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.