Too-Late Advice to Students: Take Pride in Your Work

I was having a conversation on Twitter the other day with a fellow prof who was elbow-deep in grading. She posted: “Oh yes! be proud of what you turned in! Sounds so easy…” 

Indeed it does. This is something I tell my students early and often about their work. Yes, we talk about ethos, about the students taking the time they need to write well, how important it is to follow directions, and how they should focus on working smarter, not harder. But if none of these lessons stick, then I have one more way to try and try to get them to take their work seriously: appealing to their sense of pride. 
How many of your students, when it comes time to hand in their papers, do so quickly, with averted eyes, often shoving their paper in the middle of the pile as if to hide it, and then quickly retreat to their seats, never daring to engage you? Of course, this is before electronic submissions, but one could imagine the students throwing their hands up and simply pressing send/submit/upload, seconds before the deadline. How many of them hope and pray that their efforts will earn them whatever grade they “need” rather than feeling confident in the work they have submitted?
Pride. Take pride in the work that you do. Come to class to hand in your paper feeling proud of the effort and the results. Know that this was really, truly the best you could do, rather than the best under the often self-inflicted circumstances? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to look your professor in the eyes when you place your paper confidently on the top of the stack? Maybe even throw in a little, “I hope you enjoy it” for good measure? How much more pleasant would your college/educational experience be if every assignment wasn’t fraught with anxiety, doubt, and despair? 
This also works with students who have had to face legitimate obstacles during the semester. You might not have earned the A, but you passed, and there is a certain degree of pride you can take from just getting to the finish line. Looking at the stats from my institution, this is no small feat. And before I am accused of indulging in my students’ snow-flakery, I think that students who managed to pass my courses even thought their house burned down, they were arrested, their mother died in a house fire, or their father going into rehab (all documented) deserve to take some solace from the fact that they didn’t flake out. We all have times in our lives where we simply go through the motions because other things have taken over. It’s life, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
It’s something I’m also trying to remember myself this summer as I try to grind out research articles and hopefully the solid beginnings of a book. When I press send on the email submitting my work, I want to know that it was the best I can do, and that I feel good about it, regardless of if it’s accepted or not. Makes resubmitting it elsewhere that much easier, too. 

Innovative Education for Me, But Not for Thee

Whenever I read Cathy Davidson, I am find myself moving from being inspired and invigorated to very, very depressed. Take her latest, for example, “Going Interactive in a Big Way: How Can We Transform the Lecture Class?” I read it and thought, yes, this is what I want to try and do in my classes! This is, indeed, the future of education! We should be asking our students to think critically about the Internet and electronic medium(s)! Why can’t students take responsibility for their education in my class? Onward and upward over the summer in order to reimagine (yet again) my classes! 

And then doubt starts creeping in. I remember all of the requirements and limitations that are imposed on my because I’m teaching general education courses. I remember that I don’t have tenure, nor am I on the tenure-track, so I am in a vulnerable position, making it that much riskier to be daring in how I teach my (supposedly) standard and increasingly standardized courses. I also fear letting go of control of my class, allowing my students more input and control. I fear giving up lecturing, the only way I really know how to teach, after all. And, above all, I fear failing.

I realize that it is a total failure of imagination at this point that I either can’t conceptualize how to make my writing classes more interactive, or I can’t imagine it being successful. Which is total crap because I know that it works. But there is a persistent message about the students that I teach, which is that they aren’t prepared to learn this way or that it doesn’t really benefit them (hence the increasing standardization of the curriculum). They don’t know what they don’t know, they don’t know what they need to know, so it is up to us to preach it to them. But in a writing class, where the goal is to improve reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, won’t just about anything do?

Other challenges that I am trying to overcome are that a) the classes are lower-division and b) required. In my mind (and, again, this might be totally false), upper-division classes that the students willingly chose to take are easier to make interactive because the students are more experienced and there because they want to be. Convincing these students to be innovative would appear to be less work. A freshman who has no idea who I am, what college is about, or what to expect (or the wrong idea of what to expect) might not look to kindly on a teacher who walks into class and says, we need to learn how to write, how do you want to do it?

I feel like an old dog. Can I learn and teach these new tricks to my students? And why do I think that my freshmen/sophomore non-traditional/first generation students are any less capable than upper-division students at highly selective colleges? Why am I helping to perpetuate the myth that innovative teaching is only good for the best and the brightest? I want to be braver, and I am ashamed that I am not. I talk a big talk, but when it comes time to walk the walk, I falter. I pat myself for the (minimal) work that I have done, but when confronted with the reality that I am just simply repackaging the same old pedagogical framework, I am left unable to respond. 

