Monday, December 31, 2012

Patterns of Cultural Contact Assignment

One of the challenges of teaching today's college freshmen is that many of them have had such an impoverished high school education, sometimes through their own fault and sometimes through that of a bad school system, that they do not understand elements of assignments which in my own undergraduate years I would have taken for granted.  These often involve the need for independent thought or anything that goes beyond looking up a "right" answer based on focus questions that refer one to a specific place in a textbook.

For example, early last semester, I overheard a discussion among some freshmen who had been assigned to read a National Geographic article and write something explaining the relevance of its contents for the modern world.  The students were filled with a certain righteous anger at the alleged impossibility of the assignment on the grounds that the article did not say anything at all about the modern world.  Similarly, a colleague once told me a story of some students who had been asked to compare Hammurabi's law code and, I believe, the Law of Manu.  They became frustrated when they could only find the two discussed separately in their assigned readings, with nothing in the text dealing with comparisons.

Because of this, at that level I try to design essay prompts which break down the assigned skills and explain the essay structures in a very basic way. An example from last semester's first half of a world history survey is the "Cultural Contact Essay" below:

HIS 105: Historical Foundations of Global Cultures
Cultural Contact Essay
Due in class November 19, 2012
Must also be submitted via D2L Dropbox to receive grade
Dr. Brian Ulrich


1.) Improve students’ writing skills
2.) Develop students’ ability to explain concepts and major points using examples
3.) Develop students’ skills in symphonic and comparative thinking
4.) Consolidate knowledge of intercultural contact and world history generally by pushing students into the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy

General Assignment:

One of our themes in this class has been contact between and among cultures. For this essay, you are to select and explain at least three mechanisms of intercultural contact using at least two specific examples for each one. You should also explain any relationship among different mechanisms of contact. An example of such a mechanism, which you may use in your paper, is long-distance trade. An ideal introduction and/or conclusion will also speak to the larger picture of world history before 1500. The required length for this paper is 3-4 complete double-spaced pages assuming Times New Roman or a similar sized font.

Criteria for Evaluation:

1.) Quality of writing, including essay organization, syntax, and diction
2.) Quality of reasoning, seen mainly in your ability to clearly explain your points and examples using specific evidence
3.) Ability to recognize patterns and situate them as part of a larger picture
4.) Proper citation of all information using either in-text citations or footnotes, using simply my name, the course, and at least month/year for class lecture
5.) Inclusion of examples from different areas of the world and different periods from the rise of civilization to the Mongols (Chapter 14)
6.) Accuracy of all information you present
7.) Flashes of pure genius (These are optional, but will help your grade.)

Essay Hints:

1.) If you feel your writing is a mess or do don’t know how to begin this assignment, feel free to use the Learning Center’s writing assistance or world history peer tutoring.
2.) If you are stuck on an introductory paragraph, consider starting with a question, quote, or brief anecdote and explain its importance before stating the thesis in the last sentence.
3.) If you are stuck on a conclusion, consider exploring possible implications of the thesis rather than just restating the introduction in another way, as is commonly taught in high schools.

This essay is geared toward developing skills of pattern recognition and working with concepts, two important elements of critical thinking which history is well-positioned to develop. Students despised it as one of the most difficult assignments they claimed they had ever been given, but for all that, they did fairly well, and came up with some interesting ideas like the role of written primary sources in transmitting ideas between cultures separated temporally. The main problem they encountered, aside from the usual syntax and diction errors, was simply writing about the transmission of certain ideas such as Buddhism, as opposed to the mechanisms of contact. I tried to make this distinction orally in class when explaining the assignment, but if I use this again I may alter my approach.

With most essay assignments like this, lots of students will be stuck simply on how to begin. There is a tendency to want to just start writing an intro and then pile in supporting details until the limit is reached. Because of this, I emphasize the need to plan before you start writing, and suggest writing the intro last. I also try to give them ideas to move past what are often canned introductions and conclusions, as you can see.



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