05 June 2010

Teaching grads, 3: Explanations

I was hoping for more comments on the last post, but if y'all aren't going to discuss, that's okay; I can lecture.

When I was a student, my cohort and I were good at reading subtexts. Many of my students are not. And yet, if I'm very direct about certain kinds of instruction, this can be read as bossy, bitchy, rude. I suppose a lot has to do with tone of voice and body language. And I think being direct is usually better than indirect direction. But sometimes I would prefer to put a page of translations and explanations in the syllabus, something like this:

If I say, “Of course you know,” or “Let me remind you,” I mean I expect you don’t know, but you should, and I am going to fill in some information so we can all pretend you knew this all along. Listen carefully, so you can keep up your end of the pretense.

If I say, “You might want to look at [Source],” this means “Go to the library and look up [Source].” Similarly, “You really should look at [Source]” indicates that I'm surprised you haven't done this already and you had better find [Source] ASAP.

Just because I have a sense of humor doesn’t mean I’m an easy grader. Just because we find the same things funny doesn’t mean I will cut you any slack on your research.

I don’t always know things you ask me in class. I will go and look them up, and answer your question next time. I will not put imprecise information on handouts or other formal documents (like things I’m trying to publish). Similarly, you should look up information you don’t know, and and avoid imprecision and generalizations in formal documents (like your written work for class).

Comments on "translations" you would use or need? Class?


Dr. Virago said...

The blogosphere seems a little slow at the moment. But to make up for it a little, I just wrote a comment on the last post.

And I'd need many of the same translations you'd need. In fact, I think I'm going to stop saying things like "you might want to..." and "you should..." and just speak in the imperative.

Anastasia said...

"You should really..." when it means "Please do..." really, really bothers me. I don't communicate well that way. I guess you'd call that reading subtexts. I could not work with professors who dealt that way. I did much better under a director who told me exactly in clear terms what I needed to do.

Your comment about bitchiness makes me wonder about the gendered aspects of this. Perhaps he gets away with it because he's male? I don't know. Or maybe it has to do with student expectations? Because I know people who shy away from my director because he's perceived as overly directive--i.e. not letting his students "do their own project." I don't think that last part is true, but it is his reputation.

In any case, I would honestly rather be told what to do than be expected to read subtexts. How does one learn to read these subtexts? In undergraduate? By growing up in a certain kind of household? By simply being a superior individual? I don't get it.

undine said...

I like your translations, and I would understand "You really should look at X" as meaning that I should go forth and read.

On the other hand, I am very bad at picking up on subtext and interpersonal nuances, and I always have been. I think that for some of us, not taking the hint means that we just don't get hints very well.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yeah, I'd take "You might want to look at X" to mean "It's vaguely possible that X might be relevant to your project" rather than "X is absolutely crucial to your project." At least, that's how my grad school professors seemed to use it.

"You really should look at X," on the other hand, is more or less an order.

squadratomagico said...

Wow, this is fascinating! Because I would absolutely hear "You really should do X" as "Get X, now!" Ditto for Dame Eleanor's other translations. I think she and I speak the same language... it's interesting to hear that these phrases are not as transparent to others as they are to us!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I suppose it may have to do with where you were trained, and/or by whom. It's not personal preference, with me. Some of my relations are indirect speakers, and it makes me crazy. In personal relationships, I am generally very direct.

But my graduate degrees are Ivy; my professors tended to be very laid-back, casual, and terrifyingly learned, except for one formal, ladylike, terrifyingly learned woman. I considered their authority to be the more absolute because it was not openly wielded. And I learned how to deal with students from their interactions with me and my cohort.

It could also be generational.

But in any case, I can see how a sort of vague, "You might want to look at what the Annales school has done on that topic" could mean "if you have a chance, not super-important though." But if someone says, "Scholar Z wrote on your exact topic in Journal Y; you might want to take a look," then doesn't the precision argue for polite phrasing of a command? Doesn't the bit about thoroughness in bibliography kick in at that point?

Dr. Virago said...

To add another wrinkle...

I think the grammar/rhetoric of "you should..." is generational, too, btw. I hear "should" as signaling obligation, as more akin to "must" (as indeed it was almost exclusively meant in Old and early Middle English), but I think younger people (and many of my own generation) hear it as an ideal but not an obligation.

Interestingly, one of my MA students who works in technical writing says that in science protocols "should" still carries that sense of obligation. So *she* knows I mean "Go read X article" when I say, "You should read X article."

Fiammetta said...

To me, the translation I choose depends on the prof. If the prof comes off as pompous, distracted, or irrelevant, I am more likely to discount his/her's directions. Why would I assume that this person even understands what *I* am trying to get at in my research?

I am a "learning-for-learning's-sake" type, though. And if I believe that my prof gets that, I will take any and all direction. Then again, my committee chair is very direct, and very knowledgeable, and respects me as a scholar even when he finds gaps in my knowledge; his trust, and my relationship with him, is what makes the difference.

I think perhaps I am pointing to the importance of relationship (though this is incredibly difficult considering the current state of affairs in grad school). Also, I remember something my mentor has said for years: The teacher is the lesson. This is, perhaps, also generational, but I do find that my ideas and expectations of the learning environment have been shaped by the personalities of my teachers. This is what has shaped my own teaching style as well, obviously.

Fiammetta said...

Dang it-- the APOSTROPHE!! The PLURAL!!! That's what I get for being distracted.

About that proofreading... LOL

Miss Kitty said...

LOVE this post. If it's okay with you, may I use a version of it with my own students?

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Miss Kitty: Yes. I suppose you (one) might lead into a discussion of "translation" by asking students how they like to be told to do things, or by sharing anecdotes about direct and indirect speakers. (My mother used to ask if I was thirsty when she wanted a drink. Not nearly as effective as "Would you make me a cup of tea, dear?")