Teaching Tip Tuesday: Get Into the Weeds

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had students send me unsolicited emails thanking me for explaining what a scholarly article actually is. For years, they tell me, their instructors have demanded scholarly sources, but never explained to them what makes a source scholarly or not. I not only explain what a scholarly source is, but also how scholarship is developed, funded, and published. I explain recent trends in scholarly publishing, issues of access, and when/how scholarly research is retracted (thanks, Wakefield, for providing the perfect example). Now I know not all instructors get into this level of detail because I myself have done exactly what my students complained about: giving instruction without sufficient context. You might be thinking: but how much detail is too much detail? Or: who has time to do this for every single instruction? I think we are always trying to navigate just how “into the weeds” we should go. After all, most if us are not teaching a graduate class on scholarly publishing practices.

Photo of newly painted asphalt where it painted over a leaf leaving an impression. Photo by @riverthistle

The thing is, getting into the weeds with students helps to build a bond of trust between you. It helps them see that the reasons why you are asking them to do x, y, or z are not arbitrary. And even when they are (let’s take citation methods as an example), it helps to unpack the history of the concept and the why the thing is often asked of them by their instructors. I would argue that getting into the weeds = respecting your students.

You might be wondering why the students just don’t ask if they don’t understand what a scholarly source is. But I’m betting most of you, if you became faculty, were question-askers when you were students. I know I was. I almost never left the classroom unless I understood something fully. But most of our students aren’t this way. They’re willing to take the grade penalty of misunderstanding and move on.

Is that really what you want?

In some cases these students, the ones who are seniors and don’t know what a scholarly source is, are heading off to graduate school or applying to fulbright programs (!). And even if this isn’t the case for most of them, they still deserve to know what I’m asking of them and why I’m asking it.

Below are some strategies for getting into the weeds for a given subject. Please add your own ideas to this list in the comments below!

1. Explain the history of it.

I do this with citation methods for example. It helps them really understand what they are doing when they are required to cite in a certain style. We also discuss the limitations of each style, why they come out with new style editions, etc. I even go over citation generators because a) they’re using them (who wouldn’t? I do), and b) it sparks a fascinating discussion of how information is scraped from digital things (and often incorrectly) and the role of standardized metadata.

2. Facilitate a discussion about it.

I do this with scholarly publishing. There is so much we can talk about related to this topic such as how the scholarly community responds to bunk scholarship, how research gets “translated” in the popular press, issues of open access for publicly funded research, etc. Discussion encourages investment & fosters critical thinking.

3. Assign a reading on it.

I do this with the practice of annotation among other things. Of course composition instruction has a solid tradition of assigning readings about reading/writing, but there’s no reason why an instructor from any discipline couldn’t do the same. Readings can help encourage a discussion about the concept (#2), but also situate the practice in its own scholarly tradition.

4. Give plenty of real world examples.

I do this with all of the above but especially for assignments. For instance I assign a Literature Review. It would be easy for a student, especially one who isn’t headed to grad school, to see an LR as just another arbitrary college assignment. But I collect examples of LRs when I happen across them in the “real world.” For example, this Twitter Thread, this podcast, and Emily Oster’s well-known books on pregnancy, birth, and childcare.

What strategies do you use to “get into the weeds”?

Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).

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