Fail Better: Blogiversary Final Post

If there’s one thing we need to teach our students, it’s how to make use of failure.

For  the final instalment in my series celebrating seven years of blogging here at Classroom as Microcosm, I give you my most shared post ever.  This response to Paul Tough’s article “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” (a precursor to his wonderful and deservedly celebrated book How Children Succeed) was chosen by WordPress as a “Freshly Pressed” feature and attracted 246 insightful comments and exchanges.

It’s also my favourite post, one I return to over and over to remind myself that when my students are panicking, the best thing I can say to them is, “You can’t do it? That’s fine.  Do it anyway.”

(I might also show them this, because it is awesome.)

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Last week, my students were preparing for their first in-class essay, and they were freaking out.

We’re writing commentaries.  In a commentary, you read a short text you haven’t seen before and then comment on the themes or effects that the author has produced, and explain how he/she has produced them.  Commentaries are hard, but we’ve been working on them for weeks now, and they’re mostly getting the hang of it.  Now that they know they’ll be graded, though, they’re panicking.

In one class, a handful sat paralyzed during our final exercise, unable to write anything at all on their paper.  I visited each of them periodically, asking them probing questions and nudging them to put something, anything, down.  They scratched a few notes, then stared at the page, their faces immobilized.

“Is this ok?” Octavia asked me repeatedly.  “Does my thesis statement make sense?  If I want to talk about the point of view, can I do that?  What should I say?”

“Just write it down,” I said.  “We’ll discuss in a few minutes.  Just write it down.”

At the end of the practice class, I asked all the students to share what they had come up with, and some seemed to have a handle on things.  Others who’d been floundering looked more and more relieved as I wrote thesis after thesis on the board and said, “Yes, this is what you’re after!  Please explain!  You see, it’s not easy, but with a bit of thought, you can get started.”

I went directly to my other section of the same course, and there, things went south much more quickly and noisily.

I asked them to do the same individual exercise, to be discussed together at the end of class.  It was clear that a number of them had no idea where to begin.  For a few, this wasn’t surprising: they’d missed classes and previous practice essays and were only now realizing that it was catching up with them.  Nevertheless, the instructions were clear, they had a rubric with all of the criteria in front of them, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS SO FAR THIS SEMESTER has been preparation for this essay.

Some students were working diligently away, but most, after a cursory reading of the assigned text and a few moments of simmering silence, began talking to their neighbours.  They were on task – they were asking for help, comparing notes, all things that would normally be par for the class.  But the noise was growing louder, and the purpose of this exercise was to do the work alone.

I reminded them of this.  “Next class, you have to write this essay by yourself.  Your neighbour can’t help you.  Why aren’t you taking advantage of the practice time right now?”

The grumbles began.  “Miss, can we have, like, a five minute discussion after we get the text next class, so we can share our thoughts?”

“No.”

“But miss, it’s hard!”

“Of course it’s hard!” I cried.  “If it were easy, there’d be no reason to study it in school!”

But I paused.  Something was happening here that I wasn’t acknowledging.  What was it?  I let them buzz a little longer, and then I marched to the front of the room.

“Listen to me,” I said.  They stopped talking.

“I am VERY CONCERNED,” I said.  “But it’s not because I don’t think you can do this.  I’m concerned because YOU don’t think you can do it.  You’re panicking and throwing your hands in the air and not even trying.”

“We’re like the girl in the passage!” Jamila piped up.  “She can’t do what she wants, so she just gives up doing anything!”

“You see?” I said.  “Jamila and I have been talking for twenty minutes and she’s been saying she doesn’t understand.  But see?  She understands SOMETHING.”

“But it’s not enough, miss,” Jamila said.  “What else am I supposed to say?”

“Listen to me,” I said.  “I guarantee you, if you come in next class believing you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.”

“Guaranteed!”  Zack nodded and pointed through the air at me in a “sing it, sister” gesture.

“But you can do SOMETHING, if you stop worrying about doing it wrong.  If you sit there for two hours and write a bunch of notes and come up with a thesis statement or a literary device or anything, you’ll get any points I can give you.  Then, when you take it home later to revise, you’ll have something to start the next draft with.  You might fail this essay.  But if you fail the essay, THE WORLD WILL NOT END.”

Zack raised his hands to the sky.  “Thank you miss!” he yelled.  “I need to hear that.  I do.”

