Thursday, November 1, 2007

Limiting Research Topics: Controlling or Supportive?

In my teacher preparation classes back in the early ‘90s, experts advocated allowing students to self-sponsor their topics for their writing, and I agreed whole-heartedly. My identity at twenty still aligned more closely with the student than the instructor, and I resented all the topics teachers had foisted upon me across the years. Fifteen years later, I realize I have switched camps.

I still believe in all the reasons to let students self-sponsor topics for their writing, but I tell myself I don’t have time to let that process unfurl and flourish. I have benchmarks to meet by specific deadlines, and allowing students to pursue a topic that may not work out seems like a luxury of time I can’t afford. Besides, rather than teaching twenty-five or thirty students at a time in a writing workshop atmosphere, I teach over a hundred at a time, and keeping them all at roughly the same stage of process through an essay helps me navigate that volume. Through years of experience, I’ve learned which topics are more difficult to research or which topics’ arguments in professional journals might be too dense to comprehend in the time I’m giving my students. Currently, I’m grading my students’ research essay thesis statements. For their research essay, students pick off a list of about fifty topics. If students have another idea that isn’t on the list, they need to get my approval, and much of the time, they get it.

The times students don’t get my approval on a self-sponsored research essay topic, their topics probably fall in one of two categories: too difficult or too likely to be faith based. I had a student who struggled with syntax want to write about the American economy going off the gold standard, how that changed the twentieth century economy, and what dangers it poses for the dollar in the future. Oh my! In my opinion as a writing teacher, that topic requires a writer who has already conquered sentence clarity. For the student in question, I said no. The student isn’t happy with me, but I paternalistically think I’ve improved that student’s chance of writing a passing research essay.

Besides topics I think are too difficult, I ask students to avoid arguments I fear will be faith based. I don’t allow students to write about general abortion laws; they can write about selective abortion as the result of amniocentesis, but that’s about it. I don’t allow discussions about sex education or prayer in public schools either. Why? Well, in my hard-won experience, students have a tendency to write faith based arguments for those topics, which are so difficult to grade. I’m trying to help students develop the ability to write a sustained, supported, logical argument, and faith exists beyond those criteria, which I know as a person of faith. When a student writes, “God teaches us that this is wrong,” it pains me to write, “In the United States, laws need to represent those people who don’t believe in God, too—why else is this wrong? What secular reasons can you provide?” over and over and over again. Faith based writing is important, but because it doesn’t rely upon causal reasoning, it’s difficult to evaluate. I tend to skip over it which seems like shortchanging the students. I’ve determined that students can learn more in research writing by not being able to use faith based arguments in the first place.

As I write my reasons, I feel confident that they best serve my students. However, I mourn for the writing teacher I imagined I would be in contrast to who I actually am. In my college pedagogy, students’ self sponsored topics related mostly to personal writing. In my classes, I do almost no personal writing with my students in accordance to the curriculum and learning objectives set by my school system. We focus on persuasive, third person essays. While we do some journaling and response writing, that’s not the writing I respond to the most or reinforce as most important. My curriculum focuses on teaching how to write an argument, and so to does my determination to work on what I think students will need the most in their lives as college students, as voters, as individuals researching information for their wellness or business pursuits. It’s just that I’ve looked up and realized I am now the teacher who foists the topics, and that makes me a little sad…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator

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