Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Developing Argument ... or ARRRGHument?

I am thinking of showing this in my comp class tomorrow:

If anybody has any suggestions for helping students develop arguments that go somewhere instead of simply engaging in circular thinking or simplistically setting up the 5-paragraph essay format, let me know. My classes don't meet that often, so it is hard to set up something where they brainstorm and work up to a thesis and then do outlining and then do a peer review; that eats up weeks I don't have.

I have in the past tried to make them outline our scholarly essays and that resulted in mutiny and very little understanding of the essay's structure, and commenting extensively on drafts does not seem to be making them improve. Discussion/Socratic questioning can sometimes work to model what you want but it also seems to require more sleep and more energy than I have at the moment.

In other news, I am so tired and so behind on everything. Arrrrgh. Wah.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

That didn't take long

I think I have killed my balcony plants already. At first I was so conscientious that I was over-watering them, and then all the grading and work assignments hit, and now I usually only remember their existence on the weekend.

I had been thinking of getting some pretty plants for my office at school, but considering that the entire place is covered in stacks of paper, and I am not remembering to water anything anyway, maybe I should look into imitation plants instead? Any good possibilities? I missed the horticultural department's annual local plant sale anyway. But it would be nice to get a lovely-smelling plant and make my office seem fresher. Of course, I am spilling enough random liquids on my student papers anyways. Hmm.

Of course, I have been complaining about recalcitrant students; perhaps this plant would be an appropriate option:

Then again, would anything be more depressing than discovering you had accidentally killed your man-eating plant through overwatering or lack of care? It would certainly put a damper on my "you know what I'm going to do to you now, Mr. Plagiarist?" speech.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Apples to thesis statements

Lately I have become obsessed, and possibly over-reliant, on index cards as a pedagogical tool. What activities should we be doing in a composition class? Should we we be even changing up the activities, or should they be the same activities every day but with different readings? What is the magic bullet that will suddenly make my students learn things, or at least stop fighting me so hard about learning? These are the questions I ask myself when I have received two sets of essays and will get two more tomorrow morning, and I cannot bear to start the grading.

I wish I could report that I had some wonderful sort of answer or had devised an activity with satisfying results for either me or them, but I felt my outcomes the past few days were mixed at best. I feel like any activity with this amount of grumbling and resistance and anger and pushback is actually on to something, but I also feel that a frustrating activity should end with some sort of breakthrough and feeling of accomplishment on the part of students, or with thinking and phrases that I was pleased with.

As part of making them write a synthesis essay I am emphasizing the idea that they will need to make connections that are not obvious. It is not enough to tell me that tattooing is a form of tattooing, or that tattooing and plastic surgery both involve the body; I need to see deeper, more interesting connections between our topics. When we bring these different readings together, I keep saying, what new and exciting ideas can you find in the process of combining them?

The other part of what inspired me was the "template" section of They Say/I Say. It reminds me of Mad Libs and other fun games of creativity. I searched and found some mad lib style thesis statements and started thinking about the themes and concepts underlying our readings. (I also found tons of web sites talking about synthesis essays after not finding any reference to them two years ago when I was trying to convince my Postdoc U students that synthesis does in fact exist. I also also, sadly enough, found a writing in the curriculum website that had a lesson plan all about the idea that any thesis you could make into a template and apply to any work of literature was by definition a terrible thesis. That made me sad. Too late for that now! I said. I am teaching this tomorrow.)

I took my handy index cards and made about 20 "practices" (dyeing hair, nose job, tribal scarification...) and another 20 "significance" (self-expression, competition, boredom, envy, death...) and I had my students play on little teams. They were all shown this sentence:

________ tells us ___________ about ____________ and this is important because _________.
(practice)...........(something important) .....(this theme)........................................(you tell me)

Then I dealt them some cards. They had a terrible time of it. Some of them through no fault of their own. "Why do they get to write about nose jobs and envy when we have to write about makeup and death?" some cried. "Well," sez I, "you have terrible luck with cards. I'm not going with you to Vegas. Maybe you'll have better luck with another round."

After they had come up with some sort of sentence (many not really putting words in that "something important" slot) I made two of them defend the thesis and the other two argue against it. This also only went adequately well.

Then, because I am evil, and I told them that, I went around the room and offered to trade them either a practice or a significance, but they all had to agree on which and give me some sort of reason why. I accepted all reasons ("hair extensions are stupid and I don't care about them!") but I found the discussions fascinating ("No, we had such a hard time figuring out "exclusion" that I don't want to deal with it any more." "But now we finally have a handle on it, and if we get something like the "liposuction" team did we could make that kind of argument again.")

I guess my students have not, in fact, played apples to apples as a drinking game. This may be something only grad students and postdocs do. I, personally, could find tons of interesting things to say about any of those pairings, and the ones that "didn't make any sense" were the most interesting to me of all. These students, unlike my Postdoc City students, have no concerns about expressing themselves publicly, or taking a side, even if they are doing so in subjective and nonacademic ways. And yet they were neither particularly able to produce any arguable statements nor show any sort of loosening up into a sense of play or open-mindedness about it all. Really, what I was hoping was that the students would, despite their misgivings, come to enjoy themselves and their conversations to some extent, but that didn't really happen. On the other hand, two weeks ago when I made them write a paragraph about "the real meaning" of "Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self," an exercise I lifted wholesale off of a high school website, they totally ate it up, and produced pretty good paragraphs besides.

