Tag Archives: Student Confidence

On No. 2 Pencils

A variety of specialty artists' pencilsHistoriann has been hosting a lively discussion of helicopter parenting and its impact on student attitudes and performance at the collegiate level that prompted this apropos reflection on “the larger forces that have shaped our students and their approach to higher education before they darken the doors of our unis.”

As Squadratomagico said in response to last week’s post, “Now I better understand the student who inquired, when I asked if there were any questions about the final exam, “Can I use a blue pen?” They’re paralyzed with indecision and fear of making a mistake on their own, because they’ve never had to decide before!”  I too have anecdotal evidence of increasing student apprehension–but I’m not sure if that’s due to parenting or the No Child Left Behind-style of test-driven education, which has put I think too much pressure on children to perform particular skills and not enough on creative problem-solving.

I have very little to say about helicopter parenting.  I’m not a parent myself, and both my parents run their own businesses and have my three sisters to attend to, so I have a hard time getting them to even call me back.  Actually, I sort of adore them for that.  But being married to a public high school teacher and still being temporally close enough to both college and high school to remember the confusion and anguish brought on by pen colors, I have some strong feelings about the degree to which the enforcement of arbitrary standards have hampered the intellectual and social development of many very bright students and discouraged many struggling students from even trying in the first place.  If I had to make a list in my head of the top questions I field in emails from students, it read something like:

  • How do I cite a corporate-authored website in MLA format?
  • Is it ok if I use loose leaf paper in a binder for my journal instead of a composition book?
  • What should the header on my paper look like?
  • Do our papers need to have a title?
  • Where should the page numbers appear on our paper?

Ok, sometimes students want to run a thesis by me or have a question about comments on a previous draft, but it seems like a great deal of my energy is taken up responding to (and student energy is taken up asking) questions the answers to which go something like:  “I’d have to look it up.”  “Don’t care.”  “Don’t care.”  “Sure, why not.”  “Don’t care.”

I mean sure, I clearly state on each assignment page that papers should come out to so many words, typed and formatted legibly, with MLA documentation, but it seems like in absence of instructions about what astrological sign students ought to write their papers under, some students will still experience panic attacks over what I like to call “No. 2 pencil” issues.  No. 2 pencils, of course, are the required writing implement for all standardized tests that students begin taking soon after they acquire the motor skills to wield one.  And if  use a No. 3 pencil, of course, your test results will be invalid, and something horrible will happen to you.  No. 2 pencils have become the emblem of the bureaucratization (that’s totes a word–my spellchecker says so) of education, of the arbitrary rules that teachers are expected to enforce, rules that have some root in common sense that has been long forgotten.

Why do we use No. 2 pencils?  According to someone who had the time and inclination to do the research, pencil grades have to do with the hardness of the lead, and therefore the darkness of the mark.  No. 2 pencils are the medium grade and the ones usually sold for everyday purposes, like filling out multiple choice bubbles.  They’re dark enough to be read by the scanner and light enough to be effectively erased to avoid scanning errors.  But basically, “No. 2” pencil is just fancy-talk for “garden variety pencil you buy at Wal-Mart.”  It’s not really that complicated or threatening.  I guess everyone sort of knows that intuitively, but it’s rarely articulated in the presence of, say, anxious second graders, who are only beginning to figure out that horrible things might happen to them if they breach rules that don’t always make complete sense, that don’t have any basis in an objective moral code (or even common sense), that aren’t really tied to academic performance but nevertheless seem to have DIRE IMPLICATIONS for their educational future if breached.

But, of course, that’s how things work in our highly bureaucratized world.  I fork over the $200 to have my tax return done at H&R Block purely because I fear that I will be carted off to prison for tax evasion if I don’t fill out my form properly.  We’ve developed an entire service industry around making sure that we are in compliance with laws we wouldn’t know existed if there weren’t experts to tell us.  And while that’s sort of a nuisance, I get that this is how things have to be in a society this enormous.  Life is complex in the twenty-first century, and I suppose there is some value in teaching students to mind the details, to read the directions, to put their name on the top of the test paper.  But, I don’t know, maybe there’s value in giving students a break every once in a while, or at least not dole out academic punishment for non-academic offenses or oversights?

This is, to a certain degree, what I’m talking about in my diatribes on participation grades and draconian late penalties:  some policies designed to police those details, while well-intentioned, are a distraction from the actual process of learning, critical thinking, and discovery.  While ingraining good habits with regard to direction-reading and punctuality is great, I think it’s far more helpful to simply take the time to make those policies transparent, to explain how they help keep things running smoothly.  It helps to, on the one hand, recognize that students have probably never heard an explanation as to why their paper needs to be double-spaced, while on the other hand treating them like reasonable people who are capable of getting the fact that instructors who grade by hand need room in order to legibly mark a paper.

As another example, let’s think about citations.  Citation, whether it’s in MLA, Chicago, or APA format is designed to do a couple of things:  1) Protect the intellectual property of the person who had that idea or said those words in the first place, and 2) Give people who are interested in your topic a way to find your source.  Once you take those two things into consideration, the format for citation starts making some sense.  In APA, the convention of putting a date in addition to a name in a parenthetical citation is there because in scientific writing, knowledge sort of has a shelf-life, so you want to put the date in there so that people know that you are citing the most recent studies, or, conversely, that you are referencing some classic or foundational work.  Dates tend to be less important in the humanities, but people who do literature are concerned about editions and such, so you need that info in your works cited.  I try to give this little speech to each student who comes into the writing center with citation questions, then I remind them that most people don’t have every single bibliographic format memorized.  This goes for professors too, and the conventions change all the time.  I’ve had professors correct things in my Works Cited that were correct according to the current edition of the MLA handbook.  So, marking off a point for using a comma instead of a period or whatever is distracting for the student and preoccupies them with stuff that, in the end, would get corrected by a copywriter (who might herself be wrong, depending on which edition she’s working from) if they were publishing on a professional level.