My students deserve an innovative and non-standardized education as much as anyone else, perhaps more. One of my projects for this summer is figuring out how I can combine the requirements that are imposed on me and my desire to do better for my students. I know it’s going to be a struggle, but I have to try. 

Bad Female Academic: Loving Research AND Teaching

It’s no secret that I love to teach. This blog is a testament to how much I love teaching. This is a complex statement to make as a female academic; because of my mother-hen tendencies, I could/can be seen as being too maternal, and thus a less serious “academic” in the broad sense. A good female academic keeps her professional distance and teaches because she has to.

I absolutely and positively adore my research. In fact, as my husband recently pointed out to me, I actually get more satisfaction from being a successful researcher (publications, awards, etc) than I do from being a successful teacher (excellent evaluations, etc). I am so excited to be spending my summer doing research and writing, even though I don’t have to because I am “just” an instructor and only required to teach. I put myself forward and won a summer research fellowship precisely because I have an excellent research portfolio to go along with my teaching success.

Good female academics, especially those off the tenure-track who also happen to be trailing spouses, don’t strive for research excellence; we should be grateful that we have a job with benefits. But good female academics, on or off the tenure track, need to be careful about how successful they are in their research when they teach at primarily undergraduate teaching colleges, like the one I teach at or the one that Dr. Crazy teaches at as well. She herself recently won…something (it’s not entirely clear) that celebrated her research excellence and was (initially) ignored. You can read about it here and here.

Now, I’m not saying that this is the culture in my department, but there is something disturbing about this attitude towards research excellence:

But that doesn’t change the culture of my department.  The culture of my department is one in which mediocrity is celebrated, because it’s not threatening, and excellence is downplayed, because it might make people “feel bad.”  The culture of my department is such that when you do something great, people act like you did a violence to them, like you’re a “braggart” or that you’re somehow “less than” they are.  The prevailing attitude is something along the lines of, “I’m a great teacher because I’m shitty at research.  I don’t publish because I’m committed to my students.  I don’t have a reputation in my field because I’m so committed to our university.”

There is an assumed conflict between being a good researcher and being a good teacher. Now, Dr. Crazy doesn’t mention this, but one can imagine that it becomes doubly threatening when the young female academic is outpacing her senior male colleagues. Good female academics know their place.

I am not a good female academic. I value my research as much as my teaching, and I’m pretty good at both. I’ll probably never win a national research or teaching award, but I have been recognized as providing good work in my field(s). I am unapologetic in my quest for recognition and the money that goes with it. Politically, this is probably a terrible move, but I think (hope) that it will help my career in the long run.

Because, as I will examine in my next Bad Female Academic post, I am also ambitious.

Rhetoric, Critical Thinking, and The Bible

In one of my classes, the students are required to write a pursuasive essay. In our class, I decided to have the students read and write about “the future.” As I have written here previously, we read the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, read various essays on the (possible) future, and viewed multi-media pieces on the same subject. As our textbook tells us, “Everything is an Argument” which leaves plenty of room to play and analyze the rhetoric used to make arguments about the future.

The final essay was the culmination of all of our work on rhetoric, research, and imagining the future. I was quite impressed with the results I received from my students. They were mostly thoughful, well researched, if a bit on the depressing side (not very many happy pictures of our future). Certainly there were some that were unfocused, others that were poorly researched; over-all, however, I was quite happy with my students` work. But there was one essay that gave me pause.

One student chose to write about how we are currently witnessing the End of Days as desccibed in the Bible. The student went on to very logically and meticulously show all of the ways our world currently resembles what is “fortold” in the Bible. Rhetorically, it was very pursuasive. The Bible says this, our world looks like this, therefore we are at The End of Days. On the basis of the research the student had done and the rhetorical strategies the student employed, this was a strong B or even A paper (give or take some grammatical issues). But, what to do, how to evaluate, the “reliability” of the Bible as a source?

Adding to the complexity of the issue, the student in fact had done much the same thing in an assignment I had devised, asking them to compare our world to the world imagined/fortold in Fahrenheit 451. By the end of the essay, the students had come to various conclusions about how similar our world is to Bradbury`s imaginary world and what that could mean, what lessons we should be taking from that comparison. How is Bradbury`s fictional world (as a source) any different from the Bible`s vision of the future?

