Should we Abolish Page-Lengths When Assigning Student Papers? (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part IV of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X]

For those of us who are writing, or have written, a dissertation, it is likely that we have run across a well-meaning friend, family member, or stranger in a bar (or Buddhist temple!) who has asked us, “How many pages does a dissertation need to be?!” “Everyone knows,” I say, “it’s exactly 373, no more, no less.”

Of course, this is a silly answer to a genuine question, but I think we scholars have to admit the assumptions behind this question are, well, misdirected. I’ve seen dissertations in my field that are 200 pages and 1200 pages. I would say age-old conventions more commonly determine page length of dissertations, not whip-cracking advisors.[1] More importantly, the guiding principle behind writing a dissertation is identifying and crafting a compelling argument. The scope and depth of the argument is better at determining the length than any pre-established page length. I would say that most scholars do not have the problem of developing the length of their writing, but containing its scope of ideas! Word limit is our enemy, not word count!

In teaching academic writing, my colleagues and I foreground the importance of developing ideas through short writing assignments and drafts. Yes, we do have page-lengths, typically three 5-page papers are due throughout the term. But each of these 5-page papers were preceded by two 2-page papers, used to develop elements of the longer argument. This structure allows students to develop ideas over time (they receive critical feedback along the way) and draft verbiage that can be used for their longer paper. Even these initial 5-page papers are drafts that are revised and edited for their final portfolio.

The first time I taught the course I was caught off guard by how many portfolio papers were too long, either repetitive or unnecessarily broad or meandering. They blew by the 5-page limit because they had too many good ideas![2]  I soon established page-maximums for the portfolio papers (7 pages), and decided to start talking throughout the course about how students should think about the scope of their thesis and the depth of their evidence and analysis. Surely, some initial 5-page papers are short, but I have an equal number of students who are struggling with too many possible trajectories for their argument. They are no longer concerned with page length, but with identifying and crafting a compelling argument. To be clear, this only happens because they are allowed (err…coerced) to developed ideas through writing over a period of time with critical feedback. I commiserate with students who are vexed by having to edit out good (or just fun) ideas – I tell them that is what real scholarship often entails – save them for your next paper!

Now, I can hear (and have heard) the objection, “But, I am a scholar of Religious Studies, I teach Religious Studies, I do not teach writing!” True, but I would suggest we rephrase the statement like this: “I am a scholar of Religious Studies, I teach facts, not skills!” I would argue that writing (or argumentative writing) is a core skill of doing Religious Studies, and if one wants to develop critical thinking, the practice of writing is a main vehicle for its development. If one is truly interested in teaching only religious literacy (i.e. facts), then writing assignments do not need to be assigned – multiple choice exams will adequately test retention of ideas. (And don’t fool yourself if you think assigning an “essay question” necessarily elicits higher-order thinking – most essay prompts ask the student to list facts in one way or another. For example, a good essay question should ask the student to apply a skill in a novel context.)

Grist for the Mill: By writing this (go figure!), I think I’ve come to a better understanding of the value of page-lengths. Page-lengths really don’t matter much if you are working with a motivated student to continuously help develop his or her ideas. Depending on the depth of available research materials (both primary and secondary sources), the complexity of the research topic, and the base knowledge of the student, paper lengths may vary significantly, but still reflect an equivalent effort. The point, I concede, may be simply placing the primary focus on – and underlying motivation directed towards – the quality of the argument and not the length of the paper. One way to do this is to emphasize the need for the slow development and building of ideas with regular peer or instructor feedback.

Dare I say, page-recommendations should perhaps be determined by the time a teacher has to critically read and comment on them all – as opposed to some arbitrary 10, 12, or 15 page paper?[3] I average about 20 minutes of reading and critical feedback per 5-page paper. This feedback (and sometimes this is just suggestions, not “corrections”) is then used to write a final, more polished piece of writing. This process requires more planning than simply penciling-in a “research paper” into your syllabus due at the end of the term. Is also requires a prompt that allows for the development of a student’s ideas over an extended period of time. Granted, this may not be ideal for every class, but I think it is preferable in many Religious Studies courses.

