Seems like I’m back to writing about teaching and my students after a bit of a break to talk about higher education more generally. Today, I handed back an essay assignment to my first-year composition students. Being that this is second semester, most of the students taking my class either failed their first try or did developmental writing during the fall semester. Needless to say, anything we write in the class is a huge challenge for both the students and myself.
I’ve been silent this past week, in part because I got sick, fell behind, prepared the house for weekend guests, planned my soon-to-be four-year old’s birthday party, partly because while I had a whole list of planned posts, I couldn’t concentrate on writing them. No, I was distracted by trying to come up with a way to write the following posts without impacting my own ethos as a writer and a teacher in higher education.
In my Freshman Writing class, we have just finished reading Fahrenheit 451. The students are writing an essay comparing America in the novel to our present-day society. They discussed the similarities they observed in small groups, then we came together to share our observations as a class. They then had to go and find a variety of sources (one book, two peer-reviewed articles, two others of any kind) that illustrated or backed up their claims about our society. After that, they had to choose quotes from the book and match them with quotes from the sources.
One of my fellow writing instructors and bloggers, Laura at Red Lips and Academics, recently wrote about the challenges of teaching students in our culture of over-share. I’ve written previously about why I actually don’t mind assigning a narrative essay, even if it does reinforce some of their more narcissistic impulses. But the post, my own brush with wordlessness, and being in the middle of grading papers, made me think about what, exactly, our students are saying.
As I mentioned in my last post, last week I ended up in the hospital for what we feared was a stroke. The symptom? I was no longer able to speak coherently. All of a sudden, what I meant to say and what I actually said no longer matched up. I was playing with the kids at the preschool, and suddenly, nothing I was saying to them made any sense. It wasn’t gibberish, but it wasn’t related to what I we were doing or talking about. Thankfully, kids are more accepting of silliness, so they were easily dissuaded from asking too much about what was wrong, and I was wearing sunglasses so no one could see the abject terror in my eyes. My head had been hurting and so I had previously texted my husband to come and pick us all up. By the time he got there, all I could manage to (haltingly) say was: can’t talk. He promptly took us home, scared one of his colleagues into coming over and babysitting, and we were off to emergency.
I have just corrected the first batch of my students’ rhetorical analysis essays. They were…not as strong as I would have hoped. One of the most frustrating elements was the students’ inability to follow simple directions. They were limited to using the textbook and the piece of rhetoric they had chosen to analyze and needed to be approximately five pages long, double-spaced.
For students, and even for some professors and instructors, the requirements of assignments often seem arbitrary; why the textbook and not online sources, if it’s the same information? And why five pages? What if we can do it in two? And why a rhetorical analysis?
Seemingly arbitrary assignments that ask students to fulfill certain requirements are not, in fact, arbitrary and actually teaches them practical skills like knowledge transfer and good, old-fashioned following directions. Placing limits on the students’ resources was meant to focus their attention on the task instead of research. The page count was framed to let the students know that the depth of analysis required will take about five pages. The one piece of rhetoric was, again, selected to allow students to focus, read and re-read, as well try and accomplish the proper amount of depth in their analysis. And finally, why a rhetorical analysis? Considering the amount of rhetoric students are exposed to, it seems like a worthwhile exercise to get them to think more critically and deeply about it.
Some of my students ignored the page count. Others, the resource limitations. And still others seemed not to bother with the analysis part of the assignment. These are all elements that we discussed at length in class, which they had been reading about for homework, worked on in small group discussions, and went through in the guided peer review and self-assessment. I prepared them as much as I could to fulfill at least the minimum requirements of the assignment. And yet.
They will probably never have to do another rhetorical analysis essay in their lives, although they will use rhetoric, whether they intend to or not. But they will have to follow directions, deal with seemingly arbitrary limitations, and produce quality work in less than ideal with even less guidance than I provided. Job applications, reports, presentations, bureaucratic paperwork, emails, and everything in between all have their own set of rules and directions to follow which can change in mid-stream. Plus, it’s not a poor grade that the student will have to deal with, but the very real possibility that they won’t get the job, promotion, sale, or even lose their job.
But students also need to be able to think critically and independently, because often they won’t receive direction but a set of parameters and expectations that they need to meet. The only advice that they will get is to figure it out. While I don’t expect my Freshmen and Sophomores to do their assignments with so little guidance, I do expect them to begin to actively work in order to eventually get there. It’s not just about the grade; it’s about their employment future.
So while I am fulling the student learning outcomes set forth by our university, I am also trying to get students prepared for life after college. Follow directions and meet parameters. There is nothing arbitrary about it.
