Guided work versus papers of students individual choice

1. Although it may sound commonplace, I shall be so bold as to reiterate that literature is very rewarding result- and pleasure-wise in higher education in the humanities and can be even in sciences. But it is not a simple subject for students.

2. Otherwise, foreign language learning is fun these days. Exercises in learning reading for the very young include decomposing poems, adding one’s own lines, reassembling the poem and so on. (But that is only for the youngest, not for adults or teenagers as is sometimes done.) I’ve seen teachers playing musical instruments to entertain their students. It all is meant to encourage expression. But I would claim that understanding should be emphasized all along for it not to be forgotten in general hilarity.

3. Even in routine, failure to understand is often ignored. When the object of study is literature, understanding is key. I have known a young academic who gave up a publishing project because she felt she lacked the enthusiastic understanding of American literature equal to that of her colleague American professor. I happened to read of ‘Collapse of Meaning in a Post-Truth World’ in JSTOR Daily, which claimed that “the sidestepping of facts” and “the cumulative effects of many obvious falsehoods” seem “to have watered down any serious consequences” for any lie in public life (JSTOR Daily, - 22 June 2017, p.3). Language use is affected likewise: “We can’t be sure that the same words mean the same things to everyone” (Ibidem), sometimes through a lack of focus, sometimes through ignorance.

I had a student whom I advised to change a part of her paper because it was politicized for non-literary reasons. She enthusiastically agreed. (This was at the time when some universities required short one-term papers from students prior their graduation projects. This was a paper of national traits as gleaned from TV interviews.) At the end it appeared, that the student had not changed a line. It was obviously because she was not inclined to follow my advice, but most likely because she misunderstood my words and misinterpreted my message. The context offered more reasons. She was writing a paper on the topic of her individual choice. She had not taken a course in literary analysis. If she had taken a course in language and literature, she might have been more responsible. But this was not the case.

4. The context offered more clues to further conjectures and causes. Psychological conditions open ways to missing the intended meaning when papers are written on topics of students’ individual choice:

1) someone else can be advising on the topic and can interfere further;

2) the student is relaxed and thinks that whatever he writes is correct;

3) the student resists taking advice;

4) the student’s language, which is imperfect, does not improve;

5) the student ends up with a superficial, wrong or plagiarized paper.

This strategy does not encourage study, the progress is minor and the result is poor. Even when the student is not weak in EFL, the enthusiasm wanes and the paper remains mediocre because of the initial condition when the student begins convinced that a topic of his own choice relieves him of strenuous study. The general relaxed attitude in foreign language learning also has its influence.

It is the advising teacher who works catching up with the reading that individual papers demand and there is no shortage of sources in English literature today. Literature as the source of aesthetic experience, of intellectual advancement, of improvement cognitively and intellectually, of elevating the delicacy one’s verbal expression and intellectual quickness is gone. The roles have been swapped. I wonder whether this means the optimum use of resources and qualifications.

Even if we accept the unmeasured enthusiasm about the incentives to creativity that papers of individual choice are supposed to create, students lose education-wise.

There is one important condition for which I have a reference. Last year, the Harvard Business School included a summary article titled, “Why Productivity Suffers when Employees are Allowed to Schedule Their Own Tasks” ( Newsletter 04-19-2017 (1) A-April 19, 2017 - 19 April 2017), among its Working Knowledge papers, which reported on the work in a radiological firm. The job of professional doctors in this firm involved sequentially reading X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds and other images to diagnose. The strategy of the firm was to read the images on “first-in-first-out” basis, but the doctors had the option of choosing them to read in a different order (by category, for instance, lung scans, brain scans, etc). It appeared that when the doctors rearranged the prescribed order of processing, they lost 2,494 hours per year, which would have increased the firm’s annual profit by 3%.

If professionals lose so much in changing merely the mechanical order of the process, students lose more. Students also lose on quality because they cannot select the material competently, while selection remains one of the most prized skills in the twenty-first century acknowledged in quality education in the USA. Students do not make use of the adviser’s qualifications, either, through ignorance or stubbornness. Creativity does not burgeon in a relaxed body. It has been known that in literary arts, it is challenge that enhances creativity. This is rather a theoretical argument but I believe what I am saying and I am drawing on experience.

Strategies-wise, a question arises. Why the approach of rigid planning and mass involvement so much despised as the principles of state-run economy should be employed in education? Why not differentiate the strategies of liberalism? For example, it is only the best students who may be allowed to write papers on topics of their individual choice. All others should choose topics from those proposed by the advisers and do guided work, while guided work means no penal servitude. Similarly, a resort to students’ judgement should be differentiated. Only the best students can be allowed to assess their teachers’ work at their assessment time. How can an average student choose a topic for a research paper or assess the teacher’s work when he had not managed to do the tasks of the programme? Such differentiation would be fair and it would encourage both aspiration for achievement and perhaps even creativity.

If I were to advise on how to remedy the state in the humanities, I would say that some resort to life sciences might be helpful. First, some arithmetic would help. Even if the sums were delicate, they would matter in mass education. The principle of the laws and formulas of physics might also be useful. In fact, the British Council has indicated a line in this direction when it advised that every teacher has to sum up his course, his programme or project in as brief a gist as possible. The conclusion was that if the teacher cannot sum up his subject so concisely, he does not know it himself. These changes would require intellectual discipline, competent selection, research-based knowledge and informed judgment. But, given the right to speak truth to authority and to the student, teachers in these conditions could make all the difference.

I have voiced these thoughts in a Symposium on the Future Developments and Prospects of University and/or College Education in a Global World II, at the 10th Annual International Conference of the Athens Institute for Education and Research, on the 6th of July 2017.