Wednesday, May 7, 2008

NNS vs. NS: A Brief Reflection

As the second semester of our first year of teaching draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on which group of composition students I most enjoyed teaching. And, to my surprise, I believe I’ve determined that I preferred the class of Non-native students (NNS) to my current class of native ones (NS). I’ve come to this conclusion based on a number of considerations, but there are two primary factors: One, and perhaps most obviously, NNS generally appear to be more invested in their academic success than the NS. Whether this is due to some fundamental contrast in cultural attitudes toward education, or to the reality that NNS have a more acute sense of the sacrifices made either by them or on their behalf for the opportunity to study at the university, I don’t know. Whatever the case may be, and it is probably some combination of those and other factors, NNS are no doubt more driven to succeed than the NS (based only on my limited experience with either, of course), which fundamentally affects student-teacher dynamics. So even though the language barrier I was so fond of bitching about all last semester presented an enormous pedagogical obstacle, I found that my persistent efforts at working over, around, and through that obstacle were more or less rewarded by the NNS’s reciprocal efforts at trying to do well on each assignment.

Moreover, I’ve also determined that, if given multiple opportunities to improve upon a particular assignment for the chance at a better grade, NNS are more likely to take advantage of them. I had quite a few students last semester that turned in three and sometimes as many as five or six drafts of a single paper. Granted, this presented its own challenges in terms of grading and trying to determine if some drafts merited a better grade or not. In contrast, I’ve only had two NS come to me this semester asking if they could potentially revise a paper for a better grade. And though I consented and explained to them how to proceed, neither student has since turned in a revision.

The second principal reason why I preferred my NNS to my NS is that, contrary to what I presumed going into this semester, I thought that having (almost) full recourse to my vocabulary would improve my efficiency and effectiveness, as well as student participation/feedback. However, this was not the case at all (with the exception of a few good in-class discussions/debates). Sure, it was much less time consuming for me to explain assignments and respond to student questions this semester than last. Nevertheless, my NS rarely asked questions or participated in any kind of class discussion unless I called them out. The same went for my NNS, too, but at least they have their legitimate struggles with the English language to help justify their relative silence in class and/or their failure to satisfactorily complete an assignment. Even if that’s a complete rationalization on my part, I still can’t help but notice that I felt a greater sense of accomplishment and success with regard to my instruction of the NNS than I do with that of my NS, at least in terms of my perceptions of what both groups learned along the way.

I may be making much of nothing, here, and I concede that many of my troubles and frustrations with my NS may be due to the whole Spring Fallout Syndrome that we’ve heard so much about; still I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with their overall performance and lack of enthusiasm. Turnabout being fair play and all, I acknowledge that they may harbor similar sentiments regarding my performance and enthusiasm, as well.

Poetry I Students: Insane?

I’ve heard it said that one definition of insanity is when an individual does the same thing repeatedly but expects different results each time. This expression essentially sums up the actions and expectations of about three-quarters of my 203 students. Every week these students submit poems that exhibit precisely the same errors and shortcomings that I have hammered them for time and again: “Don’t end-rhyme,” “Don’t omit punctuation,” “Don’t end lines on prepositions or articles,” “Don’t end-stop every line,” “Don’t tell, show,” “There’s no use of imagery anywhere in this poem—why?” “Don’t assume the reader knows as much as you do about the dramatic situation,” “What is the dramatic situation?” “This is not a narrative poem,” “Don’t write poems only your mama/grandma/girlfriend/etc. are going to care about or understand,” and so on. I could extend this list by a factor of 3, at least, believe you me.

It has gotten to the point where I spend a lot of time critiquing about five students’ poems, and the rest I generally write something like: Again, there’s no clear dramatic situation, no use of imagery, and I can find no discernible reason why a reader should care about this poem at all. Revise accordingly. Sometimes I don’t even give them that much; instead, I simply circle the entire poem and write “NO”. That may sound unduly harsh, but when you spend several hours each and every week commenting on twenty-two poems and, midway through the semester, you’ve still not seen any discernible effort to improve, it is easy to become short-tempered and downright cynical with your comments. For instance, here’s an excerpt from a student poem in the FINAL packet of the semester (which means this student has already submitted at least 14 poems thus far):

In the same ocean where we swam,

15 feet long, over 1,000 pounds.

