This course satisfies a communication requirement at MIT. In this section, Prof. McCants describes the written and oral communication assignments in this course.
Students can have fantastic ideas, but if they can't communicate them, the ideas are pretty useless.
— Prof. McCants
I want my students to communicate well. Students can have fantastic ideas, but if they can't communicate them, the ideas are pretty useless.
This course satisfies MIT's Communication Intensive in Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (CI-H) Requirement, which requires that students write at least 20 pages; revise and resubmit at least one assignment; and engage in oral expression through presentations, discussions, or class participation. Every undergraduate at MIT is required to take two CI-H courses. The written and oral assignments for this course are described below.
Short Paper #1: Discussion of a "Technology" (3 pages)
The semester begins with short focused writing assignments; the students don't have to know much to write the papers.
During the first class session, we talk about technology and what it is, and they have a writing assignment due at the next class. For the assignment, students have to write a two-page paper about a technology that they use every day but that they've never thought of as a technology before. Some students pick obvious technologies, like iPods, while others do really creative things: a pencil, a shoelace, a cardboard box.
I find it enormously useful for pedagogical and policing reasons. It gets the students writing and helps set a tone for the class. You walk in on the first day, and you have to write me something. It's simple and accessible, and there's no research involved. Through this assignment, everybody has a writing sample right from the beginning and it gives me a first glimpse of their work. It also gives me something they almost certainly haven't plagiarized. If they write in a radically different style later on, I have a reference point.
Early in the term, I set aside one day as a writing workshop. I take excerpts from their first writing assignment—unattributed, obviously—and put together a sheet of thesis sentences to fix or paragraphs to re-organize.
During class, we work through the examples, sometimes on the board: What's clear about this argument? What's not clear about this argument? How can this thesis statement be improved? How should we re-organize this paragraph?
I usually include an excerpt from one of my own college papers, also unattributed. Depending on what examples they provide for me naturally, I then supplement with something of my own to make other points. I don't know if it helps the students to know that something of mine is in there, but I hope it does. I tell them that I go back and re-read my college papers from time to time, and I find a lot that could be improved on. I write much, much better now, and the point is that they can improve too.
Short Papers #2 and #3 (3 pages each)
For the second writing assignment, I give the students a group of documents. The documents are ones that they haven't seen in the context of the assigned reading for the course, but they're coherent and related in some way to the things we're talking about in the course.
The students have to read the documents and pretend they're historians. What would you do if you found these two or three documents? How do they speak to each other? These assignments are a step toward the longer, more in-depth assignments.
Long papers #1 and #2 (6 pages each)
After the three short papers, we move onto two long papers that each address an honest-to-goodness question. Students have to identify a question and formulate and defend a thesis. For one of these papers, students are required to give an oral presentation and do a re-write. In Spring 2012, this was Long Paper #2.
For the paper with the oral presentation, students put together two or three PowerPoint slides and cover their thesis, the evidence they intend to use, and how they expect to structure their arguments. We take a whole class period for the students to present these orally to the their entire recitation section. During this semester, the oral presentations happened on Wednesday of Week 11 of the course.
An oral presentation is one of the requirements for a CI-H class, and frankly, students write better papers if they've actually had to tell their peers what they're going to write about. I hate to say this, but I've had a lot of plagiarism, particularly in this class. If the students have to tell you their thesis in advance, then unless they've bought a paper in advance and extracted the thesis out of it, it's another way for me to triangulate. When someone gives an oral presentation about one thing and then submits a paper that's completely different, that's a red flag for me.
We explicitly set aside class time when we do the re-write. Students handed in first drafts on Friday of Week 12, which was 1.5 weeks after their in-class oral presentations. One week later, we sent the students comments. Another week after that, on Friday of Week 14, their final papers were due.
I always write copious comments on their papers, but I think 90% of the time they cut right to the end, look at the grade, and put the paper away. For the re-write, the students have to take those comments and utilize them. This semester, I collected everything electronically so I had a nice electronic record of the comments I had made and what they had written.
I find most annoying the students who take the instructor's comments, change only those things exactly the way they were suggested, and then call it a re-write. If you collect the whole thing electronically, you can show them, "That's nice, you accepted my edits. That is not rewriting."
In the process, they are supposed to learn how to self-edit, and I would say that for the most part, they really struggle with it. In class, we talk about self-editing and how they can improve their writing. We give all the classic suggestions: read it out loud to yourself, try to write something and then go back a week later to look at it, and so on.
I'm trying harder not to fix things but rather to write questions in the margins. Instead of saying, "It looks like you meant so-and-so," I'm trying to say instead, "What do you mean by this?" It's really hard because the editor in me is so strong. It's difficult to suppress the desire to fix these papers but I'm trying to do less of that.