Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Circumnavigating the Elephant

I am NOT a big fan of outlining. Outlining slows the writing process down.

But I have to remember: I’m a moron.

A moron with experience.

I’ve been a professional writer for more than 20 years. Whether they’re good for me or not, I know what shortcuts I can take. I know how I write.  And if I screw up on the first draft – when I screw up on the first draft – I know what I have to do to fix things. I can typically do this without a formal outline. I may outline in parts, but only just barely enough to fix the problems. Nothing more.

But for my BYU-Idaho students, taking the short cut of not outlining well is killing them. And we’re killing them softly by the way we’ve structured the Argumentative Synthesis paper assignment.

Put simply, the assignment means to have our students identify a problem, take the reader through the why of that problem, analyze three possible solutions, and then explain why one of the analyzed solutions is the one to go with.

The assignment, however, is not put simply in the course.

The outlining process, and the paper itself, is divided into three parts. And after teaching this new course for nearly two semesters, I can see this isn’t working.

Many students try to write three mini-papers. Many may start to see the bigger picture, but don’t quite connect the dots. They’re like the blind men trying to describe an elephant – each finding what they think is the relevant elephant part to describe, but only a few of them really getting the big picture.

I’m doing it right now. Maybe you’ve never heard of describing an elephant as a metaphor. Allow me to slow my moronic self down long enough to explain. Or at least let Wikipedia explain this Indian parable.

Read that first. Then look at this drawing, and see how the blind men have each found a part of the elephant to describe, but as they’re not circumnavigating the beast, they’re not getting the whole picture unless they trust each others’ judgment. We don’t have that luxury in this course, as this assignment must be completed individually.

I, and the course, am failing to help them see the big picture. Because I’ve described that elephant a thousand times, so I’m frustrated that they can’t see the elephant for what it is. That’s my experience getting in the way of teaching. I’ve got to fix that.

But the course could help with the fixing.

Outlining the paper in its entirety first, before any writing takes place, might help me show them the big picture, and might help them to see it.

I appreciate dividing the outlining and writing into sections. It helps them chew through the assignment without getting overwhelmed. But we’d serve them better if the discrete parts of outlining were done in subsequent weeks, without writing filling in between. By having them write before they see the big picture, we’re asking them to describe different parts of the elephant. Putting the outlining process together would help them see how everything comes together, before they start writing. That would help them in the long run to circumnavigate that elephant before they have to describe it.

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