Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Totally random question

I saw a university syllabus recently (for a course in third year) that, as part of an essay assignment, expressly forbade the use of sources other than the three (!) textbooks required by the instructor. This is totally foreign to my understanding of what a university paper should be, especially one for a later year.

So, because I know at least a few practising academics read this thing, some questions, coming from a total and honest lack of understanding:

1) Why would an instructor make a requirement like this?

2) Is it common to have a three-source paper in Ontario universities?

My assumption is that a professor might do this because larger class sizes have meant papers need to necessarily get smaller just to be marked. I entered University right before the double cohort, and pecking around it seems like first year students at Carleton have to produce much smaller papers (1/2 length) than I did in first year, but they're at least required to have outside sources.

So, input anyone?


Chet Scoville said...

I don't know how common it is (and I've never set such a limit myself), but I'd guess that class size probably does have something to do with it. I know I've reduced the lengths of my assignments lately, as my average class size has about doubled in the time I've been teaching; at the same time, the term where I work has gotten a week shorter, which means you have to mark a lot more in somewhat less time.

john said...

Secondary question: does such a limit actually reduce the workload in a meaningful way? I would think the short papers would be the major variable.

Flocons said...

University education (particularly at my university) has left me cynical about applying the principles of mass-production to education.

When dealing with the large volumes of students, establishments have streamlined. This results in multiple choice tests, cookie-cutter lectures, and a slant towards regurgitation of information as opposed to real education.

My 2 cents.

Jon Dursi said...

Well, but what's the purpose of that particular essay in the context of the course? If the purpose is to make the students demonstrate a mastery of those three particular works, which seems like it could well be a useful goal in some classes, then it makes sense.

If the essay is supposed to make the students demonstrate mastery of a larger field of study, then it seems either (a) lazy on the part of the instructor, or (b) a way of ensuring that students don't just download a paper off of the interwebs.

john said...

Jon: Good point, though in this case the texts in question are survey textbooks, not what I would consider works that a student would need a deep expertise in.

Gar Lipow said...

As a last ditch attempt to find a reasonable (as opposed to appalling) justification: is this is course where analysis is more important than research? Logic, writing, rhetoric, that sort of thing? Because in that case it would reasonable to limit sources so that the Professor could judge skill in analyzing or using data, rather than skill in acquiring it. I suspect if that was the case it would not have caught your attention, and that this is something without reasonable justification.

ADHR said...

I wouldn't do it in third year, although Chet's right that this sets one up for a crapload of marking. But, in first year, I do explicitly require that students not go beyond the course reader, for just Jon's reason: because I want the students to demonstrate mastery of a fixed set of readings. Going beyond the course readings is a separate skill, which requires first having a good grounding in an initial group of texts.

It might be justifiable to do it with survey texts -- depends on the texts and the course -- insofar as the texts include core concepts that students need to understand before moving on. But that's when it gets weird that this is in a third-year course.

Asher said...

When I was TAing a first-year history course, students had to write a short paper using only the two course texts. The Professor's justification was that the size of the class would lead to too much competition for library resources.

The papers were, nearly without exception, awful.

Anonymous said...

I've encountered this, but only in theory courses where (as Jon says) the goal is a mastery of particular texts. So if the three textbooks are something like Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Ethics and Hobbes' Leviathan, I can see it. Otherwise, it sounds pretty dumb.