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May well improve your grades but not your comprehension
on May 18, 2012
I have taught college level composition for decades. I do not particularly admire this text, but I think I understand its popularity.
The academy has for 50 years become more and more bound by a publish or perish model. New Ph.D.s are expected to make contributions very quickly to advanced fields. The disproportion between the youth and inexperience of new authors and the requirement of professional work for advancement has lead to predictable outcomes. First, young writers must quickly hyper-specialize to be able to master a sub-field. Often then scholars are fairly blind to areas that are adjacent as they cannot afford "horizontal" growth. Second, they must tailor their work to what is fashionable and currently being published: this means that the typical article spends a large chunk of time in the "literature review" of what has come before: then the author "turns the screw" a little and goes on to the next half turn paper. This pattern has now come to the undergraduates, and this book is its result.
The problem is that the book skips over all the basic skills of composition as if they were already mastered. Most students do not know how to read critically the primary materials that should form the basis for original thought. Therefore, when they enter the critical literature before reading primary texts as this book suggests, they have no idea themselves where they fall in regard to the material at issue. This means they are too easily swayed by the first "plausible" argument they find. Therefore, their relation to the material in question is often tertiary.
There is a "benefit" here. They may have by this technique quickly developed a skill at passing off the thought of others as their own, but they may have not engaged the material critically. It's true that much scholarly work is of this ilk, but, for me, no admirable work follows this pattern. If one asks students who write in this fashion to explain the terms of the argument, the sources of disagreement, or to point to evidence other than that they found in their sources, often they cannot. Thus, this text encourages the appearance of analysis without the incumbent skills or depth. In short, to immerse them in the field before they have some capacity to respond to the primary material independently seems an inversion of priority.
In contrast, most students need assistance in areas this text hardly addresses. While reading is discipline specific in its sophisticated state, many students lack the capacity to understand sentences of normal complexity outside of any field's specialized language. Let me cite some of the weaknesses that I think perennially appear in student papers:
No thesis or an unclear or too broad thesis.
No clear topic sentence for paragraphs.
No transition between ideas.
No or little evidence.
No analysis of evidence.
No definitions of terms.
TS, IS starts as if all these central problems are solved. These issues can seem solved if the student parrots a form but that simulacrum does not reflect the cognitive mastery that was the supposed point of education. In short, I think this book will improve student grades more than their minds.