Paul Kei Matsuda

Breadth and Depth of Knowledge

Lately, I have been thinking (again) about the importance of breadth and depth of knowledge for doctoral students and, more important, what I can do to help them in this regard.

In the seminar on composition theory--where I emphasize doing theory rather than merely knowing or critiquing theory--I have mentioned on several occasions the importance of having the ability to construct and analyze arguments on the one hand and the broad knowledge of the topic on the other hand.

This sounds pretty basic, but these are the two most important things in philosophical inquiry, in which theory is developed discursively. If the argument is strong (not in the sense of forceful but in the sense of informal logic, where argument is evaluated on the strong-weak continuum), and if the argument accounts for a large body of existing knowledge, the bar is raised for those who seek to critique it. Likewise, those who can analyze arguments well and know more about the subject (or other related subjects) have an edge.

I can help my doctoral students with the analytical skills by focusing on theories of argument (the effectiveness of which is debatable, I realize) and by giving them ample practice in constructing arguments (through presentations and writing assignments) as well as critiquing arguments in the field (through reading assignments and discussion). But what about the breadth and depth of knowledge? The field of composition studies is quickly expanding and becoming more fragmented, and in many cases it is impossible to even give them a comprehensive reading list of publications related to the topic of the course. And if I assign too many readings, the quality of the reading experience may go down, and there is not enough time to discuss each of the readings in sufficient detail.

This semester, I have tried to solve this problem by assigning a presentation and a bibliographic essay about a topic in composition theory in the middle of the semester. The idea is to get students to practice defining a knowledge domain and tracing how different theories interact with one another while, in the process, helping them learn (incidentally) how to identify relevant sources and to read critically but quickly. I also encouraged students to think of it as a practice for the doctoral exam. All of them took it seriously and did a pretty good job--they are ambitious students.

If they got a sense of how much more there is to know about any given topic, I would consider that a small success.

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Blogger Jonathan Benda said...

I had a prof. at SU who gave us a very similar kind of assignment--we had to trace a "conversation" in comp/rhet and write up sort of a bibliographic essay on that "conversation". It was hard work reading through a ton of articles on the conversation I chose (discourse communities) but I learned a lot by doing it!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 4:02:00 AM  

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