MAPH Week 2: University of Chicago or Gotch-U

Already in the 1950s Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, began to suspect that children were best taught through the use of an instinctive structure or scaffold—that is, when they were helped by their parents. Since the 1970s many developmental psychologists and educators have begun to take seriously Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development theory as a parallel discovery demonstrating that persons already in possession of a skill may mediate another’s attempts to develop that skill allowing faster acquisition. Ten years ago educators began to argue that scaffolding was invaluable as a way of teaching adults to read and write academically—which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Common sense would dictate that a person learns the skill of academic reading and writing better and faster by modeling the explicitly described behaviour of another rather than by attempting to intuitively fumble toward those skills without any scaffolding.

So what is this foray into cognitive development and pedagogical methodology doing in my second weekly MAPH status report? One word explanation: Frustration.

Tomorrow will mark the one month anniversary of my time in the MAPH program. In that time I have written a total of five analytic expositions covering passages by Freud, Descartes, and Hegel. These writing exercises, Chalk discussions, papers, and presentations account for one-quarter of my grade in the Core class “Foundations of Interpretive Theory.” However, yesterday afternoon was the first time that students were actually presented with detailed information on how all these analytic expositions were supposed to function and look.

I would argue that there is a name for such a pedagogical method and it is “Gotcha!” What I mean when I say the MAPH program is practicing Gotcha pedagogy is that evaluations are made before instructions are given. Gotcha educational practices have a long and storied history in American education. Anytime that an instructor talks about “tests that teach” or pretesting schemes they are advocating that students be evaluated on skills that they have not been taught. However, most of the time pretesting and minimum entry exams are geared to be as intuitive as possible—not requiring knowledge of specific technical terminology or insider rules of etiquette.

MAPH’s analytical essays are the exact opposite of intuitive. As an example, distinguish the following five words by giving an example of each: analyze, summarize, exposit, and evaluate. Its okay, I’ll wait.

1) analyze: examine methodically and in detail the constitution or structure of, typically for purposes of explanation or to discover or reveal (something) through such examination.

2) summarize: to make a summary of or state /express in a concise form.

3) exposit: to set forth reasons; to explain or expound or to make external.

4) evaluate: analyze to ascertain amount, number, or determine the value of

5) examine: inspect (something) in detail to determine their nature or condition or to analyze carefully

Okay, Jeopardy’s “I’m a Little Tea Pot” theme has wound down and Alex wants his examples. Are you happy with your responses? Are you thinking that analyze, exposit, evaluate, and examine are synonymous? Well, you are right according to the big Roget’s. The only distinction that can be made easily is between summarize and the other four. To summarize is merely to describe the narrative flow or structural elements of an argument without considering their logical cohesion, argumentative validity, or the warrant that supports it. Evaluate seems to be a further step beyond analyze or exposit but, as one must perform analysis and exposit the results before he or she may evaluate whatever is being reflected on—where is that bright line that separates evaluation from the other four? These words function interchangeably in common usage and only super, secret context specific knowledge can provide them with distinct definitions.

My gripe is not that U of C demands that students know how they intend these words to function in rigorous academic writing. My frustration is that I’m being told only after four weeks and five assignments in the program. These distinctions should have been the first thing that the MAPH program taught long before “how to get back into Hyde Park when you’re wearing clubbing clothes, tipsy, and it’s 3am”–one of the things that was addressed in orientation. The precept groups would be an ideal way to introduce these distinctions and then scaffold students through their finer points. But, no… MAPH seems to prefer a Marine basic training approach where initiates fail, are dressed down in preceptor’s notes, or in front of their peers, and only then are introduced to the skills necessary for success.

This could be read as a rant or a gripe session—and perhaps it is. However, it is also a warning to future MAPHers and a plea for real pedagogical reform. I’m going to return to the topic of just what exactly is expected of an analytic exposition in future days and weeks, but for the time being let it be known that the U of C seems to have nasty habit of preferring that students fumble about in the dark basements of their ivory tower before they turn on the lights.

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