It's all about the narrative



How to teach an abstract without migraines

Style: "70's look"

So, first day back, the key item on the agenda is an abstract.  It intimidatingly dense in both syntax and vocabulary.  The particular challenges of this class are

  • relatively low energy, buy-in
  • weak critical reading skills
  • dominance of one language group (Chinese)
  • over-reliance on technology.

Plus, they’re jet-lagged and not all happy to be back here.

Still, I want them to understand the abstract, as it’s necessary for the course.  I also think the practice with difficult reading will be useful.  Plus, I don’t want them to hate me.

Here’s my plan:

1.print out abstract double spaced, large font, sentences numbered

2. assign one sentence to each group

3. ask group to

  • parse sentence
  • use cell-phone dictionary to provide definitions for words they don’t know
  • paraphrase sentence in less academic vocabulary
  • translate sentence into L1
  • write proofread product on chart paper
  • present  sentence to rest of class

4. ask students to write individual paraphrase of abstract.

In the class, everything went according to plan except for the last point of #3 and #4.   Instead of asking them to present, I had them  post the sheets of  chart paper in order.    Students walked from sheet to sheet, discussing, comparing, and taking pictures of the information. This was less time-consuming, and also better for interaction: more collegial, less top-down.   We didn’t have time for #4, so we did a quick re-cap together to confirm comprehension.

I liked the way this went because:

  • by making cell phones and L1 part of the plan, I headed off sources of conflict from the beginning
  • students could focus better on the reading when it was broken down into something less overwhelming
  • the kinetic element helped them stay alert
  • the L1 element was interesting and enjoyable, but it also fed into the main topic  for the term — linguistic aspects of globalization

What’s more, I think the lesson did achieve its immediate pedagogical goal — they came to understand the abstract on a much deeper level than they would otherwise have done.  I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t get to #4, but I’ll see if I can make time for it when I do it with the other section.


This message sent from …


As I was doing my online research (Buzzfeed –please don’t judge me!), I came across the message above. It triggered a response that has been rattling around in my head all day.  Then I read Tom Whitby’s  Learning Without Technology, an excellent post, but one I felt I had to argue with.   Well, that started a conversation, and now  I seem to have become WordPress’s resident Luddite, quibbling about new technology and the horrors it will bring.   Right now, I’d like apply the same cantankerousness to something very specific: “sent from my iphone.”

As one of my part-time jobs, I do on-line essay tutoring for a testing centre.  More and more frequently, I receive  essays with this offending phrase at the bottom.  I invariably send them back and ask the clients to resubmit them as  word documents.  My ostensible reason is that when iphone text is transferred to a document format, the margins and paragraphing are disrupted, making the essay very difficult to read.  This is definitely true, but my main reason for rejecting the essays is that they are, without fail, awful.

Why are essays sent from an iphone so bad?  Maybe it is a matter of lack of commitment, that the writer is dashing off the essay while out with friends or in line at Abercrombie and Fitch.  To be a little more charitable, maybe the writer starts off with good intentions, but there is something about the physical form of the iphone that makes him or her more easily distracted.  After all, a laptop, or even a tablet, constitutes a physical barrier between the writer and the outside world.  The phone, on the other hand, leaves the user vulnerable to every form of interruption.

Perhaps the smallness of the screen is the problem.  When we see text in such small sections, it is difficult to reflect on the logic of the argument, or even the accuracy of the syntax.  How does this relate to e-readers?  Are we reading and writing differently as our pages get smaller?

I’m also wondering about the difference between typing on a keyboard and on a touchscreen.  Not one of these egregiously awful compositions ends with “sent from my Blackberry.”  Granted, maybe the five individuals still loyal to RIM technology were not in need of essay assistance at that time.  Still there has been much research into the neurological difference between hand-writing and typing on a keyboard. There must, then, also be an analogous difference between typing on individual keys and moving one’s finger fluidly across a flat screen.

I feel like King Canute, trying to send back the waves of iphone documents.  I know they’re coming, and I know I too will wish to appear “more active and casual” one day.  However, I think it’s worth asking ourselves what this technology is doing to our brains.

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