Intellectual growth

Originally published in the Scotsman.

It’s easy to forget how long a road has been, until turning around to see its beginning on the far-off horizon. Marking first-year essays has reminded me just how far I’ve travelled since my own first year of university, nearly ten years ago.

There are simple, practical habits the students have not learned yet. Many forgot to put their name and the page number on every sheet, in case one gets lost. Most did not properly format quotations and bibliographies. Some essays were not double-spaced, so there wasn’t enough room for comments. Despite several talks on the subject, many students still cited Wikipedia and other internet sites that are inappropriate for academic essays. Almost all of the students failed to consistently reference ideas that were not their own. Still, these bad habits are easy enough to correct by insisting they read the style-sheet they were given at the beginning of the year.

Grammatical conventions are even more obvious but are also relatively easy to correct. Many students haven’t quite got the hang of commas, apostrophes, and other punctuation marks. Some write sentences that are too long; some too short. A few seem to have missed the idea of paragraphs. Others mix up singular and plural forms of words, or use words incorrectly. Many would benefit from using a dictionary. But with a bit of practice, they’ll be fine.

The frustrating moments come with mistakes that are harder to quantify. For instance, most of the first-years don’t grasp the difference between describing and explaining. They had to write about particular injustices in society, and many did a very good job describing those injustices – but very few managed to offer explanations for how and why they might exist. They repeated examples from lectures and books without stopping to consider how they might be linked, or whether they were relevant to their specific essay topic. Some wrote about contradictory ideas without discussing the paradox.

Sociology is a subject full of paradox, offering rich opportunities for critical analysis and big questions. But most of the first-years have not yet developed the intellectual skills to grapple with its ideas. To me, this is the heart of what university education is all about: helping students move from seeing isolated phenomena to seeing patterns, and understanding their own place in those patterns. Whether we’re talking about politics, business, science, literature, or any other subject, it’s a long, slow process to develop the mental discipline and flexibility to understand the world more deeply.

Suddenly, it makes sense that higher education is such a drawn-out process. Most of my students’ mistakes were common for me when I started in 1998. But over time, countless teachers gently corrected my blunders and helped me understand the habits of mind required in academia. It did not happen in one great leap, but rather in hundreds of tiny steps, painstakingly making my way across the confusing terrain of cultural patterns. There was no single great leader to follow, only pointed interventions by temporary guides. There was no secret formula or exact path to intellectual growth. I had to develop my own style, choosing among the practices I saw modeled by different teachers along the way. Perhaps even more important than correcting my mistakes, university teachers have given me examples to choose from of what kind of academic I want to be.

After marking forty first-year essays, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for all of the university teachers who have helped me. I hope that I can be some small help to the students I’m working with, and help the pattern continue.

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