Academic Independence

Student: “Aren’t you going to correct it for me?” 
Me: “No, you’re going to do it.”
Student: (Disgusted sigh)

There was an article last week on HuffPost College by admissions consultant advising parents on how they can back away from their High School Junior and Senior aged kids in the name of independence and self-sufficiency. And then results of a new survey comes out claiming that parents are hovering around their college attending children more than ever. And while I fall to the side of letting kids go and making their own way and their own mistakes, I don’t think that students are adequately prepared to succeed academically on their own. 

What do I mean by this? As I stated in my previous column on how most admissions standards encourages a narrow focus on only certain kinds of writing, students have no idea how to adapt their writing depending on the circumstances and demands of their assignments. More troubling, perhaps, is a general inability of students to look at their own writing and work to improve it. 
We are currently doing peer-review and self-assessments in my writing classes. The exercises are guided, using questions and directions that exactly mirror my own process when evaluating their work. My goal is to get them to be more critical and aware readers of their own writing, partially through looking at the work of others, partially through repeatedly revising their own writing. 
With my developmental writing class, we are working on a short narrative essay, which makes it easier for me to work with them and offer my own feedback along with the feedback of their peers. Plus, this is a developmental writing course – they need more help, or else they wouldn’t have been placed in the course to begin with. In my larger 200-level class, we are writing a longer essay. When I revealed to the students that I would not be giving them any feedback on their drafts, I faced an open revolt. How did I expect them to do well on the essay when they didn’t know what I would be grading them on?
First question, how do you write your papers in other classes where there is no peer-review or drafting process? Second question, how do you ever expect to be able to do this on your own if you don’t start somewhere? If you don’t know how to properly cite sources, what good does it do for me to simply correct your mistakes for you? If you don’t know the rules for proper comma use (which I have to now check and double-check myself), what good does it do for me to just mark it on your paper? 
My goal is always to teach my students skills and how to adapt them to different situation. In other words, academic independence. Or, more appropriately, intellectual independence. Parents can’t do their school work for them; then again, neither can I.

Admissions Insanity

“But I did so well in high school. I never got lower than a [insert high grade here].”
High school is barely back in session and already the admissions frenzy for a select group of Juniors and Seniors has begun. I say select group because the statistics show that most students who attend college are at open admissions, non-selective colleges, not the highly-selective ones written about constantly.
For these select students, college admission counselors are offering advice, tutors are helping prep for the SAT/ACT, and parents are paying a personal admissions advisor direct their child through every step of the process: from extra-curricular activities to international volunteer work to the right number of AP courses. The goal, of course, is admission to the “perfect” school … But then what?
I look at this from the perspective of a college instructor completely removed from the process. I look at what lessons students learn from the admissions process, and how these shape their behavior in and approach to my Freshman Writing course.
Students seem to be concerned with two things: their grades and their test scores. If the sheer number of available test prep services are any indication, getting high grades in school do not necessarily translate into high test scores. Moreover, and from my experience, neither seem to predict student success in a basic writing course at the college level. Students learn to write one way for high school classes, another way for admissions essay, and yet another way to do well on their SAT/ACT. They learn each way of writing independently from the others, and are never shown how to transfer their skills from one style of writing to another.
Students seem to learn a small number of rote formulae and stock phrases to pad their essays, leading to high (enough) scores and grades, but few skills to write (and think) beyond those taught to them. And why should they? They do well on tests and get good grades. When students are first faced with an essay that doesn’t fall into one of the three categories mentioned above, however, they have no idea how to adapt. A student who has learned to master the five-paragraph essay (but little to nothing else) is ill-prepared to write anything longer than five paragraphs, let alone the five, ten, or twenty page essays required in college. 
While I understand parents’ and students’ desire to get into a “good” school, I want to remind them that getting in is only the first step. The student still has to take the classes once they get there. And more often than not, high school and standardized tests have left the student ill-prepared for the rigors of college. The process to get into college may be stressful, demanding, and challenging, but it is completely different than the one facing you once you get in and want to continue getting high grades (or just simply passing).
I might not have been the one who decided if you should get into college, but I do evaluate your writing to see if it is at an appropriate college level once you’re here. I just wish there wasn’t such a disconnect.  

