Thursday, November 21, 2013

Confused Connie Just Wants to Believe Everything She Reads......

My Composition students seem to think they can believe everything they read.  Anywhere. If they can find it in print, it must be true!

This concerns me. I worry about them, the little lambchops. I worry about them when I am not cursing their collective names and wanting to send them to the work camps in Siberia.

I came up with what I thought, in some drug or alcohol induced fantasy, would be a great idea! I'd have them write a brief essay in which they look at two different websites dealing with the same topic, and compare the two sites on the basis of accuracy, authority, bias....things like that. It seemed so clear and easy to understand when I was dreaming it up.  They would compare the actual web sites themselves....get it?  Well, anyway, I thought they'd get it.

To make a long story short....they just had a lot of trouble GETTING it. Whaaaaa? They said? What on earth are you even TALKING about? How do you dream up this kind of IMPOSSIBLE shit? Originally, I thought they could choose their own general topics and pick their own websites. Nope. Even the smartest one in the class came up with the idea to compare two different kinds of....wait for sticks.

Joy sticks.  Not websites.  When I pointed out that, er, little problem, he said he'd find articles on each of the joysticks online.  No problem at all!

So. I found the web sites. I picked easy to compare sites, with very obviously different philosophies and reasons for being. We looked at one of the easier comparisons I found for them in class. One of the sites was a commercial medical page giving information in one section on ADHD. This site is run and produced by MDs with all kinds of accolades, invitations to give expert statements to news programs, chapters written in impressive books and articles written for impressive magazines.  That kind of thing.  And all down the sidebar are ads for drug treatments. The other website was a personal page, a testimonial and collection of individual wisdom written by a mom. A mom with a degree in a type of science, but not a doctor. We looked at the two sites side by side in class. I asked them to consider what kind of authority each one was claiming. They did not understand that at all. do they show us they know what they are talking about? Why should we read their stuff? Why should we trust them?

Maybe they both have a kind of authority, I said, but do they have the same kind of authority? Confused Connie was the worst one of the bunch, but she was definitley speaking for a group of them. "I don't understand at all what you are talking about!!" She said, and she was panicked. She is not a mean kid. She does not want to be a pain. She could not get it. I said it in a million different ways. She could not get it. "What do you want me to put in my topic sentence? Just give me the topic sentence, and I will try to come up with some facts." The very idea that you could, possibly, look at someone's authority, someone's level of expertise and experience and demonstrated reliability on a subject-----that idea is all just Greek to them. It's like trying to explain three dimensions to a cartoon. At the risk of sounding like a cane shaking old woman....KIDS TODAY CAN'T THINK. They don't know how to fucking THINK. And I just don't know what to do about it.


  1. This very much lines up with other things I've been hearing. A friend who works on a critical thinking course reports that the biggest problem is getting students to be able to identify the argument.

    This would seem to me to dovetail with anecdotes we've heard on here about students unable to even describe views they themselves don't hold: religious students unable to talk about pre-christian writings, students thinking that authors are racist because they respond to racist arguments, etc.

    Question: what if you posed it more simply: "At least one of these two websites is wrong. Which one?"

    1. Three Sigma....were you by any chance at a four hour statewide meeting today? I swear I interacted with someone who quoted you word for friggin' word. I was tempted to say something....but what?

      College Misery needs to develop a code word or gesture or handshake. Les? Ben? Hirram? Cal? Fab? (is Fab listening any more?) ... What do you say?

  2. I've gotten to the point where I won't accept papers that have sources that are not reputable publications, and I carefully spell out which publications are reputable, by name.

  3. My students cannot even read a question and frequently answer a different question.

    On my last reading quiz I gave this question:

    What does chapter 10 say about the definition of energy?

    Nearly every student tried to tell me something they think they know about energy, like that its conserved, or that there's kinetic energy, or something like that. Those who fail it have to retake it and so what they would do is skim the book looking for little factoid nuggets about energy to answer the question with. Those who still failed I made them read the first paragraph of the chapter out loud.

    What they discovered, is that the chapter says that energy is difficult to define in concrete terms and a definition will not be provided. Many of them could not understand why that statement answered my original question and none of the energy factoids did.

    One of my good students confessed that in his entire college career he had never actually read a textbook--he had only ever skimmed for factoids and formulas.

    1. General Patton bragged that he'd never set foot in the library at West Point. Today, his statue is right across from it.

      Energy is like time: everyone thinks they know what it is, but as Galileo noted, "When I think about it [time], I am baffled!" Just about the best anyone can do is to define them in terms of what they do. Whether order is another of these is interesting.

      I have recently taken to asking students to read instructions they don't understand out loud. I have found that disturbingly many student-athletes have problems with reading.

    2. It is very bad for science when students don't or can't recognize that "No one knows" is the best answer that anyone has. No doubt this comes from all the worksheets and canned readings, so free of ambiguity.