“Just do it.  Even if you think your ideas are ridiculous, just write them down.  If the draft you do in class doesn’t make any sense, we’ll work on it, and you’ll do it again at home, and maybe next time it will be better.  Honestly, guys, if you get out of college not knowing how to write a perfect literary commentary, it’s not a big deal.  But if you get out of college knowing that now you can sit with a random text for a couple of hours and come up with some things to say about it, that will be an accomplishment.”

I let them go.  I came home exhausted.  My New York Sunday Times was still sitting on the table, untouched.  I pulled out the Magazine, to discover, on the cover, Paul Tough’s essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, he interviews teachers, principals and other educators who believe that “character” – variously defined – is a more important ingredient in long-term life success than academic smarts are.

Tough writes much of his article about the American KIPP schools, charter schools for students in difficulty.  KIPP graduates an impressive number of its at-risk students, but followup studies have shown that these students don’t always thrive once they get to college, and a large number don’t complete their degrees.  According to one of his subjects,

 the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically [at the KIPP schools]; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead…

Another researcher tells him,

…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Tough, reflecting on these observations, comments that

the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students…

According to Tough and some of his subjects, the key ingredient is grit, the ability to persist in the face of obstacles and even failure.

GRIT! I thought.  This is what I’ve been saying all along!  If I can face down my limitations, if I can labour to be, not perfect, but better – I will be … happy?  Is grit something we can learn?  If so, how can we teach it?

Two days later, my students were still labouring to be perfect.  In my first class, I had to visit Octavia several times.  “STOP SECOND-GUESSING YOURSELF,” I told her.

“I know, miss,” she said.  “I always do that, always.  I don’t know how to stop.”

I don’t know how to help her stop, either.  But after I whispered “WRITE IT DOWN” one more time, and walked away, she began writing things down.  She filled a couple of pages.  I haven’t read them yet, but those pages, regardless of what’s on them, are an achievement.

Teaching them how to write a commentary is all very well, but what is it for?  Maybe the main thing is for is to help them practice grit: Yes, it’s hard.  Just keep going.  If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.

We need to spend less time talking about literary techniques and more time talking about grit.

Image by shho

What’s the Use of the Academic Paper?: Blogiversary Post #9

I’m still asking myself this question – “Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?” – three years after publishing the original version of this post.  In the interim, I’ve listened to the audiobook of Now You See It (discussed below), and I’m still not sure whether I’m onside with Davidson’s perspective.  It seems to me that the academic paper has got to go, but something just as rigorous needs to take its place.  Do you have thoughts on this?

When this post first appeared, it was chosen as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” feature and received 178 very interesting comments.

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Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?  Will learning to write papers help students develop the skills they will need later in their lives?

In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson asks “whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”  Davidson examines the roots of our contemporary education culture and suggests that we need to look back to pre-Industrial-Revolution models and forward to the murky future.  As Virginia Heffernan explains, in her review of Davidson’s book (“Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade“) in the New York Times:

The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules.  That curriculum represented a dramatic departure from earlier approaches to education. In “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson cites the elite Socratic system of questions and answers, the agrarian method of problem-solving and the apprenticeship program of imitating a master. It’s possible that any of these educational approaches would be more appropriate to the digital era than the one we have now.

This is old news – education needs to be skills-based, collaborative, constructivist, blabla.  However, Heffernan focuses particularly on Davidson’s discussion of the academic paper.  After reading insightful, well-written student blogs and then being appalled by the quality of the same students’ research papers, Davidson began to wonder whether it was the form, not the students, that was at fault.  After some research, Davidson concludes that, in Heffernan’s words,

Even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

I’m not, at first glance, convinced by this argument – we’ve all read the “work” published every day on the Internet, and in many cases its “prolificness” is one of its many problems.  That said, I have students keep blogs in some of my courses, and I love them – you can SEE the learning happening as students wrestle with course topics and literature and relate them to their own experiences.  I don’t do blogs in every course because a) I’m required to have them write a certain number of papers, and it can all get to be a bit too much for me, and b) the majority of my students have not received the time-consuming training in digital communication that Davidson says they need.  However, if more space were made in the curriculum for online forms of writing, and we could limit the number of formal papers and make them an outgrowth of the online work, we might be on our way to something resembling “authentic learning tasks.”

I’ve been saying for a while that the research paper is going the way of the dinosaurs, and that we need to develop viable academic approaches to the blog and other online forms so that students can learn to write things that people actually read.  (The fact that no one reads academic papers isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, but now we have an alternative that gives researchers a real potential audience.)