Self-Censorship as a Contingent Academic

I’ve written elsewhere how academic freedom in higher education is a bit of a misnomer. And I’m not saying that what I’m about to write about here should fall under the category of academic freedom. But it does fit into the category of faculty members needing to speak up and speak out about what does (or does not) go on academically on campus.

I picked up the student newspaper last week. On the front page, below the fold, was a story on how my school was now focusing on college readiness. In the article were some sobering statistics about the academic level of students we are admitting to the school. But I already knew that. The article, however, only quotes administrators, not faculty or instructors tasked with helping these students overcome their deficiencies in reading, writing, and math. The only mention of faculty is to throw our Education program under the bus, saying that “we” need to do a better job training teachers here.

This article made me mad for several reasons. At the beginning of the semester, a newly-hired administrator in a newly-created position came to talk to us (the instructors who teach remedial writing) about student retention and college readiness. He made a big deal about how his position was created to help us ensure student success. So would we please add some more administrative duties to the five classes we’re already teaching. He was quoted extensively and given a lot of praise for his coordination of the testing innitiative on campus in the aforementioned article.

I know he makes more money than I do as an instructor. He has more job security than I do as an instructor. I know that I have more experience and education than he does. No one in that room was in a tenure-track appointment. Some, like me, were lucky enough to have a full-time instructor position. Others were adjuncts, with low pay, no benefits, and little job seecurity. I’m not attacking him personally; he taught remedial math and lucked into the position because of an angry letter he sent in regards to the last-minute implementation of testing requirements. But when an administrator comes into a room full of tenuously-employed instructors, politely requiring them to do more work, I get my back up.

And while I have my own issues with the faculty of education, I think it is unfair to disparrage the work that they do to train teachers according to madated State and Federal guidelines. The impetus of the article was that our State has signed on to the Common Core Standards innitiative, to better prepare students for college. But until there are clear State guidelines as to how these standards will be evaluated, teachers will be prepared in order to be able to meet the current standards set by No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top. Teachers are being trained to teach to the test and administer those tests.

Now, what does this have to do with “Academic” Freedom? I wanted to write a letter to the paper, outlining exactly what I said above. But I didn’t. As I have been told by many, I am lucky to have a job, at the same school as my husband, full-time, with benefits, in this area, in this economy. My chair went to bat for me and fought for me so I could be a full-time instructor and not simply an adjunct. But that could change; I’m the last one in and could very well be the first one out. This is a small school and a small community; I don’t want to sabotage my husband’s tenure case because I spoke up. And while I know my words will probably be appreciated by many in the faculty, I’m just just as sure that members of the administration will probably not look too kindly upon them.

So I’m left blogging, semi-anonymously, where my message will certainly reach a larger audience, but an audience nonetheless that is less relevant to the immediate issue at hand. I can blog all I want about the larger issues, but when do I need, when do we need, to start making concrete changes where we work and teach? This is why I should be “free” to speak up about the academic issues that impact me and, more importantly, my students and future students. I’m not doing anything wrong; I’m trying to do what’s right. But that’s not what is expected of me.

What do you think, readers? Send that letter or leave it here in the vaste spaces of the Internet?

In Defense of the Narrative Essay

I’ll admit it; I was a narrative essay hater. What was the point, I lamented. The last thing students needed to do was to do more writing about themselves. They needed to learn how to do proper research, organize their well-thought out ideas in a coherent way, and draw reasonable and meaningful conclusions. What does writing about themselves have to do with that?

