Tag Archives: Teachers

Your First Day of School

There is something perverse about the fact that public school teachers must undergo years of rigorous training, student teaching, and certification in order to take charge of their own classroom and individuals teaching at the college level for the first time are generally given a time, a room, and a roster and told to have at it.  If you are lucky, you will get a few days of orientation, an overview of university policy, and a round table discussion with experienced grad student instructors.  Hopefully, you’ll also get a faculty mentor, though I’ve heard of some faculty mentors (at other schools, of course) who say ridiculous crap like, “Pedagogy is for high school teachers.  I’ll teach you content.  You can figure out pedagogy for yourself.”  Uh huh.

I actually got pretty fantastic training, not only the summer before my first TA and solo teaching assignments but throughout the semester.  That said, I recall that the first couple of days of the August orientation week, in keeping with academic aversion to pragmatism, consisted mostly of high-minded discussions about the value of rhetoric and the philosophy of our writing program.  I remember sitting there feeling like I had swallowed a piece of granite thinking, “Fine, fine, fine, but what am I supposed to do NEXT WEDNESDAY?!?(The fall term starts on a Wednesday here.)  The fear of showing up on your first day with nothing to do or say can be overwhelming.  I remember how long 50 minutes used to feel, how I used to agonize about how I was going to fill them three times a week.  Now, I usually run out of time, so rest assured that that feeling eventually goes away, not that that knowledge really helps you right now.

So, what do you do that first day?  The good news is that no one really expects you to do much.  Remember the first day of class when you were in college?  You went around the table and said your name and major and your favorite food or some nonsense.  Basically you’re going to learn names, explain your course policies and reading schedule, demo your class website (if you have one), and just take care of business in general.  You are not required to give an inspiring speech unless you really feel moved to.  In fact, it’s advisable not to cover any real content on the first day.  The composition of your class is inevitably going to change over the next week, and you’ll save some time and trouble catching the new people up if you wait a day.

PRO TIP:  Mapping out a course schedule is very difficult until you get a feel how how a semester flows and how much time a class period really is.  You don’t necessarily have to pass out a complete schedule on the first day.  My first semester teaching on my own, I planned the amount of time we would spend on each unit and scheduled the due dates for major essays, but I handed out the detailed reading schedule and discussion topics at the beginning of each unit.  This gave me some flexibility without having too many schedule revisions out there confusing the class.

The first day of class is really about setting a tone, about letting your students know what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.  Go over your course policy statement in detail, and give your students a practical sense of how you will enforce them.  While this doesn’t have to be a “weed out” exercise, I recommend appearing stricter than you intend to be.  That way in you show grace later in the term, you appear benevolent and merciful.  If you appear easy to manipulate at the outset, your students will run all over you and resent you when you start enforcing.  By the same token, don’t assume that they will read the syllabus on their own.  I always give a pop quiz on the syllabus on Day 3 or 4.

You will naturally wind up doing most of the talking on this day, but if you expect to hold lively discussions in your class, it’s a good idea to get them talking too.  Do introductions but also consider bringing in some questions or ideas they can throw around.  For example, this past year I taught a class on Literature and Religion.  Knowing that religion is a sensitive topic, I had the class lay down some general guidelines for discussion on the first day.  It was both a tactic to get them talking to one another and prevent land mines from exploding in the class later in the term.

Alternatively, you could have students free-write on a topic for 10 minutes and then share their thoughts or bring in a very short reading (a poem or one page of prose) or image to discuss.  The idea is to give them what a typical day in your class might be like without necessarily delving into key material.

Finally, if you are going to assign homework for the second day, make it a handout or something that is accessible online.  Because students change their classes so much during the first couple of weeks (and various other reasons), some of them won’t have their textbooks at that point.  It will do you no good to get irritated about this fact (or the fact that they won’t read the syllabus on their own).  Just deal with it.

Oh, and let your class out on time, if not a few minutes early.  New students are trying to figure out where everything is, and giving them a little extra time is kind both to them and to the instructors who have them next.  One of my pet peeves is instructors who keep their kids over–making them late for my class–or continue to occupy the room right up until the start of my class (as if I don’t have anything to set up).  Get a watch and start making final announcements a good two minutes before the period is over.  Take long conversations with students outside or in your office.