Notes:

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] If I engage in a longer conversation, I will usually say that scholars often think about the number of chapters needed to develop an argument, and that by the general concern of publishing a chapter or two as a 10-20+ page article we often arrive at a determined dissertation length. In other words, we (typically) do not start by having a page length.

[2] Long papers could be plagued by what I call “stream of consciousness writing,” writing that meanders with no point. I usually tell students that this is the sign of a good rough draft, but now needs to be critically analyzed for kernels of ideas or good argumentation. Unless a student willfully wants to fail, this informal style of writing is almost always fixed after revision.

[3] Many universities have stipulations for certain classes that involve the required assignment of a certain number of pages of writing (it is 15 pages at my university). Typically this represents total pages of writing, thus, following a similar program I outline above, a final 10-page paper should easily be preceded by more than 5 pages of drafting, consequently complying with the 15-page minimum.

Final Writing Project

My summer course fulfills the UCSB writing requirement for undergraduates, thus I knew my class would be writing intensive. I conceived of the final writing project as following a progression of “staging and scaffolding.”

My final project required students to develop their own definition of religion based solely on the Asian religious traditions we covered in class (it is presented as a challenge to the understanding of “religion” as based on monotheistic Western traditions which emphasize “belief” and “holy books”). This would require students to engage higher levels of thinking with the material (including analysis, evaluation, and creation), far beyond just memorizing foreign terms and names. It also required them to construct a written argument. Both of these goals require staged assignments, and my course was developed with these outcomes in mind.

There were three basic stages building up to the final writing project.

  1. Daily Reflections: In addition to my N-O-O assignments, students had to write and post daily informal reflections on concepts that they could use for the foundation of their definition. The concepts, which I called “threshold concepts,” were introduced through short podcasts, and each student had to locate where these concepts were found in that day’s reading assignment. They were also asked to reflect on where these concepts may have been illustrated in other materials as well, thus creating a network of comparisons. These were informal low-stakes writing tasks which focused more on critical thinking and idea development than formal writing structure. These daily ideas formed the beginnings of an argument for how a religion might be defined. Students also had to opportunity to read the posts of other students, thus increasing the cross-pollination of ideas.
  2. Idea-Generating Writing Project (Mid-term Exam Essay): For the midterm essay I had students take a definition of religion we looked at or created during our first class and either defend it or critique it according the the material we had covered thus far (we had covered “Hinduism,” Jainism, and Buddhism – or the Indian cultural sphere). They had to employ one or more threshold concepts as the basis for their argument. This was envisioned as a conceptional rough draft for their final project which required them to create their own definition. They had to bring in a copy of their paper for peer review and I provided audio commentary on what they turned in. I required this to be a formal academic essay, and gave insight into the construction of the thesis statements, the use of evidence, and organization of ideas. While some of the content would vary, these concerns would carry over into the final project.
  3. Final Writing Project (Final Exam Essay): This essay was the culmination of student efforts to understand and create useful comparisons among the rage of Asian religious traditions we covered. I made the essay due a few days after our in-class final exam so they could spend time referring to class and teacher commentary and to incorporate the East Asian material we had covered since the midterm. To make sure they remained on pace I required them to draft a definition of religion and post it to our course website a little more than a week before the paper was due.

Peter Romaskiewicz.pngFinal Paper Prompt

N-O-O Daily Reading Responses

This seems kind of odd to admit, but I run a “coercive classroom.” And there is nothing more coercive in my mind than having my students write daily reflections on assigned readings. I have little reason to think they (or anyone, really) would keep up with the readings without a regular assessment of some sort. Of course, open class discussion on the day’s readings can “peer pressure” some into regular reading habits. I’ve found, however, only a select few are consistently willing to offers their insights, while others are more content to simply listen. (Cold-calling students is a craft I have not yet mastered, but will be attempting next semester. I plan to write about it here for another post.)

There are several ways to gauge if a student has read, but many require a lot of additional effort of the instructor. One may prepare a series of comprehension questions that are handed out just previous to the assignment. These have the benefit of focusing the student’s attention, but I would argue also have the same drawback (to tell the student what they should find interesting or important). It also takes time to craft thoughtful questions that genuinely move beyond basic fact-finding. I personally tend to save good questions like this for class discussion.

