Oh, my bloggy friends. I am so sorry to have been checked out over the past week from the blog. Especially after so many people left such great comments to the last post about my response to my students’ shitty papers. So many things have happened since last week, many of which have involved appointments with students. Which have been exhausting, but yes, this is the result of the style of teaching that I do.
But so after I taught three classes back to back to back today (during which I read 22 drafts while students did peer review, and then I taught a Really Freaking Hard Modernist Novel, and then I explained the nuances of Marxist theory to students through readings by Lucacs and Williams), I met with five students – with 4 of those five meetings lasting at least 30 minutes. In other words, I’m freaking exhausted. But I’m also feeling pretty freaking proud of myself. And I’m having some wine.
Anyhoodle, let me back up and respond to some of the comments from the last post, by way of getting to the title of this post.
The Connection between Reading and Writing, or You Need to Teach Them How to Read in Order for Them to Learn How to Write
Another Damned Medievalist, who I swear to god is Bizarro-Crazy, in that if I didn’t know that she works at a SLAC I would totally believe that she was my secret friend at my own university because our professional lives are so freaking identical in all ways, wrote this comment:
One of the things I’ve found in teaching lots of different sorts of writing (I assign research papers and book reviews, review essays, and annotated bibliographies, too), is that students don’t always know how to read…. It’s not just about writing, or who teaches it: we also all need to be teaching our students to read in our disciplines, and really, we should have a better idea of what things are particular to our disciplines, and which are particular to us — and articulate those things to our students.
I can’t emphasize enough her point about teaching students how to read. They don’t know how to read. What seems obvious to us – about methodologies, about what is significant, about the central idea of something that we assign: they honestly don’t always have the ability to access that. You hope – hope – especially if you’re teaching those students as juniors and seniors, that somewhere down the line before they got to you that somebody taught them how to read. But the bottom line is everybody since their eighth grade teacher has hoped for that. And if you’re a professor, well, you really are the end of the line on the “teaching them how to read” thing. And you can choose to teach that, or you can choose to blame them for not knowing it already. I say all the time that the work that I do is teaching students how to read. How to analyze. How to think through the things that I assign them. And I’m very clear about the fact that I can’t hope for them to write well about the things that I teach if they haven’t crossed that reading threshold first. Students must read well before they can write well about what they’ve read. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I think many of us professor-types think that we’re too good to teach reading. And that only results in more painful grading for us. That sense of self-importance on our parts doesn’t produce better writing for our students.
These Kids Today! I Blame Secondary Education!
But so then you wonder: what are they learning in the 12 years of enforced education that they have before they ever get to college? Look, my high school BFF is a high school English teacher, and another grand friend of mine, whom I’ll call Former Awesome Student (FAS – but really I wanted to name her Former Student With Whom I Should Have Been Friends for a Hell of a Long Time Before We Actually Became Friends, as we are the same age and so clearly are “kindred spirits,” but you can’t actually be grand friends with a student while you’re teaching her, and so it took a while to get our shit together on that score because we had to get past the professor-student nonsense of the whole thing) is also a high school English teacher, so I know a good amount of something about what happens in high school classrooms. High school teachers aren’t failing, when it comes to teaching writing or teaching reading. And in fact, high school students might write better than college students, in some ways. In some ways, I really think, the bad writing that we get as professors is produced by a university education. As Anastasia, who is very happily teaching high school after the Ph.D., writes:
My students are generally very good writers–I correct very few grammar mistakes because they write strong sentences. I swear, I have been reading 9th, 10th, and 11th grade writing since September and I have yet to correct anybody using the passive voice.
Here’s how I’d respond to that: I think that students who are very capable writers in high school “learn” in college how to write badly. Why? Because they start thinking that what “sounds good” (and more words obviously sound better! And this is especially the case for English majors!) is what will achieve a “good grade.” They think this because college professors indicate (though their grades) that this is the case. In other words, students (people) find new ways to write badly as they progress as writers. My current problem is equivocation. My current tick is “seems.” Everything “seems” like something because I’m afraid to make a case for my actual argument. Whereas my problem in graduate school was a “lack of sophistication.” Whereas my problem in undergrad was wordiness and lack of precision in my word choice. We can all be bad writers, at every step of the way. We find new ways to be bad writers, even once we’ve fixed what were our “bad writing” problems. So yes, high school students may be more grammatical and more clear writers than college students are. And I hope that they stay that way. But mostly, they don’t. Especially if they are English majors. In other words, even these things don’t indicate an identity as a bad writer. They just indicate the fucked up way in which the progress of a writer works.
And Then There’s the Issue of Cultivating a “Feminist” Classroom
Complicating all of the above is a desire (and it even is my desire, too) to cultivate a classroom environment that is feminist in its orientation, or, if not feminist, at least egalitarian. I am not a fan of a classroom that feels like a war-zone. That said, I’m also not a fan of a classroom that feels like a “book club.” (As why the fuck do you need a professor if all you’re going to do is talk about how you felt about the readings, or how you enjoyed them?)