Menacing eyes

dark and cold.

Rows of razor sharp teeth,

some the size of my hand.

The ultimate weapon,

the ultimate predator,

the hammerhead shark.

There are only seven more lines to the poem, which I’ll spare you, but suffice it to say that they don’t come close to redeeming those first nine. Now, I’m not suggesting that the student who wrote this should be writing quality (i.e., literary) poetry, by any means. But at this point in the semester, s/he should be composing narrative poems that have a very clear, concrete dramatic situation, and which attempt to employ a more sophisticated grasp of sensory imagery than “dark and cold.”

That s/he isn’t doing these things wouldn’t bother me so much if s/he represented an exception to the majority instead of the majority itself. And I would gladly take responsibility for this trend if I thought it was merely an issue of my not providing them with appropriate instruction regarding the craft of poetry or not giving them quality examples of contemporary poetry that illustrate aspects of craft, but that’s not the case. (Which isn’t to suggest that I’m some kind of badass poetry instructor, because I know that isn’t true, either.) And yet, week after week, they turn in more of the same. So the question I keep asking myself, then, is: Are these students insane? Or are they simply so little invested in the course that they don’t much give a damn one way or the other? The answer is probably the latter, of course, but sometimes I strongly suspect the former—if only because being insane makes more sense to me when all that is ultimately required to get an A in the course is material proof of having made an effort.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Soliciting Feedback from Peers & Colleagues

Today I received an email (addressed to all of the student’s instructors, not just me) from a student that began thusly: “The information I will divulge in this email is confidential and though you are not legally bound to keep this between you and I, I do expect your discretion in keeping the following information private.” (The hyper-correction in that sentence is glaring, I know, but I can’t take the blame for it.)

Naturally, I will respect the student’s wishes by not divulging the particulars of what s/he went on to say (at some length, mind you), but let it suffice to say that it was way more information than I would have liked to know about a student. In a nutshell, it was basically a medical and psychological self-profile meant to illuminate the nature of the student’s rather erratic attendance and quality of work. (It’s worth noting, I think, that this is one of the students I had recommended to the department at mid-term.) And for what it’s worth, it was a thorough, warts-and-all kind of confession, complete with bulleted points, reasonably solid exposition, and everything. (Aside: I’m not making light of this student’s plight in the least, but I couldn’t help but think that this email would’ve almost made for a better memoir as is than the one the student turned in.) Ultimately, however, the point of the e-missive was to ask the following question:

***What I need to know is if I can recover from my mistakes this semester? Also, what will happen if I miss more classes before the 8th, and if I can get my homework to do outside of class?***”

I should also add that I can vouch for some of the life details/information included in the email, because it so happens that I knew the student’s family when I was in high school—which is only to say that I don’t think this person is being melodramatic and/or making stuff up. Given this information, coupled with the fact that s/he has recently missed quite a few class periods, hasn’t turned in the final draft of the last paper (which was only a week ago at this point) or the rough draft of the current paper, and there’s only four class periods left (including the final exam one), what would you tell this student? And if you were to say that s/he’s pretty much SOL, would you assign an I or an F? Any feedback on this matter will be much appreciated.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Writing What We Teach

I’ll admit outright that I found no joy in writing a textual analysis for the “writing what you teach” assignment. This is a sentiment shared, I feel reasonably certain, by most of us. I mean, we’ve got enough shit to do as students and instructors as it is, so the additional obligation of a paper that doesn’t directly serve the goals of our particular degree emphases—no matter how easy it might come to seasoned veterans such as ourselves—seems to be mostly an unnecessary burden.

And while I stand by the expression of the latter sentiment, I must concede that the assignment wasn’t without its merits. To begin with, and most obviously, we ended up with a text we could (or at least ought to) feel confident about using as a model for our students. The practical implications of having this text, in terms of teaching the textual analysis, should be obvious, not the least of which is that having such an intimate knowledge of the composition process and product permits us to speak definitively about how and why certain aspects of structure and content were made. Moreover, and more important to me, is that being required to not only write but also reflect on the process of writing a textual analysis (a kind of paper which, in and of itself, I’ve never before been asked to write) helped me become more acutely aware of some of the particular challenges attendant therein, and which I might not have otherwise addressed in class. Whether or not all of this had a positive qualitative impact on those textual analyses written by my students, however, is debatable. On the one hand, logic dictates that it couldn’t have but helped their performance; but on the other, it was hard not to question the veracity of that logic once I actually evaluated them. Nevertheless, I feel like it was a worthwhile exercise.

