tone, after all), I decided to write a poem.  I suspected this might get me in trouble, to a degree, but I have always tested academic limits (often to my benefit) throughout my time as a student.  This was not, for example, the first poem I've turned in on a non-poetry assignment, and historically my assessors have appreciated the change of pace, as well as the effort at creative insight.  Some have leveled a warranted "don't do that again" at me, as well, but at least there was respect for the process.

In this case, I borrowed some of Kagan's language, inserted a one-sentence statement of the simple fact - that different research cultures are different, basically - and ended with the observation that "somebody misappropriated the Wittgenstein."  It was, in my opinion, a funny but not inaccurate piece of analytical and synthetic work considering the quite dull material with which I was presented.  It was not a good poem, but it was not meant to be.  Good poems (and perhaps good writing of any kind) need subject matter worth writing about.  Of course I could have, in less time and probably with better results - at least from the Professorial point of view - done a traditional summary, but if I'm going to spend hours reading a piece of drivel, I intend not to bore myself by writing the same kind of drivel in response.*

* It is worth noting that the Kagan piece was poor writing by academic standards as well.  It was flowery and full of needless metaphors.  It was organized so that multiple and unclear ideas populated each sentence.  It was a mess.

In response to my poem (and, for the other reading, an interpolation of the reading into Plato's Meno; another, I thought, interesting and synthetic attempt to summarize the work without driving myself totally mad at the grade-school-book-reportiness of it all), I received a "check-minus" with a note that I did not summarize Kagan, and that I should look at my classmate's example passages for help.

Hence my crisis.  I know how to summarize a piece of writing.  I can write a clear and concise sentence when it is worth writing.  But I am not here to learn how to regurgitate simple information poorly presented.  And yet, increasingly, that is how I feel my classes are designed.  Classes taught ostensibly by critical pedagogues - who believe in student-run classrooms and dialogue and activity - are two-hour lectures.*  Courses in research methodology involve no training in research or methodology, but rather middle-school level assignments that ask primarily that I demonstrate not that I understand the ideas of a text or am striving to make them my own, but rather that I have done the reading, and am able to copy and paste important ideas into equally vapid academic jargon.**

* A fact that would amuse me were it not so sad.  It is a shocking revelation that the people who teach teachers to teach (and teach education researchers to assess good teaching) - that is, School of Education Professors - are such poor teachers.

** Perhaps that is "methodology" to the modern researcher?  If so, academia is in worse trouble than I thought.

Perhaps I was mistaken in thinking that Education research was open to people who value ideas as much as research, people who value creativity, process, and inspiration as much as method and practice.  It is not that I discount research, method, or practice, it is rather that I see so little of the other stuff that I'm beginning to wonder, well, whether wonder is a part of the equation at all.

Again, I don't really care about grades.  I could get a check-double-minus or a D or whatever and that wouldn't bother me.  No, what bothers me is that the feedback I received misses the point entirely.  It bothers me that the conversation is one way.  That the pedagogy is so deeply flawed.  That the underlying philosophy is so undemocratic.  That the value system is so blindly accepted that it cannot see that, maybe, a whimsical, irreverent, and sarcastic spark might have merit beyond "not being a summary."  Of course it wasn't a summary; it was a condemnation.

If a summary had been worth writing, I would have written one.  Give me an assignment worth doing, an article worth reading, a conversation to have (instead of a lecture to attend to), and I will produce high quality work.*  Give me a class worth taking - do not waste my time for three hours at a time with your pontificating and your holier-than-thou elitism (tenure alone does not make you interesting).  I, too, am an intellectual.  I, too, love ideas, perhaps more than you would believe.  I, too, can speak and listen.  I, in my own way, am well-read.  I have stood in front of students and shut myself up so that they might speak, and it was wondrous.  Yet, if no such thing can happen even here, at Stanford University, in a PhD program, in Education, can we hope for it to happen anywhere else?

* I might as well say the same for any and every student, and yet this lesson learned so well in research has not been learned in practice even by the very researchers who teach it.

It is not my assignment that makes me wonder about all of this.  That is but a small and ultimately meaningless symptom of a much deeper problem.  Nevertheless, it is an indicative example of the bigger picture: a case in which, it now seems obvious to me, the result was destined both because of how I was inevitably to respond to the assignment, and how the assignment, so to speak, was going to respond back to me.  And so the deeper culture becomes the question, and leaves me with an exhortation.

Instead of demanding that I fit into your narrow boxes, academia, you would do well to invite and celebrate your radicals, your creative thinkers, your irreverent teachers, your trouble-makers.  I know that UCSD does, and yet I chose Stanford, in part, because I believed that it did as well.  Now I'm not so sure.


  1. I can somewhat relate. There is an awful lot of busy work and completely tangential to the subject (i.e. useless) information that I'm supposed to memorize these days and its frustrating to screw up scantrons while being very confident about the material.

  2. Hey Paul! Found your blog while researching Stanford's LDT Course. Would love to have a conversation with you, albeit, not in this comment box...

    Something about me- I'm a Mumbai-based writer and a teacher, developing a new subject which I call 'Creative Learning.' Am planning to explore the field of educational technology and would really appreciate some advice.

    I'd be grateful if we could take this dialogue (at the moment, very one-sided) outside of the blog to say, the chat window on Gmail, if possible?

  3. Sure thing Rupangi. Shoot me an email at pefranz (at) Stanford (dot) edu and I'll get in touch with you.

  4. Thanks for the prompt reply! Will do.

  5. Hola Paul,
    Bummer. I am also in a research methods class this fall but contrary to your experience, I have been delighted with the professor's attention to good teaching. . . who would have thunk at this little public university in them middle of the Pacific?!

    Keep turning in poems.

  6. Hell yeah homie!
    Keep raising a ruckus and let 'em know.