The students who get shaky when they forget to bring the right color pen to a test make me shake my head, but the most distressing part of this emphasis punishing people for stuff that really doesn’t matter that much (other than maybe a slight annoyance or inconvenience) is the thought that there are probably some kids who don’t even make it into a college classroom for these very reasons.  There are probably kids who, in the second grade, were shut down because Mom and Dad were working 100 hours a week at minimum wage and couldn’t think about making sure that their kid had the right kind of writing implement or properly ruled notebook paper (OH MY GOD when I think about how hysterical some teachers I had in middle school got about “college-ruled” vs. “whatever-I-can’t-even-remember-ruled”).  There are kids who have enough trouble paying attention to the content itself–for any number of factors ranging from undiagnosed disabilities to hunger–to remember the myriad arbitrary details pertaining to how their notebooks are supposed to be organized.

I mean, yes, teach kids how to get themselves organized.   Teach kids to be punctual.  Teach kids to pay attention.  Teach kids to read the directions, but let’s at least make this stuff transparent.  And let’s quit doling out academic punishment–which has distressingly real implications for students’ long-term opportunities–for non-academic crap.

Talking Privilege

Commenter Jo, in response to my post on participation grades, brought to my attention an article by Heejung Kim in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called “We Talk Therefore We Think? A Cultural Analysis of the Effect of Talking on Thinking.”  The overall point of the article is so salient to the issue of how we use discussion and participation in class that I decided it needed its own post.

Kim set out to discover if differences in cultural attitudes about the relationship between talking and thinking had any effect on people’s preferred modes of cognitive problem solving.  She takes as her jumping off point an article from the San Jose Mercury News, which stated that:

[M]any colleges in the United States with a large population of Asian and Asian American students are concerned about the students’ silence in class. The silence of Asian students is a concern for universities who want their students to be “independent thinkers.” Motivating this concern is the notion that getting students to talk is a way to make them “better” thinkers. In discussing this issue, the news article details the concern of many educators who are trying to make silent students more vocal, and at the same time, reveals a number of educational assumptions about the relationship between talking and thinking.

As I’ve said before, educators socialized according to a Western model that privileges verbal assertiveness tend to treat (non-disruptive, on topic) vocal classroom participation as an objective good and as an essential educational tool.  As Kim’s summary of the newspaper article aptly indicates, Westerners tend to treat talking as a sign of independent thought, a sign that the student is processing and assimilating the information in an individualized manner rather than passively taking it in.  East Asian cultures, however, favor an internalized, reflective model of thinking, such that children socialized in this mode tend to be less verbally expressive and teachers tend to “see quietness as a means of control, rather than passivity, and appreciate silence more than American teachers.”  Obviously these are pretty big generalizations (I know plenty of American teachers who wish their students would shut up), but as broad descriptions of cultural attitudes toward verbal expressiveness, Kim’s study raises some important questions about whether or not talking really is a sign of “better” thinking.

In three separate studies (with an admittedly small sample of college students), Kim found that the performance of East Asian students (second generation immigrants who had spoken English since childhood) was adversely affected when they were asked to “think aloud” while solving a problem.  Similarly, European American students were distracted when they were asked to suppress articulation while trying to solve the same problem.  In one study, it was revealed that student’s attitudes toward the relationship between talking and thinking were significantly associated with this performance difference, and Kim found that parental approaches did have some impact on those attitudes.  In short, Kim points to the need for further research in this particular area but also suggests that we educators should examine the degree to which our expectations about what constitutes a healthy learning environment are a product of socialization and how we may be disregarding the learning preferences of certain members of a multi-cultural classroom.

Of course, one can’t essentialize about this.  There are plenty of outspoken persons of East Asian extraction just as there are numerous introverted European Americans.  While Kim chose to organize her study samples along ethnic lines, it’s clear that acculturation is the much bigger issue here.  Those of us teaching in the U.S. American system need to be aware of the extent to which both extroversion privilege and racial/cultural stereotyping mediates our classroom policies and interactions with students.

Recently, my partner wandered into my office while I was working and expressed bewilderment at how quiet I am when I write, expressing a clear preference for “thinking out loud.”  I do catch him nattering to himself while he creates lesson plans from time to time, but perhaps it’s ironic that he is, in fact, the child of a Japanese immigrant and my ancestors have been in North America since the 1700s.  I have been a pretty textbook introvert since my personality first began to emerge, preferring to work and play quietly by myself, to talk less than my peers, and to withdraw into solitude when I need my batteries recharged.  And I know from first hand experience that children who are quieter and more self-contained tend to raise eyebrows among parents and teachers.  I was held back a year in elementary school at the recommendation of teachers because I didn’t seem to have the social skills or “emotional maturity” to handle first grade (no, I did not fail kindergarten).  My introversion was frequently treated as a mental illness, and throughout middle and high school, I had to develop the skills for “passing” as an extrovert.  How much more frustrating this experience must be when one’s personality or learning style intersects with cultural and racial stereotypes about “quiet Asians,” who really may be quite gregarious and extroverted but trained to keep quiet in class. As Kim says,

In American education and work settings, talking is strongly emphasized and communicative assertiveness is generally regarded as a sign of a healthy personality (e.g., Cook & St. Lawrence, 1990; Henderson & Furnham, 1982), and anyone who keeps silent tends to be devalued as shy, passive, or lacking independent opinions (e.g., Jones et al., 1986; Zimbardo, 1977). The consequence of the collective silence of East Asians in America is that they are associated with some of these culturally negative traits of people who do not raise their voice.

