SIMPLY PUZZLING: WHY ARE THE (ACADEMIC) SKILLS WE TEACH SO SOON FORGOTTEN?

A recurrent topic of conversation among us, teachers, these days (we’re marking tons of essays…) is that students seem to forget from one year to the next how to apply the academic skills we teach them. Even from one semester to the next.

Let me explain myself: they need to learn in the first year (for ‘20th century Literature’) how to produce a bibliography, which includes monographs, chapters in collective books, articles in academic journals and academic internet resources. This is, they claim, new to them (which begs the question of what kind of research projects they do in secondary school…) but we trust that once they learn how to do it, this will not be forgotten. It’s a basic academic skill not just for English Literature or English Studies but for any discipline and field of knowledge. Mathematicians, say, also write the kind of academic productions students need to list.

The skills we teach with this bibliographical exercise include not only finding the information but being able to edit it correctly, for which not only do we make a set of guidelines available to them but also the Department’s “Stylesheet” (which matches the guidelines 100%, I know as I have edited both). I have just marked the bibliography and, like every year, I’ll have to ask a few students to repeat it as the sources located are not adequate (often very old…) or the edition is not satisfactory. My general impression is that students have many problems using catalogues and data bases and they lack a certain intuition required to complete a bibliography (if there’s nothing on ‘liminality in Wordsworth’, check ‘liminality’ and ‘Wordsworth’ separately…). I have no idea, however, why it’s so hard in some cases to distinguish a monograph from a collective book. Or why the idea of the academic journal is so alien.

What causes major puzzlement among us teachers is that students have many difficulties to apply what they learn in the first year to the papers they must produce in subsequent years. We ask them, very modestly, to start including three secondary sources in their (short) papers in the second year (some teachers think even that is too much!), in preparation for third and fourth year longer papers and for the BA dissertation, which at this point asks for quotations and references from just seven secondary sources (I said 10 to 12…). A point we do stress is that the search for information applies to all the subjects in the degree and to all aspects of professional life, but that doesn’t seem to be enough.

Editing correctly a paper with its bibliography is for students clearly much less relevant than it is for us. I get routinely titles of books and plays with no italics or between quotation marks, and titles of articles with italics. Hamlet, “Hamlet” and Hamlet are all mixed up (and I even get “Hamlet” meaning the play, not its hero). Perhaps we don’t impress strongly enough on students that editing conventions are basic for academic life and that, well, a bibliography MUST be in alphabetical order by author’s surname because that is the way we have collectively agreed to arrange it. I know that even professional academics are guilty of producing atrocious editions of their own papers but no badly edited text is ever published…

So, I don’t know, I’m lost. We already insist that the Literature subjects are not tightly compartmentalised so that what is learned in one applies to all others, particularly the academic skills. Students, though, still have difficulties to grasp this. One of my tasks this summer is to produce a very short document that evidences this problem and that helps students to see the complete map of the academic skills we teach them. I don’t know, however, whether this will do the trick. Whatever document we publish seems to be ignored and Facebook rumourology given more credit.

Any feedback is welcome… from either teachers or students.

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