by Ashton Wesner, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2018
E157AC: Engineering, The Environment, and Society is the only American Cultures course offered in the College of Engineering. I was thrilled to teach students pursuing rigorous scientific training with an interest in social theory. However, I encountered a condition many interdisciplinary instructors face: the need to introduce lessons in critical reading while covering complex content. Within STEM fields, active reading and analytical writing is not often the focus of training. As my students began mid-semester exams in other courses, many communicated frustration with even understanding dense social theory texts, and the sharpness of discussion and rate of assignment completion declined. Many E157AC students were encountering a new requirement to demonstrate proficiency in discursive analysis and fluency in unfamiliar forms of language about social structures, environmental culture, and political subjectivities. The problem here was not a lack of genuine investment, as is often diagnosed in the case of American Cultures courses because they fulfill a general requirement. Instead, I identified the mid-semester lull as emerging, in large part, from frustration with an unfamiliar skillset. The task here was to empower students to “read closely” and take control over their relationship to challenging texts. In so doing, I hoped to offer concrete strategies for more easily identifying main arguments, parsing forms of evidence and primary materials, and making connections across more accessible texts and case studies (such as newspaper articles and lived experience). Following a particularly dull discussion, I circulated simple and clear resources on how to mark-up and closely read social science texts. I asked students to mark-up their next reading, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, for the following section. Their “Active Text” would be used for a session dedicated to collectively practicing three strategies that would help them write reading responses, participate in discussion, and frame their final research papers: active reading, note-taking, and connection-making.
First, I asked students to pair up and spend 10 minutes presenting their “Active Text” to one another (What does each color mean? Why put a sticky note there? Does this star mark a topic sentence?). Pairs reported back to the class and we assembled a list of decoded symbols and markings on one side of the board, and their corresponding keywords, arguments, and connections on the other. The first half of class thus covered both concrete tips for making a text navigable and meaningful through active reading, as well as the main points and takeaways of the text’s content through note-taking. Following this low-pressure skill-share, I asked students to carry the themes we identified into the next stage of outlining reading responses for the final 30 minutes. With guide-posts already made in their text and key points written on the board, they had modeled the first step of identifying 1) the main argument; 2) the forms of evidence used; and 3) connections to previous readings, news, or experiences from their lives. Pairs joined their neighbors to form groups of six, and they pooled their assembled resources to respond to those three components in 3-5 sentences. Conversation was lively, and livelier still when 10 minutes later I reminded them to explain how a current event or news story exemplified themes related to their answers. In the final 10 minutes we recapped the steps of our 50-minute method, concluding that it could easily be replicated to complete reading and writing assignments outside of class, either alone or in a study group. Identifying a mid-semester lull in engagement as a problem of interdisciplinary skill building generated an opportunity for teaching close reading strategies that students could take beyond E157AC. Students’ course readers became more colorful. Stars and sticky notes marked sentences for easing reference while writing and discussing. The practiced formula of identifying the “argument, evidence, and connections” boosted confidence with what to expect, and how to approach, discussion and reading responses. The collective exchange of active reading techniques improved the precision and completion rates of reading responses, and notably shifted stress levels in office hours and section.