This isn’t to say that classroom discussion isn’t a valuable educational tool and important classroom practice, but information like this does demand that we explore better ways to accommodate cultural and personality differences in the classroom.  At the very least, we should recognize that while many of us in higher education see lively discussion and debate as a good in and of itself (and I admit, even as an introvert, that I do), ours are culturally specific values that not everyone will share.  If encouraging discussion is still one of your pedagogical goals, then consider making the objectives of discussion transparent and teaching students how to actually hold the kinds of discussions you expect.

Participation grades are still a non-starter for me, though, and this study just helps confirm my position.

Tales from the Writing Center: The Engineering Group Project

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

Remember group projects? Yeah, I hated them too. If you are a regular reader of this blog, I am just guessing that you were probably the kid that wound up doing all the work, because everyone else was perfectly willing to allow that to happen and let’s face it, you’re a bit of a control freak. I get that–particularly for engineering and business majors, who are about to enter a workforce in which teamwork is sort of the norm–doing group projects is an important educational experience. To me, it seems like part of the educational experience is figuring out whether you are going to be one of the high functioning employees who routinely covers for your co-workers or one of the sponges. The best group project designs that I have seen have the work already pre-apportioned in some way (Person A does B, Person B does C, etc.) or contain some kind of mechanism for peer evaluation, but those are kind of rare.

You can tell that a group project has been well-designed when the entire group shows up in the writing center at once to talk about their work in a holistic fashion. Less encouraging is when each student comes in separately to have their pieces of the project checked–so you can’t really address continuity or flow. But at least everyone seems to be more or less doing their share. No, the real bummer is when one student is appointed as the “writer/editor” of the group (read: the one who does the majority of the work) and is therefore responsible for having the entire project “checked” (read: copyedited) by the writing center. In cases where students have divvied up sections and paragraphs, I tell The Editor that I will just go over her sections, since I’m really only supposed to address the work of the person in front of me, but it’s truly sad when The Editor can’t really tell me what’s his and what’s everyone else’s, because it’s sort of clear that everyone else decided they were “big picture” people or just did tables or something and let this kid do, you know, most of the project.

I suppose this isn’t a nightmare tutorial situation so much as it is a situation that always gives me sympathy shudders in solidarity with the go-getter in question. However, it also gives me pause to consider the status of writing in the egghead professions, those to which the self-labelled “bad writers” tend to gravitate because it seems unlikely that they will have to deal with comma splices and metaphors in those fields. They aren’t lazy, not by any stretch of the imagination(I know how hard it is to get into business or engineering at my university), they are just occasionally writing-phobic just as many humanities grad students I know get heart palpitations during tax time (despite the fact that most of us qualify for the 1040-EZ form), because MATH.  This is where I think our cultural tendency to separate the humanities and language arts into one category and the “hard sciences” into another does a serious disservice to our students. I know many middle aged adults who went into engineering or medicine or computer science because they hated English class only to find out that a good portion of their job consists of writing reports or articles. As one chemical engineer recently said to me, “Given what I do all day, I might as well have been an English major.” That’s not to say that we should be funneling all budding biochemists into English classes, just that in terms of “real skills” that have immediate application to on-the-job situations, writing is way up there on the list of “stuff I ought to be pretty comfortable with before I enter the work-force.” One of the reasons I think that one student winds up in front of me in the writing center, having been delegated total responsibility for writing up the project is because the other four have self-selected into the category of “was terrible at writing in high school and am not comfortable with this stuff.” But I’m generalizing pretty ferociously here, so perhaps that’s not most people’s experience. I just feel a bit bad for the kid that gets stuck with all of that work because he supposedly has a “natural gift” for it.

Multiple Assignments and Unlimited Revisions in a Writing Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the Fall course offerings and came across an upper division undergraduate History class called “Religion and Popular Culture.” The content of the course looked fantastic, as the pop culture focus was on the Ben-Hur tradition (something I am currently researching), but in the part of the course description that lists assessment criteria, I found cause for concern:

Fifty percent of the course grade will be determined by class attendance and sustained and useful participation in class discussion. There will be no examinations as long as students do the assigned reading and sustain effective discussion. The other half of the course grade will be determined by the semester’s writing project. Students will write a paper of at least sixteen pages on a topic that traces a theme or development through all of the cultural manifestations of Ben-Hur over the past 125 pages. In preparing that paper they will write a brief prospectus, a longer prospectus, a first draft of the essay and then a revised draft. At all stages of the writing project leading to the final version, students’ work will be evaluated by the instructor and then re-written to reflect that evaluation.

I have said my piece about participation grades already. Basing half the entire course grade on participation seems to me to be a recipe for migraine headaches at the end of term, but this professor has been doing his thing for a long time, so I guess he has a method.