On Being a Red Pen Instructor

In the wake of the post on grading and minimal marking, the cockles of my heart have been warmed by the people who were willing to confess to being “red pen instructors,” correctors of every single comma and verb tense fail, either in the present or at some point in their teaching career.  God bless you people!  I think most college instructors have been there, especially if we are teaching/have taught as know-nothing graduate student TA’s.  Like I said on that post, the minimal marking thing isn’t my original idea.  Other people had to show me the way.

Approaching grading in that way has saved me a ton of time and energy, and sometimes I still feel like I’m getting away with something.  I feel like I’m supposed to work much harder at grading, and honestly, I wonder if that isn’t where the impulse to be a red pen instructor comes from.  It’s the Good Student impulse, not really the good teacher impulse.  It’s the impulse to show our work, to prove we tried hard enough, to justify our conclusions right there on the page.  I haven’t actually been teaching that long, but I think I’ve seen enough to know that the abilities and instincts that make us good students only take us so far when the time comes to stand up in front of the classroom.

When one is trusting entirely to one’s “good student” instincts–which feels entirely natural, because they’re what got you in front of that classroom in the first place–it’s fairly easy for teaching to devolve into performance, a demonstration of what the instructor knows rather than an effective transmission of that knowledge.  It’s obvious how this happens in the dominant instructional model in giant public universities–the lecture–but teaching can also quickly become about performance in seminars.  I’ve been in graduate classes of twelve people or less in which the professor has repeatedly hijacked the “discussion” to talk about his interests, and in my own classes I have felt the almost irresistible urge to answer my own questions, because I’m afraid my students will never arrive at the answer I had envisioned when I was preparing for that day.  I have felt the urge to settle student confusion without allowing them to work out a problem themselves, because I want to look like I know what I’m talking about.  And I have felt the urge to mark every mistake in a paper, to essentially do the student’s work for her in order to show that I know the errors are there, in order to look like I did enough work.

But while teaching does require knowledge and preparation and lots and lots of work (we teachers have to study for our own classes to be sure), at some point I suspect that the subtle difference between the good student and the good teacher in every one of us is in knowing when to stop, when to trust students to be responsible for their own learning.  And that means allowing them to spout a lot of cringingly wrong answers, permitting confusion to remain when it’s pedagogically sound to do so, and letting students copyedit–with some guidance–their own goddamn papers.

Arizona Linguists Take on the “Fluency” Issue

Mark Lieberman at Language Log reported today on the Arizona law requiring educators to meet certain (rather vague) standards of English fluency in order to keep their jobs. This has widely been reported as an effort to crack down on “accented speech” in the classroom. The entire post is worth reading, as Lieberman attempts to suss out exactly what the law demands, but I thought the eight points submitted by the University of Arizona linguistics department to the Governor and Superintendant were worth citing here:

1. ‘Heavily accented’ speech is not the same as ‘unintelligible’ or ‘ungrammatical’ speech.
2. Speakers with strong foreign accents may nevertheless have mastered grammar and idioms of English as well as native speakers.
3. Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don’t speak Spanish.
4. Exposure to many different speech styles, dialects and accents helps (and does not harm) the acquisition of a language.
5. It is helpful for all students (English language learners as well as native speakers) to be exposed to foreign‐accented speech as a part of their education.
6. There are many different ‘accents’ within English that can affect intelligibility, but the policy targets foreign accents and not dialects of English.
7. Communicating to students that foreign accented speech is ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ is counterproductive to learning, and affirms pre‐existing patterns of linguistic bias and harmful ‘linguistic profiling’.
8. There is no such thing as ‘unaccented’ speech, and so policies aimed at eliminating accented speech from the classroom are paradoxical.

The statement, which is linked to Lieberman’s post, rigorously backs each of these points up with sources representing the best work in the linguistics field.

