Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Updates and Epiphanies

First, thanks everybody for the coat advice ---- this may be the most comments I've gotten on a post! (does this say something about my academic-related writing? hmm.) Now I'll have to contemplate things before I actually do anything in the coat category. (looking at coats online and asking advice is way more fun than grading, but finding the time to actually go anywhere and try stuff on will have to wait.)

In other news, I am tired! It's been a kinda shitty week. Last week I lost my phone ---- or actually, I think that I set it down on campus and someone took it. :( Grr. So a lot of time was taken up last week hunting it down and retracing my steps and then I took a lot of time on Sunday going to the apple store place to get a new phone. Which is another expense I wasn't wanting to shell out for. Double grrr.

Now I am knee-deep in group conferences all week. Bleah. I hate conferences --- they take a lot out of me and I get stressed very easily managing all the time and scheduling stuff (I'm a control freak and this isn't something you can control very easily). Also, repeating myself with the same advice over and over again annoys me ---- I know on one level that I am telling different people, but I still find myself getting increasingly snappy at people as I repeat myself throughout the day.

But! talking to smaller groups does let me really hear what people are getting --- and doing conferences right after peer review means we can talk about how to do those as well. Also I held them in the tutoring center (everyone in my shared office is holding conferences this week, so I had to vacate the premises), so I am able to make Dire Pronouncements and then advise them to make appointments with a writing tutor before the paper is due.

I don't know why so many of my students are putting their thesis as the first sentence of the paper (is someone teaching this?), especially after we spent a lot of time on that formulaic "funnel shaped introduction," but the good news is that it was not just me telling students; some of their peer reviewers were pointing this out. And I had a couple people actually say "when I did the peer review on this person's essay, I noticed that my essay had the same problem and went to try and fix that." Hooray epiphanies! I just have to remind myself that having the aha moment and seeing what is wrong does not necessarily translate into successfully fixing a problem. Another of my difficulties, I think, is that I might have maybe 5 people really seem to pick up something from the conferences, and I can't help but get discouraged when I look at the vast majority of papers afterward that have no signs of learning.

I must say though I do like doing the conferences with the second paper, as they feel kinda burned and like they have to prove themselves (more accurately, that I'm a hard-ass who won't let them get away with things), and they are trying much harder with this round. It's always easier to deal with long days and lots of groups when they are putting in effort. And some are taking it really seriously and are very worried --- doing multiple drafts, revising between peer review day and conference day, etc. It helps that the school makes us post midterm grades and the only thing I had was the first essay. *evil grin.*

Unfortunately, not everyone gets "scared straight" and buckles down --- some behave like light-struck forest animals and run straight into the traffic. And when freaking out consists of panicked, self-destructive behavior right around group conferences, it always causes huge problems. Like borrowing a group member's anthology and then disappearing from the face of the earth problems. That wasn't here, though. But I have had a sizable number of no-shows for the peer review and people bailing on conferences, as if going into hiding would somehow erase their previous bad grade. If I knew beforehand which students could be scared serious and which will spook and trample fellow students, I would be able to do a targeted attack. Ah well. The mysteries of teaching.

Also, an update from my previous questions: this "sequence" I drilled them --- beat them over the heads! --- on paragraph structure and quotes. I tried both writing up some sample topic sentences and having students write the paragraphs in small groups, and writing up a series of softball questions and having students create paragraphs in small groups. I'm not sure if the topic sentence exercise didn't work as well because it was first, or it's just not as good. (It was much harder to come up with topic sentences while not writing an essay than to come up with some semi-directive questions and ask them to find quotes that answered the questions.) I also had them writing something, like these exercises, in class every. single. time. we met. I did almost no discussion (which I could ask as a separate post: how much emphasis do you put on discussing the reading vs. doing writing assignments in class?) and we either wrote or workshopped something every day.

The result? Well, I'm still not getting consistent topic sentences or conclusion sentences, but you'd be amazed at just how much stronger their arguments get when they are forced to be specific and bring in quotes into every single paragraph. And I had them do (again) a highlighting assignment on their peer reviews and then examine the color patterns, so I did have some students point out essays lacking topic sentences etc. They also were better at adding analysis of every single quote than on introducing or formatting any of them correctly, but since I prioritize that so much more I'm ok with that.

(Another benefit of the group conferences is that I can make Dire Pronouncements like this: "Now I notice that both of your peer reviewers marked your quotes, because none of them are connected or have page numbers. See this? I am making a note, since I just told you the same thing, and I will be looking for that to be fixed on your final draft." Unfortunately, the people I made Dire Pronouncements to today looked quite unimpressed, and are either apathetic or have a good poker face. But when they get an explicit warning like that I have no qualms about hitting their grades hard if I don't see improvement.) Now if the students already seem scared into revising things I try to be Highly Encouraging, instead. But one of the drawbacks of mixing my strong and weak students in a group is that then I have to both play the heavy and seem sweet and encouraging and nonthreatening, all in the same group. Tiring.)

I have also come around on assigning personal essays, since I did that (very reluctantly) this time. I didn't allow them to write personal essays or bring personal experience into this one, though ---- they had to compare or contrast two of the other essays. But they did find the memoir-type stuff very accessible and nonthreatening. There's no academic language in these personal essays, for example. But then they aren't getting any models. I think if I were here longer and had built up a bank of sample student essays and theses I would be able to have both worlds. But the few essays I have on file just don't work as sample material for them. Oh, remind me to photocopy some of the final drafts --- and find out what I have to do to get permission.

The bad news? Apart from the fact that I am swamped with more conferences and also need to find time to get groceries? I get my final drafts and the midterm revision option I gave the lit students at the end of the week. This weekend is gonna suh-huh-huck.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

How long are these papers supposed to be? I assign 2-3 page papers and I want the thesis statement as the first, or maybe second, sentence. There is no time for a funnel introduction in a short paper. I loathe and despise funnel introductions, because they usually go something like, "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with dog, and the word was dog, and after awhile there were people who told stories about dogs, and one of those stories was this one we read for class, which has dogs in it, and I argue that dogs are really important to What the Author Intended." And I always wonder where they acquire the notion that this sort of intro is a good idea.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Ha! Dame Eleanor's comment reminds me that I once got an essay whose opening sentence actually was "Since the beginning of time, men have been telling stories about dogs."

I still like conferences, but I agree about the frustration factor of telling people the same thing over and over.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Like Fretful, I enjoy conferences, and I get frustrated with repeating myself. But I always try to remind myself that this is the first time the student has heard this particular thing from me. It's hard. That's when I drink. Meh.

Good luck with the weekend. I hate it when I have a weekend coming up that I KNOW is going to suck. It's just that much harder to get through that way. Blerg.

heu mihi said...

To answer your aside-question: We discuss the readings in class, but chiefly in terms of what writing elements we're working on (e.g. introducing quotes, or responding to counterarguments). We also discuss what the essay says, of course, but mainly just to give them practice understanding essays--not because we care about the content, which we do not, not in my classes, anyway.

And the students seem much happier, I must say, than when I did topic-oriented comp classes. (I'm happier, too.)