What I really want to talk about here is the logic of basing almost the entirety (given that most participation components are kind of bullshit) of a final course grade on a single written assignment and then marking it–as this course was–with a “Writing Flag.” Ok, from what I understand, “Writing Flag” courses are meant to teach undergraduates something about writing in that particular discipline. A good half of the student body tests out of the required freshman comp class here, so most writing instruction is inevitably happening in these Writing Flag courses that can be hosted by just about any department.

Now, a sixteen page research project in an upper division course is probably pretty reflective of the kind of writing one might do in the history field. At least, that’s been par for the course in all of the graduate seminars I’ve taken in the humanities and social sciences. My concern is that writing is something that one can only learn by practicing, by trial and error. Even though this particular class requires a good deal of preparatory work for the final paper (two prospectuses and a first draft), I would worry that students aren’t really getting a whole lot of practice at this particular kind of writing before it comes time to start working on this massive omnibus project.  They ought to have some lower stakes opportunities for figuring out what kinds of topics work, what counts as a thesis, how to structure and organize a smaller argument before doing a larger one, etc.

And this is a course being taught by a professor who I know to be excellent. I can see him doing quite a bit of writing instruction in the classroom, presenting samples, holding students hands through the process, giving ample feedback on proposals, etc. But there are a number of “Writing Flag” courses out there (enough that the chair of the Sophomore Literature committee warned all new instructors against following this example) that really do just demand a final draft of a huge paper on the final day of class and call that a writing course. I imagine these are the same professors who whine about the under-preparedness of college freshman (without a clue as to what the conditions are in public high school English departments) and refuse to teach “writing fundamentals” in any form whatsoever. I imagine that these are also the same professors who take off a point for every grammatical error.

Knew the material before you walked in the door and doesn't really need to be in this class.

My issue with this type of grading policy is that it does not encourage actual improvement. It’s designed to disproportionately reward students who came into the class with a lot of experience and strong skills while disproportionately punishing those with less experience and rougher skills. There’s a column at The Chronicle of Higher Education that I mostly find insufferable (for reasons I may talk about in another post) but that makes this point pretty well. Describing his first experience as a graduate student composition instructor, when he was asked to curb the trend toward grade inflation, the pseudonymous author says:

What Dr. Cathcart didn’t say, but that I realized afterward, was that Elite National U. did not want me to teach first-year students as much as sort them according to the abilities they brought with them to my classroom. Having been asked to halt the progress of Marty, a student with special needs, I had no desire to find out what happened to a TA who didn’t sort papers according to a bell-curve standard. After that day, my grading report sheets displayed lovely bell shapes.

Because first-year students’ success depended upon skills they had mastered before showing up on our campus, I suspected the same principle applied to teaching assistants.

Trying to teach writing without a strong emphasis on shorter, lower stakes assignments, regular instructor feedback, and opportunity for revision, without–in a word–PRACTICE built into the curriculum makes about as much sense as trying to teach a musical instrument via a lecture course. Imagine you are a student sitting in this hypothetical lecture course on, say, the piano, in which the professor waxes poetically about the piano itself, about the technique of great pianists past, even demonstrates his own remarkable skills and then asks everyone to learn a Sonata by the end of term without any opportunity for one-on-one instruction. The bald reality of the situation is that teaching writing–like learning an instrument–requires a great deal of back and forth between student and instructor and requires ample room for the student to take risks and mess up and then start over and try again. Teaching writing requires room for shitty first drafts.

So, while a long assignment may be desirable in your class–especially if you want your students to engage in focused research–it’s worthwhile to consider adding shorter assignments–ones that are unrelated to the larger project–to the syllabus. My students do a long paper on a text assigned in class at the end of the semester, but they also do three short analysis papers, all of which receive feedback from me.

And here’s the kicker: I allow all of my students to revise any assignment as many times as they want up to a certain date. I’m not exactly an innovator in this respect, but it’s worth mentioning here because I think this policy scares a lot of instructors, mostly because it seems like it would translate to a lot more work. It really doesn’t have to. I’m going to do a follow up post to this tomorrow (because this one is already really long) that will explain how the concept of unlimited revisions can actually drastically decrease the amount of time you spend commenting on individual drafts while actually increasing the amount of aggregate useful feedback your students get from you throughout the term. Other benefits for you include:

Fewer grade disputes: Students who know that they can revise their essays feel that they control their own destiny in your class. They are less likely to be shell shocked by a bad grade if they know they have the opportunity to change it, and that leads to less demoralization, less defensiveness, and the decreased likelihood that they will blame you for their poor performance. All of my nightmare, stalker grade grubbing incidents happened before I started allowing unlimited revisions.

Intrinsic motivation for submitting papers on time. I actually don’t even have a late policy in my class. I don’t need one. I tell students what my grading schedule is for each week, so if they want timely feedback (and I get papers back within 3 days, usually) that will allow them to revise the paper, they have to get it in by a certain time on a certain day. I love this policy for so many reasons. For one, it causes students (and therefore me) less stress, but mostly I love it because it flips the logic of due date incentives on its head by offering a reward for timely submission rather than a punishment for lateness. Also, it works.

More meaningful engagement with the writing process when revision is for a full grade replacement. Two years ago, I taught in the freshman writing program, which emphasized the revision process by requiring a revision of each of the three major essays. These revisions were recorded as a separate grade from the first draft. The problem with this approach is that most students would essentially just turn in the same paper, resigned to the fact that they were going to get more or less the same grade no matter what they did. I started seeing remarkable, thorough revisions when I offered students the opportunity to actually improve their grade by revising the paper. Furthermore, I no longer felt sketchy about encouraging revision by assigning grades strategically. Under the “separate grades” model, I felt like I needed to reward excellent first drafts (they do happen) with “A’s,” even though I knew that meant that they wouldn’t engage with the revision process. Now, I can give a strategic B+ here an there to encourage the strong students to make their papers even stronger, because they almost always do (and phooey to them if they let the opportunity slide).

