Category Archives: Research and Writing

Writing Repeat, Writing Repeat, …

For the past several years, I’ve supplemented the usual, high-stake writing assignments (papers over 1000 words) with short reflection posts to the course LMS. These essays are limited to 250-300 words and I grade them on a 5-point scale. Depending on the course, I might assign anywhere between 8-12 posts. They are quick to read, easy to grade, and valuable to enhancing class discussions. Students score samples at the beginning and mid-point of the semester to calibrate themselves to the rubrics and to establish a standard for quality work.

My intention with these assignments is to cultivate regular writing (and thus thinking) habits, to prepare students for classroom participation, and to give students many opportunities to practice putting arguments forward and supporting them with class resources. With the brief post I make to the entire class that summarizes my feedback and offers suggestions for improvement, some students are able to make significant improvements in mechanics and style.

The majority of students, however, find a formula that earns them a ‘4’ on a continual basis. Part of this trend stems from the bell-curve distribution of performance and the limited point values to choose among. However, I am starting to believe that the repetitive nature of the assignment encourages students to settle into a groove (or funk?) that will predict their performance for the majority of the semester. Although the topics for the prompts change from assignment to assignment, the process of writing remains unchanged.

My recent experience in article co-authorship, collaborative peer review, blogging, and the various genres of writing one finds in the life of an academic (formal letters, public presentations, assessment reports, scholarship, and creative work) seems at odds with the repetitive writing format we often expect of our students. We train them to write in the style of our disciplines or to the “standards” based model of expository writing. If writing is not improved in repetitive writing activities of the same type, then perhaps we are not introducing students to enough variety of writing practices to give them the the perspective needed to make notable changes.

I plan to diversify the short writing assignments in the future, although I will still use a simple, 5-point rating system. In addition to posts to a discussion forum, I’m considering a class blog project, co-authored papers, and creative/fun fictional writing, among others, to stretch the students’ exposure to various styles and formats. The old adage that one improves by repeating a task over and over again is often challenged when a variety of complementary skills is lacking. This is why athletes cross train and why our students learn to think analytically, quantitatively, and critically in a diverse, core curriculum.

I’m curious what types of short writing assignments others use.

Thoughts on Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

The big news of last week was the recommendations made in the report of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences for more support for and emphasis on teaching those disciplines. Administrators and faculty alike have begun a series of back-patting as media ranging from mainstream news outlets to the Chronicle have quickly celebrated validation for continuing to promote traditional fields of study.

The report’s presentation on the national level, though, leaves a lot of questions as to the implications for the majority of Americans in local school districts and state institutions of higher education. Will the optimistic news have any significant impact on changing public sentiment toward the value of a college degree? Will local and state governments suddenly begin investing more in “big picture” disciplines? Will humanities and social science researchers try to reach mainstream issues and audiences?

The announcement reminds me of the championing of liberal arts degrees by employers, proclaiming that they seek talented, well-rounded employees who can adapt to change, communicate effectively in writing, and think critically. This is all good, but what impact do these candid statements have on actually hiring trends? Most college graduates will submit their first job applications to mid-level hiring managers and receive the scrutiny of automated screening programs. Job descriptions match position titles with the ever-growing selection of career-minded majors that reference specific jobs rather than timeless liberal arts. It seems to me that companies ought to invest as heavily in humanities-based grants as they do STEM ones if these qualities are needed in the workforce.

Where does this leave teachers? It would be a difficult battle to advise undergraduates to go against the post-recession culture of career-sensitive education. But that does not mean that traditional liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences are mere buzzwords. Persistent reflection on the broad skills, global perspective, and interdisciplinary mindset these fields cultivate should be at the forefront of every class. College faculty in these areas need to expose ALL students to the relevance of traditional subjects in contemporary contexts. This includes courses for both majors and non majors. And these qualities and skills are not inherently tied to traditional content. Emphasis on writing, creativity, and problem solving should be recurring functions of all classes. It’s up to teachers to guide students through process of understanding the value of the humanities, whether new students continue to choose modern professional degree programs over traditional fields of study.

