Saturday, March 15, 2008

Beware the Ides of Grading

Ok, I'm up; I'm working. Sigh.

I did not do much of anything yesterday besides a couple loads of laundry. Ooh, and naps. I think I took three naps, which were highly important. That was how I celebrated throwing a chapter draft at my advisor on Thurs.

Now, I didn't finish it, not even at the "done is good enough" level; I'm just hoping that since it has a crappy introduction and you have to read about 15 or 16 pages before it starts to break down into some bullets and unfinished sentences, that my advisor will either be reasonably ok with that, considering that most of it is mostly written, or she just will have moved from reading to skimming by that time and not notice. But thanks to everyone who congratulated me. Now all I have to do is write one more chapter from scratch. And have a draft of that in about a month. And many other things. Sigh.

Like grading!!! Joy!!!!! The joy of grading!!!! I cannot tell you how thrilled and excited I am to read dozens of papers badly rehashing the same topic!!!! The excitement here is so thick one could cut it with a spork. Yee.Ha.

Thinking back to my class observation, I could conclude either that I am not pushing them enough to reach for a higher bar (or possibly not modeling the difficult types of moves I want from them) or, more cynically, that pretty much everything a teacher does has little to no effect on students' writing abilities. A lot of the time I fall into the cynicism camp. Ahh, yes ---- Camp Cynicism; I'm there right now, grading essays instead of making little lanyards and writing home to you all who are undoubtedly having a better time. But I'll show you! I will have s'mores with my papers. And then get promptly eaten by bears.

So far I am seeing a marked improvement in clarity in my students' papers ---- but that could be simply because the first paper was designed around a much more interpretive point while this one could be seen as a straightforward plot summary. It's not supposed to be, but I am getting quite a lot of it. They are doing a good job being very specific about what is in which text and using nice specific quotes to illustrate their tedious recapitulations of the obvious. This actually is a huge improvement over paper one and something I have been hammering at them, so I am grading in response to them taking me seriously. In the first paper (they have four texts ---- five, actually ---- that tell basically the same story) I got the vaguest statements possible, of the sort that since something roughly similar happened in one of the other texts, it must support the point the student is making about this one, even though it is completely contradictory.

So, of the papers I have read so far this morning (not that many, I'll admit), everyone is paying very careful attention to the differences between these texts, and all of them are more or less noting how these are very different portraits of the same "character" and that these different representations all tell us something different (for some of the essays, that last bit might as well be a quote from the thesis). However, even my strong students aren't actually asking, much less answering, why. Why would these authors tell the same basic stories in such different fashions? I mean, that's the interesting point, and the whole point of this class and the way it was structured. I can't tell if students are especially afraid of pushing too far in this direction with this kind of material, or if this is a larger, more general student problem. (I've definitely seen it in other classes.)

Is there something about, say, students and the high-stakes mania, with its overemphasis on getting the perfect grades and jumping through all the hoops and seeing college as a certification program, that is training them to not think on the level of why? Is this just one of the differences between "English majors" (or successful English majors) and "non-English majors" ---- that people who are already good at asking "why" in a specifically "English-y" way are the ones to become majors? I don't remember being taught how to see texts like this, for example. And I'm not saying that my students aren't smart, nor even that they can't ask why questions, cause I've talked to some of the bright and lively science majors for this class, and I know they ask lots of good questions in a very scientific-method way. But the idea that an author could have some sort of "intentions" or "tendencies" or even an "agenda" but that this point wouldn't invalidate what they are writing, this baffles them. They baffle me.

I'd say more, but my timer is about to go off. Back to the papers and the chocolate! Eh. Expect more postings with my later breaks.


heu mihi said...

They are doing a good job being very specific about what is in which text and using nice specific quotes to illustrate their tedious recapitulations of the obvious.

There are days--or perhaps assignments--when I do feel that this is the best I can hope for.

On the Why? question, thought--well, that's a good point. I see a lot of the same issues in my students' papers. When I do push them on the Why? issue, they often come up with really bizarre ways of answering the question, such as the Naive Psychoanalytic Approach (H.G. Wells's parents must have worked really long hours, and he didn't like that, so that's why he wrote X) or the False Historical Approach (There was no functional government in 20th-century France, so that's why Beckett thought Y) (I made both of those examples up, but they're close to real). And then I give them some criticism that I'm sure just confuses them more, like, "Yes, it's good to consider why an author might have written something in this way, but you need to answer that question in relation to the text, not just some vague speculation about what the author might have experienced"--and back they go into plot summary.

I'm still working out how to teach this kind of thing, obviously.

kermitthefrog said...

Yes to the Why? issue. An alternative, which I've also tried, is to ask "so what?": what are the ramifications or effects of the author's making these particular choices? The problem then is that the essays devolve into "It shows us X about human nature/society/the universe" or "He/she really wants to persuade us that Y," in the most general terms.

This is why I got pissed off that my writing program didn't offer us instruction in how to teach analysis.

Sisyphus said...

Hello everyone. Yeah, I don't know if the program people know how to teach analysis; I'm cynical about whether _anyone_ can do that. I mean, the people at the top-most and most competitive schools say their students do that, but their students _already_ did that in order to get in, so are they really teaching it?

And there's nothing like using the "so what" framework, and pushing a student a little bit hard, through irritable frustration, and then having them burst into tears in your office. I don't know what the magic word would be but "so what" seems to just put huge pressures on these students.

Dr. Crazy said...

It is true that some are especially sensitive with the "so what" but I still use it every now and again because if that is what it takes to get through to them, I feel like maybe it's worth making them cry. But then I am a mean lady.

Another version of the question is "why does this *matter*? You chose to say x about this passage... Why did you think that was interesting?" and then they tell you, and then you say, "yeah, how was I supposed to know that if you didn't write it there? And then they pause, and then you say, "*you have to write all of that stuff down! Otherwise why should anybody care what you have to say!*"

They want you to care what they have to say, and so that usually gets through to them (and also makes it less personal than "so what" which just makes it seem like you personally don't care what they're saying).