Survey Results

Faculty Focus (the blog run by The Teaching Professor) does an annual survey of faculty asking what our biggest day-to-day challenges are.  I was rather surprised to see the results, as I would have guessed that grading would have topped the list or that more institutional concerns would have dominated (you can see that institutional budget cuts did make the top three).  Instead, some version of student preparation made up three of the top four responses.

The first challenge was students who come to class unprepared.  This response surprised me the most, mainly because, by this point in my career, it seldom happens.  Not that it doesn’t happen in every course in almost every class meeting, but there are few unprepared students in each individual course.  I’ve built in enough ways for that not to happen that they can’t do very well in my courses if they come unprepared.

For example, in my first-year writing class, they have to do a short quiz at the beginning of class (some professors do an online quiz, which saves class time).  It’s not a challenging quiz for students who have read, and I assign readings, which are largely impossible to find online.  I also have them answer one or two questions I’ll use to guide class discussion, taking them up as soon as they walk in the door.  Both of those count for quiz/daily work grades, so missing both of them regularly will start to have a serious impact on their grade, even if they’re doing fairly well on the essays they’re writing.

I do something similar in my sophomore-level survey, though I’ve given the students more flexibility there, but also demand more thought from them.  Rather than a basic, factual quiz that I once gave, I now ask them only one question, asking them to apply an idea from the reading to something outside of the reading.  Thus, even if they’ve tried to read an online survey of the assigned reading, they tend to struggle with the quiz (one example had them look at Magritte’s Treachery of Images and read a couple of brief paragraphs about it before class; the quiz asked them to talk about how that painting compared to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author).

I also do online posts in upper-division classes, where students have to respond to a prompt or critical article a few hours before that day’s class meeting.  These not only encourage students to do the reading ahead of time, they give me a quick snapshot of what students already understand and what they’re struggling with.  I then use them to guide discussion in class, which gives me a way to call on students without cold calling on them.

Now, I know that, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to think about this issue, as students would be so motivated to learn, they would read or view or write whatever we suggested to them (note that student motivation hits number four).  I could defend students a bit here by talking about how busy they are (sometimes because we ask them to do so much for their letters of recommendation or sometimes because they work a lot or have families or something along those lines) or remind professors that just because they were that type of student (though, honestly, most of us weren’t; we just like to think we were), but I’m not going to take the time to do so.  We live in a world where many students don’t have intrinsic motivation for whatever reason, so we have to find ways to give them extrinsic motivation with the hope that the intrinsic ultimately comes.

I’m generally frustrated by professors’ refusal to see the reality of the world we live in (the academic world here).  If students aren’t doing the reading or the homework, then devise a grading system that makes them do the work or do quite poorly in class.  It has always seemed that simple to me.  I know there are professors who claim that doing so will lead to poor evaluations, but the research shows that students want to be challenged, they just want those challenges to be fair and for there to be support when they struggle.

This frustration goes beyond the individual assignments, though.  I hear professors complain that students don’t take this class or that class that they believe is vital for a student’s education.  Those professors should work to adjust the curriculum to require that class, then.  They complain that students haven’t read a particular book, but then they don’t assign that book.

Essentially, we have a good deal of control over what students do or don’t do.  In the end, we can’t make them do anything, but we can make their choices have consequences in a variety of ways.  If we’re going to say we want something to happen, then we have to make it happen.  We don’t live in an ideal world, but we can make this one better.

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End of Semester Reflections

This past semester was one of the weakest I’ve had, in terms of how well students did (which I could tell as the semester progressed).  Part of that was out of my control, as I can’t make students come to class and turn work in beyond my trying to make class interesting and engaging, in addition to the basic grading structure.  There are a few things I can do, though, to try to make classes better moving forward.  Here are a few thoughts.