The student’s final grade is ultimately a true reflection of where they are at the end of the semester rather than where they were at the beginning. And that, for me, is the true beauty of allowing unlimited revisions for a whole grade replacement, yet this seems to be a real psychological barrier for a certain type of pedagogue. The type of professor that the Chronicle essayist describes, seems to me to remain highly invested in pigeon-holing students into the “good writer/bad writer” categories. I’ve written before about why I think doing so is damaging. For one thing, it privileges students who came from the best high school programs, i.e. students who are inherently privileged already. For another thing, that’s not teaching. That’s sorting, and I find the investment of certain instructors (who often engage in this practice in the name of stamping out grade inflation) in engaging in this practice to be both cynical and discriminatory.

Not all students advance light-years in a single semester, but if you allow unlimited revisions and give some shorter, lower stakes assignments, you will often see a B- student start turning in A- work by the end of term. Not all students will revise every assignment, but almost all students will revise at least one. Not all students will learn to love writing, but some will actually start to think of themselves as people who are capable of writing, and for me, that’s good enough.

On Women’s Colleges

I was particularly impressed by this Broadsheet post on women’s colleges. As a graduate of a women’s college that ultimately went co-ed in the years since graduation (a decision I have mixed feelings about), I identify with the dilemmas that Eby highlights. On the one hand, women’s colleges seem like an artifact of a time when women were unable to attend mainstream schools. On the other hand, so much of the criticism of them takes on overtly misogynist overtones, as Eby points out. Jerry Falwell infamously called the women who attended my college (while I was there no less) the “whores on the hill.”

Furthermore, arguments for their obsolescence tend to rest on the assumption that feminism has essentially accomplished its task, that women don’t face any obstacles in attaining a college education anymore. And while women appear to be on equal (possibly even stronger) footing with men in terms of enrollment numbers, it isn’t clear that all of the barriers have been beaten down. Women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of business and government and continue to make less money than men during their lifetimes. Female students, even at the most elementary levels of education, still do not speak up in class and are not called upon to do so as often as their male peers. At some elite universities, the top student leadership positions continue to be dominated by men. Women attending co-educational universities also face an unacceptably high risk of being raped, physically assaulted, or harassed and have to contend with college administrators who fail miserably at addressing those issues. While removing all women from co-educational environments probably is not a tenable solution to these problems, it does suggest that there are still reasons why a female student may prefer to opt for an all female environment before entering the work force, and she doesn’t necessarily have to be a wallflower in order to do so.

My own reasons for choosing a women’s college had to do with the viciously misogynistic educational culture that I grew up in. In many ways, it was just garden variety sexism: slut shaming, sexual harassment in the school hallways that was dismissed by the administration and parents under the logic of “boys will be boys,” male students elevated to leadership positions more frequently than females, practices of policing female dress and behavior in ways that were frequently humiliating and shaming, an intensely competitive academic environment in which female voices were often stifled and feminist viewpoints usually ridiculed and angrily shut down, girls who got kicked out of school for getting pregnant while their partners got to stay. Then when you add the hyper-conservative Christian nature of that environment to the picture, you get systematic misogyny sacralized by spiritual rhetoric. The moment when I finally said “Fuck this” came senior year, when a male student who regularly made me (and other female students) feel unsafe walking down the hallway experienced a dramatic conversion and was instantaneously elevated to spiritual leadership in our class. While his spiritual transformation may have been genuine, for me, it wasn’t enough to erase three years of routine disrespect and fear.

In short, I was through with that shit. It was a revelation to be able to spend four years in a kind of feminist oasis (in my experience, women’s colleges, thanks to their origins, tend to be fiercely feminist). I still interacted with men on a regular basis, and even met the man I eventually married while I was there, but it was refreshing to be able to build solid friendships with other women as women rather than as rivals, which all girls inevitably were at my high school. As one of those nerdy girls who claimed all throughout high school that I got along better with boys than with girls, I actually needed to be taught that all women were not, in fact, terrible, that there was no reason to hate other women just because my high school (also middle school and elementary school too, if I’m being completely honest) experience made me hate being one myself. In other words, my own misogynistic tendencies needed to be rehabilitated as well.

This was an environment in which speaking out, both in class and in Student Government meetings (I was eventually elected Treasurer and then President of SG), became habit, something that I took straight into a co-ed graduate program and mixed work environments. In addition to making me more confident around men, I firmly believe that my women’s college experience actually gave me a better, more compassionate view of the male gender. Being able to be selective with the men that I associated with (and finally meeting some feminist men) taught me that I could actually feel safe around them, that I could actually work and socialize with them without feeling awkward or threatened.

So, my defense of women’s colleges is, essentially, that I want other women to be able to have the same experience. In an age of anti-feminist backlash and still-rampant sexism, it is perfectly reasonable to want to spend some time in a kind of feminist enclave. And in my experience (which may not be everyone’s), doing so can make us more effective citizens in the long run, better able to happily co-exist with both our male and female peers.

Update: I just want to be clear on the fact that I don’t think women’s colleges are for everyone or that they are without problems. I do think that this is a matter of choice. There’s another pretty good discussion of this going on at Jezebel.

