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.