Now, I see the narrative essay for what it is: a valuable bridge between where my students are and where they need to be. Especially with my remedial students, they need to practice writing in a more organized, thoughtful, and coherent essay without worrying about doing research. They tend to see essays as being too prescriptive, too limiting, while a story offers them the opportunity to be creative. They get to be more creative, and I get them to follow some guidelines that bridge into “real” essay writing.
Here are some of the other advantages of the narrative essay:
1) Brevity. Typically, a story can go on and on and on and on. The narrative essay can easily be limited to 500 to 750 words, and the whole idea of making sure your story has a point or message is powerful tool to get them to reign in their tangents, asides, and repetition. Keep it short and simple, stick to what matters, and make your point.
2) Breaking “Bad” Habits. I have voiced my displeasure at the reliance on the five-paragraph essay, so relentlessly taught all through junior high and high school. You can’t tell a good story, with a clear purpose or not, in the form of a five-paragraph essay. Students have to come up with new ways to introduce their ideas, new ways to progress and build on those ideas, and new ways to conclude without relying on repeating their thesis statement. 
3) Show, don’t tell. You may tell a story, but the best stories paint a picture with words. Students, because of the requirements of a good narrative, can’t simply “tell” the readers what the point of the story is. They have to find a way to create characters and setting that come alive, while communicating their point. 
4) Confidence. Every student has a story (heck, many stories) that they want to tell. On twitter today, someone I’m following wrote: “People who plagiarize weren’t told enough when they were younger, “Your ideas and writing are great!!!” Hence, they steal.” I had never thought of it that way. Most of my remedial students have been told that they aren’t good writers, not to mention that they aren’t the smartest, either. Part of the challenge is just getting the kids to feel confident about their writing and ideas. They know their stories and we can work together to tell it well. 
5) Adaptability. I tell my students that they will probably never write another narrative essay in university. But being able to adapt their writing and ideas for different audiences? That’s a skill that will serve them well long after they’ve graduated. A narrative essay is really wonderful because it more naturally has an audience beyond just the teacher. Students need to think about who they are and will be writing for outside of their professors.
Once they’ve built up their confidence, seen the value of having some rules or guidelines that they need to follow, and begun to think beyond the five-paragraph essay, my students are more willing and more able to learn about and write more traditional college essays. I’m glad somewhere along the way I was “forced” to teach the narrative essay. My students are the ultimate benefactors. 

Sweatpants to a Job Interview

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating when trying to explain to students why adapting their writing habits for college or school work is necessary. In the same way you wouldn’t wear sweatpants to a job interview (and, for whatever reason, all the students seem to agree that there is no job where this would be appropriate), nor do you write for your classes the same way as you would write to your friends. Nor do you write the same way for all your classes; each discipline has different conventions that need to follow. This, I tell my students, is why you need to know your rules for using a comma or semi-colon correctly, or how to format your paper following MLA guidelines; each time you make a mistake, it’s like wearing sweatpants to a job interview.

But what about a student’s reading habits? Most of my students claim to enjoy reading; at least, they enjoy reading what they enjoy reading. As many of them put so eloquently, anything else puts them to sleep. So I ask them, how do you read when you’re reading what you enjoy? Do you see reading as a form of escape, where you can lose yourself in the words? Are you looking to escape when you read, or perhaps you’re transported to another time? When you do this, you are passively reading, allowing yourself to be taken wherever the authors intends to. You are also engaging primarily on an emotional level, and you’re brain gets to take a holiday
There’s nothing wrong with reading this way. But, how has it worked when you’ve read materials that don’t “take you away” or engage your primarily on an emotional level? In other words, how well has it worked to read this way when you’re reading for school? Because, let’s face it, most of what you are assigned to read for school is not written for your heart, but written for your brain. In the same way a student needs to adapt their writing for a variety of circumstances, so too must a student adapt their reading strategies depending on the purpose and materials. Reading an academic essay or textbook the same way as you would a novel is, once again, like wearing sweatpants to a job interview.
There are lots of strategies that you can engage with a text as an active reader (note-taking, pre-reading, writing responses, glossaries, etc), but I like to tell students that they need to see their reading for school as more of a conversation. Question and ask questions of the author, even if he or she isn’t there to answer. Argue back with the author. Study the way the author is making their argument. If it makes you feel stupid, investigate why that is happening and work to remedy it. Stay awake, stay alert, and keep working to understand, even if all you end up with is an endless list of questions. And, above all, re-read again and again. The words on the page won’t change, but you will. And each time you read something, it’ll be a different conversation. 
And if this makes it harder to read passively, even for fun, then so be it. Just don’t tell them that. 

Remembering 9/11 and Giving Thanks for Grad School

Strange how life seems to circle back in on itself. I commented on a blog post about women and our last names in academia about friends (specially a friend) of mine with whom I did my PhD. I started to think about all of the different people I met and interacted with through my PhD program. I wanted to write a blog post commemorating these people who directly or indirectly had such a huge influence on my intellectual and personal development. What does that have to do with 9/11, you ask. I started my PhD in September, 2001.

