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.