That said, I hope to never write another textual analysis. I mean, I’m glad for the insights and model text that I gained, but I really hope those will last me until such time that I’m either dead or not required to teach Comp I any more.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Being a Hard Ass without Necessarily Having to be a Hard Ass

In response to the prompt:

This kind of scenario happens all the time, at least in my classes. Why students choose to ignore some component(s) of an assignment is beyond my powers of reckoning, especially when I’ve made it abundantly clear that a given assignment will not be accepted as completed unless they’ve satisfied each of them. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I still have students who ask if they need to bring two copies of a draft on peer review days, as if maybe I’ve changed my mind on the matter and simply forgotten to make an announcement to that effect. And still I am dumbfounded when I go around collecting their drafts and a handful of students who don’t have a second copy of theirs to turn in act all bewildered about it.

Anyways, back to the matter at hand: In a situation such as the prompt describes, I typically do two things. First, I remind them of the course policies as stated in the syllabus, and thus that I can exercise the option to assign a failing grade for any assignment that does not meet the stated criteria for its completion. If or when a student feels bold enough to pipe up with a slow-pitch softball lob of complaint by saying something to the effect of, “You didn’t say anything last time about needing all this stuff,” then I’m a big fan of the gospel-of-the-printed-word response: If I said it on paper and then gave you a copy of that paper (eg, syllabus, handout, etc.), I’m not required to ever say another word about it. Period. Any and all contestations beyond that are met with a firm and simple No.

Second, I collect what they do have and tell them that they have until noon the following day to submit whatever components they’ve failed to turn in or complete. If it’s not in my mailbox by then, I say, I simply won’t grade what they’ve already spent time and effort to get done, and I will thus have no choice but to exercise my stated right to assign the F. (And I won’t lie by pretending that some part of me doesn’t hope they won’t turn in the missing components. After all, having made it so abundantly clear and having given them a second chance, if they don’t get it done then I have less to grade. Maybe that makes me an asshole, I don’t know, but at least I’ll be an asshole with a little more time on my hands.) By painting it in such black-and-white terms, it’s rare that a student has failed to get done what he/she needed to get done once granted the mercy of an additional opportunity.

The underlying logic of this process is simple and obvious: it allows me to be a hard ass without necessarily having to be a hard ass. Moreover, this kind of response attempts to reaffirm the notion that the burden of responsibility for successfully completing a given assignment falls on the students so long as I am able to demonstrate that I’ve given them the information requisite for doing so. Additionally, I usually take moments such as these to remind them that the grading process is a subjective one. That is, I am not a machine and there are no Scantron writing assignments; hence, why risk putting yourself at an immediate disadvantage by giving me a less than favorable impression of what I should expect when I begin this evaluation process. Attend class, mind the criteria, ask questions, and do the work: this is a simple formula for doing well, I tell them. As for the two students who completed the assignment in its entirety, they will be rewarded according to those terms.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Transparency; or, the Whole Foods Management Approach to a Composition Pedagogy

I recently asked my students to read Margaret Atwood's "A Letter to America" for the next class period and to come prepared to speak about it. Just to be sure there was no confusion, I reiterated several times the part about being prepared to make comments--aloud--on the reading. On Thursday. Read Atwood's two-page essay and come prepared. To speak. Have something to say about Atwood's perspective and how she couches her argument. Thursday is when this is happening. Atwood. Two pages. Read them. Make comments.

Come Thursday, however, the most thoughtful--and damn near only--response offered was: She's old and Canadian and obviously she's upset that things aren't the same as the good old days.

Not wanting to bore you with the details of how poorly I handled the situation, it should suffice to say that at one point I asked if they were actively committed to stumbling willy-nilly through their respective worlds like blindfolded sheep. Several students chuckled at this non-rhetorical question, and so I also laughed but mostly to help mitigate the poor form of my reaction.