What is the place of the formal academic paper in the future of education?  Should it continue to look the way it does now, or is it time to ask students to do something new?

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Tomorrow: my all-time #1 most shared post, on succeeding through failing.

Image by kristja

10 Best Excuses For Missing Class: Blogiversary Post #8

ojY7HqqWhen this post first went up in 2009, it was discovered by Sarah Ebner, then the editor of The Times UK’s education blog, School Gate.  Her promotion drove up its stats, and it got shared around.  Of note: Other than end-of-year roundups of favourite books and most-viewed posts, I have only done two “listicles” in this blog’s history – this one and the list of “10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment” – and both are in the top ten most viewed and most shared posts.  I should probably learn something from this.

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10 Best Excuses for Missing Class That My Students Have Actually Given Me, For Real

10. My mother made me give my dog away three days ago and I haven’t stopped crying since then.

9. While driving to school, I fell asleep at the wheel. I pulled over and napped instead of coming to class.

8. My boyfriend was stabbed at a club on Saturday. He’s okay, but I’m finding it hard to concentrate on school right now.

7. A drug lord burned our house down.

6. I had to go visit my brother in jail.

5. My little sister locked me in my closet.

4. My bank card was cloned by the corner store up the street. They wiped out my bank account and I didn’t even have money for subway fare.

3. My Ritalin stopped working. You really wouldn’t have wanted me to come to class.

2. I’ve never met my father. On Friday, I saw an obituary in the paper for my paternal grandfather’s funeral. I contacted my dad through the funeral home. Since then, my father’s entire extended family has been harassing me on Facebook demanding to meet me. I haven’t told my mother. I’m having a nervous breakdown.

1. I pulled my back reaching into the fridge for margarine.

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Monday: Is the academic paper obsolete?

Image by Gesine Kuhlmann

 

Triumph Over Burnout: Blogiversary Post #4

At the beginning of the new school year, some of us feel refreshed and eager; others, not so much.  If you’re filled with dread at the thought of vacation’s end (not the ordinary oh-I-wish-I-could-read-novels-on-the-deck-forever dread, but the more acute why-am-I-doing-this-with-my-life dread), then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate: is teaching really what you want to do?

For a while, I wasn’t sure.  I started this blog as a tool to help me wrestle with this question.  Seven years later, I’m still teaching, but my perspective on the profession has changed.

In 2009, Sarah Ebner, then of the Times UK’s School Gate blog, asked me to write a series of guest posts; I chose to write about my journey through burnout and out the other side.  A few years later, she gave my permission to re-print those posts here on Classroom as Microcosm, and those posts are among the most shared in CaM’s seven-year history.  I collected them on this page; you will also find the links below.

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Are you burnt out?  Demoralized?  So was I.  I did some stuff.  It helped.  Now I love my job again.  Maybe you can too!

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Tomorrow: a useful analogy to help students understand essay structure.

Image by VooDoo4u2nv

Why Do I Have To Learn This? Blogiversary Post #3

I asked my students to read the essay I discuss in this post, and to explain which of Menand’s three “theories” they subscribed to.  Their responses were mixed.  Then they asked me which theory I believed in, and I was unable to give them a definitive answer.  Almost three years later, I’m still not sure.  What about you?

This, my eighth-most-shared post of the last seven years, first appeared in 2011.

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Every so often, students ask me, “Why do we have to learn this?”

It’s no use telling them that learning is a good thing, period.  They’re taking seven or eight classes.  Some are doing “part-time” jobs that have them working thirty hours a week.  Making out with their boyfriends is a good thing.  Playing Mortal Kombat is a good thing.  Reading a book or understanding “setting” is … required for some reason.

In an essay called “Live and Learn: Why We Have College,”   Louis Menand reports that, soon after he started teaching at a public university, a student asked him, “Why did we have to read this book?” (a question Menand says he never got  at his former, Ivy League, teaching job.  This surprises me a little.)  According to Menand, your answer to this question will depend on your view of university education.

Those who hold one view will say,

You are reading these books because you’re in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.

For such people, a university degree is a signal that one has learned certain things, a useful tag for indicating that you know things that other people don’t, that you’ve read books that non-university people have not.

Those holding another view will say,

You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.

This view holds that

 people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

That is to say: because you’re in college, you have a chance to do things that are valuable, but that won’t necessarily earn you a big salary or help you land a client.  So read this book that I say will improve you.

