Saturday, 25 April 2015

How I used to write

A little while back I did a review of Easybib as an assignment for one of my courses. It's a tool we recommend to our students.  For a while I was impressed by it's notetaking tool and I've tried using it a few times because it kind of makes intuitive sense. But it just doesn't work for me.  And I'm beginning to realise why.

After writing my last assignment I started thinking about this.  When I started out with my studies, it had been nearly 20 years since I'd done any studying.  It was a huge shock to the system. Tons of reading to do, an entirely new field / discipline / subject matter / jargon to master. Unknown demands and expectations and in addition doing it online where you had no eyeballing of your lecturer or fellow students, no way of seeing the nuances of what was being said or not said or left hanging.

Apart from some psychology as a dual major in my business degree and a bit of global politics and society during my MBA, I'd pretty much kept away from the humanities so this truly was a new ball game for me.  I tried to tackle it in what I thought was a logical way. I'd read something and then highlight the sections I found important. I'd read more of other stuff, highlighting highlighting and printing away a forest. And then when it came to the assignment, I'd try and string all those highlights of what all these famous and revered authors in the subject had to say, and weave it with some inter-leading words and paragraphs to make it some kind of coherent summary of the matter and assignment question at hand and submit it. And I got a pass or a credit. For which I was very grateful, because I knew, through the social network that was building up around me on FaceBook, that others were barely passing or failing the same assignments. I guess the ones with distinctions and higher distinctions didn't need to wallow in mutual sympathy and support, or they just weren't mentioning their relative success.

As time went by I became somewhat more experienced in the digital environment and finally had a breakthrough when a fellow student introduced me to Evernote and I could save a rainforest by saving all my notes and readings digitally.  It has a highlighting and annotating tool, but it wasn't ever comfortable to me, so I stopped highlighting.  Instead I started taking notes. With my own funny little colour coding and mind-mapping.  And then I would let things lie for a little bit. And go for long dog walks and talk to my colleagues and friends. Because the universe is big. And this is only one field. And they're specialists, so perhaps they don't really see the bigger picture. And slowly I'd start to form my own ideas about the topic at hand and the assignment question.  And then I'd see if I could find some kind of a structure and flow to my thoughts.  And only then would I start writing and as I came to a claim or assertion I'd revert back to Evernote and type in the keyword and see who else in the readings I'd done agreed with me, or disagreed with me and what they had to say. I could then check in my handwritten notes a summary of their ideas. And in that way I could back up my thoughts or criticise what they'd said.  In a sense that is exactly the opposite to what I'd been doing all my life.  And I think too, the opposite to the formulaic ways that teach notetaking and scaffolding and paraphrasing etc. And the opposite to how tools such as Easybib could lead to perfectly acceptable and passable assignment submissions, without any plagiarism in sight but ones where the students voice and thoughts and originality do not shine through.

My grades have improved in the interim. But I must admit I have also taken some risks, calculated risks whereby what I've written could be considered a little audacious or off the trodden path, and the it could have gone either way.  Funnily enough, the student who introduced me to Evernote remarked to me that she's gone the same way, as we sat for a lunch, nail biting waiting for the results from two different assignments in different courses where we'd both taken a bit of a risk.

Is this a sign of academic maturity? Daring to say what you think and believe? Is it what we should be teaching our students, or do they necessarily need the training wheels and scaffolding to get them there? Should we expect them to get to this point for everything, or just the subjects they're passionate about and topics they care about. Is it just another teachable trick that we could teach instead of the traditional read, note-take, paraphrase, cite, string together?  When in our academic lives are we just hitting the ball across the net and when are we playing the games to win the tournament?

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