I’ve pointed out before just how our “what about the children” concerns about non-standard and emergent forms of English–like textspeak–reflect a not-so-subtle form of xenophobia (not to mention classism and ableism), but the Arizona law stands as a pretty blatant example of it. While I do believe that educators who are teaching English should be proficient in the language to the extent that they can be understood and communicate English-language concepts effectively, it simply is not correct to conflate accent with non-standard grammar or lack of intelligibility. If Arizona wished to apply their laws fairly–as Lieberman demonstrates–then they would have to reprimand or reassign white native English speakers who misuse words or speak “ungrammatically” as well, but that’s probably not going to happen.  And as I have pointed out, enforcing draconian standards with regard to grammar are often a way of arbitrarily leveraging privilege as well.

Additionally, as Language Log commenters Jen Mc-Gahan and marie-lucie point out, most foreign language instructors in U.S. schools are not native speakers of that language. How are “fluency” standards established in those cases? Does their Spanish pronunciation/accent have to be able to pass muster in Mexico City? Every foreign language teacher at Evangelical High, where I went to school, was U.S.-American. They were masters of the grammar and, in some cases, idiom of the language they were teaching, but even my AP French teacher acknowledged that she does not speak perfect Parisian France and probably wouldn’t be understood in Canada or Senegal, both French speaking countries with different accents. Nevertheless, she was an excellent teacher, well versed in French literature and culture and effective at teaching us high school level French.

It is also worth pointing out that the teachers targeted by laws like this seem to be those teaching English to immigrant students. Perhaps that is an incorrect perception, but it seems to me that having a native Spanish speaker teaching English to native Spanish speakers presents the very same benefits and challenges as having a native English speaker teach French to native English speakers: the baseline level of mutual comfort in the common language can help the instructor to convey difficult grammatical concepts in the foreign language in an intelligible, helpful way.

Ultimately, before U.S.-Americans can address this problem objectively and effectively, we need to take a long, hard look at the intersections between racism and language bias in this country. Why is it, for example, that we insist that some English accents (British, Irish, New Englander, even Southern) are legitimate (and even charming!) and some are not? Why are we so very uncomfortable with non-native English speakers speaking amongst themselves in their own language? Why do we insist that immigrants assimilate linguistically effective immediately, when anyone who has taken a foreign language class knows that fluency take years to develop? And whose comfort/welfare are we really considering when we make those demands? The children for whom English-proficiency will not only impact their future career prospects but the degree to which they may experience marginalization? Or those of us who just don’t want to be reminded that Other People live here too and don’t want to work a little harder to understand the person sitting across the table or behind the lectern.

Update:  From The Washington Post–Students learn a second language better if the instructor has the same accent as themselves.

Update II:  From The Journal of Extension

Communication is a two-way process. Both the speaker and the listener have a responsibility for the act of communication. While different or foreign accents can sometimes interfere with the listener’s ability to understand the message, accents can conjure up negative evaluations of the speaker, reducing the listener’s willingness to accept their responsibility in the communication process. Sometimes, it becomes easy to say, “I simply can’t understand you,” placing full responsibility for the communication process on the speaker.

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.

Today in Cognitive Dissonance: Classroom Culture Wars

So, over the weekend, this came to my attention. Maine’s Tea Party heavy Republican State Convention met at a Portland middle school to rewrite their party platform and committed petty acts of politically charged vandalism while they were there:

When he went home for the weekend on Friday, one of [eighth grade social studies teacher Paul Clifford’s] most prized teaching tools – a collage-type poster depicting the history of the U.S. labor movement – was affixed to his classroom door. Clifford uses it each year to teach his students how to incorporate collages into their annual project on Norman Rockwell’s historic “Four Freedoms” illustrations.[…]When Clifford returned to school Monday morning, his cherished labor poster was gone. In its place, taped to the same door, was a red-white-and-blue bumper sticker that read, “Working People Vote Republican.”

Monday morning (May 10), members of the caucus began calling the school to complain about other super-offensive things they had seen in the classroom, including a box of copies of The Constitution that happened to be donated by the ACLU and student projects, at least one of which was critical of George W. Bush. It should be noted that the executive director of the Maine Republican Party has apologized, and it is to the credit of the principal and the students that Clifford was supported in his effort to get the missing classroom decorations back.

