I just finished grading two stacks of midterm essays for lower division courses (in the interest of full disclosure my graduate assistant also graded a third stack). I noticed certain trends that were so pronounced and consistent across almost all of the essays in these stacks that they are worthy of remark.
First, the students will not articulate a specific thesis. They might offer a number of closely related specific and focused arguments over the course of the paper, but they will not tie themselves down with a specific thesis. I ask them to do this. I provide myriad examples in class, and I have critiqued earlier works from these same students pointing out how a vague thesis undermines the overall structure of a paper and argument. All of this is to no avail. And it's not like these are bad students. In fact, they are good students who can write good arguments. The main concern about writing a strong, focused thesis may be that these students feel like they are going to give alway their "good material" too early in the paper. In other words, they may be following a narrative style more common to the "popular" media like television where arguments are revealed slowly, layer-by-layer, over the course of the program.
On Wednesday, Richard Kahn gave a fantastic talk entitled "Education as the Avatar of Sustainability". While I'll leave you to suss out the specifics of the talk, one thing that I came away from is the role of education is fomenting resistance. In Kahn's talk education provided a way to resist "Big Coal", but this was clearly meant as a metaphor for any source of oppression or iniquity in the world. After the talk, I pointed out that universities, generally speaking, were in league with Big Coal. Universities oppress as much as they liberate when it comes to the production of knowledge. I've blogged before about the industrial roots of the system of disciplines that continue to form the foundation of the university system. If at least part of the institutional goal of universities is to create the kind of docile bodies that serve modern, industrialized society, then how do we understand the steadfast refusal of our students to follow certain simple procedures in their work.
Here's an example: I tell my students not to use contractions in formal writing. I even tell them that the so-called "word processors" can be set up to automatically convert contractions to proper, complete words. No matter how many times I tell students not to use contractions, they use contractions flagrantly throughout their papers. Is it possible to regard this practice as a kind of resistance not only to my expectations, but to the institution that supports such formal diction.
I have my doubts about any one episode or manifestation, but when the pattern of resistance appears consistently across so many student behaviors (and we should not fall into the easy route of just condemning students as "lazy". There is no reason to expect students are any more lazy than faculty to enforce rules and procedures in an uncritical way), I find myself wonder whether students have successfully framed me as the oppressor.