If you believe that college is a threshing machine, separating wheat from chaff (Theory 1), then grades, at least passing ones, are what matters, so that when you graduate, you will be seen as wheat, not chaff, in the larger world.  If you believe that college is a place to accumulate knowledge that will serve you in all aspects of your life and self, (Theory 2), then learning is what matters, regardless of the grades attached to it.

These theories are not compatible.  Learning requires risks, frustrations, even failures.  “Good grades,” more often than not, require a lot of memorization, or at least an understanding of what the teacher wants and a willingness to try to produce it.  A desire for good grades can be detrimental to actual learning.

As Menand points out, though, our colleges and universities (and, I would add, our schools, from first grade forward) seem to operate as though BOTH theories were true.  We tell our students that learning is what matters, that we are teaching them to think critically, that they will be better, fuller people because they went to college.  And then we teach them that a bad grade is, well, bad.  Sometimes we even get angry with them because they fail a test or misunderstand an assignment.

To complicate matters, Menand claims that these two theories really only address education of the liberal arts variety.  Most college students, on the other hand, are not majoring in humanities of any kind: the most popular major in the US is business, followed by education and the health professions.  For these students, Menand writes, university is about neither grades as a sorting tool nor learning for its own sake.

The theory that fits their situation—Theory 3—is that advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation…

Nevertheless, he points out, students in these programs are almost always required to take courses in English and other humanities.  This is where many – perhaps most – of the students in my English classes find themselves.  Everyone must take four English courses, regardless of their program.  There is no literature major at my college; the closest we have are programs in communications (subtitle: art, media, theatre) and in modern languages, along with a very small liberal arts cohort.  Most of my students are in science, social science, or professional programs.  Science students are usually strong students, and sometimes they care about learning things, but their bent is often toward getting into medical school or engineering programs in university (Theory 1).  Social science students, especially those without specialized majors, frequently have no idea what they want to do and had poor high school grades, making them ineligible for more rigorous programs (Theory? What theory?)  And students in industrial electronics or office systems technology or nursing are likely to tell me that they can see the point of learning grammar or maybe even how to structure an essay, but reading Death of a Salesman is of no use to them whatever (Theory 3).

And really, are they wrong?  The fact is, unless I or another English teacher sparks something in them that gives Death of a Salesman meaning, it might forever remain a dead pile of alphabet on the page for them (or maybe it will forever remain the image of John Malkovich, as Biff, dripping from all his facial orifices as he weeps, a scene students find both disgusting and hilarious.)

Our vision of “college” is hopelessly outdated.  Throughout his essay, Menand outlines the same historical trajectory that Alan Jacob does: the  broadening of the university student population since the days when a college education was reserved for the upper classes.  By the 1980s, universities were full of people of all different cultural, educational, gender and economic backgrounds, many of whom could never have gone to college in the pre-war era.

These students did not regard college as a finishing school or a ticket punch. There was much more at stake for them …. For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it—not only financially but socially and personally. They were finally getting a bite at the apple. College was supposed to be hard. Its difficulty was a token of its transformational powers.  This is why “Why did we have to buy this book?” [is] such a great question. The student who asked it was not complaining. He was trying to understand how the magic worked.

Menand is describing a Theory 1 response that he feels has all but disappeared: going to college makes me important and special.  I know that some of my students still feel this; they may have recently arrived in Canada from a place where a university education was impossible for them, or they may come from a family where they are the first to have graduated from high school.

Most, however are NOT trying to understand some magic external to themselves.  When my students ask, “Why do I have to learn this?”, they are trying to make sense of a system that seems arbitrary, full of hoops to jump through and dead-end labyrinths.  They truly do not understand why they have to do all these things we’re asking them to do.  What does this have to do with my career, or my life? they ask.

Maybe it’s never been explained to them, but more likely, it’s been explained to them over and over, and they just. Don’t. Buy it.  And why not?  Because it’s MY theory, MY reasoning, MY agenda, and I have not even taken a second to ask what their agendas are.

Is it possible for us to take the question “Why do I have to learn this?” seriously?  Because it is a serious question.  We often moan about how students no longer want to learn for the sake of learning, but we need to think about what we’re saying.  “Learning for its own sake” is an incredibly privileged activity, one that requires time, money, and the luxury of wandering along a wide, brachiated path into the future.  Most students do not have these privileges; they need to see their school and homework hours as useful.  If I can’t convince them that the definition of “useful” is bigger than the definition we’ve taught them until now, then a passing grade will be their only incentive.

