Monday, 12 February 2007

Question analysis

"To forget one's purpose is the commonest form of stupidity".

Good old Nietzsche; blunt as ever.

This observation is especially apposite to the task of essay writing. It is almost too obvious to state that our primary purpose when we write an assignment is to address the title. Unsurprisingly, 'addressing the question' tops the list of London Met’s core assessment criteria for essays, more specifically, 'the relevance of the content of the essay to the question or title set'. I quote,

"Good essays select relevant material (knowledge, concepts, interpretation, theoretical models, others’ perspectives). Better essays make it clear throughout how the material is relevant to the question".

Yet in the time I’ve been working as a writing mentor, a large proportion of students have brought me essays which either tangentially address the question or which answer a completely different (usually unstated) one. I’ve done it myself, too. Often.

Since I know that meandering from the true path is a strong tendency of mine, I take decisive steps to nip it in the bud at an early stage. What you see on this page of the Wiki is the first strike in a two-pronged attack. I find that writing down this kind of very simplistic, na├»ve analysis of the question helps me hover my attention over the appropriate areas while I do my research (I picture my attention as a small helicopter, one with a transparent bubble cockpit). This is very helpful when the chaotic process of generating ideas is at its zenith. Even in the most extreme mess, I never lose sight of what it is I’m supposed to be doing.

What I wonder is whether this sort of wandering off the point is common when students are routinely required to generate their own assignment title. Here in the UK, the same title is usually set for all students on a particular course. There is something a bit contrived about this, I feel, and it does seem to be an idea which guarantees a greater than necessary level of pain and boredom for students and markers. So, a question: in North America, where I understand it is the norm for students to develop their own assignment titles, is failing to address the question a significant problem?


Debbie said...

Good Morning Lynn

When I set my students a question, I have already done research to check out whether the right books are in the learning centre, that my course is covering some aspects of the work, that there are a range of online electronic journal sources available and I have checked out the Government websites as well. My fab librarian Carmel usually provides me with some sources I haven't thought about! and these are passed onto the students via webCT. So it isn't that I don't want my students to have a choice of subject, it is I want them to do the very best possible and that a wide range of materials are to hand. I do encourage a vote for a topic - so this year students could vote for (its a transport course) transporting the Hungarian Equestrian team, the Kayak team from New Zealand or the Canadian Cycling team to the 2012 Olympic site. The students opted for Canada. Carmel (the librarian)hosted an online discussion board about the quality of materials available - we are having an evaluate sources subtheme. So a narrow choice doesn't have to equate to pain and boredom for all. Looking forward to following your work Lynn

best wishes Debbie

becky said...

Hello, Firstly I would just like to say that this looks fantastic and I am eager to see how it develops over the next few weeks. Secondly when I was a student I was allowed to write my own assignment title for one essay and found that it helped enormously in keeping me focused. By writing my own title I had already defined the specific focus of my essay, whilst in allocated essay titles I found that I spent most of my time unpicking the actual question.

Lynn said...

Hello Debbie and Becky. Very good point, Debbie, about giving your students the opportunity to have a positive research and writing experience. Of course, as students we rarely get an inkling of the effort that goes into designing and running courses, so it's great to have your perpective. I especially like that students can vote for the topic on your course (interesting transport projects you mention there, too). Becky, thank you for your observations. Of course, nowadays more students have the chance to do a third year project and so to experience the contrast you mention.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lynn,

I wonder whether the title of an essay need always be set before writing commences? Admittedly my own academic writing has only ever been answering a question (pre)set by someone other than me, however, I have noticed in my essays certain 'organic' qualities.

As hours, days and weeks produced, altered and deleted sections of my writing, it dawned on me just how little control I had over what was being written. It seemed that the essay was telling me what was needed and I was duly obliging: a quote for evidence here; an expansion on a point there; clarification everywhere. It seemed that I was becoming an "attendant lord" whose role it was to "advise the prince" and do no more.

If it were that only the topic of an essay be agreed upon in advance, the writer is then free to wander on pages and screens without concern for criteria, marks or word limits and can pursue compositional hedonism.

