Treasure Hunts & Quizzes

Recently, I was annotating Melvin B Tolson’ Harlem Gallery for myself and I realized how different annotation is now from when I was working on my undergraduate degree in the early 90s.

Back then, as it is now, annotating something existed on par with treasure hunting. I’d find small keys of knowledge that led to the real treasure, a newer, deeper understanding of a text. But my method of hunting these keys was radically different. I start with the paper version of the Oxford English Dictionary, the long one that stretched across half a room. With notebook in hand, I moved from OED to the stacks, weaving in and out of high shelves, tripping over happy accidents, writing more notes until my fingers went numbs forcing me to finally break down and spend a dollar to copy ten pages at the copier. Even then, I happily highlighted lines and words I thought were pretty. At long last, I’d sit and compare paper notes with a poem on paper and then I’d use more paper to write more notes.

I did this over and over and over because I loved it.

As I stare at my notebook of annotations today, I caught myself in mid-thought – that didn’t take too long. All I did was type one word and then “meaning” next to it in Google. Before I knew it, in the space of an hour and a half, I’d 34 out of 40 references I needed. What can I say, I type slowly. If I wanted to, all I really needed to do was copy and paste the information onto a Google doc.

But I didn’t. Writing is the way I remember things. If I write it, I remember it. Like gaining understanding, if I work for it, I value it more. Annotating then was a physical problem to be solved. A game of sorts, frustrating and jubilant at the same time. I had the determination to deal to with the whole process and I wonder if my students now could follow through with the old way.

Whether they could or not doesn’t matter. They Google. Googling doesn’t make the process easier, it makes the process different from what I know. Googling requires the use of good search terms. Without those, happy accidents can still occur; there is still a chance for material that is related enough to add to someone’s body of knowledge. Or even a chance for unrelated knowledge to move someone into a completely different but not unwelcome new topic.

Tweaking search terms is a learn-able skill. Figuring out which terms will work and using revised Boolean techniques get better with practice. However, what happens to the other pieces of learning? Copying and pasting into a new document does not log pieces of information into long term memory.

I have an idea. I can’t move away from Google, although I can direct them to use the school’s subscription to the online OED first. Whatever piece I give them, I know there will be some difficulty to it, perhaps Laura Mulvey or John Berger if I go the visual literacy route.

In class, they will highlight what they don’t know. In groups, they can search the OED and only after that, can they Google for meaning. Each person will hand in at least ten hand written annotations; one point of extra credit for each annotation over ten. I can do this in one class period to start and maybe do it to a lesser extent with the next reading. The final reading’s annotations can be done for homework.

It’s reading, annotating, sharing, comparing, and “doing” all in one. I’d like to say it’s a winning idea, but it hasn’t been tested, yet. Each day brings something new to think about.

It’s not a new idea, by any means. Usually, this is done for homework, but there are a few new developments in teaching that make this difficult. Students seem to think homework, like attendance, is optional. My hope is to make a class set of annotations that we can compare in conversation, discovering which definition or annotation best fits the context of the passage we’re working on. If I do this enough at the beginning, I’m hoping that by mid-semester, they can (or will) do it for homework.

I know that when I assign a reading, they aren’t reading the way I want them to when they do. I don’t know if anyone has ever taught them to read in a way that helps them retain the information. I do know that my college offers classes to help students to do this, but students tend to see classes as separate organisms, that one strategy works for the class in which is learned. This is a matter for a separate blog post, however.

To tie this post up nicely (ha!), I know that whatever I do will have to have stakes. I’m not looking forward to quizzes, but quizzes there will have to be. If I label this activity as preparing for a quiz, or worse, a test, then I might get some actual work out of them. I hate this carrot and stick mentality, but it’s what they’ve known for twelve years. I even wonder if a pop quiz might help to make students aware of what they don’t know in a reading so I can help them figure it out. Especially if I promise to drop the lowest quiz grade.

This feels terrible, but I don’t live in an idealized world where students are truly interested in learning. They want jobs and college is a way to better pay. As a writing prof, I know where I stand in their priorities.

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