All of this makes me think that this exercise needs significant rethinking and transformation for its next use, or else I should get rid of it. Sigh. And I had thought so hard and this was the best idea I could come up with for some sort of way to develop thinking and creative arguments. Not sure what I am doing now. Not even sure what I want them to get or to do in class any more. Still looking for that magic bullet.

Blogging in bed?

Ooh! I found a phone app! Hmm, maybe this means I will post things more often. Shorter and more tired things, of course. I can't be funny while my brain is melting.

Have a cat picture as a reward.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hoist by my own petard

Argh! A quick vent: who is the idiot who chose this exceedingly stupid comp readings anthology? Oh, yeah. Me. Grr. The sucky part about being allowed to choose all my own books is, of course, that I have no one else to blame.

My complaint is this: I want medium to long length examples of good writing (5-10 pages). I hate assigning two-page essays when I have a hard minimum of four for my own students, and I hate teaching essays that are interesting conceptually but that replicate the exact same informal writing and bad habits that I am currently trying to beat out of my own students. And how can I model good MLA or APA documentation style if not a single essay in the book cites anything??? Argh!!

Since I had the freedom to pick whatever I wanted, I chose a subject near and dear to my heart: pop culture. But a lot of this writing is bad, bad, bad. I hate using a piece as a model when it uses "you" and skips over important chunks of the argument with a flippant, "amirite, amirite?" comment. Conceptually, there are a lot of pieces that work well together in this book --- there are a lot of repetitions and bad overlap, too, unfortunately. But my students are right when they notice that an author has put the thesis --- what passes for a thesis --- in question form at the very end of the essay, or that he pulls evidence from his ass rather than actually sources and cites an argument.

There are also some personal essays in this anthology --- you know how I loathe personal essays as academic models! --- and I have found that, surprisingly, the students like these and they teach well (I guess Alice Walker shouldn't be much of a surprise). Also, the indirect, exploratory style of the personal essay is good for analysis and for practicing uncovering themes; it works much less well for modeling argument and sources. And I am also frustrated with how little the different essays "cover" the topics, often having a strong stance against an issue in one essay and none of the others really addressing the issue at all, much less showing that there are other sides in addition to the "opposite" side. That said, some of the essays from different thematic chapters basically repeat each other.

Somewhere there has to be the perfect comp anthology out there for me. Anybody have any titles to suggest?

I am also using Brenda Spatt's Writing From Sources, which I really really like but haven't quite figured out how to teach with it yet, and also, while it does have lots of sample readings, possibly enough to use as the readings as well as a "how to think about writing" text, I don't feel like teaching those themes (mostly education). Still pondering. And still ordering sample textbooks, so please make some suggestions! Save me from my own bad choices!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

But I love the smell of Nietszche in the morning!

Of all the people in the department, the person I have probably connected with most is my fellow new hire. (Remember, the one who was a local adjunct hired full time?) It's kind of odd when you consider that we are from really different backgrounds and not much alike personality wise (I'm loud; he's quiet, almost stammeringly so, so I have to remember not to talk all over him and interrupt) but maybe because we are in the same position of Figuring All This Shit Out, we hit it off.

I'm going to need an evocative pseudonym for this colleague, I know. Just the other day I walked by his door and waved:

New Colleague: Sisyphus. Can I ask you a strange question?

Me: [I stop] Sure.

NC: Does this office --- smell?

Me: [I step in the door and take a long exaggerated sniff. I take a second step and a second long inhale. Decisively:] I don't smell anything.

NC: I was thinking of bringing in the spices from when I visited [far away foreign land]. Is it --- the air conditioning? Something? --- When I open the door in the morning something smells ---

Me: Musty?

NC: Human, All Too Human?

Me: Maybe another plant would fix that problem? Or some Hegel?

NC: [shrugs, palms up] I was thinking Derrida.

Me: No one should have to smell Derrida first thing in the morning.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Deja vu all over again

Arrrgh this late start class! Oy. I've been pretty good about not complaining about it too much to people at school so clearly I must vent somewhere.

I can't even keep track of what day it is. And since the other comp classes have already finished their first essay and we are on a totally new discussion topic, I am totally discombobulated when I go to another classroom on a different set of days and start re-teaching something I had put back on the mental shelf a few weeks ago. The other two classes are on a different schedule, so I try to re-use my powerpoints and don't always remember to update the days of the week and the dates things are due. Plus, today I kept telling the students "tomorrow" instead of the day we meet next week and these are the types of students who get really confused and out of it if I mis-speak or correct myself in any way.

This is all leading up to the fact that not only am I very confused, but they are really lost about things like what day it is and how to read the schedule. So I had a student come up wigging out at break today about the thesis and out line of the essay being due next week and not matching something I had just said. Stupidly enough, I believed this student instead of saying, "hey wait, calm down; let's get out my syllabus and read it over together." Nope, I proceeded to wing it and completely change what I was going to have us do for homework on the fly, and that student was wrong about the date. Now I am going to have people be utterly confused: do they follow the syllabus or do they bring in a thesis a week early? What are we actually doing when we next meet in class? FML people! Whatever I plan, half of them, I'm sure, will not be correctly prepared for it. Argh indeed.

Ok, I have also fallen massively behind and so need to grade about 5 more essays to keep roughly on track plus plan for tomorrow's class. And I just realized that I have only a short breather before all my essays are due again and I haven't even really planned what is happening next! I may have to cancel hiking plans and be a grading hermit all weekend. Bleacch!