Wednesday, June 24, 2015

400 Paragraphs

Here's a recurring obsession of mine. Posit two 16-week semesters times four years. In other words: an undergraduate degree program. If every student wrote one paragraph for a half hour a day, that's 80 paragraphs a semester in 40 hours of work. Every paragraph presents in prose one thing the student knows—one justified, true belief.

The students would compose themselves for half an hour around one thing they know 160 times a year, 640 times during their program of studies.

Next, posit a norm for a "full course load" at four courses, which could mean, for example, that students will be taking 12 hours of classes every week. Here's the thought I can't get out of my head: let's require the students to actually write those five paragraphs per week, in some controlled environment (perhaps online), at a specific time, giving them exactly 27 minutes to complete each paragraph.

Give them 80 opportunities and require only 50 completed every semester. Let them submit these fifty for grading, in the first instance by a computerized algorithm that approves the (a) originality (i.e., non-plagiary) of the paragraphs, (b) grammaticality (i.e., this is well-formed english prose), (c) quantity (minimum six sentences, maximum 200 words) and (d) academicity (it must include references, perhaps to a list of required readings).

This is not a modest proposal.*

Once they "pass" this filter (we might specify a pass/fail percentage, but since this is done by machines it will be best in any case to have some generous parameters), the computer now selects some number of paragraphs at random for human grading. A judgment is made by a qualified examiner about the quality of the prose, which is held to the standard of work done in the relevant discipline, and of course taking the student's level into consideration. A grade is given (A, B, C, D, F) for each paragraph and an average is calculated. (The graders will read each paragraph in isolation and entirely out of context, not knowing the student, nor even which paragraphs were written by the same student. Each paragraph will be given its own discrete grade.)

This is the students' fifth grade for every semester, accounting for 20% of their GPA.

When they graduate, 20% of their final GPA will come from these 400 paragraphs, these 200 hours (or more) of deliberate work.

I wonder if I have to say more. To me, this idea speaks for itself.

*[Update: Rereading this post this morning, I realize that it may actually not be as un-ironic as I am pretending. (I can't deny that the irony is unintentional.) After all, it belies the conclusion I reached about my own summer writing project just last week. I am proposing to have students do something that, in my own case, I believe is virtually the opposite of writing, namely, to produce prose that is also, immediately, a public, gradable performance. And I am proposing to make this the dominant experience they have of writing in college: writing as a forced march, both a privation of their resources and an invasion of their privacy. It's not quite dealing with famine by eating our children, but it's no less self-defeating. Something terrible seems to have happened to my capacity for what Roland Barthes called "the pleasure of the text". Or to my faith in its pedagogical value and importance. I appear to have grown bitter. There really is much to think about this summer!]

No comments: