Revisiting My Own Transition (into writing slightly less badly)

Alternatively titled: Back to the Future, one of the films I studied in AP Literature and still occasionally haunts my essays.

Despite being enrolled in a M.A. program, I often find myself questioning Mastery, especially when Ambrose and Bridges have made it quite clear that prior knowledge dominates what one might consider fundamental to their knowledge.

I have been a STEM-focused student for much of my life, and while I have left behind the beakers and goggles and calculators, I like to think I retained some of my own fundamental knowledge. What Ambrose and Bridges have caused me to question the persistence of this knowledge and whether I have been forgetting basic principles even though I still use them on a fairly consistent basis. And, if I can forget things with unequivocal facts with strict rules for application, have I also been forgetting the details and nuances of novels or specific theories and techniques used when reading? Or, if I’m not the flaming disaster I still suspect myself to be, where/when did my knowledge change?

I had been fairly fortunate to have discovered what I hope to do fairly early in my academic career, and over the last two years really focused my attention on areas that interest me (Asian-Canadian literature, young adult literature, comic books).  But I wanted to see what I could remember from when I was first establishing close-reading and analysis skills, and how those things have changed.

More specifically: I thought it would be interesting to pull out my old copy of How to Read like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster and see how the text (which I consider foundational to my career as a literature student) played into my own prior knowledge to studying literature. While I don’t think I would write with the same kind of heavy-handed metaphoric argumentation in my essays today, I do think it was interesting to see how themes like communion, Christ figures, geography all still factor into my literary analysis. In fact, the biggest shift in my writing was the addition of nuance into the analysis, and recognizing when it was necessary to move away from the blunt metaphor that Foster has presented as a foundation procedural knowledge. The positive of Foster’s book was its ability to activate prior knowledge and act as a frame in which students could structure their future analysis (and, sometimes, whole essays) upon.

Perhaps the bigger problem is looking at how this really useful tool, once utilized as positive reinforcement, started failing and became negative reinforcement. After all, as Ambrose and Bridges themselves pointed out, “For the most part, analogies serve an important pedagogical function, allowing instructors to build on what students already know to help them understand complex, abstract, or unfamiliar concepts. However, problems can arise when students do not recognize where the analogy breaks down or fail to see the limitations of a simple analogy for describing a complex phenomenon” (20). Which brings me back to my original question: when/where had I started moving away from Foster? I think the answer is the recognition of nuance in both my own writing, as well as in literary analysis. While inactive knowledge could be activated and insufficient/inaccurate knowledge could be supplemented with additional declarative and/or procedural knowledge, inappropriate knowledge is a problem that requires both unlearning and relearning, which is often difficult to do when what had once been positive reinforcement (good grades for the level-appropriate work) becomes negative reinforcement (past good grades for work that is no longer level-appropriate). And I think part of that transition process could be smoothed out by introducing nuance in both the understanding of the students’ knowledge as well as the presentation of our own.

Thank you for reading. See you on Friday.


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9 Responses to Revisiting My Own Transition (into writing slightly less badly)

  1. lei says:

    Interesting exploration of your prior prior knowledge.

  2. Heather says:

    I haven’t encountered Foster before, but the title sounds good. How does he suggest “reading like a professor”?

    • shuyu says:

      I think the most interesting thing about Foster is that he basically teaches students how to close read for things like themes and allusions. And he encourages students to keep reading because that is how they practice and start seeing patterns. He has some really interesting chapters like, “Nice to Eat With You: Acts of Communion” and “Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires”; essentially he’s providing training wheels for literary critique.

  3. Tim McNeil says:

    I was wondering if you could expand on the development of nuance, and its distinction from analogy, in your writing?

  4. jonrozhon says:

    Hi Shu,
    Yes, I agree this is an interesting exploration. I will comment at length on the weekend.

