ENGLISH 101. ACADEMIC WRITING
Instructions for Lesson 11
1. Read this page. Take particular note of the description of the research project because it outlines what we will be doing through modules 3 and 4.
2. Get started on the preliminary (compare/contrast) essay. Although it is not due until Lesson 12, it will take some time to find good sources and to write the essay.
I remember the first day of law school when the entire freshman class was ushered into assigned alphabetical seating in the auditorium to hear from one of the deans. He said: "Take a look at the student on your right. Now take a look at the student on your left. By the end of the semester, one of them won't be here."
I looked at Paul Groenwaggen on my right, then at Susan Hann on my left. She was much prettier than he was, but Mr. Groenwaggen went on to graduation and a job in a major law firm in New York City. Ms. Hann stopped coming to classes about half way through the first semester, and she never returned. The dean did not have to consult the oracle at Delphi to make his predictions about student attrition. Most US law schools accept roughly twice as many students as they expect to graduate. It's competitive there.
Attrition takes a heavier toll at TC3, and in this course. Be proud, if you are a graduate of Boot Camp. . . but don't be satisfied with your accomplishments. Not all those who finish Boot Camp will pass the course. And beyond English 101, and freshman year, competition becomes more challenging with each step up the ladder, in the academic world and beyond. You must prepare now for these greater challenges ahead.
Practical lessons from wrestling with
The main learning experience provided in Boot Camp came from Plato's Five Dialogues, culminating in the essay exam in Lesson 10. The primary challenge in the exercise was reading comprehension, learning enough content for the "COW." How could ordinary people like us learn to say or write anything intelligent about Plato's famously deep, at times very strange, at times rather boring Socratic dialogues?
The instructor shared several learning techniques to improve comprehension. Instead of "passive reading"--merely moving the eyes across the pages and then putting the book aside--he recommended "active reading" in which we (1) highlight key passages of the text with several colors of highlighters, (2) annotate the text by making comments or brief noted in the margins, and finally (3) review our highlights and annotations by outlining them or listing them in a brief written summary. (If you like acronyms, call this one for active reading "HAL," for highlight and annotate and list.)
Why? How does this active reading process help? A bit of brain science can explain.
The basic structure of human memory, the "modal model" first described by Atkinson and Shiffrin in 1968, divides our consciousness into three parts: a sensory register, short term storage, and long term storage (89). This three-part design is a filtering system that prevents us from learning too much. Filtering is essential because our heads are smaller than the universe. Filtering prevents overload. Homo sapiens, however, is a clever tool maker, so we enlist technologies to help us work around our natural limitations, including even the smallness of our brains!
The sensory register filters out most of external reality so that we are never conscious of it. For example, we can't see the black holes or "dark matter" of the universe, though these things have greater mass than that of stars and other objects that we can see. Our vision also is confined to a narrow range of detail so that both little things and big things, as well as colors beyond infrared and ultraviolet, escape our attention altogether. In everyday language, putting a positive spin on it, we call this basic filter "perception." Mechanical devices like microscopes and telescopes are needed to overcome it. (You may need glasses to read well. Have you had your vision tested lately? College and eye-strain are positively correlated!)
What passes the screen of the sensory register receives much further filtering to enter short-term storage--or "working memory," as this area of active consciousness is called these days. Here, what we have sensed is sifted down to what we become conscious of. All of us are familiar with this filter, which we commonly call "attention." Unless attention is focused, it wanders. When we sit passively reading a book--any book--the natural temptations are very great for our attention to drift away from the page The simple acts of highlighting text and annotating page margins, while we read, are techniques to maintain attention, so that our reading experience can enter working memory. The coordinated activity of our hands and eyes helps to force our attention to the page. (Recall homunculus man.)
A third filter is associated with long-term memory. Items in working memory stick with us only for the short term, usually only a matter of a few seconds or minutes before they are crowded out by new items pouring in, both externally from the senses and internally from long-term memory. The only way to "save" the sensory items that have entered short-term memory is to move them out of the way, into long term storage where they can be recalled again later, as needed. Few items in short-term memory ever go to long-term memory because of the third level filtering system in our brains. This system screens out items that it deems unimportant for future reference. The obvious problem is that this third level filter cannot "know" what should be forgotten forever. Because of its bad guesses about our future needs, we end up remembering some perfectly useless things and forgetting many useful things.
We can gain some control over this forgetting process, however, through a technique known in cognitive science as "rehearsal." Repeatedly rehearsing a play causes stage actors to memorize their lines, even though their brains naturally are saying: "these lines aren't you--they're unimportant and should be forgotten." Students can rehearse, much as actors do. Repeatedly rehearsing for an essay or an exam or a presentation tricks the gatekeepers in long-term memory so that they let down their guard. When time comes to write the essay, take the exam, or give the presentation, those students who have rehearsed will recall what others have forgotten. The repetition of rehearsals has potentiated their neurons.
Practice makes perfect, as they say. Socrates dies easily because he has rehearsed his death for years by practicing philosophy. Phædo becomes the leader of his own school of philosophy at Elis because he rehearses by playing Socrates with students. When Dr. G was faced with a difficult class discussion of Plato's "Phædo," he also rehearsed (recall Lesson 8). By listing the important points that might come up in discussion, outlining the dialogue, then reviewing and organizing all of his notes, he slowly gained confidence to face the class.
Learning is in part influenced by brain chemistry, genetic and physiological factors, so all students do not have exactly the same ability to become super-scholars. But learning is largely a matter of technique. Never believe that your "natural intelligence" can't be improved with training. Use the study techniques that have been specified in this course. Read, focus your attention and rehearse for essays and exams. Read actively, and you will waste much less time on words that you can't understand or remember.
Looking ahead at Modules 3 and 4:
Our major piece of writing this semester is a substantial research report. How "substantial"? Document specifications include:
The finished report will be the end product of a serious and complete investigation into an academic or professional subject matter. Topic areas selected by students must be academically researchable--that is, researchable in an academic library and its electronic databases. The investigation of source materials will include at least fifteen sources, and the record of this research will be recorded in a research journal. (That is, the journal must have 15 sources, though the research report can have as few as 8 citations.) In the end, writers should be thoroughly knowledgeable in the subject matter of the research.
4. How will
we get there?
A complete student research project is reproduced in the course documents for your information. From the module list on the course map, choose "Student Sample Research Project."
How can we identify a good research question to investigate in the research project. What makes an appropriate research question? At least three things (the three r's).
How do we know if we've identified a good research question?
Further information on research questions is available in section 25 of Hacker's book (pages 101-102), and at her web site's research exercises.
Left in young Raphael's Knight's Dream (c. 1494), thoughts are divided between study (Athena) and pleasure (Aphrodite).
About 35% of students who enroll in English 101 at TC3 pass the course. In spite of its open enrollment policy, the college maintains high standards.
Left: a pensive Athena from the time of Socrates' youth, c. 460 BCE. She is remembering those who died for her city in the Peloponnesian War.
Left: writing class in ancient Greece.
Consider the difficulties of the online learning environment: how can you engage your hands? By working from printouts? By making notes? By cutting and pasting key points from the course into your own personal study guide?
Left: from an ancient Greek vase painting, a woman reads. The literacy level in ancient Greece would not be surpassed in Europe until the Renaissance.