The report encourages institutions to support teachers in these disciplines. If students trend away from these majors, administrators will need to rally behind their effective teachers. It may be difficult to sustain departments anchored by senior research scholars and their graduate students as the number of undergraduate majors continue to decline. In agreement with the report’s criticism of inward-focused trends, emphasis should be placed on making these fields relevant to the general studies curriculum by addressing contemporary needs in local, national, and global contexts. Courses of this nature should focus on collaborative, interdisciplinary problem solving and model the application of humanities and social sciences to issues in need of real scrutiny and change. Content will be the byproduct, not the focus.

The 5-Point Forum Post

One of the most commonly used components of online course management sites is the discussion forum. Many instructors require students to post reflections on assigned readings with the ultimate goal that an intellectual dialogue will materialize in the forum. I’ve experimented with this approach for several years now and have developed a 5-point grading rubric that has yielded more insightful student writing and has improved assessment efficiency:

A “5” Response follows directions and is well organized, clear in prose, and original in thought. The submission is highly polished and free of grammatical and spelling errors. The author references supporting resources properly, makes clever use of analysis and course terminology, and demonstrates a high level of critical thinking and persuasive writing. Excellent.

A “4” Response follows directions, presents good organization and clear prose, and provides some original ideas. There may be a misspelling or grammatical error, but the submission is acceptable in writing style. The author refers to appropriate resources and provides some discussion of the piece, event, or essay. The author may occasionally get off topic and include some ideas that do not strengthen the submission. An original thesis is present, but the argument may be lost at times. Good.

A “3” Response has some recognizable organization and readable prose, but summarizes rather than argues. There are large block quotes or paraphrased passages from the assigned reading that are not effectively integrated into the argument. There are frequent misspelled words and grammatical errors and the formatting does not always follow directions. A musical piece is discussed, but not tied into the argument, and there is little evidence of critical thinking. Average.

A “2” Response rarely follows directions. The topic is related to the assignment but there is no argument that responds to the prompt. There is no reference to the provided resources or poor use of them. The submission is rife with grammatical and spelling errors. It appears that the student has cut and pasted information from various sources and strung the ideas together into an incoherent mess. Components are missing, such as a discussion of the required piece, event, or essay. Poor.

A “1” Response is incomplete. The word count may be well under the requirement and the author has clearly not read the directions and taken interest in the assignment. The writing style is incomprehensible at times and the focus is unclear. The student has submitted a related, but off topic writing sample for this assignment. Failing.

A “0” Response is absent or plagiarized.

For this system to work, students must have a clear understanding of what “critical thinking” means and be able to recognize the difference between quality and poor college writing. In my experience, students will submit their best efforts once they have actively explored a range of samples I provide them. I give the students 2 or 3 anonymous posts from previous semesters along with the rubrics. Groups evaluate the examples and assign grades using the 5-point scale. I ask each group to report their grades and explain why one submission demonstrates critical thinking and another does not. The concensus is usually that critical thinking requires the author to present an original idea and support it with examples from both within and outside of the assigned reading. The rubrics are helpful, but the followup assessment and discussion are what really encourage the best student writing for the semester.

Online course management discussion forums are a useful tool for engaging students outside of class with a discussion of major course topics. However, it is not enough to grade students on their “participation.” The public forum is a fruitful opportunity to push students to put their best work forward and to adopt critical thinking habits for the semester. The 5-point rubric offers students clear expectations for quality work and gives instructors an efficient evaluation tool.

Google Information Literacy

This summer I’m revising the library projects in my music history sequence for music majors. Working with an instructional librarian is truly a wonderful experience. A short meeting and series of quick emails later and I found exactly what I needed on my desk: a current version of both the American Library Association’s standards for Information Literacy and the Music Library Association’s instructional objectives for meeting these standards in a music curriculum, as well as an article in the Music Library Association’s journal on weaving sequential library instruction into the music curriculum. Seriously, Instructional Librarians are better than Google!

And this is exactly what the curricular library projects should show students today: information literacy for the Google Age. Google is an incredible resource and I use it all the time to find the nearest Chipotle, the spelling of Dohnanyi, and the hours the campus library is open. But it’s not going to yield the best resources for student research if used in this way.

