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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Pedagogy of 2nd Best Ideas

I'm teaching an advanced undergraduate course. It is supposed to be a capstone to their experience as Spanish majors. The problem: many of them are not prepared to do research and writing at a high enough level. In principle, they should be able to do everything an English major can--but in Spanish, a language foreign to them. In practice, they fall short of this. It's difficult, because it's like Ginger Rogers said: she danced everything that Fred Astaire did, but walking backwards and wearing heels.

Today I am going to try something different. I came up with ideas for 14 research projects relevant to the course. I will hand out these today, one for each student. they will take a few minutes to look at the idea that they each received, then will compare their ideas with those of other students. They can make as many trades as they want, or, if they really like their original suggestion, they can stay with it.

On Thursday, they will come to class again, with two new ideas of their own plus the professor's idea they came home with on Tuesday. Now they will trade their 2nd best idea with that of another student. At this point they will have 3 ideas apiece: one from the professor (me), one of their own, and one from another student. They will rank those in order of preference, and discard the 3rd best idea, whether it's from the professor, themselves, or another student. They will go home and write a paper using one of the two best ideas.

Now this might not work. The worst case scenario is that they will all be working with my ideas or with one another's worst ideas, but I'm hoping the exercise of developing and trading ideas will be useful in its own right. If they fail to develop two good ideas, then nobody will want to trade their second best idea for one of their own.

I'm asking them to imagine that we are writing a book together: Pervivencia de la tradiciĆ³n. I am the editor and they are the contributors. This book will never exist except in my imagination, but it is something that I might use to share the results of my course with a colleague at another university, for example.

I am going to judge my teaching in this course not by my teaching evaluations--a measure of consumer satisfaction--but by the quality of the contributions to this imaginary book. In other words, by the concrete results I achieve at actually teaching the students to learn what they are supposed to be learning. I'm a full professor, and there are very small raises in the university anyway, so I can afford a set of poor evaluations if my idea bombs.

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