Please don`t think that I am so naive that I don`t know the answer to that question already. But, I teach in a place where the Bible is still an important document that many of my students (and their families and communities) revere. And I know that others react with a quick dismissal of any student who would quote the Bible or any religious text as a sign that the student has shown no critical thinking or even, perhaps, doesn’t deserves to be in university. And this is where the conflict, for me, comes to head. The difference, of course, is in how we know the students treat the two works: the Bible as fact and Fahrenheit 451 as fiction. If the student didn`t actually believe the Bible but instead treated it as a work of fiction, would the final product thus be more worthy? And how am I to know, one way or the other, what the student believes? It certainly, for me, isn`t my place to judge a student`s faith or beliefs. But I know there are people who would expect me to fail or at least grade the student more harshly based on the fact that, for them, the Bible is a reliable source.

I am particularly troubled because I know that this is generally a good student; they do the work, they make a real effort, and has shown great improvement. And the work the student did was good; knowing that the Bible is a contentious document, the student really did go out of their way to outline as many similarities as possible. Not to mention that every other source the student used was a “legitimate” source as we discussed in class. But I also know that this student`s essay is going to be read by my colleagues (anonymously) for our general education/student learning outcomes requirement. And while this student will never know the things that I know will be said about her/his paper, it stings me nonetheless. And I also know that my colleagues will wonder what grade this student received on the paper. They`ll never know, but I know they`d be troubled to learn that it is probably a much better grade than they hoped.

So I`m going to ask for this advice. What can I or should I do in these situations?

Loss of Classroom Autonomy and Grade Grubbing

After mecifully not having too many grade grubbers last semester, this semester, they have come out of the woodwork. I have one particular student who has sent me multiple emails (starting about three weeks before the end of the semeser) begging me for bonus work because the student knew that s/he was far away from getting an A. I don`t do bonus work, but I did allow the student to hand in an assignment that s/he had missed. It was only worth 5%, but, as the student figured out, those 5% assignments add up quickly. The student actually wrote to me that s/he received A`s on all of the major writing assignments and refused to get a B in the class because of some “stupid” 5% quizzes and assignments.

And this is where things start to get a bit tricky for me; there is a significant portion of the grade in my class that is based not on what I have assigned and developed, but things that I have been forced on me because of` “accountability” and “student learning outcomes.” I have tried to minimize the impact that these assignments and quizzes could have on the students` final grades, but inevitably, they add up.

So I`m torn; part of me wants to just round everyone`s grades up if they completed the “required” portions and be done with it. But part of me also wants to write that a) it was clearly outlined on a syllabus that these assignments would be worth something and b) they should be grateful that I am technically not following the guidelines by making these assignments only worth 5% each (they are supposed to be worth 10% each). And still another part of me wants to say, look at your homework grade. That`s where you lost your A.

But this situation raises a great deal of questions for me. My students` know that certain parts of the course are not of my doing nor are these parts what I want to be doing or evaluating. And I resent the fact that so much of my students` grades are based on elements I have absolutely no control over. As we increasingly stadardize college courses, particularly general education and writing courses, what are we really accomplishing other than simply collecting “data” and undermining the authority and autonomy of the individual instructor? Students are not stupid; mine have figured out the weakness in the process and are exploiting it for their own benefit.
And I feel powerless to stop them, really. I am tempted to really commit career suicide by recommending to the student that if s/he is unhappy with the grade I assigned, then they should take it up with the Provost, the person responsible for all of these “assessement” measures. I know it will get kicked back down to our department, saying that we were “free” to develop whatever assessment measures we wanted (just as long as they fit into this long list of requirements that have nothing to do with our dicipline).

Maybe this will help students understand and fight back on this move towards standardization in higher education. Because the faculty certainly aren`t getting anywhere.

Timed Finals: Doing What You Already Know

(This might be rough, as I am composing the on an iPad in the airport)

My 100-level students are required to write a common final which consists of reading two pieces (one primary, one secondary) and then answer an essay question. We are allowed to discuss the primary text in class and this semester, the students can also see the secondary source ahead of time when they complete an online reading comprehension test. But they do not see the question until they get to the exam.

We spent the final class of the semester discussion strategies for successfully writing a timed-essay final exam. I usually dislike the times essay model as I don’t think it’s an accurate measure of a students’ writing ability or thought process. In fact, I think it’s hypocritical for us to teach or encourage students to take their time, write and revise, and reflect, and then start the stopwatch. But I also know that other diciplines required essay exams in a limited time frame, so it is valuable for me to at least teach them some strategies for facilitating the extremely stressful situation. My students are not confident writers in the best of circumstances, but add a time-limit and they fall apart.

I talked about planning their time, doing quick outlines, keeping a piece of paper to write down ideas as they come, and, above all, understand their weaknesses an plan accordingly. Their faces were filled with fear and nothing I said seemed to sooth their terror. (Do you sooth terror? Relieve? Assuage? Anyway, onward.) I finally realized how I would get them to relax in their exam. I told them that they were already experts at the timed essay and had practiced it often before. You know, when they write their papers for any other class at the last possible minute.