Update 2: Tevarre at the Fugitivus forums was kind enough to point out this post at Historiann from last year.

Five Reasons to Stop Giving “Participation Grades”

1. How the hell are you calculating this anyway? I know some instructors who try to record the frequency and quality of student comments, but that in and of itself seems like it might hamper discussion in addition to being a serious pain in the ass. In almost any other circumstances, participation grades become subjective to the point of uselessness.

2. It punishes the wrong students. This should come as no surprise, but some students are really uncomfortable speaking in class. Some of these are also your best students, the ones that sit silently during discussion but do the reading and write brilliant papers. The reasons why they don’t speak up may be complex and way beyond your pay grade. They may have histories of abuse or of being publicly humiliated and silenced by authority figures. They may have had horrific experiences in high school that make them terrified of speaking up in front of their peers. There are also just basic privilege and discrimination issues at work, such as the fact that boys are still much more likely than girls to speak up in class, and non-white students are less likely to speak up than white students. You may also have second language speakers in your class, who do not feel confident enough in their speaking abilities, especially given the annoyance often directed at them by fellow students and instructors. You may also have students with disabilities or students who represent a minority political or religious viewpoint or students whose personal issues are too close to the class material or whatever. We in the West (especially the U.S.) live in a society where extroversion is privileged, a society that gives people multiple reasons to feel the need to keep their mouths shut and often then turns around and punishes them for being “passive.” We shouldn’t be exacerbating that problem in the classroom.

You may think that you are encouraging these kids to grow and mature and better advocate for themselves by grading participation, but let’s be clear:  that process is not going to be completed in three months time.  If you are a very, very good instructor and also a little bit lucky, you may get a “breakthrough moment,” where a previously terrified student suddenly lights up.  But those moments do not signify the reversal of ingrained behavioral patterns.  It will take many, many positive experiences with speaking up to overcome a history of trauma.

3. You are opening yourself up to grade challenges. I came a across a pretty good article on grade grubbing on The Washington Post website. It’s written by a journalism professor who encountered numerous grade challenges her first semester teaching at American University. Here is one of her examples:

I wasn’t so firm with my other challenger. She tracked me down by phone while I was still in my office. She wanted to know why she’d received a B-plus. Basically, it was because she’d barely said a word in class, so the B-plus was subjective. She harangued me until, I’m ashamed to admit, I agreed to change her grade to an A-minus. At the time, I thought, “Geez, if it means that much to you, I’ll change it.” She thanked me profusely, encouraging me to have a happy holiday.

She admits to committing the rookie mistake of giving in to a grade grubber. These things get around. If students know that an instructor has changed a grade in the past, it’s all over. But the other glaring issue here–which she doesn’t really address–is the damned participation grade. Here’s the thing, students know that the participation grade is kind of bullshit, so it’s the first thing they’ll challenge if they don’t like their final grade. Then you’re left arguing about the vague impressions you had of their overall participation across the semester without much to back you up. It’s a recipe for ruining your vacation.

4. It’s too vague to be much of an incentive. Let me repeat: students know this grade is kind of bullshit. The savviest of them know that if the worst happens, they’ll be able to argue the grade up at the end of the semester. But that will usually happen only at the end of term, because they will have forgotten this component even exists as soon as the syllabus disappears into the black hole of their dorm room.

5.  Whatever a participation grade is designed to measure, there are better ways to do it.  Are you trying to:

See if students have read the assignment? Give a quiz.  Scheduled quiz, pop quiz, whatever.  Make it easy, just something to keep everyone on their toes.  I usually give a daily quiz until about midterm, then I only do it if I suspect people aren’t reading. Another technique I like is assigning an informal reading journal or a daily blog, something you can briefly check–either weekly or at set points during the term–to see if people have actually engaged with the reading.

Encourage discussion? Again, participation grades don’t actually work (see #4).  There are about 4,000 more effective ways to encourage participation.  There are entire books written on it, actually.  But here are my suggestions.

  • Create a safe space: Like I said, trauma (and do not discount the trauma that students are capable of inflicting on one another, even at very young ages) and discrimination are often factors in preventing students from piping up.  You can counter this (but again, do not expect life-altering, paradigm shattering transformations in a few short months) by providing a safe space in your classroom.  But this goes beyond simply saying “this is a safe space” or “we like diversity” or “we are tolerant of diverse perspectives.”  It means that you may have to champion minority opinions–even if they are not your own–and prevent group think from developing.  It means that you will have to recognize the subtle signs of someone who has something to say but isn’t loud or assertive enough to wedge their comment in.  It means shutting down any discriminatory bullshit and occasionally asking (politely, of course) some loudmouths to just listen for a while.
  • Resist the temptation to break awkward silences: I fall victim to this one a lot.  Every once in a while, it’s as if the entire class colludes in halting discussion by just staying quiet.  Resist the temptation to lecture at that point.  Don’t answer your own questions.  Just let things hang.  This is torture for everybody, and eventually some one will crack.
  • Use journals or blogs as a jumping off point: This is not only a great way to get some people to talk, it can be an effective way of making quieter students more comfortable speaking up.  Saying something like, “Audria’s post today was so insightful, and I just wanted her to summarize her point for us” not only gives that student something to say, it lets her know that she is likely to be well received, that her input already has approval from the instructor.  Since I give a writing assignment in which students are asked to analyze cultural artifacts outside of class, I will sometimes also say, “Brett is writing a paper on X and is kind of an expert on this, so maybe he can explain.”  Sometimes appealing to other areas of interest or expertise can also help:  “Jillian is a film major” or “Brett is the editor of the campus newspaper.”