Then this morning, I learn that the Texas State Board of Education–notably far right wing board member Don McLeroy, who recently lost a primary challenge to a moderate–is up to more shenanigans. Now, in addition to recommending that Thomas Jefferson be dropped from the history curriculum in favor of Rush Limbaugh and the Moral Majority, McLeroy would now like to require discussion of the problems with social security and U.N. threats to U.S. national sovereignty.

At first, I wanted to just post this with the snarky comment: “of course, it’s only dangerous indoctrination if you don’t agree with it. LULZ.” But here’s the thing, I’m sort of having cognitive dissonance about this myself. See, I initially felt bemusement toward the conservatives who walked into Paul Clifford’s classroom and said “SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAS HAPPENED HERE.” I imagined they heard unsettling horror movie music  as they walked inside and gradually the full scale of the atrocities happening there were unveiled before their eyes in the form of posters, collages, and stickers. But then again, if I had an eighth grader and happened to see a poster charting the rise of the modern conservative movement in her classroom (I bet Don McLeroy has one already made up), I might break out into a little bit of a cold sweat, and if I were surrounded by some lefty friends who were able to convince me that this was only the tip of a very insidious iceberg, I’m not sure what I might do. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t commit petty theft or vandalism, but who knows.

In other words, I am not excited about the curricular changes that the Texas State Board of Education is considering and sort of want to jump up and say YOU JUST CAN’T DO THAT, but I’m not sure how that makes me any different from a conservative parent who walks into a classroom and sees evidence of goings on that aren’t in line with my politics or religion.  I think both of us would probably say that we live in a free society, that we celebrate a the free expression of ideas, but we might also say that we think the other person’s ideas are beyond the pale and don’t belong in the classroom.   Basically, if I think too long about this, my brain sort of does contortions:  while I don’t think teachers should necessarily be pushing an agenda in the classroom, “objective fact” and “radical agenda” frequently get confused depending on who you’re talking to, and some of the things McLeroy wants taught are “factual,”so it’s largely just a question of emphasis, and I juuuussst dooooon’t knoooooowww. It hurts.

I wish our schools weren’t culture war battlefields, but they are, and people who care passionately about what happens in them–on all ends of the political spectrum–are going to pick up megaphones and speak. They are going to run for school board and they are going to go get teacher’s licenses, and they are going to join the PTA. The best you can do is just make your voice heard too.

I went to a small evangelical school growing up, and during my junior year, I took Bible with a man that I like to think of as the conservative version of the “tenured radical” that haunts the dreams of David Horowitz. This teacher often used class time to air some crazy-ass conspiracy theories about the government and posit wild revisionist theses, such as “the Emancipation Proclamation was responsible for Southern racial tension.” I wanted this teacher to get fired more than just about anything in the world. I remember ranting about him at the dinner table, trying to get my parents ginned up, talking to my friends about him (none of them seemed quite as concerned as I was), telling some of my other teachers the things he was saying, and drafting letters to the administration.

It took me a few months to realize that this was never, ever going to happen. For one thing, this teacher had been around since approximately the Punic Wars and was a beloved football coach. He also taught photography in the art department and led the annual 8th grade wilderness trip and High School mission trip. He was an integral part of the community. Furthermore, the other Bible teacher pretty much just showed movies all the time, so it’s not like that department had high pedagogical standards in the first place. Until a few years ago, when the school began hiring fresh seminary grads who could do all of the scholarly stuff, the Bible department was basically staffed by camp counselors who were there to sort of teach “spiritual living” until it was time to do their real job, coaching Varsity to another district title.

If I take a step back and think about all of this, I realize three things:

1. People like this former teacher of mine exist, and some of them may wind up teaching your children. Your perspective on their qualifications and effectiveness as teachers is going to largely depend on the degree to which you share their view of the world. You have the right in a democracy to voice your opinion, to write letters, to call administrators, to show up on Parent-Teacher night, to run for the school board. Maybe not so much with the stealing of classroom materials, but you get my drift.

