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Closing the Loop:

Basic Research Outcomes, 2009-10

English Department

1 November 2010

In response to our recent findings on Basic Research Outcomes, the English Department has worked to close the loop through discussion of the results and individual methods for addressing concerns raised by the results and by making some suggestions for further action on the results.

DISCUSSION

The significantly lower scores for the SYNTHESIZE AND ARGUE from the Basic Research Outcomes Rubric corroborated with the anecdotal sense of department members who engaged in discussion on our wiki page. As one Department member put it,   “…our departmental mappings of real strengths and relative weaknesses…are consonant with things that I have observed both in my English classes among beginning and advanced students and also among incoming students in the INTD 105 course I teach each semester.” It should be noted that some respondents wondered about the precise suitability of some categories from the Basic Research Assessment Rubric: for instance, is it really possible to “argue” at all without an ability to properly “synthesize?”

At least two causes for the disconnect between finding research sources and applying them became prominent in recent discussion on the wiki: the overwhelming amount of available information, and the lack of close reading.

Information overload: Unlike many years ago, when students had to “hunt” more arduously through printed indexes and wait for weeks for interlibrary loan articles, a huge amount of material is now available simply by typing a few words into a search box. That search box is often Google’s, even though students have access to more focused Internet search engines such as the Modern Language Associations online bibliographies, not to mention to hard-copy journals still under library subscription and monographs in the stacks.  While the assessment results show that students do manage to find materials, some respondents still think that the vast and easy availability of sources has hampered student’s abilities to evaluate the usefulness or appropriateness of secondary materials. It is clear that faculty want to see students make more discriminating judgments about research materials.  One department member, however, has observed no essential difference between the synthesizing skills of students in the pre-Internet era and those of current students.

Lack of close reading: Even more respondents spoke at length about the importance of close reading as a perquisite for developing good synthesizing skills. “Students often fail to support a well-organized argument because they are not good close readers; they don’t focus sufficiently on the texts they are reading; they don’t read with enough care and attn;….On critical papers, students often forget to adequately support their good points or conclusions because they’re not used to close reading and to pulling evidence out of a text.” Moreover, many students struggle with reading earlier texts or texts in an unfamiliar dialect; even if they manage to “translate” the text into modern words, students tend to think that this by itself constitutes analysis.

There are already some ways in which individuals or groups of individuals in the Department are addressing this issue. To begin with, all instructors in ENGL 170 for Fall 2010 have initiated a coordinated program to emphasize close reading of texts. (More information about their work, “Practicing Criticism,” can be found at http://go.geneseo.edu/170wiki  . Other Department faculty have been focusing specifically on synthesizing skills. One example is the Department member who assigns a series of short response papers from which the students receive detailed feedback about their application of sources. Yet another instructor has devised an assignment for  INTD 105 and ENGL 170 ,  “a specific in-class discussion and practice unit on synthesizing various arguments (evidence) on a single point of interpretation,”  in which students read a Robert Frost poem alongside excerpts from two different critical responses. Finally, several faculty give students the opportunity to turn initial assignments, such as short essays or annotated bibliographies, into semester-end research essays.

While these are individual solutions can be effective, they do not yet rise to the level of a departmental policy. In a somewhat formal manner, we discussed some of these results together at the regular Department meeting on 27 October 2010. We noted that the responses to the report and sharing of solutions on the wiki can and should be folded into our deliberations for revising the major that have started this fall.

In our discussions of research outcomes (primarily on the wiki) Department members engaged in the discussion have suggested several courses of action we should address in the near future:

  • use 170 to teach close reading instead of focusing on research skills
  • define a way to collaborate with the library on research techniques and source evaluation
  • expose students to the best and most pertinent search engines and teaching students to use them effectively to find appropriate sources
  • incorporate research skills in particular courses so that students are ready

 to apply these skills in 300-level courses

  • develop assignments that can maximize the advantages of easily-available  information
  • promote and incorporate assignments that focus specifically on synthesizing information

Graham Drake

Departmental Assessment Coordinator

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