Composition:  The spring composition classes always struggle more than those in the fall.  This is mainly due to the fact that the students who enroll in it have had to work their way through the composition sequence, unlike the fall, where students test straight into that class.  That’s a variable I can’t control.  However, one problem with the class is that I end with their longest paper (out of three), which is worth 30% of their grade.  They can revise their first two papers after I return them, but not their third, as it’s due the final day of class.  They can meet with me ahead of time, but few students do (in the spring), either due to the busyness of the approach of finals or lack of interest.  What tends to happen, then, is that students who are close to passing end up doing poorly on the final paper and failing.  While I agree that I’m giving them ample opportunities to do well, I still want to make a change to this structure.

Right now, they write a short, more reflective paper (worth 10%) early in the semester, then two more substantial papers (worth 20% each), and then the final paper (30%).  I’m going to change those assignments to three papers that they can revise for a higher grade, then have the final paper be an extension of their longer paper.  Students at this level have a difficult time writing an 8-page paper (which is what we’re required to assign), so scaffolding the paper might help them do better work.  Also, it will lower the stakes a bit, which should give them a better idea of how they’re doing earlier in the semester.

Also, I’m going to move to some sort of contract grading (here‘s one professor’s description and reflection on the practice).  Mine, though, will have more guidance as to the quality of work, not just the quantity.  I’ll have a brief rubric (of sorts) that focus on the four main areas of writing (thesis, structure, evidence, grammar and citations) we discuss in the class, showing them what they need to do for each level of writing (Advanced, Basic, Competent, and Failing).  The contract will show them how many papers at each level they need to earn a certain grade (three papers at Advanced, one at Basic, and a certain grade on quizzes/daily work to earn an A, for example; I’m still working this approach out, but this is the basic outline).  My main goal in moving to this approach is to help me give them more positive feedback.  Rather than simply trying to justify their grade, I’m hoping to make comments on these areas rather quickly, then make positive comments that will help them revise their papers and make them stronger, something I’m not particularly good at it.

World Literature:  This class is challenging, given that I like discussion in my classes, but there are normally 30 students in this class.  It’s an easy place for students to hide, and many of them want to treat it like any other Humanities elective, where they can come in and take notes off a PowerPoint slide, then give them back on an exam (I don’t use PowerPoint, for the record).  I need to change the culture of this classroom to make it clear they won’t do that in my course.

I don’t know if I’m going to get rid of exams in the class yet, but I’m moving that direction.  I want to make it much more active than it currently is, so I’m thinking of alternative forms of evaluation.  For example, after a couple of weeks discussing poems and stories having to do with love or death, I might have them write a poem or story of their own.  Along with that creative work, they would turn in a short paper showing how they used ideas/techniques from what we’ve studied in their work.  I’m hoping such an assignment will get them to think about the literature in a more creative way, while also making sure they understand it.

I’m also going to make the class more thematic.  I’ve become less enamored with chronological approaches lately, and this class seems a good place to see if a different approach will work, as it’s a general core class.  Most of the students aren’t English majors and won’t go on to take other English classes.  No one can make the argument that I must cover certain material in a certain way, as they often do.  The thematic approach should help with revising the assessment, as well.  If such an approach works, I might be able to apply it to major surveys, as well.

Upper-Division English Courses:  I’m not sure what I’ll be teaching in the spring, and I know I’m not making major changes to the Contemporary Literature course I’m teaching in the fall, as it’s working rather well right now.  I’ll have fewer students, so I’m going to focus on giving them good writing feedback throughout the course.  One minor change I might make, if I can think through it is to put them in writing groups of 3 or 4 for the entire semester.  Then, they’ll get feedback from each other on their shorter writings before the major paper nearer the end.  I’m still thinking through that.

If I have another 400-level course in the spring, which is a distinct possibility, I’m thinking about lessening the reading load and including more reading of theory to help them work on different approaches to reading the same work.  If the class is American Novel, I’m thinking of making it more along the lines of Race and Gender in the American Novel.  Then, we would read a novel every other week or so, along with works from critical race and gender theories to see a variety of ways to read the works.  I’ll think more about that once I find out what I’m teaching.