“Why do I have to read/think about/know this?” is a place at which education can begin, if we answer the question authentically, or, even better, if we ask them to answer it for us.  If we show interest in their theories, they might become curious about ours, and together, we might be able to make some learning happen.

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Monday: how I saved my teaching career.

Image by Bjorn Snelders

Summer Book Club Week 2: The Chairs are Where The People Go

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

chairs2Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? was one of my Top 10 Books of 2012.  I described that book as “exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring…self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.” The Chairs are Where the People Go is an entirely different sort of book. It still sounds like Sheila Heti, but it isn’t, really; it’s her friend Misha Glouberman, channeled through Heti’s typing hands.  It’s neither exhilarating nor befuddling; it might be inspiring, but I’m not sure.  It’s not self-absorbed, nor is it miniature, really, and its scope is – medium-sized.

In the introduction, Heti says that she finds Glouberman so interesting that she tried to write a novel about him, and failed, because her imaginary Misha just didn’t measure up to the real one.  So instead, she decided to spend a lot of time with him, ask him a bunch of questions, and transcribe his answers.  The result is this book, a collection of mini-essays on topics ranging from charades to neighbourhood associations to monogamy to absenteeism.

Some of it is boring.  I studied improv as a teenager, and so should probably be intrigued by Glouberman’s insights into how to improvise correctly, but I’m not.  Performance, as art and as metaphor, is the subject of a number of chapters, and I feel that it wears thin. However, the good thing about brief chapters is that if you don’t care for this one, the next one could be (and in this case often is) a nice surprise.  Let’s look at a couple of observations that I like.

I had certain ideas about what kind of person my girlfriend might be.  I met Margaux and I was pretty fascinated by her.  She’s a remarkably unusual person…I was with her for a while and I kept thinking, This is so not like the person I’d imagined. And at the same time I thought, once the relationship got at all serious, Well, I’m kind of stuck, because there’s no way in the world that I’m going to be able to find someone who’s sort of like Margaux but better, because there’s no one like Margaux.

Or this:

Margaux and I [watched] some terrible monologues being performed at some club in New York.  I was so angry and outraged that they thought that it was fair to make the demand, I’m going to talk now and you all have to shut up and listen.  I told Margaux, You have to be really sure that what you are saying is worthwhile and good before you ask that of people. She thought I was wrong…If the contract is that you have to be absolutely certain that it’s going to be worth people’s while, nobody would do anything…I think she’s probably right, but I can’t help feeling this way.

These little moments where you stop and realize “I’ve thought things like this but didn’t even know I was thinking them” are masterful.  They sneak up on you, like a neighbourhood cat who’s always around, but whom you don’t notice until he’s sitting in a different driveway.  Glouberman is opinionated but self-questioning, and that’s my favourite sort of person, so hanging out with him and listening to him hold forth on random stuff is…fine.

One difficulty is that the back cover and some other reviews I’ve read describe this book as funny, but I don’t find it funny at all.  And I think I’ve figured out why not.  Glouberman is the straight man, and the world around him is the funny guy.  I think his serious, rather naive tone is what people find amusing.  For example, in a chapter on preparing a bar audience for a performance, Glouberman explains,

One of the very last things I do when I give people instructions on how to enjoy the show is that I encourage them to shush other people if they are talking.  I give them some different techniques for doing this.  I tell them if they want to be direct and aggressive, they can turn around an shush the person angrily, or if they prefer a more passive-aggressive style, they can cover their mouths with their hands so no one will know who did the shushing….Inevitably during any show in a bar, people eventually do talk, and instead of me having to reprimand them from the stage in some authoritarian way…a number of people in the audience do the shushing….As a performer on stage, this saves you the terrible indignity of having to ask the audience every five minutes to simmer down and listen to you.

Is this funny?  I suspect it’s funny.  It isn’t funny to me.  Why?  In my life, I’m the straight man.  (I happen to be married to the funniest person alive, so this works out pretty well.) What Gloubernan’s describing here is, as far as I’m concerned, an excellent idea.  It sounds like something I’d do if I thought of it.  In fact, I might even start using this technique in my classes so that students will shut each other up.  This has been happening throughout my reading; I think, “Well, sure.  That’s a good idea,” or, “Yes, exactly.  Isn’t that how everyone sees it?” And then I think, “Why am I reading these incredibly ordinary thoughts?”

