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Reflections: Teaching writing & critical thinking; giving feedback to students

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One of the critiques I got from a student’s evaluation of my teaching last year was that I spent a lot of time telling them what not to do in their papers, and not enough time explaining how to fix their writing problems. This specific instance of teaching was especially challenging for me, since I was one of the graduate teaching assistants for an undergraduate course at Barnard — thus far, I had mostly taught my own courses, as sole instructor at various CUNY campuses like John Jay and Baruch. Now, I felt like a layer between the professor teaching the course and the students: responsible to the professor to make sure her students learn the information and skills that the introductory course was meant to teach, and responsible to the students to facilitate their learning process.

The course in question had weekly response papers, structured in a specific way: we asked students to provide a synopsis of one of the articles assigned for the week, and then to reflect on all of the reading assignments for the week by asking questions. As I understood it, the synopsis was meant to teach students how to find the main argument(s) of a given piece, and the reflection questions cultivated critical thinking and analysis. It was a big task for us TAs to read a whole section’s papers weekly and give feedback with a 2-day turnaround, but it was also very helpful in structuring our discussion sections. Although I provided as much individual written feedback as I could, I also addressed common writing problems collectively in the discussion sections.

I found my notes from one of those instances while cleaning up my desk a year later, and I am sharing them here for purposes of reflection, both individual and collective, in case people want to weigh in with their thoughts in the comments section.

Do not make “I agree” or “I disagree” statements

Move away from questions that can be answered with yes/no

Synopsis: do not write as you go, read the whole piece first

Abandon this form: “Humans do X in all societies, since the beginning of time, etc…”

Specify: “one” “this” “that” “it”

It shows when you ask questions without reading the whole text.

Questions should be reflective.

Be critical, don’t be ungenerous.

Write full sentences.

 

I remember, reading these questions, that we were at least mid-way in to the semester and I was trying to address common and persistent problems, pointing to both the form of writing, which affected clarity, and the content of questions, which affected the ways in which students think about the texts. As an anthropologist who often teaches writing-intensive courses in my primary discipline as well as in gender & sexuality studies and sociology, I am curious to hear feedback from others on how you teach thinking through writing, and how you address some of the common challenges that come up, which you might recognize from my list above.

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