Listen, I said, other than being in your room, what’s the difference between what you do in an exam and what you do at 2 am the day an essay is due. Other than the essay actually being worth more than the final. If they approach the essay final the same way they approach writing a paper at the last minute, then they’ll be fine. Better than fine, because often the bar for grammar, etc, is lower in a timed final. As long as you stay on topic (no small feat), they’d knock this out of the park.

It was effective. They were visibly relieved. They believed me that they could, indeed, be successful in their exam. My job was done. We’ll see how they do once I get back.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Teaching Basic Writing

(Forgive the melodramatic title; I writing this with what I suspect is a mild concussion from a hard driving head-butt from my daughter)

While teaching Basic/Developmental writers can be really rewarding, my Basic Writing class this semester has been particularly trying. More than half the class disappeared. The half that showed up today to hand in their final papers have been missing themselves for much of the semester. I had four students who consistently attended, took the work seriously, and will do well. 

I have students who were taking my class for the second time. They were doing so well, and then they were gone, without a trace. I have students who drank away their first semester, came back looking to save their academic lives, and still couldn’t come to class on a consistent basis. Even the threat of failure (and in the case of many of the students, getting kicked out of school) couldn’t seem to get the students motivated. One of my students, so proud of the fact that his narrative essay was published in his local paper, is now MIA.
What makes it so hard is that I know the students almost all dealing with a lot of issues outside of class. The narrative essay often reveals so much about their lives before coming to my class. One was homeless for a few years. Another is dealing with a physical ailment that kept him home for most of high school. Another lost his baby twins in childbirth. Last semester, one student lost his mother in a house fire. Another was a veteran, trying to get his life back together. I know how much these students have had to overcome in order to be in college to begin with.
But then again, the students who did show up regularly also are dealing with issues. One is pregnant with three other kids at home, all under the age of 10. Another is dealing with legal issues (which, in a wonderful switch, he didn’t feel the need to share with me). Yet another is participating in the very demanding ROTC program. So which group are the exception, and which are the rule? 
I honestly want all of my students to succeed. And while I know that some students ultimately won’t succeed in college, I don’t want it to be because poor preparation and a lack of basic skills is holding them back. I know that my students, at the very least, can be successful in my class if they do the work. Even if they eventually drop out, their writing and basic communication skills will have improved enough to write a basic cover letter. A few of them, in spite of (or maybe because of) how they behaved in my class are planning to take my regular Freshman Writing course in the fall. 
And maybe that’s a victory in and of itself: the student who wants to come back in my class to prove that he or she can do better. The way this semester went, I’ll take it. 

Big Brother or Autonomy and Respect?

Today in the NYT, there appeared two opinion pieces on education reform, The High Cost of Low Teacher Salary and A New Measure for Classroom Quality. They couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in how they propose to improve schools. The first hopes to treat teachers with respect while the second looks to instal Big Brother type measures of a teacher’s effectiveness. Seeing as how it’s May 1, and thus your monthly allotment of 20 free NYT articles has reset, I really encourage you to read both of these important opinion pieces. 

“The Hight Cost of Low Teacher Salary” points out that when war goes wrong, we don’t blame the soldiers, we blame the policy and strategy makers. In teaching, we do the opposite. Reading “A New Measure for Classroom Quality,” we see this attitude in action. The author argues that we should video tape (digitally record?) all teachers and measure how much time the teacher spends on and how closely they follow the prescribed curriculum. The assumption is, once again, that it’s how the teachers teach, not what they teach, that matters. No question if the curriculum developed by politicians, businessmen, and administrators is even worth teaching. 
“A New Measure” also makes classrooms sound miserable. Children should be seen and not heard, and teachers should read from a script. No variation, no deviation, no fun. Now, I’m not saying that learning should always be a joyful experience; it’s hard work. But, this type of learning suits one kind of student and one kind of teacher. This is not the modern reality of the classroom. 
But it shows the fundamental disrespect that teachers receive in this day and age, or at least a fundamental misunderstanding of what teachers do. Not to mention the inherence dangers that come from the recording of what goes on in the classroom, both for the teachers and the students. How can we expect students and teachers to take risks and challenge each other intellectually if we know that what we are saying is being recorded to potentially be used against them later?
Oh, yeah, while critical thinking is on the curriculum, it isn’t really what policy and curriculum makers are looking for from students. If it was, then we wouldn’t be reading op-eds about monitoring a teacher’s every move in the classroom, and we’d have already done what is being recommended in the first piece.