Glouberman is a lot more intelligent and articulate and experienced than I am.  He does a lot of brave things that I would never do, like teaching classes in charades or becoming a neighbourhood residents’ rights activist.  However, his view of the world is more or less mine, and  he is, much like me, very serious about his view of the world.  This may be entertaining to people who find him odd, but is not terribly entertaining to me, because I don’t find him odd at all.

I’m 115 pages in, and I feel like I could take or leave the last 60, but I have the sense that maybe something I don’t expect is going to happen, so I may follow through.  Have you read this book?  Would you recommend I finish it?  Have you encountered any of Heti’s or Glouberman’s other work?  If so, what did you think?

If not, what are you reading this week?

“I AM the Teacher”

After a long and infuriating day of grading final papers, here’s a random quote from my favourite writer that makes me feel oddly, ambivalently better.

‘You act,’ said one of her Senior Seminar students at a scheduled conference, ‘like your opinion is worth more than everybody else’s in the class.’

Zoe’s eyes widened.  ‘I AM the teacher,’ she said.  ‘I DO get paid to act like that.’ She narrowed her gaze at the student, who was wearing a big leather bow in her hair, like a cowgirl in a TV ranch show. ‘I mean, otherwise EVERYBODY in the class would have little offices and office hours.’ … She stared at the student some more, then added, ‘I bet you’d like that.’

‘Maybe I sound whiny to you,’ said the girl, ‘but I simply want my history major to mean something.’

‘Well, there’s your problem,’ said Zoe, and with a smile, she showed the student to the door. ‘I like your bow,’ she added.

Lorrie Moore, from “You’re Ugly, Too”

Plagiarism: From Bad to Worse

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe following exchange took place this weekend on my personal Facebook page.  What would you do in my shoes?

Siobhan: Colleagues and others, I need help. A student has clumsily copied a definition from Wikipedia into his introduction without attribution. His essay is otherwise his own work. My inclination is to let him off with a 0 in “expression” and a stern warning. However, I have already given one of his classmates (and a friend of his) a 0% for copying a couple of lines into his essay from the novel publisher’s website. That seems like a more egregious offense to me, but I’m having trouble explaining this to myself. Thoughts?

Ms. A.: I think it’s equally egregious. Both were unattributed quotations from websites, no?

Siobhan: I think my hesitation is because it’s so common for students to do this with definitions. They seem not to understand that a definition is a set of carefully chosen words, as opposed to a Platonic form that belongs to everyone.

Ms. B.: If you can’t explain it to yourself, you can’t justify it to them, either. Copying and pasting from a different source without attribution is plagiarism. Also, isn’t it questionable to be quoting Wikipedia anyway?

Siobhan: Wikipedia wasn’t used as a “source” per se – the student needed a grabber in his introduction, and we talked about definitions as weak but acceptable grabbers, so I suspect he took it from there. His essay-writing skills are poor, and I’m pretty sure this was an essay-writing error and not a deliberate attempt to pull something over on me. In the other student’s case, copying from the website added nothing to the essay except to fill out the word count. Thus my dilemma.

Here’s the relevant passage in the college Cheating and Plagiarism policy: “Plagiarism versus incorrect or incomplete documentation of sources: Many… college students have not yet developed the academic skills necessary to correctly and completely document sources used in an assignment….Teachers should endeavour to distinguish between students who incorrectly or incompletely document source material and students who attempt to cheat, through plagiarism, by copying source material and presenting this material as their own original work.”

Ms. C.: In similar cases, I have let the student fix the error but told them that I would grade them on 80 instead of 100. It looks like you are accomplishing the same thing by grading a portion of the essay at 0%. I do this in cases where I really do think it was a question of simply not understanding that what they did was wrong.

Siobhan: Ms. C., would you do the same for the student who copied from the publisher’s website?

Ms. C.: If it was their first essay, and it was the only instance of plagiarism in the paper, I would let them fix it for a reduced grade.

Siobhan: I’m tempted to write to the student and say, “Give me a reason not to give you a zero, taking into account the fact that someone in your class got a zero for a similar offense. My feeling is that your offense is less serious, but I can’t figure out why, so convince me.”

Ms. C.: Sometimes what I do when I am uncertain is I set up a face to face meeting with them. I let that interaction help me decide whether to let then redo for a reduced grade or assign a 0.