Despite last semester’s not going as well as I would have liked, I’m excited for the fall.  I think these changes should make the classes stronger and help students better understand what I think is truly important.  I’ve decided that my ultimate goal for writing classes is to make students competent writers on a college level, while, for literature classes, I want students to want to keep reading after they’ve graduated.  There are other competency-based goals for majors, of course, but many of our majors don’t go to graduate school or become teachers.  Thus, I want literature or writing to continue playing a role in their lives, so that should drive how I structure and teach my classes.

I’m sure I’ll write about these changes in the fall and talk about how they’re going.

Teaching Them What Lesson?

I had already thought about writing on plagiarism this week when I saw this article by Helen Rubinstein.  Granted, the situation she discusses is much more severe than most of us deal with, but she raises a good question about how we deal with plagiarism, what our goal should be.  I can also identify with the story a bit, as I had a similar experience in my first teaching job.

I taught at a private, boarding high school in Indiana, a place where students attended (or parents made them attend) if they were aiming for the ivy league schools.  In fact, when I once said to a class, “You know, not everyone needs to go to the ivies,” you could see and hear the relief in that room.  One of my junior students plagiarized a paper in an art class that fall semester.  When she was confronted, she responded rather erratically, so they put her on suicide watch.  She had to come and take her final by herself, and, when I asked her how she was doing, she simply responded, “Don’t ask me that question.”

I talked to one of my friends, an intern there, about the guilt I was feeling.  I was one of the ones who was piling on the work and expectations, so I felt partly responsible.  She said that I had nothing to feel guilty about, that I was simply doing my job (for much harsher responses, look at the comments after the article at The Chronicle; it seems people have no compassion whatsoever).  She was right, of course.  I can’t guess how students are going to respond to my giving them a normal load of assignments.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about plagiarism over the past week because I had a student plagiarize a paper in a first-year writing class.  She had already planned to meet with me to see if she needed to withdraw from the class (she was passing, so I wasn’t sure why she was worried, but she was on the borderline), so I told her I would grade her paper before we met.  When I asked her about the change in her writing, she said that she had gone to the Writing Center several times and had her friends read over it to give her feedback.  I then told her I had found it on the internet.

She’s an international student, and she didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of plagiarism, so I made sure she did understand it.  I didn’t do that by turning her in or by failing her, but by explaining why it’s taken so seriously in higher education.  And then I let her write another paper and give it to me the next week.

Some people would say that I let her off way too easy, that I should have punished her to the fullest extent (at our school, that would mean failing the paper and, thus, the class).  I’ve done that in the past, every time I’ve caught someone plagiarizing a paper, actually.  Like many professors, I’ve argued that I’m teaching them a lesson.  The only lesson I think they learn is that they shouldn’t plagiarize or they’ll fail, a lesson I don’t really believe they learn through this approach.

Let me try a comparison.  If you are caught speeding, you hope and hope that the police officer will let you off without a ticket.  If she gives you a ticket, you won’t stop speeding.  You say that you will, but, when you find yourself driving again, especially if you’re late, you’ll speed to get where you need to go.  If she doesn’t give you a ticket, you’re no more or less likely to speed the next time.  The punishment doesn’t change your behavior.  You might argue that plagiarism is more serious than speeding (people don’t lose their job over speeding), but the statistics show that any kind of punishment (see the death penalty, about as serious a punishment as you can get) works the same way.  There’s no real deterrent effect.

Instead, what works is changing a climate, not inflicting punishment.  I need to create a climate where students don’t feel the need to cheat because they can get help from me or elsewhere, and I need to create assignments that are so connected to our class and what we’re doing that there’s no way they can cheat.  I’m not sure what can get me to that point, as I thought I was doing pretty well with both of those, but I’ve had three students plagiarize on the same assignment in the past three semesters (after a few years of no one doing so).  I need to find a way to make that happen.

