Saturday, August 5, 2017

Dead Trees in the Classroom

I said goodbye today to my critical thinking and writing workshop students.  They are a great group of young women who are destined to do important things in the STEM majors at the university.

It is interesting to gear a writing and thinking class to science and medicine.  I am so used to teaching those skills in literary analysis, so it was challenging to find ways to explore their majors through a humanistic lens.

One thing I decided to do in this workshop was to use newspaper, magazine, and peer-reviewed journals.  I have watched with great interest and excitement as journalism especially has seen a revival in our time of Trump.  So I took them through the databases on the library’s portal and encouraged them to look up peer-reviewed articles on subjects in which they were interested.  I explained what is meant by peer-reviewed—experts in the field review the articles submitted and evaluate them for solid science and research before the editor approves them for publication.  Almost immediately, they began to use the databases and like most students who have grown up with technology, they quickly became experts in finding what they were after.

I also used two columns from The New York Times Magazine that I have read with great interest over the years.  The first is called “The Ethicist” by Kwame Anthony Appiah and appears weekly in the magazine.  People write in with ethical problems and Appiah attempts to reason his way through them to a solution.  The students seemed to enjoy dissecting the issue and Appiah’s argument for a particular action in response.  The problems tend to be real world, average people’s quandaries which made them all the more real to my students.  I reworked each piece a bit to make it more objective since the person writing in composed the question in first person.

The first dilemma concerned Ben and his desire to willfully refuse to pay income taxes because he disagreed with the way Trump was running the government.  Of course this is illegal, but Ben was willing to pay the price for his protestation.  My students were quick to realize what Appiah was thinking, although I waited until they had a solution in mind before giving them Appiah’s response.  They nailed down the position that there are many items to which are tax dollars go, and they are expenditures necessary to keep the country functioning.  Plus, if Ben diverted his tax payments to his state government, whom he trusted, he would simply receive the overage back in a refund.  Appiah and my students felt Ben should pay his taxes and choose to donate to or work with several groups such as those advocating for women’s rights and organizations that helped the poor.

Another problem concerned a woman who discovered a possible sibling she did not know existed.  He was imprisoned and had a violent past.  She wanted to reach out to him and ask him to take a DNA test to see if he was, in fact, her brother.  My students questioned the woman’s motives.  Was she truly trying to help the man, and was she prepared now to have the responsibility for his care in prison if he was her brother?  What would the man feel when he discovered that his father wanted nothing to do with him?

These were both excellent thinking exercises with no clear absolutely right response.  There was only a better action, but like life, things were far from clear, and that made for a good discussion.

The other column I used is written by Dr. Lisa Sanders and is called “Diagnosis.”  Every other week, Sanders presents a patient seeking treatment from an unknown ailment and then details the way the doctors work to diagnosis and treat the mysterious medical issue.  My students in this workshop are pre-med and biology majors, so they liked these problems and worked diligently to try to solve them before I revealed the answers, which in this case were more definitive.

The first case concerned a man who suffered from continual hiccups.  What I liked about this case is that it started with something we would consider rather innocuous, but later becomes something quite life threatening:  a brain tumor.  The students not only figured out the answer, they also determined what tests they would run on the patient and what medications they would prescribe to alleviate the symptoms.  Of course, this case ended in brain surgery, but the students were astute about the full range of treatments.

The second case was a mysterious fever that turned out to be listeriosis, but the bacterial infection did not present in its usual manner, so the diagnosis was tricky.  The disease could have resulted in the man’s death if doctors were not quick enough to figure out the mystery and start treatment.

A long time ago, I had a journalist come to speak to my students in a writing class.  She told them that she could teach an entire semester’s courses to them using only a daily newspaper.  I have remembered that boast ever since and I am certain it is possible.  When we look at all the stories in all the sections of a newspaper, there are examples of nearly every genre of writing there, both sophisticated and simple.  I would even say one could teach a class with just the Sunday edition of the paper, especially The New York Times.  This is why journalism is necessary, and why it should be celebrated in our democracy.

My students and I had a good time this week debating these articles, discussing ways to think and discover, while also studying the ways to improve writing and communication skills.  Using “dead tree media”—newspapers, magazines and journals—really made the classes come alive with real world dilemmas and issues.  A biology textbook might be good for a class, but application is just as important, and the articles we used gave ample opportunities for my students to take what they were learning and apply it to real life.

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