  5. jonrozhon says:

    Here are a few impressions of your first blogpost, Shu.
    You are not the first person to have made the transition from scientist to literature specialist. I think, for instance, of the novelist Thomas Pynchon, who delved deeply into science as an undergraduate at Cornell before earning an English degree. After graduation and prior to publishing his first novel, Pynchon leveraged both his scientific and literary knowledge while employed as a technical writer for Boeing. Anyway, when reading his early novels, it is apparent that he unlocks much prior scientific knowledge (applying concepts like thermodynamics to narrative, for example), and it is part of what makes his work so fascinatingly complex. I imagine your own writing is also informed by your scientific knowledge and made all the more interesting by other themes that have occupied your thought: “communion, Christ figures, geography”. It is a bit soon, in my opinion, to categorize yourself “a flaming disaster”, especially when you consider that you have already unlocked and presented your prior knowledge in such compelling ways that the MA admissions committee decided they just had to have you in the program!
    In terms of “forgetting basic principles” and other details, I think you will admit this is common to most people. The brain can only hold so much. I read Huckleberry Finn over the Christmas holidays for the first time in thirty years. I think I read it twice as an undergraduate (but I don’t remember!), yet I was astonished at the amount of detail I had forgotten. Then, in class, because I had Huck Finn on my mind, I mentioned the book, mixing up a couple of anecdotes concerning the novel’s importance to American literature. The point is that we forget the lion’s share of what we read, what we watch on television, what we listen to on the radio, and what we take in from the Internet. But the important signposts/touchstones always remain in the back of one’s mind (until we perhaps lose them in our dotage; in my case, so far so good). If I wish in the future to write in detail about the relationship between Huck and Jim, for example, I will re-read parts of the book and look up some of the scholarly criticism. I imagine you too will resharpen some of your own intellectual tools from time to time over the years.
    Foster’s work may be a tool you do not have much use for any longer; I think what you are saying in your post is that you recognize the need to find new tools. Your mind is indeed becoming more nuanced as you approach unconscious competence; you are no longer content with a Home-Depot hammer-and-tong set when what you really need to get the job done properly is a set of hand-forged, maple-handled, Japanese chisels (Perhaps I have extended the tool metaphor a bit too far…).
    In all seriousness, I doubt you will go down the route of “negative reinforcement”, Shu, simply because you recognize the problem. Reflecting on what we do in this class will provide you with the nuanced pedagogical outlook you seek.

    • Nancy Chick says:

      Your response makes me wonder…what IS it we want our students to remember years later from our classes? What is the prior knowledge we want to endure?

      • Jon Rozhon says:

        I continue to think about this idea of generating knowledge and helping prior knowledge to endure.

        It is hard to know what will stick in individuals’ heads after the fact. In my own case, for whatever reason, I recall dribs and drabs from a certain professor’s Classics class. However, my enduring memory is of the instructor lecturing while simultaneously — and without conscious thought — stroking his arm hair up towards his elbow, and then in one swoop, smoothing it out in the opposite direction. He did this over and over again. Each lecture. Throughout the semester.

        If we are fostering a dynamic classroom atmosphere where knowledge comes not just from the instructor but is generated from all of the participants, students will derive more knowledge, knowledge coming from a variety of perspectives. I expect, then, that students will retain more than a couple of anecdotes from the professor and a few points from a textbook. More than that, they will consider perspectives from students of various backgrounds and the new ideas generated in the classroom. Perhaps this will point people in new reading directions, new cultural directions. Maybe the class will inspire lifelong learning. In the end, what I personally would like to see is students thinking back years later on ways and means of learning in addition to specific prior knowledge.

        Thirty years after the class, when students consider Huckleberry Finn, hopefully they will recollect more than a story about two men who floated down the Mississippi River on a raft. Perhaps they will remember something about Huck and Jim’s humanity from a certain group discussion about friendship in the novel. Maybe a few people will recall a thing or two about dialect from a chat they had with a linguistics minor taking the class. All those years later, the students should find that they retained not only some content knowledge but a variety of views of literature. Hopefully those views and that content knowledge continue to percolate — sometimes in the back of the mind, sometimes at the front of the mind — for the rest of students’ lives.

        Won’t the professor that runs a dynamic class find all that knowledge percolating in his head, too, as the years go by?

  6. Nancy Chick says:

    Thanks for your reflections here. Now that you’ve thought about these issues from your perspective as a learner, what about from your perspective as a teacher?

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