November 3, 2009

Early action

Assigning papers prior to class discussion would enhance learning.

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The debate about undergraduate education at the University of Chicago is wearing thin. I don’t know what is more cliché at this point: the embracing of our core curriculum as both unique and superior or the criticizing of the Core as antiquated, unhelpful, and insufficiently rigorous. Though the Core is just one of several important tools aimed at fulfilling the purpose of a liberal arts education, these stale arguments have an utter monopoly on our discourse.

Adjusting the required curriculum may have an important effect on an individual’s academic experience, but a macroeconomic approach to education will only go so far. It’s time to consider the other side of the equation—the microeconomic approach.

One way to influence individual decisions and behaviors, without resorting to drastic measures like paying students for getting good grades, is to adjust the timing of graded assignments. Instead of writing papers after concluding a topic of discussion, we should complete the process in reverse. If papers were completed before the class discussion began, several aspects of the learning process would be enriched.

For starters, class discussions would become much more lively. Think about it: Are you better prepared to contribute to the discussion when you skim the reading the night before class or when you spend the night with the book in your lap, churning out four to six pages on the subject? There are the uncommon few who read everything thoroughly beforehand, but most students will procrastinate reading Das Kapital or The Leviathan until they are forced to write about it.

When students skim the reading, fewer people speak up, and the professor is forced to spend an inordinate amount of time drawing out basic themes rather than facilitating deeper analysis. We should come to class armed to debate Hobbes’ theory of knowledge, not poised to distill the professor’s argument in a Word document.

This passive approach to class also affects our writing process. Too often, the file initially saved as “Sosc 10/19” gets relabeled “Marx outline” two weeks later. The writing process becomes a skilled effort at organizing a series of quotes under the bullet points you took down during class.

Some professors have attempted to foster a more active, independent approach to the material by requiring students to post comments or questions about the reading on the Chalk site before class. But it takes only 10 pages or so of reading to craft a satisfactory—and satisfactory seems to be the goal—question or paragraph response. Even two-page response papers are easy enough to bluff without seriously engaging the text.

We know that procrastination is endemic. Why shouldn’t we take existing strategies to their logical conclusion? Is precedent not worth sacrificing to achieve greater substance?

There might even be some less obvious benefits in adopting this new approach. If the paper schedule for classes like Hum or Sosc is simply moved up a couple of weeks, the final would be due sometime during eighth week. In this circumstance, students would have extra time to focus on exams or term papers for other classes at the end of the quarter. It’s true that there would be many problems with writing (or trying to write) a 20-page paper before discussing the relevant texts—the time lapse between writing and discussing would be impractically long and the powerful incentives to lose focus would far outweigh the benefits of being prepared—but for the four- to six-page assignments that are standard in many courses, the system would work well.

If the key to making class time truly meaningful for everyone were really this simple, some institution probably would have adopted it by now. Maybe it was explored and ultimately discarded. Or maybe we have been too focused on theory and the macro-level of the core curriculum to consider simpler solutions that would, in the end, enable us to better use our class time.

Evan Coren is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.