Siobhan: I think that’s what I’ll do. In the meantime, I’m giving him a zero and will see what he says.

Ms. D.: I like the end of this exchange: I think I too would start by assigning a zero (or no mark at all) and then arrange a meeting. I try to explain things unemotionally and objectively, and also I don’t make any final decision on the spot, while the student is there with me. The passage you cite from the policy leads me to believe that there is plenty of wiggle room here for you, and I completely understand your desire to find that ‘wiggle room’ and use it, but on the other hand, really, students often learn very little from the ‘stern warning’ if there are no actual consequences to their actions. I have certainly had occasion to give a student a 0 knowing that they are fully capable of passing the course with the rest of the work, but what remains with them is that they could have had a significantly better grade, had they made better decisions. Now, if this is a 1st semester student, I would tend to be more lenient; but for a post-intro student, less so.

Siobhan: Yes, one of the considerations here is that this is a post-intro student. To his classmate who earned the zero I said, “You didn’t just arrive in college this minute. You know what plagiarism is. If you don’t, you haven’t been paying attention.”

Ms. E.: At my school (I teach international students who want to go to university, and plagiarism is a huge issue), after the first instance of plagiarism, the student can rewrite the plagiarized parts and resubmit with no penalty. But their name (and details of the offence) goes into a database, which teachers can check. Each subsequent offence (in any class) carries a heavier penalty. They’re let off easily for the first offence because they often don’t connect the ‘theory’ of what plagiarism is to their own practice until they’ve actually screwed up.

Ms. F.: Well, Siobhan, since you said the essay was the student’s work with the exception of the definition, it seems that his intentions were not to plagiarize. How old is this kid? As the mother of a teenaged boy, sometimes all they need is for things to be pointed out to them. I’d give the student the option of fixing it up which I hope he would gladly do. Tell him that you do not expect this repeated action again. I would allow him to redo that part, then mark him. Like I said, I have no idea how old these students are but I’m all about helping them learn and grow from their errors. If this continues, of course, the consequence would be different.

Siobhan: These are college students, and they’ve all been in college for at least a year. They’ve had plagiarism explained to them many, many times by many different teachers. My approach to a first-semester student is always considerably more lenient, but at this point, they’re expected to know these things.

Ms. F.: College student – totally different ball game. Thought they were younger. Yup, I’d have no tolerance for plagiarism at that level.

Ms. G.: I think I might dispute that they all fully understand plagiarism by second semester. Some students in some classes are encouraged to do just what these two students have done and documentation isn’t stressed or even covered. I think with a definition students assume a second party, as you mentioned. Unless the student blatantly says my definition of this is… I don’t know that I would fully penalize either student for just a couple of lines, though reducing their possible grade seems fair.

Siobhan: I would never suggest that they all fully understand it – I would only suggest that they SHOULD, and are responsible if they don’t, especially as it’s already been discussed in our class. Also, this is not second semester but second year for most of these guys. If a student were able to demonstrate to me that he/she had been misguided in another class as to what proper documentation is, I’d certainly take that into account, but if we don’t penalize students for a “couple of lines,” then the concept of plagiarism is not very meaningful. There are of course exceptions and blurry areas, but a student in his second year of college who copies sentences from an online plot summary into his essay needs to feel the full force of the consequences as far as I’m concerned. The fact that some others are not enforcing these consequences is part of the overall problem.

Ms. G.: I’m not advocating being soft on plagiarism; I’d just go with your gut on this one.

Readers, what should I do?

Image by John Nyberg

Fiction Makes You Better at Stuff

nprPVY0I’m planning some research on whether reading/studying fiction and other kinds of narrative is really such an important thing to do.  I was therefore immediately drawn to this article (even though it’s Saturday night and I’m desperately trying to finish grading a stack of papers): a commentary on why techie geeks should read fiction.

Is it true?  Does reading fiction make us more creative?  Can it be “a funhouse mirror, a fantastic reflection that changes your perspective on something you see, but don’t necessarily see, every day”?  If so, is reading fiction better at doing that than other kinds of reading, watching, listening, doing?

I occasionally have a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting student or meet a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting person who writes well and analyzes admirably but claims to never/rarely read fiction.  I want to spend time following these people around to discover how they became so evolved while investing little time in a pursuit we readers often hold in higher intellectual/educational esteem than any other.

Does reading fiction really matter that much?  I can’t make up my mind.

Image by Dahlia

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