I will say that there are still times I will punish those who plagiarize papers, as I once did.  I had a student, an English major, turn in a plagiarized paper in a senior-level course.  She, too, was an international student, so she might have had trouble understanding why what she was doing was so serious.  However, she turned in a rough draft, but skipped the peer review.  When I tried to contact her to come and see me about her draft, where I first noticed the plagiarism, she didn’t do so, and she skipped class that week.  I gave her opportunities to avoid the punishment, and she chose to ignore them.  That’s a different situation.

We need to consider each situation individually and understand what our purpose is in our response.  With the student this past week, I wanted her to learn how serious this situation is, but also I wanted her to learn to write a paper analyzing a short story.  She did turn in a paper she wrote on her own, and it showed serious struggle.  However, that struggle is how she’ll learn, if she keeps at it.  It’s not a perfect response, I know, but none are.  It’s the one I can live with for right now, though.

For Those Who Grade Writing

I have to admit I was horrified when I read this article on The Chronicle of Higher Education.  The article is not horrifying, but some of the comments professors put on students’ papers are.  I can’t imagine ever calling a student’s writing “garbage,” even if I thought that it was (I don’t, for the record, as I assume students are at least reasonably trying to write well, even if they’re not succeeding).  I’ll end by agreeing with Batt’s closing sentence:  “If we can’t muster a few supportive words for those writers, at least we should do them no harm.”

But There’s a Limit, Isn’t There?

Last week, I wrote about how we don’t know what students are going through, suggesting we should approach situations with empathy and humility.  I definitely don’t want to go back on what I said, as I absolutely mean it.  However, I also want to say that such an approach doesn’t mean we should let go of standards and accountability.

It’s that time of year when students come to talk to me or email me about their grades, as they have realized that they’re not going to end up with the grade they hoped for (usually an A, but often just enough to keep a scholarship or pass a class).  They sometimes cry or try to compliment me or my class or even try a bit of bribery with cookies.  Of course, I don’t change grades unless they can show me there’s something factually wrong with their grade. Continue reading

Making the Hard Call

I just turned in grades last week, so I’ve had to struggle, yet again, with what to do with students on the edge of a certain grade, especially those on the edge of passing.  Many students have no idea how much we agonize over this decision.  They might believe we take great glee in giving them an F or not rounding them up from a B- to a B.  The truth, is, though, we do spend a good deal of time (maybe too much time, at times) struggling with this decision.

As almost always happens, I had a student who was just a few tenths of a percent from passing.  The question I always ask myself when I have a student in that situation is, “Will it help this student to take the class again?”  There are times where I think it won’t help them at all.  They’ve learned as much as they’re ever going to learn, and going back through will just give them the chance to add one or two points and pass the class.  There won’t be any difference in their knowledge or skills.

There are other times, though, where I think the student does need to go through the class a second time.  This is often the case in composition classes.  First-year students could simply use more writing experience to help them improve, so a second run through a writing course could be exactly what they need.  I have seen students go through that second time and come out much stronger students in the long run.  Of course, I’ve seen others struggle to pass two or three times or pass on the second try, but not really have improved.  That’s what causes the dilemma.

There is also the question of how we make these decisions when they’re not about failing.  I often tell students I look at attendance and engagement in the class, essentially saying that I’m measuring effort.  Of course, there’s no real way I can know which students put forth significant effort and which didn’t.  Just because one student was present more class days or spoke more than another student doesn’t mean he or she is putting forth more effort, but that’s how we perceive it.

I have had students who miss one assignment, not even one of the major assignments, causing them to drop a half letter grade.  Sometimes, they tell me what’s going on in their lives, so I’m more willing to round a grade up, if they are having a real crisis.  Of course, the student who’s not comfortable telling me about a crisis in his or her life would not receive the same benefit.

One could argue that the only fair thing to do is either round no one or bump everyone up the same amount.  I used to do that, but then I decided that I could at least reward some people, even though others didn’t receive the same benefit.  It is a judgment call, but much of teaching is.  There’s little difference between a 75 and 79 essay, but, over the course of the semester, giving one student the lower grade would result in his or her getting a lower grade than the one receiving a 79 consistently.