  4. The following exercise for my general-ed, astronomy-for-non-majors course often gets good results with this:

    On the Nature of Evidence: How Do We Know What We Know?
    In 100-250 words total, provide typed (or computer printed), correct answers for any TWO of the following questions:

    - What evidence shows that Earth is round? Writing “My teacher said so” or “Everyone knows it’s round” aren’t good answers: what evidence shows this? A picture of Earth taken from space may not convince a member of the Flat Earth Society who claims it’s fake. What other evidence is there? (“Round” here means within 1% of being a sphere.)

    - What evidence shows that Earth spins, even though one can’t feel the motion? Notice that this isn’t asking, “Why does Earth spin?”: it’s asking, “How do we know that Earth spins?” (Hint: A wrong answer is that the Sun and the stars appear to move through the sky. The ancients thought this was because Earth didn’t move, and that the Sun and the stars moved around Earth: how do we know this is wrong?)

    - What evidence shows that Earth orbits the Sun, even though it looks like the Sun is moving? Again, this isn’t asking, “Why does Earth orbit the Sun”: it’s asking, “How do we know?” (Hint: Again, a wrong answer is that the Sun and the stars appear to move through the sky. The ancients thought this was because Earth didn’t move, and the Sun and stars moved around Earth: how do we know this is wrong?)

    - What evidence shows that atoms and molecules exist? How do we know that they exist?
    Eyes and ordinary microscopes can’t see them. How, therefore, do we know that they exist?

    - What evidence shows there has been life on Earth for over 3.5 billion years? Don’t just write “fossils”: what exactly are these fossils, and how do they show that life is this old?

    - What evidence shows that the Solar System is 4.57 + 0.02 billion years old? Don’t just write “radioactive dating”: what exactly is this, how does it work, and what exactly was measured as being this old?

    For this exercise, follow these directions:

    ● All writing must be clear and easy to understand.

    ● Be sure to explain: don’t just spout big words. If you must use words that aren’t in Webster’s dictionary, explain clearly what these words mean. To do this, it helps to understand what the big words mean.

    ● Write in complete sentences, and follow standard rules for grammar, punctuation, and usage. For how to do this, see The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

    ● Always check spelling, with a computer’s spelling checker, or with a dictionary. Not doing this looks sloppy, and is bad for clear communication. It can also be bad for one’s grade.

    ● Be sure to cite at least one reference, or else the exercise will be stamped “How do you know? Please cite a reference.” For examples of how to cite references, see the Writing Guide for Research Papers on pages 10-14 of the Class Notes, and also available on the class web page.

    ● Astronomy for Beginners, the main text for our course that I have written, has answers for all these questions: look through it. Any of the texts and notes for this course may be used as references for this assignment. They may not be used as any of the 8 required references in the Research Paper (which is due on the last day of instruction). Looking up other references would be useful, too, to make sure that you understand your explanations.

    ● Don’t use Wikipedia. It’s so unreliable, it’s worse than useless.

    1. WHat a great assignment this is. The most touching part, for me, is your optimism that students will actually read the directions, let alone Strunk and White.

      Today a student brought me in a draft of an assignment (something I invite). I grumbled a bit about it being single-spaced and not following the prompt, and asked him to check the instructions. He looked at another student and they both chuckled knowingly. "I started to read them, but there are too many words!"

    2. Sometimes, they do read the directions. Having told them to do so is still useful for the disturbingly many who don't: when they receive their bad grades from me because they screwed up because they hadn't read the directions, it makes it easier for me to win arguments over the bad grades, since I can always say, "See, you should have followed the directions."

      And of course, I have tenure.

    3. Oh, and something else: this assignment is due tomorrow (Friday). I have read these instructions to the students three times, at the beginnings of class last Friday, on Monday, and on Wednesday. It helps. In previous semesters I didn't, and the ensuing all-manner-of-screw-ups led to my reading to them.

      I do quite a lot of reading to students, just like "Charlotte's Web" was read to me in 5th grade. It helps a lot. That I need to do this with college students I think is deeply disturbing.

      I'm just glad that no one yet has seen fit to abuse Strunk and White. Yes, I've seen the article from the Crampicle, here:

      This article lacks specifics about what exactly is wrong, however. Someone took the trouble to discuss it here:

      Sure, "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace" by Joseph M. Williams is better. It also costs three times as much.

    4. And yet another thing: I provide my students with a four-page writing guide, a copy of which is included just after the syllabus (now at 17 pages and counting) and also available online, of course. I tell the students that between it and Strunk and White, they have precise and fairly comprehensive instructions for how to write for my course. This eliminates a lot of the whining about not knowing what to do for the writing assignments.

      Once I tried handing out copies of an exemplary student paper. Of course I first got written permission to make copies and hand them out from the student who wrote this example paper. The result was that about half the class turned in bad plagiarisms of this example paper. Never again.

      A snappy comeback to "I started to read them, but there are too many words!" is "In this modern age, not reading the directions carefully can kill you."