Real-World Experience, Teaching Contingently, and Academia

In my last post, I examined how the stereotype of the cloistered academic is wrong-headed and patently false. I also dealt (albeit briefly) with the idea that students need to eschew such low interests as monetary compensation in the name of “experience” and “application character building.” The post has generated a lot of discussion, both on the post and on Twitter. It would seem that a lot of us out there are sick and tired of our students and the public at large assuming what they do about our professional lives and history.

But I wonder how much of that is a result of our own doing. We are told, repeatedly, not to include any sort of non-academic (or tenuously academic) positions in our job applications. We also need to police our non-academic interests (be it past paid employment or current interests and hobbies) lest we appear unfocused or lacking the dedication necessary to make it as an academic. Never mind that for most of us who are off the tenure track, the second job is a necessity and our hobbies and interests get sidelined because of a lack of time and resources. So when, as an academic, we appear single-minded or narrowly focused in our pursuits, professional or otherwise, we need to take some blame. That’s why I encouraged my colleagues on Twitter (and do so again here) to write their own non-academic professional narratives.

Because it also will help break the notion that we have no idea what we’re doing in the classroom when it comes to teaching students the skills they need in order to secure employment or the accusation that we don’t understand how hard it is out there. Ask the 75% of faculty who aren’t on the tenure track, or any public sector university employee who hasn’t had a raise in years, they’ll tell you they know how hard it is out there. Perhaps this is the reason why we find it so frustrating when our students appear disinterested, disengaged, or just plain lazy in our classes; we know how hard it is out there, and we know that if they keep doing what they’re doing, a BA isn’t going to save them from unemployment.

But back to my first point. Is one of the reasons our students are so skeptical of us is because they don’t understand that we know what it is like, and that the skills (hard or soft) that we are trying to teach them will not only help them succeed in college, but in their future employment? I might not be on the cutting edge of technology, but I do know that learning how to write and communicate well in a variety of circumstances isn’t just a college skill, it’s a life skill. There are very few people out there who can speak to the soft skill of adapting than the writing instructor, often trained in a different field and “forced” out of necessity to teach writing, not to mention having to adapt to the constantly shifting reality of the students we teach.

I often wonder why more writing instructors don’t become entrepreneurs, as we have huge skill set and survival techniques well-suited to the volatile role of running your own business. But, then again, I’m still here, teaching Freshmen how to write. My next post for the University of Venus deals with my growing dissatisfaction with being off the tenure-track (look for it, coming soon!), and perhaps the sting is even worse when I consider that I am looked down upon by all comers: the university because I am “only” an instructor and the public at large because I am an out-of-touch professor. I belong in both worlds, but am accepted by neither.

That’s a depressing way to end my day.

Lesson Learned: Using and Letting Go of Lecturing

My 100-level students are currently reading and writing about the future. I’ve been depressing them with apocalyptic and dystopic visions of our world, starting with Fahrenheit 451 and ending with the short films at Don’t worry, there were some essays in between, like if Google is making us stupidwhy we love robots, or how living longer impacts our morality. Yup, it’s been a real happy time over the past two months, culminating in the creation of a persuasive essay on their vision of the future.

Taking comPOSITION’s advice, I used for brainstorming ideas about the essay and then about how they thought they could best persuade their audience about their vision for the future. I have to say, I was blown away by the results (which you can see here). They all not only had clear ideas about the future, but they also had clear ideas about how to write their essay. I had nothing to add. Class dismissed.

If I had done the same thing in the classroom, I know I wouldn’t have received half the answers that are now living on corkboard. Because it is anonymous and spontaneous, students were free to try, fail, and post again. Usually I write their answers on the board, but they have to be willing to share them. Usually, they just wait for me to give them the answer. And, seeing as how I can’t stand silences, I’ll answer the question myself. But this experience has really forced me to realize that I don’t need to lecture as much as I do, and in fact I am potentially wasting my students’ (and my) time by telling them things they already know. 

This is not a minor revelation. I’ve now realized that over the summer I need to find a way to more fully incorporate corkboard, twitter, blogs, and other social media tools in order to not just engage my students, but get an accurate snapshot of what they know so I can spend my time on things they don’t. It allows me to finally turn my classroom into a more dynamic space of give and take between myself and the students. The challenge becomes when I don’t have regular or consistent access to a computer lab in order to use these technologies. 

Thankfully, I have all summer to figure this out. And while I knew I lectured too much, I don’t think the practical reality of that knowledge really influenced how I approached teaching. So, thank you for making me reexamine my teaching and ultimately improving my approach to the classroom. 

I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.