If A Student Essay Falls In The Woods And No One Is There To Read It, Does Anyone Care?

January 30, 2011, 7:47 pm

They’re B-A-A-A-a-a-ck!

A while back, I assigned two papers in one of my classes.  In the first, I gave a straightforward “assignment” that asked students to think more deeply about the reading they had done up to that point and use what they had learned to analyze a primary document.  In the scale of things, this is a standard history assignment. I gave the class three documents to choose from, and awaited the papers.  When I began to read them, one thought came to mind:


Now, let me emphasize:  they weren’t bad papers.  Many of them were A-worthy; only a few received grades thought ought to have been worrisome to the recipients.  And yet, as I paged thorugh them, I dreaded grading them.  Why?  They were dull.

Subsequently, I did a little informal research among the students, and most of them admitted that they, had been uninspired and uncertain about the point of the paper.  Several things were at work, as it turned out.  Many students, especially those who were new to college, had become anxious because there was no “prompt.”  It’s took me years to figure out what they are talking about when they used this word, because I never assign a paper without some guidance or question, a significant difference from the practice of my own college and high school teachers.  I know this will seem strange, but back in the Stone Age, at Oligarch, professors would say that a paper was due, and you would have to figure out what to write about all by your lonesome.  We never expected to be told what to write about.  In retrospect, some people thrived and others suffered under this system.  I had one friend who, because s/he never did the reading, and was usually stoned in class, never knew what to write about either.  This made the whole semester quite a challenge, but it made picking a paper topic an impenetrable mystery.  If we were in the same class, I would eventually sort of drop a lifeline of sorts a few days before the paper was due:  “I was gonna write about this, but I decided to write about that instead.”  Then we would chat about this for a while, and s/he would get by.  Not excel, but get by.

So anyway, I discovered this fall that the “prompt” is yet another product of a testing culture that strives to make all students nicely mediocre thinkers before they get to college.  When a high school teacher gives a “prompt” it means that students are supposed to answer a highly direct question, for which there is a right answer, that will demonstrate their mastery of what they have been taught.  Needless to say, not being directed towards a formulaic answer can cause the kind of anxiety that undoes our finest students, because the last thing someone educated in a testing culture should do is think critically or get creative.  What the anxiety produced in this case was a set of papers that were, to a greater or lesser degree, workman-like, safe, and all used the same f*#@king document.

Whose fault was this?  My fault, that’s who.  I had given a highly conventional assignment that signaled to the students (correctly) that they were being tested (without being honest about saying so), and so the vast majority of them stayed in the right-hand lane and drove slightly under the speed limit (metaphorically speaking.)  Furthermore, I had failed for years to attend to this whole business of what students were talking about when they referred to a “prompt”:  hence I had given one assignment, and they had essentially received a different one than I intended.  So the next time around, lest I should be tempted to drive a pencil into my ear while grading, I gave them complete and utter freedom.  I asked them to choose their own document and to choose it based on something they were passionate about now.  I asked them to compare their own enthusiasm for this topic to the enthusiasm expressed in the document, and to use the document to understand better how their own passion was rooted in a history of other people who cared about this thing too.  When students asked me if it was OK to write about something they didn’t really care about, I said no.  Then I took the time to talk with them about what they did care about, and urged them to write about it.

This second set of papers was more or less spectacular.  They were interesting; they varied over a wide range of topics; they were far better written; and many of the papers themselves were preceded by interesting meetings in office hours during which students let me know something that helped me teach them better.

This experience prompted me to think (again) about how we actually assist in producing student work that we do not want to read through ordinary acts of pedagogy that we take for granted, and how it might be possible to change that.  Here are a few thoughts and questions as we move into the semester together:

How do you return papers?  Do you hand them out at the end of class or do you put them in a box outside your office door, where many of them sit, dolefully, for days, weeks or months?  I am very much against the latter practice, which many people I respect adhere to, for several reasons.  I think handing a paper to a student signals a two-way exchange. It is personal, and in a large class it helps me learn their names and how the people sitting in front of me actually think.  I think putting them out in the hall, on the floor, unintentionally signals:  “I am done with this.  It is trash.”