2. Your children do not exist in a vacuum. If you are worried about the messages they are getting in one class, remember that they take other classes too. Unless your kids targeted for discrimination or abuse in class, it probably isn’t absolutely vital that you get that teacher fired right this minute. Throughout their lives, they will have many teachers coming from many pedagogical and ideological perspectives. That same year in school, I had an English teacher who was sort of an Anne Lamott style boho-artistic liberal Christian feminist who caught alot of crap herself in our highly conservative community. To me, she was an inspiration, but the word “Feminazi” floated around a lot in conversation among other students and parents. She occasionally let slip some statements that would have been considered radical or crazy in that context. But she got to keep her job too and wasn’t asked to tone it down or anything, and I’m glad for that. I’m not sure that the answer to classroom culture wars is to ask teachers to be dispassionate, fact-dispensing, Thomas Gradgrind-esque drones, which means that many engaged teachers are going to occasionally espouse a viewpoint you don’t particularly care for.

3. Your children really aren’t that fragile. One result of that terrible Bible class was that I became more principled in my own views. I read books on theology so that I could argue with this teacher. I learned a bit about how to take a stand, how to argue. I learned a lot more than I did in the class with the less ideological teacher who showed movies all the time. I still can’t remember what the hell that was all about. Furthermore, being surrounded by authority figures who speak from a particular ideological perspective with one voice is no guarantee that your kids will enter adulthood believing what you want them to believe. I have classmates from that evangelical school who went to very secular colleges and became even more dogmatic (or principled if you prefer) about their faith and their politics. I have classmates that went to religious colleges and were atheists or agnostics by graduation. The point is, sometimes adversity is ok (barring egregious cases of discrimination or abuse). Sometimes it’s even good. Sometimes having the minority opinion makes you stronger, and getting to rest complacently in the majority makes you weaker.

Worksheet: Editing for Readability

So, this has definitely been Usage Week here at Shitty First Drafts.  I thought I would put a cap on it by posting one of the handouts I use to teach copy editing for readability in my class.  Despite all of my ranting about Grammar Douchery this week, I do actually think that it’s important to address grammatical concepts in the classroom, but I find it works better if you talk about them in the context of readability and clarity.  The exercise below is pretty self-explanatory.  I gave this out last time I was teaching Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, but you don’t need to know the literary references in order to get the point.

A good way to use this worksheet is to put students in groups and have them revise the examples together.  Then have each group write their revisions on a blackboard so that they can see the range of workable alternative constructions.

And if you’re bored this weekend and want to play along in comments, I support that!

Editing for Readability

Though the rules of grammar may seem arbitrary, complicated, and counter-intuitive, the function of grammar and punctuation is simply to make our writing more readable.  The following sentences demonstrate a variety of problems that impair readability.  As a group, work your way through the examples and see if you can identify the problem and correct the sentence to make it more intelligible.

Possible errors (each sentence may contain more than one of these):

  • Dangling or misplaced modifiers (the modifying word or phrase seems attached to an inappropriate object).
  • Pronouns without a clear antecedent
  • Insufficient/weak punctuation (Run-on sentence, comma splice)
  • Excess or inappropriate punctuation (sentence fragment)
  • Wordiness, redundancy
  • Ambiguity

1)      Shallow.  Naïve.  Materialistic.  Words that describe Dreiser’s character.  Carrie Meeber.

2)      A sprawling city with a variety of pleasures, Carrie Meeber fell in love with the city of Chicago.

3)       Hurstwood is a man who knows what he wants which is fine food the company of wealthy men and celebrities and the love of a beautiful woman like Carrie, for him she is merely another possession worth having.

4)       Carrie doesn’t really want a husband preferring instead the material pleasures his money can provide.

5)      Hurstwood and Drouet went to the theatre, where he realized he wanted to be with Carrie forever.

6)       Another aspect is that Carrie seems more interested in what Drouet wears than other qualities.

7)       It has been said that Carrie is a an example of the New Woman, a type of modern woman who makes a living independently without the support of a husband, oftentimes entering into jobs and occupations that were previously dominated by men or considering unacceptable for women for a variety of reasons having to do with social norms and traditional morals.

8)       While looking for a job; Carrie is turned away by shop owners repeatedly.

9)      Carrie is a beautiful woman with excellent taste in clothing, who proves to be a talented actress, this is why Hurstwood falls in love with her.

10)    Ultimately, it has been observed that readers of Sister Carrie generally sympathize with the hapless Hurstwood more than they do with her, abandoning him to fend for himself at the end of the novel.

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.