Of course, the essay must fit the bill, but this can be considered at a later stage (in my view, bearing in mind my type of writing/learning style). The pressure of writing a reponse to an essay question would be far less imposing when (an abunndence of) material is already present.

It's easier to carve a statue when the tree's already felled; having to care for the sapling is time consuming, frustrating and wrought with anxiety.

Lynn said...

Mmmm, beautifully put. Reminds me of the whole Michelangelo thing about how you carve a horse, namely just get a block of marble and remove everything that isn't a horse.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lynn, I am on a course that lets the students choose the title of the essay they want to write at the end of the whole year of lectures. The odd thing is that the end product does not have to be written, it could be a song, picture, play or even a dance. The student then sets the making assessment for other students to say if they have passed. This makes it hard to start, because not only do you need to find where to start but how you are going to get a grade. It is hard to plan what goes in and what should be left out if both the assessment and title are left to the student.

Lynn said...

Oooh, that's an interesting and innovative approach. And as you point out, to an extent "more choice, more problems" might hold true.

I wonder if there's a high pass rate?

Christine said...

Hi Lynn,

In the writing course I teach, students can choose their own topic for their research argument, within certain thematic parameters set by the class. So, for instance, right now I'm teaching a course on Cross-Cultural Rhetoric, and the students have selected to write research-based arguments on topics as varied as the political subtext of Eurovision, the anti-HIV health campaign in India, and western bias in documentaries about the Rwandan genocide. It makes for interesting reading.

In terms of titles, we actually teach a lesson on the way in which a good title both anticipates and sharpens your argument - so we look at it as a key rhetorical tool in constructing a powerful argument. It hadn't really occurred to me to reverse the process and offer students a title from which they would then produce their essay ... that's an interesting alternative approach that I'd like to think about more. In both cases though -- instructor-generated titles or student-generated titles -- what I think is important to be emphasized is the integral relation between title and argument.

Is your official title "An Essay Evolves"? What was the process of your generating the title?

Thanks for opening up your writing process to the wider world... and I hope you don't find these comments/questions too digressive!

Lynn said...

Hello Christine, thank you for your perceptive contributions. It is the feeling of collaboration here which really adds value and makes this project worthwhile. I'm feeling very energised - in this context digressive is good (and actually your comment is highly relevant).

When I had the idea for the project, I knew that what I most wanted to reveal was the gnarled, messy, unpolished underbelly of my work. Namely, my process. Although it's great that we'll be getting professional feedback on the finished result, what really counts is what we do to get there. The analogy of evolution popped straight into my awareness. On contemplation, it seemed very well suited because evolution is generally thought of as a process without a purpose. It sometimes incidentally results in something beautiful and functional like an eye or a crocodile or a whole ecosystem, and sometimes goes nowhere at all.

I've had writing experiences which have gone either way, and I still don't know which category this one falls into!

Rebecca said...

I recognise the ways in which a tutor set question can get left behind my students as they launch into what they think or want the question to be. I can see that setting your own question can be a powerful learning strategy but I am concerned that so many students delay starting the work by spending ages deciding on the question and often give themselves versions of everything I know about x, which won't allow them to shine and stretch themselves. Negotiating questions is good - setting questions for each other is good.

Sarah said...

I agree. Writing a question is a difficult process in itself, and one that needs guidance and support if it is to be done properly.
As an undergraduate, I created an essay title for myself (with no guidance) and wrote an awful essay as I hadn't really understood what I was asking and (if I remember rightly) was just a straight description with little argument required.
As a postgraduate, I had to devise a research project from scratch. This needed to have clear aims and objectives, be relevant, and doable in the time scale (all things that an essay title needs to be?). Even with the support of a supervisor, this took about a third of my time, but I believe was invaluable in understanding the whole process of writing an essay. One that goes beyond answering a question on paper, to a real understanding that it is a communication with a reader (marker) that needs to be able to asses that communication, against a fairly standard idea of what it is that makes a 'good essay'.
To give a student the task of writing a question then, I think, really challenges the student to think about the essay writing process as a whole and why they are being asked to communicate in this way, which is no easy task and is one that requires support and guidance.

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