I also think there is a serious problem with leaving student papers out where anyone can get to them:  it makes every student’s grade available to every other student, which is a violation of privacy.  I also think that for a group of people that is always searching for new ways to police cheating, we are more or less clueless about the fact that many of those papers will be, shall we say, recycled, for other classes or other sections of the same class, in other years.

Do you write comments on the paper?  Or just grade it? Do you make yourself available to discuss students’ work with them after you hand the papers back?   I can’t tell you how many of my advisees show up in my office hours with a paper in their hand that has no comments on it at all, just a grade, students who also can’t get the professor to met with them.  Rarely do they express anger or resentment at the grade:  they want to do better and they don’t know how.

Do you write lots and lots of marginal notes on the paper, spending hours correcting everything and re-diagramming their sentences?  The truth is, although you are trying to be the opposite of the teacher I describe above, this freaks students out.  Although you have spent maybe an hour on this, feeling like you are a really caring teacher, the student may see them as a blur, as grammatical correction collides with interpretive questions, typos, basic misunderstanding of the text and long-winded attempts not to utilize the first person or appear “biased.”  If a paper is really muddled, it is a waste of your time to do this:  far better to sit down with the student, ask a couple questions about what s/he intended, and describe how s/he m
ight have gone about writing such a paper.

One common grumble I hear from faculty is:  “I bet I spent more time grading it than s/he spent writing it!”  While that probably isn’t technically so, it may well be so that the paper was written at the last minute, and that the student had not done the work necessary to write the paper of which s/he might be capable.  How much better would it be to find this out in the course of a conversation?  Better yet, to take the opportunity to underline in person that a better effort over the long term would produce better written work.  A fair number of students think they “want to work on [their] writing,” as if writing were disconnected from the other work in the course.

Do you actually care what they think — and do your paper assignments encourage them to tell you?  If writing papers is just about testing whether students have completed and understand the intellectual content of the course, why not just give quizzes instead?  We have come to fetishize college writing, organizing all activities around the idea that this is the litmus test of good teaching, when in fact it isn’t always necessary to write an essay to demonstrate competence.  This study, forwarded to me by a colleague, argues that testing-taking, in and of itself, “actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.”

Good paper assignments, in my view, ask students to  make an intellectual choice of some kind and commit to them.  But not all knowledge acquisition is about committing to intellectual choices:  a great deal of important work in a course is about basic mastery of a field of study that will given them a platform for creativity and/or critical analysis.  

Do you talk to students about your own writing, and testify to the ongoing vulnerability of putting your own writing out there to be criticized by others? One of the most effective things I ever did in a class was to hand out a couple pages of an article that had just been returned full of possible edits.  There were probably about twenty per page.  I then pointed out to the class that what they were reading was probably in its seventh or eight draft, had been commented on by three people already, and was still perceived by a peer as worthy of drastic improvement.  I did it on impulse, but you should have seen the shocked looks on their faces, and heard the many questions this provoked about how I learned to write, how I would respond to these criticisms, and well, how did this make me feel?  Numerous student evaluations pointed to this discussion as having made a huge impression.

Do you ask students to rewrite? OK, so it’s not always possible to go through a stack of papers twice, but it is well known that the way anyone becomes a better writer is by redrafting, and rethinking, what s/he has already done.  Here’s an effective trick:  have them bring papers to class.  Have them exchange papers with another student.  Give everyone ten minutes to mark up the paper s/he now has for typos, spelling errors and other grammatical errors and give it back to the writer.  Give everyone ten minutes to talk, but this time have each person tell the other person what s/he did or did not like about the paper s/he wrote and get advice on how to strengthen good parts and fix the less good parts.

Then tell them the paper is actually due in the next class and send them home to take another crack at it.

 Any other ideas out there?  Leave them in the comments section!

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