Saturday, 18 February 2017

Deep Joy in the Peerimost Reviewal of Academic Articloaders



Back in November I marked a literature review from an MA candidate. This was a short, not terribly important practice exercise for the real thing and carried only a small percentage of the total marks for the module. I could make no sense of it and gave it 0%. A colleague suggested this might be too crushing for a first assignment: could I not whack it up to 10%? I suppose the candidate had sat down and at least tried to organise the material, however inappropriately, so I agreed. Here is a sample of her style: 

Natural order hypothesis is imperfect because of methodological consideration. In my point of view, lack of collegiality and the personal nature of suffered via the years are noticeable and prove that there is something close than the traditional argue with to the leader. The grammar was the basic knowledge of the language. There are six factors to decide whether the theory is right or not suitable. He scored more because of his clarity and simplicity in the tongue. This method is extremely susceptible on the grounds of scientific insufficiency. It is recycled theory ideas. The second language acquisition theory is more delegate of the intuition and personal understanding of pre-systematic times.

The writer continues in the same vein for another 950 words or so. English is not her mother tongue, but that doesn't seem to me to be the problem. The language is eccentric but not wildly inaccurate. Vocabulary choice is a bit off sometimes, the writer hitting upon the next word along rather than the one she's aiming for, but individual sentences are mostly well-formed. Trouble is, they seem only vaguely connected to one another. The real problem is that she doesn't know what she's talking about and is simply flanneling. Readers cannot be expected to pore over essays for hours, attempting to construe what writers may or may not be trying to say, so sod it, give it zero. Oh, OK then, if you insist, give it ten.

Today, I found this online:

Critical thinking and critique in new materialist perspectives is all without and diffractive: POST/modern/structural/human/humusist/anthropocene and PANpsychic/semiotic. They are therefore nondebunking and deauthorized immanent critique practices as the/an art of formal negation, curating and dosage opening for new and clinical practices, and quality is seen as tendencies at the origin of forces regardless of the complex that derives from them. They are working/s and writing/s with and beyond the subject: Inner outer always eroding but creative dimensions of life only relationally super-, supra-positioned until something comes to matter, makes happen, and/or decision making. Learning, action, and change beyond assumptions and post-accountability thus fiction as method and school of thought: Method is/as a bridge to philosophy and here my profession entrance. I call it material eco/edu/criticism. It is of a minor type. It is a bi/lingual criticism beyond representation, stumbling between major neoliberal and minor mine languages as in major and minor literatures (Deleuze, 1986) “restoring life to primary life” (p. 108). I ultimately argue for applying philosophy and inter-intrasemiotic thinking to foster and build educational cultures of innovation conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically, social innovation and social enterprise.
That is the first paragraph of a peer-reviewed article. I didn't manage to read it through, so I can only tell you that in the two paragraphs that dribble on from this one, the writer makes my MA candidate's effort look like an essay by Bertrand Russell. This woman's peers actually read it and actually approved it for publication. 'This is good stuff,' they must've said. 'Maybe a tad too cohesive: take a few verbs out, drop a few subject pronouns, maybe muddy the relationship between thoughts here and there to reduce the coherence factor a tad and it'll be right as ninepence.' And there it is: a grey wall of poker-faced drivel, seriously offered up for our serious consideration.

So maybe I was too harsh on my MA candidate's mini lit review. Should I encourage her to submit it to the ELTJ? 

*****

Next up for the MA group is the dissertation proposal. To prepare them for this, I gave them two proposals from previous years, names and other identifying features removed. One of the proposals was carefully thought out and excellently presented, and the other was umm... neither of those things. The writer kept repeating the same small set of threadbare ideas, and kept referring to whiteboards and board pens as 'teaching methods', which pissed me off big time. The candidates were given a set of assessment criteria, read both proposals, then in groups assessed away.

I suppose people who are themselves being continually assessed are often disposed to evaluate their peers' work harshly: they set out with a kind of 'gotcha' mentality. It was dismaying, as I circulated, to hear them shitting all over the first proposal (the good one) and then bigging up the crummy one on the reasonable assumption that I must have chosen a good one and a bad one and then probably given them the bad one first.

So yeah. Maybe that peer reviewed article is actually a model of clarity and it's just my prejudices getting in the way.

*****

Pour faire un poème dadaïste

Prenez un journal
Prenez des ciseaux
Choisissez dans ce journal un article ayant la longueur que vous comptez donner à votre poème.
Découpez l'article
Découpez ensuite avec soin chacun des mots qui forment cet article et mettez-le dans un sac.
Agitez doucement
Sortez ensuite chaque coupure l'une après l'autre dans l'ordre où elles ont quitté le sac.
Copiez consciencieusement.
Le poème vous ressemblera.
Et vous voilà "un écrivain infiniment original et d'une sensibilité charmante, encore qu'incomprise du vulgaire"

Tristan Tzara, 1920.

How to make a dadaist poem

Take a newspaper
Take some scissors
Choose from the newspaper an article of the length you intend your poem to be
Cut up the article
Then carefully cut out  the words that make up the article and put them in a bag.
Shake gently
Next take out each cutting, one after another in the order they come out of the bag.
Copy them conscientiously.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are: 'an infinitely original writer, of charming sensibility, though unappreciated by the vulgar herd'.

4 comments:

Paul Brownsey said...

I was a lecturer for 37 years and something about your '0%' essay was not unfamiliar to me.

There is a certain sort of student mind that simply does not possess the idea of articulating an issue, surveying the literature and arguing a case. This sort of student thinks that so long as you take things from the reading and string them together, a sort of mosaic of things-I-have-found-in-the-reading, that is all that is required. And it looks to me as if that is what your student did.

Most of the students I taught had English as their first subject. The students who were most likely to produce the mosaic-of-things-I-have-found type of essay seem, on looking back, to have been mainly students from other countries, particularly non-European ones. Perhaps the idea of 'writing an essay'in the manner sketched in my second sentence above is more culturally restricted than we are apt to think.

Steve B said...

It's definitely a cultural issue, at least in part. Students from China and Saudi Arabia (the ones I have most experience of) find it very hard to understand the idea of constructing an argument. I spent ages the other week with a Chinese lad, taking apart a good student essay and trying to get him to see how the writer used sources as springboards for his own ideas.

'So I have to disagree with them all?' he said.

Paul Brownsey said...

The last time I encountered this was trying to help a refugee from Iran who had started a course at a local college. He asked me to look over his class essay. Again, it was the mosaic of bits-found-in-my-reading, and I was at something of a loss to know to try to induct him into what was wanted.

There is something odd about our ideal of the essay because we are trying to get beginning students to write as though they were masters of their subject delivering a paper to a symposium of cutting-edge specialists. It is a curious game of make-believe we try to get them to play.

I remember a cynical contemporary of mine summing up what this came down to in practice for the average student: "Oh, you just read a couple of chapters in a couple of books and put it into your own words."

Yet the game we want them to play can sometimes yield results, can sometimes lure them so to speak, into doing real thinking. I spent a year in the 60s at a high-powered US liberal arts college and most students wrote a class paper as though it was going to be the definitive contribution on the subject for the next 20 years. And some of the stuff that resulted was dauntingly good.

Steve B said...

I feel at a loss with so many of the students I have to help because I don't know their subjects. Most of the Chinese do business management related stuff, and when I sit down in front of a screen on which matters I know next to nothing about are presented in language that is barely comprehensible I have to clarify the language first and leave the argument to their subject tutors.

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