I had just moved across the country, far away from just about everyone I knew and loved. My roommate and I had barely arrived after driving for three days. We had an apartment and a tv, but no furniture. The former tenants hadn’t canceled their cable so when my roommate’s friend called us early in the morning (we were in the Mountain Time Zone) and told us to turn on the TV, we saw the pictures of the Towers in vivid detail. I had to pull myself away because I had a scheduled meeting with the chair of the department to discuss my teaching duties and course requirements. But of course, there was a TV set up in the office, and it was a surreal experience to be talking about which classes to take while the Towers collapsed in the background; all I wanted to do was to go home. 
It was under the shadow of this tragedy that I met my colleagues. Many of them were late getting back to school because of increased security. Comparative Literature celebrates the study of literatures internationally, and our program boasted students from all over the world. One of my first and closest friends was from Lithuania. We were the same age, and we had both been on debating teams in high school. The main difference was that she had lived under the Communist system and debate, for them, was a new privilege and opportunity, available just after the Iron Curtain came down. For me, it was something to pad my applications and indulge my love of a good argument. She remains active to this day in promoting debate in areas of the world where open discussions are still a very new concept.
She ended up marrying a student a year ahead of us. He was born in Canada (the Northwest Territories, to be exact) to Indian parents. He is Sikh, studied the mythological and symbolic significance of professional wrestling, and now lives with his wife and two children in Lithuania. He may have studied wresting, but do not mistake him for an intellectual lightweight; he was the one we all turned to when we were having difficulty with our theory or understanding the significance of a given work. Both his older brother and younger sister came back from extended trips to India with spouses. Always the jokester, he announced his engagement on April Fool’s Day. We didn’t even know they had been dating. Or maybe courting would be a better way to think of it. 
There were two women in the program who were originally from Iran. It was fascinating and eye-opening to talk to them about Iran, Middle-Eastern politics, and women and Islam. There were many more who grew up in other Eastern European countries under communism. The person who would eventually introduce me to my husband was from Poland. English was his seventh language, and he spoke it with difficulty. But when he found out I was from Quebec, he broke into perfect French, complete with a Parisian accent. He had been my future-husband’s Spanish teacher (his research area was Latin-American literature).  We had students from China and Indian, Canadian students studying classical Japanese women writers or Danish folk tales. We crossed boarders in a literal and figurative sense every day.
We were from everywhere across Canada and around the world. The politics and reaction to 9/11 were as varied as where the people were from. But we had to get along and support one another because we had been thrown together in the same program by fate and by choice. None of us, thankfully, lost anyone close to us on 9/11, but we all acutely felt the tragedy, albeit in very different ways. And for that, I am grateful.  I was in an environment where my beliefs and assumptions were challenged and changed, ultimately for the better. I became a more well-rounded person because we were forced by the events of 9/11 to confront and comfort each other. 
Without 9/11, we probably would have just focused on taking and teaching our courses, writing our comps, and writing our dissertations. Instead, we learned what an international experience really can mean. 

Information vs. Knowledge

My remedial writers often tell me that they love to write for themselves, about themselves; they love to write poetry, journals, short stories, and other forms of writing that expresses how they feel. As soon as they “have” to write for school, they hate it. The problem, then, is not that they can’t write, but they have nothing to write about. The challenge, for me, is to show them first that emotions are not enough and then that what they should be striving for in order to make writing easier is knowledge. 