Auto-browbeaten and otherwise non-plussed, I shared my lament with several colleagues (because whining and bitching to one another is apparently one of our chief coping mechanisms and ostensibly the best argument for communal office space). In so doing, one Steve Rucker--he being a scholar, gentleman, and otherwise real congenial bastard--shared with me his take on this problem. Fortunately for you, he elaborates this in his April 2nd blog ("I am the Joe DiMaggio...")--which I hadn't then yet read--and so I won't recount it here.

What appeals to me about Steve's approach, though, is that it attempts to demystify what seems to me are some of the more counter-productive aspects of the typical student-teacher dynamic by establishing a substantial degree of pedagogical transparency. Perhaps because I've had a consistently rough go at generating student participation (excepting the sport vs. game debate), and also because I share many of Steve's sentiments regarding what may be the source of their reticence to speak up, it strikes me as logical that elucidating one's teaching philosophy to students may go a long way towards alleviating their fears. Maybe more so, I think, if you subscribe to a Social Constructivist model, since alerting students to the notions that 1) you don't perceive yourself as the sole bearer of Truth within the classroom (ie, acknowledging your fallibility), and therefore 2) they are expected to be active in the construction of the truth-making process should help significantly undermine their fears of sounding "stupid" or what have you.

I feel like it's too late in the semester for me to implement this kind of pedagogical transparency with any sufficient impact, though I anticipate giving it a whirl next semester for sure. In the meantime, I'll be sure to stay apprised of how it's working out for ol' Steve "DiMaggio" Rucker.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Fear & Pain: Twin Pillars of Any Earnest Pedagogy

Question: How do you respond to students who submit final drafts that do not reflect instructor comments from the rough drafts?

Maybe I was naive in thinking that I didn't need to discuss this particular issue with my students prior to collecting their first final drafts of the semester, I don't know, but it was made abundantly clear that I needed to afterwards. No shitting you, more than half of my nineteen composition students outright ignored all of my written comments on their drafts. And I don't mean only those comments where I wrote "offer some reflection on this point" or "how did/does this make you feel?" or "don't tell us, SHOW us" and so on. No, most of them chose to ignore even clearly-stated directives like, "Start your essay here, revise accordingly" and "This is extraneous info.--either make it relevant through revision, or delete it" and "Don't misspell your own name" (I've had at least three students turn in final drafts with the latter "error"). It literally got to the point where my only comment for an entire paper would be: No substantial revisions from the rough draft, refer to instructor comments made there. In the end, I didn't dock them any points just for ignoring what I had written, but rather graded the drafts on their own terms, so to speak. The result: three As, two Bs, and fourteen very generous Cs.

What I did do, however, is begin the next class period with the following question, without preamble: How many of you have ever played organized sports or been on a team of some sort? Every one of them raised their hands, of course, so I went on: When you were playing basketball or baseball or marching in band, or whatever, and the coach told you to do something, what was the purpose of his/her comment? "To help us win?" Now, did you have to do what the coach asked you to do? "Well, no. You could choose not to do it." And what usually happened when you didn't do what the coach asked you to do? "We'd get benched or have to run sprints in practice, or something." Okay, now we're getting somewhere; namely that fear and pain feature prominently as effective coaching tools. So let me get this straight: If the coach told you to do something, presumably his/her motivation for doing so was to help you succeed? Moreover, it was ultimately up to you whether or not to follow his/her instructions, since you were the one playing and he/she was on the sidelines, right? And win or lose, if you didn't follow the coach's advice, you could expect to be penalized in some way? Does that sound about right? "Yeah." Good. Now, tell me why you think I might be so suddenly interested in this topic. "Because we screwed up?" Bingo, jackass! (I jest, of course.)

As much as I hate resorting to sports metaphors, this one seems to have worked rather well for this particular situation. I explained that, similar to a coach, I invest a good deal of my time in trying to help my "players" succeed both on (in) and off (out of) the court (classroom). (Blech! It's awful, even if effective.) And when I don't see any attempt by them to provide a return on my investment, I quickly begin to lose interest in those players and whether or not they succeed, period. That's shooting pretty straight with them, granted, but I believe the direct approach is, in the end, better for all involved. And they seemed to get the gist of what I was driving at, so we'll see how it turns out.