Daily (or surprise) reading quizzes are another means of coercion. I’m not convinced of the value of these either, mainly because the questions have to be “easy,” allowing for the student to signal to the instructor that the reading was done even though it may not have been fully comprehended. And grading these can be surprisingly difficult, especially if the question is too easy.

So I’ve veered in another direction, pulling an idea from my time in the Writing Program. I ask my students to respond to every reading by asking the three same questions.

What is New? What is old? What is odd?

New, Old, Odd, that’s it. I sometimes joking call this my N-O-O assignment. The first covers an idea they find interesting. Something they can be motivated to explore in more depth if need be. The second idea covers finding a topic they’ve seen elsewhere, or at least can create a parallel for. This allow students to build on top of old knowledge. The last concept requires them to critique an author’s point or to ask an clarifying question about a topic.

Currently I have my students post these responses on a Forum in GauchoSpace. After posting they can read other student’s posts, though I have not required them to post comments this time. My practice is to go through them shortly before class, and when I have time, to post a brief comment. Typically I will respond to their questions, but will also encourage their curiosities. Even if I do not have time to write responses, just browsing the posts will give me ample ideas of where to take my lecture and what to go over in more detail. I have hesitated to call out students by name about their (insightful) comments, but hope to make this a more common part of my practice.

I grade the reflections based on a simple “did it” or “didn’t do it” scale, though I’ve contemplated a three point scale of “outstanding,” satisfactory,” and “unsatisfactory” (plus “did’t do it”). I typically give my students a few “days off” as well.

Below are the directions I’ve used this summer (I tweak them for each class I teach).

Directions
When approaching the reading assignments for this course, I want you to pay attention to three critical aspects: what is New to you, what is Old to you, and what is Odd to you. Your written reflection for each one of these critical aspects should be at least a few sentences in length. Provide page numbers from the readings as necessary.

Below are some of the types of questions you can ask yourself for each aspect.

1. New – What was something new and interesting? What was particularly useful or insightful? What quote or passage was able to reveal something interesting and/or helpful for you? Why was it so? If anything, clearly locating these sections will make the time you spent reading seem worthwhile.

2. Old – What was familiar? What quote or passage claimed something that you already knew? Was there something that seemed familiar or had a potential parallel to another religious tradition you know? Locating these sections will give you a clear foundation should you encounter other sections that are not as clear to you.

3. Odd – What was confusing or unexpected? What quote or passage did not make sense or were you critical of? What problem did you have with it? Locating these sections will help you keep a healthy and critical attitude towards the readings and suggest areas that require further exploration.

Your response will have to be posted before class for you to receive credit.

Student Peer Review

My students this summer have been charged with writing a final paper that argues for their own definition of “religion” based solely on the Asian traditions we cover in class. (I will discuss this assignment more fully in a later post.) In addition, I required them to craft a rough draft that was due during our mid-term exam. Technically, this was a slightly different shorter assignment that built towards their final product.

I assigned this shorter assignment with three specific goals in mind. One was to motivate them to think about their project early. The second was to force them, through peer review, to see how their fellow students tackled them same problem and hopefully to inspire their own approach. The last goal was to allow students the opportunity to practice the (slowly acquired) skill of good critique. While this last objective really has little to do with the content of my course, I feel it is incumbent on me to teach writing even when I am not formally teaching writing. (Yes, I have been indoctrinated, happily.)

Prep work: Each student had to bring in two printed copies of their paper. I crafted a reader review rubric that each student had to fill out. I divided it into three sections: 1) basic requirements, 2) organization & structure, 3) overall.

Peter Romaskiewicz Reader Review.png

Reader Review Rubric [Summer 2017]

Set-up: The students took the midterm the same day we did reader review, so there was limited time. I wrote basic instructions on the top of the sheet and read them aloud. I regularly remind my students that there are real human beings reading these comments, so be nice; the tone can also be colloquial. I also tell them to cite praise as well as criticism as long as its constructive (meaning I want them to consistently tell the author why they made the specific comment).