I want to go back to the Platonic dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias on the nature of the sophists. Socrates admits to knowing the answer/conclusion to his line of questioning, but continues to question Gorgias for the benefit of Gorgias and all those listening. What is that benefit? Why not just tell everyone the answer and save us the trouble of listening to/reading the seemingly repetitive and mundane line of questioning?
This is at the heart of the Socratic Method, repeatedly inquiring, asking, refuting, and restating more precisely the same idea until a real conclusion is drawn. It is hard, painstaking work, often leading in directions that you didn’t expect or even like. It is rooted, for me, in a quest for knowledge. I prefer the word to using what Socrates would use (truth, right) because in our postmodern world, those terms have been largely discredited, or at least pushed aside. But at the end of the day, I find myself trying to get my students to understand that they should be inquiring, rather than simply remembering information.
Information is something that we accept on faith. Someone tells us the information and we either accept it or do not, rarely because we did much thinking about it to begin with. Information is easy; we assume someone else has done the hard work for us. And we like easy. I see it already in my three-year-old daughter. “Just tell me, mom,” she begs me when faced with a particular challenge that she knows I can easily solve. I refuse to tell her because I want to her to do the work to figure it out. How many students sit in class, having only half-heartedly done the homework or readings, knowing that the teacher will simply give them the answer, and simply wait for it, write it down, then forget the moment after the exam? 
University (or education more generally) is not about the piece of paper you get after jumping through a prescribed number of hoops; it about the next 50+ years of your life. Information is an important part of building knowledge; for example, you need to know the basics of the structure of the US government in order to build a deeper knowledge of how the government works. You also need skills, such as basic literacy (traditional or otherwise), to help acquire both information and knowledge. But at the end of the day, knowledge comes from hard work, work that isn’t always fun in the moment, but deeply satisfying once attained. It also, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your perspective, never ends. If you learn how to acquire knowledge in all its forms while you are in school, then you will be prepared for whatever life happens to throw at you.
I understand that I need to practice what I preach, which is why my students will eventually be designing their own curriculum for a course of their choosing or creation, complete with a justification of content and assignments therein. I will give them some information on different theories or philosophies of education, show them how to do research in order to supplement what we have already read and discussed, but at the end of the day, they need to take what I provided for them and create their own knowledge. They’ll never be at a loss for words again.

It’s Not About How You Feel: Why Feelings just won’t cut it

I got into a discussion on Twitter today about writing, critical thinking, and the new Common Core Standards. I have been wanting to write about this for a while, but wasn’t sure how to approach the topic in a blog post. How do I balance my desire to see real change in how writing is practiced in middle and high schools versus my frustration with the sheer number of students who need to take (or perhaps should be taking) remedial writing at the college level. Because it isn’t just about writing; it’s about what the students write about and how they write about it.

While I’ve been “forced” to adopt a specific textbook, I’m quite pleased with the book and the collection of essays found therein. The book we’re using is Reading the World: Ideas that Matter, edited by Michael Austin. Right now, we’re reading some of the entries on “Rhetoric,” starting with the “Funeral Oration” by Pericles, contrasted with a dialogue by Plato between Socrates and the sophist Gorgias. The “Funeral Oration” is rife with internal contradictions, faulty logic, and just plain propaganda. But it is a powerful piece of rhetoric, aimed squarely at the heart of the Athenians in order to get them to continue to support the war against the Spartans. Plato, on the other hand, has Socrates continually question Gorgias on his understanding of what a sophist does in order to ensure everyone understands the conclusion (sophists are bad because they don’t care about what’s right, only that they win) and how he got to that conclusion. Socrates repeatedly says in the dialogue that he could just simply tell Gorgias and all those listening the answer, but he has the best interests of everyone in mind when he continues the dialogue anyway. 
I’ve chosen my language very carefully in describing what the two authors/orators have done in their respective pieces. Pericles emotionally manipulates his listeners in order to get them to fight, die, and do so willingly, if not gladly. He talks about how grand Athens is because it is a democracy and that the elected officials (Pericles included) serve at the will of the people. How is this so, I ask the students, when Pericles can so readily and easily manipulate through pure emotion, the will of that people?  Emotions, I tell my students, are a dangerous thing to rely on.
My biggest pet-peeve as a teacher is when I hear or read “I feel” when thoughts or ideas are being expressed. It’s not just my students, watch cable news; analysis is frequently expressed as “feelings” rather than well-thought out ideas born from serious study of events or facts. We have become a society that puts how we feel above all else. The danger, of course, is from the sophists, of leaders like Pericles, who understand how to appeal to the emotional states of people in order to bend them to his (or her) will.  “I feel” is officially band from my classroom unless what follows is a legitimate emotion. And even then, it needs to be followed immediately with an analysis of why that feeling is there. 
I asked these same students to record all of the ways that they are addressed or engaged primarily on an emotional level throughout the day. The result? 95-99% of what the student is exposed to or they expose themselves to is engaging them on an emotional level: their leisure time, their friends and family, advertisements, media. It’s all there for their entertainment or to make them feel something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But when does the student take time to think? When are they using their heads? Is this why reading for school represents such a challenge, because it doesn’t look to provoke their emotions, but instead seeks to engage their brains? Is the reason why Plato’s dialogue is such a challenge not in fact because of the content (which is pretty straight forward, at least superficially, lest you philosophers get riled up) but because it is wholly logical and rational in how it presents its arguments? 
How a student feels about the dialogue (frustrated, bored, annoyed) has little to do with the article itself and everything to do with how the student is used to being engaged. And while this is a useful teachable moment, it does very little to help the students gain any sort of insight into what the dialogue is actually saying, what the students will eventually have to write about. Feelings are fine, but in my class, they are far, far from enough. 

