The Trap: The Ends v. Means Tension in the Pursuit of Content Knowledge

Over the course of almost 40 years, I have taught writing/composition to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. I am well aware of the cumulative toll of reading and responding to 10s of thousands of essays by students who are both learning to think and learning to write.

Those essays are often vapid and jumbled, and thus, the work of a writing teacher can be incredibly tedious.

The Onion parody of student writing, Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation, is too accurate for me to laugh since, despite sharing the piece with students, I still often read essays that begin with the same sort of dramatic and over-simplified claims fictitious Jeremy Ryan offers:

For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation. Many advancements have been made in summer breaks since these early times, but it is also true that many different traditions have lived on and continue to remain with us today. This is why, since the beginning of time, mankind has discussed what it did on its summer vacation.

This is what I intend to prove within the course of this essay.

Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation

So when I noticed a Twitter thread about teachers/professors struggling with responding to student essays, I offered the following responses:

The trap, as I note above, results from any teacher’s perception of the role of content knowledge and the acquisition of the knowledge in the teaching/learning process.

Is that content knowledge the ends of instruction and learning, or the means of instruction and learning?

I think Rod Graham speaks for many teachers who incorporate student writing in order to assess whether or not students have acquired essential content knowledge as an ends of the lesson, unit, or course.

However, I have a different view of what constitutes “content” and I tend to place that content in the context of the means of learning.

For example, this week in my first-year writing seminars we have begun our journey toward their submitting a formally cited essay. My guiding goals for this assignment is helping students make the transition from high school thinking and writing to behaving and thinking as writers and scholars (especially in ways that are expected in undergraduate education).

First, I cautioned students about what it means to gather sources in order to write a cited essay. Students tend to begin their search of sources with a predetermined outcome in mind (they will lament, often, that they didn’t find what they wanted to find) so I tell them they are seeking a body of evidence in order to learn more deeply about a topic (thus, start with a question, not a conclusion/claim); and then, their job as student-scholars is to credibly represent what the evidence shows (whether that is what they “wanted” to find or not).

Next, I introduce them to the difference between mainstream approaches to topics (the “both sides” approach) and scholarly approaches to topics (more nuanced, and often resulting in only one credible “side”).

To engage with the problems of “both sides” approaches, I shared the current controversy in Texas: Books on Holocaust should be balanced with ‘opposing’ views, Southlake school leader tells teachers.

Several students were visibly shocked by the “both sides” mandate about the Holocaust (much to my relief) so we explored exactly what those “sides” might be, and then applied that to other topics such as slavery in the U.S., sexual assault, etc.

However, when I shared my own work on corporal punishment and the negative backlashes I experience for my public work against corporal punishment, the student reactions shifted dramatically; as is typical, several students argued for corporal punishment (although I clearly noted the evidence overwhelmingly rejects any positive outcome for corporal punishment).

Of course, this is an ideal example of the power of cultural norms and ideology (specifically religious training and beliefs) to trump empirical evidence, and it serves my larger instructional goals, but this dynamic is troubling none the less.

This lesson as well as the cited essay assignment represents my practice of using content as a means to acquiring authentic ways of thinking and writing (a different type of “content”) regardless of the content knowledge being interrogated or explored.

Students are free to choose any topic for this essay, and ultimately, I will be assessing how well they explore and incorporate sources and then how credibly they represent their sources over the course of synthesizing a coherent essay; I also trust that these students will acquire content knowledge (ends) as a result of interacting with that content as a means.

I do recognize that many teachers will and should continue to use writing as a mechanism for assessing the acquisition of content/knowledge, but I also must stress that this dynamic will necessarily be tedious for teachers and students—and that it likely inhibits many important goals for students as independent thinkers/scholars and writers.

As I Tweeted above, students experience content as an ends far too often, and are invited to use content as a means far too rarely.

Prompts and rubrics do most of the work for students, and in effect, infantilize those students, guaranteeing any acquisition of content is superficial and transitory.

If we want students to think and write with sophistication and nuance, we must provide students many, many opportunities to choose what content they engage with and then practice those sophisticated and nuance moves with content/knowledge as a means to their own growth as scholars and writers.