Library projects should be an entirely transparent experience for students. Introducing the class to various media in the library (scholarly articles, critical editions scores, discographies, etc.) does little to develop a critical research acumen when the objectives are not discussed in current contexts. Today’s students are not going to kick the search engine habit unless our library projects show them the potential pitfalls of passive research.

As Nicholas Carr has argued in his recent book, The Shallows, there is a question of ethics whenever one engages in a new form of technology. To him, the search engine has cultivated high skills in skimming vast quantities of information quickly but has hindered the ability for deep concentration and reflection. This idea reminds me of the findings of the Collegiate Learning Assessment as reported by Arum and Roska in Academically Adrift. Students are neither assigned nor held fully accountable for reading and writing large, complex texts in the college experience. Many pass courses and graduate without them.

This argument is reflected in the library project as well. Requiring students to construct bibliographies and request a source through interlibrary loan for a single assignment has as much benefit for good information literacy habits as Milton Babbitt has for getting non music majors to buy season tickets to the symphony. Students need to see (and fall for) the potential risks of lazy research.

My intent, at this early point in the summer, is to engage my first semester music history class in an information literacy duel. Google teams will be pitted against the wisdom of the instructional librarian in accessing current, authoritative, relevant, and bias sources, to use the CARB technique of evaluating sources. Controversial figures in music history, Hans Pfitzner and Dmitri Shostakovich to name a couple, will demonstrate the fallacy of believing everything in print (both on paper and the screen). Although library stacks also house sources with questionable information, the point will be that good information literacy yields resources vetted by the researcher and not ranked by other factors (i.e. company purchases).

It is not enough that a single designated course and assignment walk students through the motions of accessing and evaluating a variety of sources in the library. We should hold students in all of our courses, especially upper-level courses, accountable. In recent semesters, I’ve begun cringing at the reference slides of student Powerpoint presentations that are littered with URLs of and I wouldn’t be caught dead posing as an expert on a topic with those resources displayed for a room of my peers. When students are confident in attaching their names to that type of research, it’s a serious problem.

Service Learning Across the Curriculum

It is no surprise that service learning continues to gain momentum in liberal arts curricula, since the outcomes resonate well with many college mission statements. Preparing students for community and global citizenship is and should be a major priority. The new, peer-reviewed “Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education” illustrates the interdisciplinary conversations of this growing component of the liberal arts in the 21st century. Many majors are building in service learning courses and projects to engage students in relevant applications of theory to practice.

Some traditional liberal arts fields, including my own, however, have left the responsibility of service learning to other departments. But I suspect (and hope) that the growing interest in service learning pedagogy and the success of student writing across the curriculum initiatives will inspire faculty in all disciplines to altruistic pursuits. Music has understandably ignored the pedagogy of service learning for two main reasons: 1) students already give to the community through a variety of concerts, tours, and workshops. Everyone from young children to senior citizens benefit from these offerings. 2) Music students gain knowledge and relevant experience through these performance opportunities. The issue with this model is that there is a disconnect between volunteerism and the actual learning. Students are not expected to reflect and articulate the gifts of music to the cultural vibrancy of their communities.

Any field and subfield can develop a service learning component, but faculty should take a thoughtful and practical approach to designing a successful experience. A deterrent to exploring this possibility is the content course–no surprise! Any attempts to coordinate community partnerships with the schedule of course topics will be a challenge and the result could be a poor educational experience for students and an awkward exchange with the community. It is better to identify relevant needs and pair skills that can meet those needs.

The research paper assigned in my upper-level music history course requires several transferable skills, notably archival research methods and writing. Local libraries and historical societies house unkept artifacts of musical life that, while rarely conforming to course content goals, offer something culturally significant to the community if properly catalogued, interpreted, and shared by the able hands of undergraduate music majors. In the process of working with local collections, student have an opportunity to develop archival research skills while actively engaging with local history. While the exercise may not meet content needs, it certainly meets skill development needs as students have an opportunity demonstrate the relevance of their major and the course through service. Where local organizations find difficulty in managing collections with limited funds, students can help and learn something in the process.