Writer’s Block

A shout-out to @DrTimony, who pointed out the obviousness of what this post should be about.

I’ll admit it: I have writer’s block. I am suffering from what so many of my developmental writing students complain to me about: staring at a blank page (ok, computer screen) and having no idea what to say or what to write. My writer’s block stems from everything an undergraduate faces when they stare at a blank screen, deadline looming.

1) Exhaustion. While I am exhausted for completely different reasons than the average undergraduate (teething toddler vs late night Rock Band marathons), the result is still the same. I am so tired, I can’t focus on anything. I can’t read and I can’t write; I can barely type coherently. My eyes want to close, rather than stare at a screen; my brain wants to tune out, instead on concentrating on forming a coherent narrative, let alone come up with an engaging subject for a post. I’m so tired, I couldn’t even see the obvious subject staring me in the face for this post. Usually when students are sitting down to try and write, they are absolutely knocked out from life: part-time jobs, social life, studying for other classes. A tired brain does not do its best work. I know. And now, you know, too, because this post…Meh.
2) Distractions. My mind not only can’t focus because it’s worn down, but also because I have a thousand other things going on in there: the teething toddler, my husband who is away, the classes and lectures I need prepare for, the guest posts for other sites I need/want to do, the academic research I want to be doing, if the bills have all been paid, dinner, etc, etc, etc. How many students find themselves needing to write a paper for one class while thinking about everything but? You can do everything in your power to remove as many external distractions as possible (nice, quiet, isolated study space), but at the end of the day, the worst distractions are the ones you carry with you wherever you go. 
3) The Missing Muse. Inspiration, oh, inspiration, where for art thou, inspiration? See, I’m so uninspired right now, I’m relying on tired (and poorly used) clichés. Inspiration can come in so many forms, but when it doesn’t come, it’s really, really, depressing. Especially when a deadline is looming large. When it comes to writing, though, inspiration for me comes days or weeks before I start writing. I mull over ideas/possible blog posts and begin to work them out in my head. I start noticing connections in my lectures, my readings, and in what I stumble across online. The germ of the idea (to borrow the expression from one of my high school English teachers) begins to take root. Preparation comes before inspiration (or some other eye-rollingly cheesy expression), but when the two above issues run you over, really, the muse takes a holiday.
Lord, forgive me for this post; I’m barely aware of what I’m doing.
So, what do you do? Make sure that you don’t end up in a situation where you are exhausted, distracted, and uninspired. If you can’t write, read. If you can’t read, sleep. If you can’t sleep, blow off some steam in a healthy way, and then try again. But what if there’s just no time? The paper is due tomorrow (or sooner) and nothing is working?
Just write. Write about anything that is even remotely related to the topic of your paper. Write and write and write. Don’t worry about what you write, just write. Write it out by hand, then type it up. Take frequent, short breaks. Find a friend who is a better writer than you are and get them to read your paper, applying brutal honesty. While they are doing that, either catch a nap or read on your topic. Go back and rewrite. And then learn your lesson for the next time.
For me, I’m going to publish this blog post and move on. I could have just trashed this post, but hey, not every piece of writing is fantastic, and sometimes you have to live with just good enough. Maybe when I’m more well-rested and less distracted, I’ll come back and rewrite this post, if only to prove another point I am constantly making to my students: you can (and should) always work to make your writing better. Until then, I’m going to bed.