    5. Frod, I couldn't help but take your questions as a "scientific literacy quiz", and just tried to answer them off the top of my head. I wonder how many I got right.

      Related: I've never liked the fact you can't estimate Newton's gravitational constant (equivalently, the mass of the earth, or the Sun) based on astronomical observations alone, or simple experiments of the kind the Ancient Greeks could have done. I don't know a way to get around a Cavendish-type experiment (too delicate), or mass estimates based on models of the earth (or the sun's) internal structure. There isn't one, right? Maybe there is even a theorem to the effect that there can't be one.

    6. Frod, I had read the directions twice in class, handed them out, and posted them on the class website. I had even said more than once that drafts need to be double-spaced so that students can read my comments afterwards.

      My snappy comeback? A dramatic facepalm, then a faceplant with fists pounding. The students laughed, and I followed up with "Too many words? Too many words? Aren't you in college?" They laughed again. Sigh.

    7. @PeterK: There ain't one, right. This is why G is among the most imprecisely measured of physical constants.

      @Proffie: I hate it when students show no shame when they really should.

  5. Oh, the struggle. They really do have a hard time analyzing sources and original material because, to them, Facebook is just as credible, if not more credible, than a scholarly article because "I can understand it." So sorry! And yeah: they really can't think.

  6. The next problem is that, once you break through and get them to stop believing everything they read, you then have to pull them back from rejecting everything they read. When they stop viewing every written source as authoritative, they go through a phase of thinking none of them have any substance. "Everyone's biased. It's all bullshit." Beginning grad students get a particular kick out of taking each journal article they read and "ripping it to shreds."

    I suppose it's a step in the learning process.

    1. Yeah, have you noted that socialist bomb-throwers tend to be sophomores?

      (Sorry, Strel!)

  7. The way this lack of skepticism (and deference to the "authority" of strangers) manifests itself in math classes is in the complete lack of interest in proofs. Students are happy to accept anything I tell them as "mathematical fact", especially if is in the book. It's all conceptually meaningless to them, or at best a computational tool they might use someday.

    That's partly what I mean when I say mathematicians don't really teach math, just a parody of it. You don't really understand what a result says unless you have at least an idea of why it's true. And, for me, that's what makes math so attractive as a pursuit: you're always in complete control of any statement you make. One never needs to accept arguments from authority, or based on observations recorded by somebody else; you can always go and reconstruct the reasoning from first principles until you understand it completely, if so inclined. Exactly the kind of thing uncritical students have no use for.

    1. In physics the equivalent is "formula-hunting", where they look at a problem, see what quantities are in it, and then they try to find a formula that has only those things in it. They do all of the work on their calculator and so have no record of it.

      You can get by doing that for the first few weeks until we get to forces, and then there are no more formulas--each force problem is beautiful unique snowflake that must be solve through the application of first principles.

    2. Just today I had yet another student tell me "I do not like physics," even though I hadn't even asked. I said, "I'm sorry you don't like physics, but you'd be well advised not to tell your instructor that. No teacher wants to hear it, and I don't see how it helps either of us."

      Whether this gets me in trouble with the Dean remains to be seen. But then, what I really wanted to say was: "IT DOES REQUIRE INTELLIGENCE!"

      And yes, the relation between real mathematics ("Like, with proofs and shit?" as I've heard said) to what's taught as mathematics in schools is about the relation between real literature and poetry to what gets taught in high-school English. This is about the relation between real history (with sources from people who were there) to what gets taught in high-school history. This is approximately the relation between Dundee marmalade to toe jam.

  8. The thing is I'm not that far away from my undergrad years and although I thought of myself as pretty thoughtful, who knows what my professors thought. BUT being on the other end of college, I think it's just taking LONGER for students to learn how to think. Like you should know that step A comes before step E in a set of directions when you're five right? But now you have to be 21 before you understand that. I'm 25 and teach a class while I do my master's. Today I just wanted to bang my head on my desk. Because you are right. They can't think.

    1. Not sure it's that they "can't think" that they don't follow directions. It's that they "don't read". I've spent some time professionally investigating this.

      They skim a sentence for nouns and verbs. They have never learned phonics, they have learned to read the first and last few letters in a word and then decide what word it is by context. But if the context is strange they can't read. For example, I frequently see students write (by hand, not speelcheck) "superstition" instead of "superposition", "conceptual force" instead of "centripetal force", "compactor" instead of "capacitor", and (my favorite) "redemption" for "remediation". They cannot tell the differences between these words because they cannot get the meaning from an unfamiliar context.

      They don't read carefully and so they can't get time order or locations from prepositions. My students are always confusing the order and location of events described in writing.

      I've tried to accommodate somewhat. I use simple sentences that are subject - verb- object. I put sentences in chronological order and I describe events in different locations in different sentences. I use Anglo-Saxon vocabulary except for technical terms. That sort of thing. It helps a little.

      Frequently they just don't read a question correctly and so they answer a different question that I did not ask.