So, could we just not do these any more?

Grade Grubbing

‘Tis the season.

Two school years in a row from 2006-2008, I had what I would describe as nightmare experiences with grade grubbing. On college campuses, this is seriously some kind of disease. I’m not sure if it’s academic advisers or other students who encourage these kids to go back to their professors and TA’s begging to be bumped from an 87 to a 90, but this behavior seems to have achieved a level of social acceptability that I frankly don’t get. Both of these experiences included borderline harassing emails asking for grade changes, and it happened once while I was a TA and once when I was teaching my own courses. They were so stressful that I began to fear my inbox and had to enlist superiors to help me deal with it. Since then, I’ve tried heading the problem off at the pass. During the final week of each term, I give a really, really manipulative speech, usually some form of the following:

“I know that your grades are important to you, and for that reason they are important to me. I know that for some of you, a B means failure, and I assign that grade with full knowledge of how it will feel to you. I work very hard to ensure that grades are calculated accurately, and if there is any subjectivity in how I assign grades for individual assignments, I agonize about the fairness of what I’ve given you. I agonize over this, guys. I lose sleep. So recognize that if you come to me challenging the final grade you’ve received (which is a right you are free to exercise), you are essentially challenging my integrity.”

This usually wards off the casual grade grubbers, the ones who send me smarmy emails loaded with typos (I kid you not) trying to squeeze extra half-points out of me. Grade grubbing comes from a place of self-centeredness, but somehow being reminded that their instructor is a person–not a machine–a person who does, in fact, have considerable investment in the grades they assign, helps put things in perspective. Many of them think that it never hurts to ask, and my saying stuff like this lets them know that, yes, actually, it hurts a bit.

It may not stop the true sociopaths. I call them sociopaths because these kids are sort of like those serial killers featured on late night cable. They appear charming and socially adept early in the semester and work hard to develop a rapport with you. They flirt with you and make you think they are the best student ever to come in your classroom. Experience has taught be to be wary of these student. These are kids who are used to getting what they want from authority figures, especially those of the opposite gender. They see their good behavior and flattery as their end in some sketchy backroom agreement, and when their work starts getting C’s, they feel betrayed. By the end of the semester, they turn on you for not holding up your end of the bargain and become downright nasty if you refuse to give them what they want. I don’t know that it’s entirely these kids’ fault. At some point, this strategy (and I doubt they even know it’s a strategy), must have worked for them, and it’s astonishing to them when it doesn’t. They feel that by giving them less than they grade they have come to expect, you have rejected them, who they are, so to reduce cognitive dissonance, they’ll make you the problem.

Thankfully, these sorts of kids tend to be not very original when it comes to the arguments they deploy. Once you get a sense of the range of possibilities, you can come up with standard responses to each:

1) “But I never missed a day of class”
Ever since I adopted an attendance policy, I never had to hear this one again. Especially at big universities, where most classes are giant lectures and no one is checking who’s there from day to day, students start seeing their presence in class as going above and beyond the call of duty. I have a sister who was sort of like this. She used to just show up for exams. She graduated with a 4.0, and the dork in me hates her for it. Seriously though, if you have an attendance policy, it lets your students know that showing up is a minimum expectation, not something you get extra points for.

2) “I need an A to get into medical/law/business/graduate school”
The simple answer to this one is, “That is not at all my problem.” What would college look like if we assigned A’s based on who “needed” them the most? The logic of it falls apart pretty quick. A sick, sick part of me loves hearing this argument because it’s just so howl at the moon stupid that it’s almost entertaining.

3) “I’ll do an extra credit project”
This will vary by instructor, but it says on my syllabus, “no extra credit will be offered in this class.” My students are allowed unlimited revisions of every paper, though, so I haven’t heard this one in a long time. If you give your students enough opportunities to compensate for poor performance, I do think they feel a greater sense of control over the final outcome, and that’s partially what I think grade grubbing is about. It’s “something they can do” to improve the grade, not a reasonable thing, mind you, but it’s something.

4) “I am a straight-A student”
Usually this means that they got A’s all through high school or that they are getting A’s in other classes, and your class is the brick wall they’ve hit on their wind sprint to star-studentdom. This is an identity crisis for them, but it helps to note that their performance in other classes has no bearing on their performance in this one. The more insidious among them are implying that there is something wrong with you, that everyone else recognizes how fabulous they are but you don’t seem to get it. More on that in a second.

5) “It was just that one assignment”
Again, I allow unlimited revisions, so the “one bad assignment” argument doesn’t work very well, but like #4, this is a perspective problem. Many students want to be judged “holistically” (even the ones who think holistic grading is too subjective), according to their overall academic performance. They don’t see their final grade as consisting of multiple smaller grades, moments where you measure their progress. They may not recognize that there are some areas of academics where they are stronger and some where they are weaker and want a “pass” when it comes to stuff that isn’t as easy for them. I confront this by saying–both in my “final grade speech”–and in individual conversations, that we can talk about their performance on individual assignments, not overall performance. If they think they’ve been graded unfairly, they have to point to an specific assignment.

Truthfully though, I haven’t had a grade grubber in two years, ever since I began doing away with late policies and allowing for unlimited revisions (which I’ll talk about in a future post). Like I said, the more control you hand over to them, the freer everyone is. Like the kids in the Dweck experiment, students who feel that their score is somehow connected to effort rather than executing perfectly on the very first try a skill they came to the class to learn in the first place seem to be less whiny and entitled. Furthermore, the more transparent you are about your expectations, the less ammo they will have to throw back at you.

