How not to teach

For a term paper in an online course, a student was asked to pick a country and compare some trend between that country and the US. The student chose to compare social media use, with Australia as the other country. But she got the paper back with an F grade, the adjunct professor writing on it that she was failing the student and that Australia is a continent not a country. The student appealed the grade to the professor and the university administration and sent in some evidence that Australia was unique in being both a continent and a country. Her grade was then revised to a B+ and the professor was fired.

What struck me about this news item was not that the instructor was unaware that Australia is a country but that, if the story is taken at face value, the professor seemed to be failing the student for what was a mistake of fact. These kinds of things happen when a professor gives an assignment and then looks at only the final product of the student, with no feedback in between. This is done routinely but is not the way to help students learn how to write.

This would never happen in my courses because of the way my courses are structured. While I do assign research term papers, what I do is have the student choose a topic very early on in the course, in consultation with me. The first writing assignment that is due about a third of the way through the course requires the student to write a paper that gives three different perspectives on the topic, written in as neutral a way as possible so that I would find it hard to discern what her preferred position was. The goal of this is to have the student realize that most issues have multiple ways of being seen and to research these alternatives.

The second writing assignment due about two-thirds of the way through the course requires them to take the perspective that they favor and then write two parts: one arguing forcefully and in a partisan way in favor of their preferred position, the other arguing forcefully against it. Again, both parts should be written in such a way that it would be hard for me to guess which side she is on. The point of this assignment is to make the student research the strongest case that can be made against their position.

The final assignment due at the end of the term is where they put this all together and make the case for their position while acknowledging that other points of view and opposing arguments exist and taking those into account when making their case.

For each paper, students are encouraged to submit their work and get feedback from their peers and from me before submitting the final versions. In this system, it can never happen that a student submits work that is sub-par or contains glaring errors of fact because it would be caught at many points along the way.

I started structuring my assignments this way when I realized that my goal as a teacher is to help students become better writers and not just produce a good paper. Good writing involves a process that takes time and requires multiple revisions. By structuring the writing assignments that mirror the process of good writing, I hoped to create habits that will stand them in good stead because those habits will be more useful to them than just producing a good paper.


  1. rjw1 says

    My first thought was “Only in America”.

    Some academics won’t admit their ignorance when caught out by mere students. Even presented with facts and figures the teacher initially still wouldn’t admit her monumental ignorance, amazing.

  2. DavidinOz says

    Tabby -- I always use to say If the Americans get pissed off with us they will bomb Austria!

    Australia is both the world’s smallest continent and largest island. It is the only continent to be occupied by a single nation (although some aborigines may dispute that).

  3. Jean says

    I don’t know if this is a French only thing but I learned that Australia is a country in the Océanie continent. So the definition of continent and Oceania seems to vary with language.

  4. DavidinOz says

    Jean, must be a French thing as Oceania is not a continent, it is a geographic region. It would be like saying Iceland is part of the European continent.

  5. enkidu says

    Maybe the French include continental shelves, which would put Australia on the same continent as Papua New Guinea and (part of) Indonesia?

  6. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Wikipedia says that Australia is a continent of four countries:

    Australia, sometimes known in technical contexts by the names Sahul, Australinea or Meganesia, to distinguish it from the Australian mainland, is a continent comprising mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea, New Britain, and small neighbouring islands (such as Misool and Waigeo, just to the northeast of Maluku Islands at the edge of its continental shelf). Situated in the geographical region of Oceania, it is the smallest of the seven traditional continents in the English conception. Countries within the continent include Australia, Papua New Guinea and, partially, Indonesia.

    Looks like nobody can make their mind up.

  7. Steve Cameron says

    I think technically Australia is but a part of the larger continent that bears either its name or Oceania. Most Australians are surprised to hear that, but not most New Zealanders. That’s similar to how most North Americans aren’t aware that many Caribbean countries are also part of our continent, even when they know that it extends south some ways beyond Mexico.

    Mano, I think I would have loved to have been in one of your classes when I was in university, and would have come out of it a much better writer and thinker.

  8. Callinectes says

    This is like the old “tree falls in the wood” canard, where the discussion being had is the difference between sounds as a mechanical propagation of waves through a medium and sound as a qualitative sensory experience of conscious organisms. It’s a matter of usages, the the steadfast refusal to define our terms ahead of the discussion is the sole cause of argument.

    In some definitions of continent, it is geographical: a major landmass. In others it is geological: concerning what sits on a continental shelf, and in some cases tectonic plates. Another usage is geopolitical and divides the world into local regions. Australia/Oceania seems to be the most regular source of such confusion, but it is not unique: I’ve known Europe and Asia to be lumped together as Eurasia. Geographically and geologically it makes sense, though it even comes up geopolitically, primarily (as far as I can tell) with Russia, which dominates the Asian continent but, at least in the more populated western reaches, has more in common with Europe.

  9. Dunc says

    Some academics won’t admit their ignorance when caught out by mere students.

    In high school, I got sent to the headmaster for trying to correct my geography teacher when she claimed that gravity was caused by air pressure. That was when I realised that school is generally more concerned with inculcating obedience to authority than eduction. (And no, this wasn’t in America.)

  10. Holms says

    Australia is both the world’s smallest continent and largest island. It is the only continent to be occupied by a single nation (although some aborigines may dispute that).

    Nope, it’s definitely a continent and not an island: it has the thickened crust and an extensive continental shelf. And depending on your definition of continent, it is either the only continent to be occupied by a single nation… or it isn’t. If by ‘continent of Australia’ you mean ‘the Australian mainland,’ then yes you are right. If on the other hand you take the more geological approach, where a continent’s extent is defined by its continental shelf, then it isn’t: multiple islands -- the largest of which is New Guinea -- are within the shelf, and have their own nations.

    This ‘geologic continent of Australia’ is sometimes referred to as Sahul.

    Geology rocks!

  11. says

    There was a Simpson’s episode wherein they were outside the Australian parliament building which appeared to have been acquired, used, from Austria since it had ‘Austrian’ carved on its pediment with a rather informal proofreaders’ insert and ‘al’ added.

    Then there is Jorg’s Cafe Vienna, just down the road from me, that fitted out all its staff with tee-shirts with the forbidden circle and bar sinister over a picture of a kangaroo and the slogan ‘there are no kangaroos in Austria’.

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