I think Canuck Down South’s comment captured my ambivalence:
It’s started to make me question a lot of (especially feminist-inspired) pedagogical guides I’ve read that talk about creating an accepting atmosphere in the classroom: I’ve realized that I don’t want to create an atmosphere that’s so accepting that sloppy or shoddy work is accepted (and yes, I’ve seen many older professors do this, most–though not all–of them women).
Jackie responded back, and I thought it was a great response:
I wanted to address something said upthread by an earlier commenter, who questioned how you could set standards for not accepting sloppy work while also practicing a feminist and “accepting” style of pedagogy. For me, the distinction is that my students are always aware (I hope) that I am pushing them so hard because I truly and deeply want them to succeed and will do everything reasonably within my power to help them do so. This is accepting, to me, as opposed to the style of pedagogy that castigates students for not “getting it,” shuts them out of further supported revision, and implies that they are stupid for not being better writers and therefore deserve punishment.
I suppose I’ll just add this: I don’t think it’s feminist to hold women and/or students who identify as queer to a lower standard out of a politics of acceptance. I think it is feminist to prepare those students to go toe-to-toe with those who would attempt to shut them down. I am not of the “kumbaya” school of classroom management, for two reasons. First, it allows assholes to run over students who are all “kumbaya.” It’s my job to keep things on track, and if it’s a free-for all, then it’s always the assholes who get the most airtime, which I don’t think is best for any of my students. Second, I want for my students to feel empowered, and I don’t believe that power comes from passive “acceptance” of every single idea. You have to feel free to object. Because lots of things are objectionable. What makes a classroom feminist is not erasing objection from it – it’s creating a kind of discourse community where reasoned objection – even if it goes against dominant cultural norms – is possible. At least that’s what I think.
Does Teaching Writing Mean Assigning More Graded Work?
This is the final question, and this is the question that NicoleandMaggie raised:
This isn’t a writing class, but I’m wondering if next time I teach the class I’m going to have to make them do things like turn in outlines, say who their audience is etc. etc… all things they were supposed to get last semester so many times that they’re doing them automatically now.
My short answer is no. No, that’s not how you teach your students how to write. My students do not submit outlines. My students do not submit drafts that I grade. I do, in writing classes (for most papers), and for papers worth more than 20% of the final grade (in lit classes), comment on drafts while students do peer review. Briefly, I give them three major things to address between the draft and the final submission. I do not “pre-grade” my students’ work. And I assume that students – even in writing classes – are responsible for making their own outlines. Why don’t I do this stuff? Because I believe in an explicit assignment. My assignments clearly articulate the organization that I expect, the audience for whom they are writing. Teaching writing effectively doesn’t mean more graded work. Even when I comment on drafts, that’s not for a grade. It’s for the comments. In other words, I don’t think that attaching everything to a grade is the point, really, with teaching students how to write. The point is about getting them to care about writing well – because they want to write well. Assigning an outline won’t produce good writing. Assigning an outline will produce a student who writes up an outline so as not to get a zero. Frankly, we all should want more from our students than that. I can write more about this if people want to hear it, but the bottom line is, assigning an outline or a draft or (as in olden times, when I was in high school) note cards, only gives students a hoop to jump through. And their papers might still (and often will still) suck.
So What Does All This Have to Do with the Title of This Post?
Today I met with a student about her paper – a paper which fell in the middle of papers in that shitty-paper class – because she was freaking out. She “had never received lower than an A on a paper in English in college.” And yet, I explained to her where that C- came from. I explained from her what would make it better. I showed her how she was shying away from her actual ideas, and I showed her how refusing to do that would improve her analysis and her transitions. No, I wasn’t “accepting” and “nurturing” or whatever, in some squishy way, but I was really, really supportive and helpful. At the end of our meeting, she said to me, “Look, I know this is going to sound weird, but thank you for giving me that C-.” Seriously. She said that. Because apparently getting all A’s makes a student “complacent” and makes a student feel like she doesn’t have anything left to learn, that she’s just going through the motions. And when she read my comments, she saw clearly that I was commenting on real things, and she so appreciated that I met with her to go over it further. And I was so appreciative that she actually came in to meet with me, as I told her. My point here, I suppose, is that this is teaching. This is the whole motherfucking point. And yes it is hard, and it’s exhausting, and it is grueling, and it is not what I’d pick to do on vacation or anything. But when was the last time you had a student thank you for a C-? And wouldn’t you rather they do that than ignore you because you curved them up, or hate you because you refused to teach them how to do it better?
This might not be a teaching philosophy according to script of search committees, but it sure is my teaching philosophy as a tenured professor. And yes, I am unaccountably proud that a student thanked me for a crappy grade. This means that the grade did its job.
PS – this student will probably get an A, or at the very least a B when all is said and done. But not because I gave it to her but rather because she worked her ass off for it. And that’s what I call good teaching, too.