In this case, I had the students pass their papers to a random person, and then again to a random person until they “lost” their paper. In hindsight I should of had them trade with a partner so they could talk about their papers with each other, but I knew time was going to be tight as it was and didn’t know if time would allow for it.

Practice: We had about 20 minutes total to do this exercise, which was a bit rushed. After a few minutes for instructions, less than 15 minutes were left to do a read through and write comments. I encouraged marginal comments, but also directed students to read the rubric and fill it out as much as they could. With about 2-3 minutes left in class I had the students hand back the papers to the authors so they could look over their comments and ask any final questions.

Outcome: As I mentioned, I wish I had made time to allow the students to talk to one another about their papers after the review session. Some shouted back a few comments to one another as we ended class. The class seemed engaged and invested. My curiosity overcame me and I asked each student to hand in their rubric with their “clean” paper. I wanted to see the type of comments given and gauge how constructive or helpful this exercise might have been. Overall, the rubric appeared to help focus comments on higher-order issues, like argumentation and organization, not just spelling. At least one conversation with a student revealed to me that exposure to another student’s take was key to her understanding the assignment.

 

 

 

Audio Commentary

Peter Romaskiewicz Photo.JPG

Me at Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photo Jeff Glazer, summer 2005.

A habit I picked up while teaching freshman writing is the use of audio comments for student papers. It was first suggested to me by my writing advisor Doug Bradly who used it extensively in his courses. Over the years I’ve come across a few others who use it, but it is far from commonplace among my religious studies colleagues. Nevertheless, I feel audio commentary offers significant advantages over written comments on several fronts.

Time: Foremost is the savings on time and the consequent ability to give more feedback. I can certainly speak faster than I can write (or type). This means in the span of 5 or 10 minutes I can offer perhaps three times the amount of feedback than if I were simply writing comments. Students can pause and rewind what I say, and I advise them to take notes as they are going through their papers with “me.”

Tone: Secondly, I think audio commentary is less threatening and more conversational. I can convey a friendly and curious tone far more clearly through my voice than in writing. Sometimes I’m afraid my written comments may be taken as harsh criticisms without conveying the conversational tone I am hoping to find. It adds a personal touch.

Turnaround: Finally, if there is a tight turnaround (as there is often in writing classes), I can email audio comments to my students soon after class and require them to make changes to their papers the next time we meet. (Obviously this is only a benefit if you accept printed papers; digital papers can be read and returned more quickly via email. )

Be Quiet! Of course there are drawbacks. On my end, this means I almost always have to read and grade at home, in a quiet environment so I can record. Sometimes this is difficult, if not impossible, especially if I am traveling.

In terms of how I structure my audio comments, I typically begin with a simple hello and dive into my main take-away from the student’s writing. I’ll place the most important overall comments first, giving them a sense of whether or not they assessed the assignment correctly and accomplished the goals I had set out for them. (This is essentially the “final comments” at the end of a paper when writing feedback.) Then I will jump into the paper directly, talking about specific paragraphs and sentences. (These are equivalent to the “marginal comments”.) I’ll number the paragraphs as I read through the papers so the student can consult the same passages. While reading I’ll also make small marginal notes to myself so I can comment; rarely do I write extensive comments directly to students. I generally correct spelling and grammatical mistake in writing and only mention them in my recording if I see a clear pattern emerge.

In practice, I try to limit my audio comments to around 5-7 minutes total. I record them directly on my iPhone and transfer them to my computer and email them out to students. (It is possible to email them directly from the iPhone too, but I like to keep a backup on my computer.)

I’ve been doing this for several years and I always tell my students that if audio commentary is not working for them then they can ask me to shift back to written comments. So far, no one has asked me to make this change.

It is perhaps important to note that I only do detailed audio comments on rough drafts, that is where comments will be the most effective. Since I regularly assign rough drafts, or create smaller writing projects that conceptually lead to larger writing projects (as I’ve done for my summer class), I make sure students receive some initial feedback before diving into their final writing projects.