I’ve simply embraced the messiness of the system, knowing that I might be making mistakes as I go along.  I’d rather make them and reward a few students than claim some sort of fairness and reward none.  There are drawbacks to that approach, but there are drawbacks to them all.  I’ve chosen the one I can live with.

The Anxiety of Influence

Some of you might be familiar with Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence from 1973.  Essentially, Bloom argues that poets begin their writing by imitating poets that have come before them, yet they are trying not to imitate, of course.  They want to create original work, so this influence creates a good deal of anxiety.  Ultimately, the poet must break away from that influence to become great.

I’ve been thinking about this idea in relation to professors and students’ writing (and thinking) lately, mainly because of a couple of students I taught this semester.  They both have a good deal of ability and are some of the best thinkers in their respective classes.  However, their writing (and thinking) is limited because of the influence of one particular professor.

In one case, the student had a professor who had a few clear rules about writing, and she imposed those rules mercilessly.  First, she told the students that, if they used a quote, they had to talk about it for at least two pages.  Not surprisingly, when I assigned this student various papers, she was hesitant to use quotes.  If she used even a handful of them, her paper would quickly approach the double digits.  I was trying to get the student to see that she needed more evidence to support her argument, but she resisted almost all of my suggestions because of this one rule.

Her professor also insisted that they avoid the intentional fallacy (this is where critics try to impose what they believe the author’s intentions are onto their reading–for example, I might argue that Kurt Vonnegut wanted readers to see how awful the Dresden bombing was).  In this case, the student essentially refused to say the author’s name, always writing that the text illustrates an idea.  While I can agree with such an approach, the student’s blind devotion to this idea kept her from seeing anything else.  When we were talking about grammar one day, and I had given them a short paragraph to edit, she couldn’t see the grammatical mistakes, as she kept wanting to comment on the intentional fallacies she saw everywhere.  As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything’s a nail.

[Quick side note:  I find it interesting that her professor (she was at another university, by the way) is an odd combination of New Criticism (intentional fallacy) and maybe Reader Response (lack of quotes).]

Another student was also clearly influenced by a professor, this time regarding ideas.  No matter what she wrote about, she essentially gave a reading of the work based on what this professor had said about it in the past.  If her professor had not discussed whatever we were talking about that day, she would still draw on that professor’s ideas or works that they had discussed in that professor’s class.  I had to push her, in fact, not to use that professor’s reading of a text as a structuring device for her paper.

In this student’s case, she can clearly think well about literature, but she can only read it through the theoretical lenses she’s been given by this professor.  In fact, I wanted to take away any theoretical approach to what we were reading and have her talk about the works completely on her own.  I think she would be able to do it just fine, given her abilities, but she always put the same lens between her and the texts.

Professors are always going to influence students, and that’s a good thing, by and large.  I had a professor who was clearly influential in my development as a writer and thinker.  However, he also pushed me to go beyond what he said and thought to develop ideas of my own.  It took me several years to get to that point, but his pushing helped me.

So, what should a professor do to help students break free from this influence?  First, they should bring in multiple voices to their classes.  There are a variety of ways to do this.  One way I do it is to have students read a variety of critical articles along with some of the longer works we read.  That way, the students aren’t limited to hearing about my particular way of reading a text.  If I give them articles that come from different backgrounds, they’ll hear a few more ways of reading that work.  Second, I do a lot of class discussion, as I want them to hear how their peers read the text, as well, and I especially want them to see where they read it differently than me or them.

Last, in the students’ work, we have to push them to go beyond our reading of a work.  If a student comes to us with a paper where they essentially read the text as we would, we have to push them past that.  It’s too easy to let ego get in the way here and see their reading the text through our eyes as evidence that they are truly learning, but it’s simply a different version of parroting.  We don’t want students to just use one critics’ view of the work, nor should we let them use our way of reading.

Most students will ultimately break free of the influence on their own, especially if they choose to go to graduate school.  We can better prepare them for life, though, if we encourage them to see a wide variety of readings before they even graduate.  They’ll have enough anxiety then, unfortunately.