Bringing the excitement

by Carl Dyke

I got crunched for time (I crunched myself for time) leading into submission of midterm grades, so I read a bunch of papers for assessment the first time and now I’m looping back to comment on them, which is actually the hard and time-consuming part.

It’s hard because I try to engage with the papers as actual pieces of scholarship, as the products of intelligent and developing minds. That means I can’t just take a red pen and mark all the errors to ‘justify’ a grade; I have to attend to what they’re trying to accomplish, and prompt them toward better accomplishments.

Many of this first batch of papers are doing what my colleague called ‘taking refuge in the facts’, reporting on findings with very little engagement or analysis. This is actually a victory compared to the wifty handwaving students can default to when they haven’t tuned in to the integrity of investigation – when they just think they’re jumping through hoops. These folks are getting that they should know what they’re talking about. But papers like this don’t bring the excitement yet – they’re dull recitations of data. And since I don’t ritualize very well, each one hits me right between the eyes like a soggy dishrag, and for each one I have to figure out some comment to make or question to ask that points at a way to DO something with the information they’ve found.

I didn’t assign the topics – they got to pick their own. And I’m prepared to be interested in anything. So there’s at least a potential dynamic of shared interest to work with. But when they don’t bring the excitement, mustering it up for them time after time can be a brain-wringing experience. Not to say that I consistently succeed, either.

OK, so rather than leaving this post in pathos, I wonder if anyone who’s paying attention has any stories to tell or strategies to share about finding the excitement?

4 Comments to “Bringing the excitement”

  1. Try keeping a copy of Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It (Chicago 1998) beside you. Then, if you’re stuck, you can always pick up one of Becker’s tricks and say, “What if. . .”

  2. Nice. I’ve increasingly been thinking that I could supplement the gyrations of my feeble and exhaustable brain with a sort of cheat sheet of go-to responses, since so often it’s the same kinds of stumbles, confounds, or even just process-points I’m seeing. I have to admit that this expedient feels inauthentic to me, which is why I haven’t thought it through before. That’s probably because I’m spoiled by fairly small class sizes.

  3. I’ve been having a huge problem finding the excitement lately. My issues relate to coding, but I am guessing that the amount of fun involved in writing a feature that creates invoice credits is probably roughly comparable.

    Here are the things I try to do:

    1. Try to make the method exciting. For me, this would involve exploiting some language feature or algorithmic approach I haven’t tried yet. John’s suggestion above seems to fall into this category.
    2. Automate. For me, this would be code generators or scripting interfaces, but your idea about canned responses fits. It’s understandable that canned responses feel inauthentic — but the fact that repeatedly encountering the same exact problem is drudgery is immutable. And if authenticity were a primary consideration,wouldn’t you be writing, “God damn am I ever tired of fact-dumping!” on a bunch of papers?
    3. Game-ify. It’s a last resort, but sometimes I simply set up a bunch of goals (usually time- or volume-related) and create some motivation by trying to outdo myself.

    That was all about finding the excitement in grading. Maybe there’s also a way to direct the students toward topics that they will naturally bring more excitement to. In my job, I try to have a few features that I’m excited about in reserve. I allow myself to work on them after I’ve gotten some pre-defined portion of the drudgery done.

  4. Not about grading or teacher feedback per se. But if you like, feel free to distribute the following to your students or use it in some other way. Just posted it on Open Anthropology Cooperative. But, hey, here it is, just for you.

    Why should I read what you have written?

    Why should anyone read what you have written? This should be question No. 1 for anyone writing anything. So, let me rephrase the question: Why do so many of the contributors to the online forums in which I participate assume that people will be interested in what they are writing about, then feel disappointed when no one responds?

    As students, we learn to write assignments. The teacher who hands us a topic has to read what we write. But once we leave school and start writing for others to read, we need to ask who these others are and why should they be interested in what we are writing about.

    We may have found a topic that is utterly fascinating to us because of who we are and where life’s journeys have taken us. If we are anthropologists, we may have devoted years of our lives to the study of a place that few if any of our readers will visit or to topics that are esoteric to all but a handful of others. But our reputations, our careers, our hopes of changing the world for the better, all depend on breaking out of that narrow circle. How do we do that?

    In his introduction to Islam Observed, Clifford Geertz remarks that if our insights are valuable, they must prove their worth in larger conversations than those that concern the settings in which we found them, which are, after all, microscopic on a global scale. Proving that worth is often a matter of combining vivid detail with big, abstract ideas. Successful ethnography works like the dominant symbols described in Victor Turner’s studies of Ndembu ritual. At their best, ethnographies fuse concrete, emotionally charged experience with a fan of possible interpretations, so that feelings energize concepts while concepts give shape to feelings. The writing grips us in ways that force us to think.

    Does what you write work this way? If not, why not? Are we too wrapped up in details? Or, conversely, too caught up in abstractions? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, who are our readers and why should they care.

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