Undergraduate papers

February 5, 2016

I spent some time grading undergraduate papers years ago, and the ones that took the longest and were the hardest to assess were those that were, in the way I thought about it at the time, ingeniously wrong.

Sometimes it was not that difficult to see why the student ended up saying something wrong:  they took some fact or idea covered in the course and interpreted it without knowing some other information not covered in the course or their research.  There were other ways in which the arguments in papers went awry, but that’s the one I remember most easily.

What took so much time was trying to retrace the student’s thinking.  I would be following along and then the student would write something that was just at odds with either facts or concepts.  I took it as part of my task to explain to the student what hadn’t been taken into account or where the logic of the argument had broken down or how apples were being taken for oranges, etc.  I redid what the student had done, and while doing so, I identified where wrong turns had been made.

We don’t know what we don’t know, and we often don’t know when we’ve made a mistake.  I am always tickled by the fact that it’s easier to proofread somebody else’s work than one’s own.  Willy was apparently quite good at work at helping colleagues get unstuck when they reached an impasse in their work — he had an eye for seeing where things had gone wrong.  On the other hand, he preferred applying what he knew to real world problems to doing what academics do.  He did some teaching, including in the Peace Corps., but he liked “doing.”  With younger colleagues, he would often find himself pointing out that real life problems don’t have answers in the same way in which problem sets do.  He was unhappy at universities — that was clearly a theme for him when I met him.  In the context of a place like Lincoln Lab, where theory met application and real problems were addressed and solutions tested and there was accountability, he thrived.

It certainly helps to have teachers and coaches who have been there, done that in whatever the relevant activity is.  They can correct us.  It doesn’t mean they can do the learning for us.  They can let us know when, rather than seeing only a little piece of the puzzle but seeing it well, we are misunderstanding something for lack of understanding its context.  If we lack a feel for the discipline, they can’t lend us their own, but they can point out particular mistakes that have resulted from our piecemeal knowledge.

I think maintaining a spot between pursuing original research and teaching can be a precarious one.  I am not sure if I agree with “Those who can’t do, teach,” but I do agree that the dynamics of the activities are different from each other.  Correcting undergraduate papers is an interesting opportunity to try to track how other people are trying to “do,” and it merges doing into teaching, in a similar way to the way that for empaths, the having of the experience merges into the identifying of the problem.  Teachers can be grateful for the challenge of coming to grips with the mysteriously off-track college paper as it allows them to unify the two often disparate activities of doing and teaching.

It also takes a willing student for the teaching to produce results — that willingness is also something the teacher can’t supply.

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