I’ve written about it before, but I’ve got carrots and I’ve got sticks. It is up to my students to figure out which one works best for their motivation in my class. Today, in my developmental writing class, we started the peer review process. They were supposed to have brought a full draft of their narrative essays to class; not even half did. The ones who did, after I spent 10 minutes trying to get them to discuss the purpose behind peer review (more feedback from many people is always better, they need to learn how to do this on their own, and I am trying to get them to practice), half of the class that did bring their draft sat there doing nothing even as I said, “now exchange your papers and start giving and getting feedback!”
My grandmother used to clip and save everything; it wasn’t a successful reading session if she hadn’t marked off at least two pictures she wanted to eventually paint and clipped an article that she thought one of her daughters, grandchildren, or friends would be interested in reading. When I went away to university, I used to get letters from her that contained articles that mentioned my old high school, my old swim team, or future job possibilities, among other things. I always loved getting those letters.
I also have very clear memories of my grandmother wanting to show me an article or picture she had found and being completely unable to find it among the piles and piles of magazines and newspapers. She was in no way “drowning” in her magazines and papers; she recycled out what she didn’t need or want every week. And once she had showed you what she wanted you to see, out it would go. But my grandmother used to get so frustrated when she knew exactly what she was looking for but could not for the life of her find it.
I wonder sometimes how my grandmother would be in this more digital age; would she be emailing me links, bookmarking page upon page in Delicious? Would she still get overwhelmed, even without the physically piles and pages, and lose what it is she is looking for? I’m not very good at bookmarking links, marking tweets as favorites, or starring emails; I tend to get overwhelmed and purge frequently. I also figure that if I need it, I can google it. And then, I, like my grandmother, couldn’t find an article I knew existed. I knew what site it from (nas.org), and I knew what it was about (the university of the future), but I didn’t have the right keywords in order to find it (kept searching university and future, rather than Academic things to come).
Thank goodness for Twitter.
An article about teaching students about how much the internet remember about them and the value of erasing parts of ourselves from the net got me thinking about how much is gained and lost, remembered and forgotten, in this digital age. I’ve worked with archives for my dissertation research, and the idea that these letters and manuscripts could be more readily and easily available both excites and dismays me. I’m excited because, hey, we all like easy access and dismays because I loved being able to hold the letters in my hand and read not just what I needed but also what was there. Having things easily indexed and searchable may be faster, but sometimes the joy is in the journey. What could be lost is something extraordinary that you weren’t necessarily looking for.
We also, for a time, have lost the ability to see the evolution of a piece of writing; unless you purposefully saved versions of the same draft, or the version with the feedback/Track Changes, then all we have left much of the time is the final version. Part of my research involved watching how a translation came to be, looking at various drafts, edits, and feedback the translator did and received. Google documents could allow us to watch a document be shaped and evolve, but unless we consciously save the steps, then the process will be lost.
Digitally, I’ve lost my wedding pictures when my husband’s computer’s hard drive was replaced without them first asking if he wanted a back-up of the old one. I lost all of my poetry from a period of five years because I accidentally left my diskette (yes, it was that long ago) behind in the computer lab; I don’t actually have a complete hard copy of them all, and, at the time, I didn’t have my own computer to back them up on. We have learned the hard way that ebooks can be taken away quite quickly and easily, making it hard to predict when our notes and annotations could be unceremoniously ripped from us.
Then again, I’ve had my “office” broken into when I was a PhD student (just before my final comprehensive exam) and all of my books stolen; pictures and documents can just as easily be lost in a fire, flood, or other disaster; and an irresponsible, careless, or oblivious person can just as easily throw out a physical letter as they could delete an email. My own research has gaping holes because a flood wiped out almost all of the personal papers of the author I was studying. And I also know first hand how fantastic it is to physically find something you might not have been looking for but because you had to search through everything.
As academics, whether you are a digital humanist or not, we need to pay attention and rethink how and what it is we keep and what might be lost.
One of the first things I talk to my students about at any level is active reading. They’ve all had the experience where they’ve gotten to the bottom of a page of reading and realized that they have no idea what they’ve just read. And then they keep trying to re-read without any change in the situation. So they go through the motions of looking at the words on the page, feeling good about having technically done their homework, but showing up to class with little to no ability to participate in the class discussion.
As I have admitted before, I was not the best undergraduate student. I routinely didn’t go to class. I can count on one hand the number of courses where I attended every class. Most of them were taught by the same teacher. She was an adjunct, and she taught some of the most thankless courses. Our first course with her was Technical Writing. And yet, we all attended every class, did every assignment, and were usually lined up around the corner to see her during her office hours. I don’t remember if she had an attendance policy in her syllabus (she probably did), but it wasn’t for fear of punishment that we did or did not attend her class. We wanted to be there, and we saw the utility of attending her classes.