#6 on that list is “I just didn’t know what you wanted,” and that often does actually a problem with the instructor. I have had kids use this one defensively, when I didn’t think it was warranted, but my experience at the Undergraduate Writing Center has shown me that many instructors are appallingly vague about what they want, and most kids are terrified to ask for clarity. When one kid said this to me in 2008, I set up a special meeting with him and asked him to bring any examples of assignment prompts that he thought were more clear than mine, so that I could learn from him. He didn’t bring any examples to the meeting, but we did have a good conversation about what he wasn’t getting and how he could do better on the next assignment. Admitting that I might be part of the problem diffused the situation. The simple truth is that if students feel that they are heard, that you are listening, and that you genuinely care about them, they are less likely to turn on you. That’s the part that you, the instructor can control.

How to Praise Your Students

Yesterday, I wrote about serving on my department’s book selection committee. The best part of that kind of service is getting a lot of free books. Publishers are quite happy to send us free copies if there is a chance we will be requiring several thousand students to buy it the following year. One of the books I was assigned to read and review was called Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It’s technically a parenting manual, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what the person who nominated it was thinking. There is just no way that this sort of thing could be appropriate for a rhetoric classroom full of eighteen year olds.

But as often happens, I enjoyed reading the book anyway and stumbled upon some advice that seemed to be immediately applicable to my classroom. See, Bronson and Merryman are educators and researchers, so they bring a unique, refreshing perspective to the matter of child rearing. In the first chapter, they look at what they call “The Inverse Power of Praise,” in which they debunk the notion that students who are told they are smart perform better in school than students who are not told that. What they discovered is that praise can backfire, especially if your praise is directed at innate ability rather than effort. In the cited study by Carol Dweck, they gave kids a series of puzzles to do and praised them either according to their smarts or how hard. The first test they were given was very easy, but for the second test, they were given a choice of either a puzzle of equal difficulty or a harder puzzle.

Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In the next test, students were given a puzzle that was way beyond their grade level. All of them failed, but

Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “The got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.'” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

Furthermore, once the students were given the final test, which was as easy as the first test, the group of students praised for effort raised their score by 30 percent, while the group praised for intelligence did worse by 20 percent.

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “The come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides to good recipe for responding to failure.”

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized–it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. it hit both boys and girls–the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure). Even preschoolers weren’t immune to the inverse power of praise.

I had this in mind when I was writing about Good and Bad Writers. All instructors have met very bright students who crumble when they don’t get the grade they are accustomed to receiving. Reading that chapter revolutionized the way I give praise in the classroom and how I work that praise into my comments on papers. I might write more in a future post about why I think allowing unlimited revisions in a class focused on writing is so important, but one of the reasons is that students ought to be encouraged to see grades and instructor commentary as a measure of where their project is at a moment in time, not of their inborn skills as writers. Motivating students to revise their papers is so difficult, but it becomes especially so if we reinforce the idea that good writers produce good writing on the first try and bad writers produce bad writing and can’t do anything to change that. Students who believe they can control ultimate outcomes–be that the final grade on a project, their grade for the class, or simply the production of better documents–seem to try harder.

There was a student in my class last Fall. Let’s call him David, who got a bad grade on the first assignment (a D). This was a huge shock to him, and I wish I had made it clearer at the time (had not read that book yet!) that the D reflected the fact that he didn’t pay attention to the assignment prompt. Thinking he was doomed, he switched his status in class to pass/fail. I other words, he picked the easier puzzle when failure became a possibility. The thing is, he actually wound up producing better work as the semester progressed. He revised a later assignment and wound up with B’s on most of his other papers. At the end of the semester, he wrote me an email:

Earlier this semester, just after I received the grade for my first field report (D+), I was sincerely worried about my chances of getting a decent grade in your class. Immediately, without discussing my concern with you as I should have done, I decided I was going to take your class for a pass/fail grade instead of a letter grade. Essentially, I gave up on myself. As the semester progressed, after that point, I no longer stressed about papers, and instead, wrote freely and comfortably. As I did so, my grades drastically improved, much to my surprise. I laugh now looking back. I realize I came so close to getting a B in your class after worrying about just passing the class not two months ago.

I want to thank you for the way you weighted the grades and the way you graded the papers. I considered it extremely fair and helpful at the same time. With each paper I was able to decipher what it was I needed to do better as well as what I was already doing well. Through this class this semester, I learned more than how Ben-Hur escapes imprisonment or how Winthrop felt about Christians. I learned to never give up on myself. And for that, I want to thank you, for that is the one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in my two and a half years at [redacted].

This was obviously one of those emails that you print out and stick on the wall of your office (and send to the committee that hands out awards and stuff), but the thing is, underneath the praise is the implication that I actually didn’t do a great job of giving this kid what he needed. That’s not to say that I could have single-handedly solved his confidence problem just by giving better feedback, but I think I’ve learned a bit since then about how to address the problems with the document rather than the failures of the student. For one thing, I no longer put a grade on any essay that hasn’t “passed” (gotten at least a C-). I used to feel compelled to give credit to students just for handing me a few pieces of paper with words on them, but I don’t any more. I just put “No grade” at the top and say “this assignment isn’t quite finished but here’s how I think it’s going so far.” I think this has actually helped rout a few disasters this Spring.