“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

This Book is Too Sad

o3XIW26A reader and colleague sent me this question the other day.  What would you do in her position?

Dear Siobhan,

A few of my college students (note, not the class as a whole) have told me they’re having a really hard time with the book we’re studying in class because it’s too sad. It’s The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. The principal person in this small group suggested that at her age, she’s too sensitive to read a book like this. She’s studied slavery before, but finds this book– which follows a slave woman’s life– too graphic, too emotionally difficult. How would you handle this?

H.

I’m not sure.   Dear readers, what do you think?  Should college students be obligated to read texts that challenge them emotionally in ways they might not be prepared for?  Please leave your thoughts below.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

Honeymoon’s Over

Yesterday’s adventures in college (really?) teaching:

  • A student who changed an answer on a returned quiz and tried to convince me that it was his original answer.
  • A student who asked me if it’s ok that she will have to leave class half an hour early at least once a week, even though I told her on the first day that if this is the case, she should not take a course at this hour.
  • A student who walks on chairs to get to his assigned partner, who doesn’t seem able to communicate below a yell and who speaks French with his classmates with a sort of sneaky, pulling-one-over-on-the-teacher amusement (because…he doesn’t think speaking French is allowed in English class?)

The semester, like childhood, goes through defined developmental stages.  We seem to be at the “testing the teacher” stage.

How Sexy is Too Sexy?

mllLe8AHow much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  If students have some say in whether they read the book, does that make a difference?

One of my courses includes a list of eight novels about adolescence.  Four or five students will read each novel and will work together to present it to the class.  I speak to them briefly about each book at the beginning of the semester.  They browse the books (I provide them with front and back covers and first chapters), and give me a list of their top three choices; I do my best to accommodate their preferences.

Each year, when ordering books for the coming semester, I look at the list from last time and adapt it, based on how the novels from the previous year went over.  This year, I’m jettisoning three novels from last time and replacing them with new ones.

As I carry out this process, I have a foolish habit.  In the scramble to put together a list of eight books (or, in a recent scenario, forty-five books) on a particular subject or of a particular genre, I sometimes throw in something that I haven’t actually read.  And for “sometimes,” read “often.”  Every time, I regret this decision.  And the next time, I do it again.  This semester I HAD to get my book orders in at a moment when I had NO TIME to do any extra reading.  And so I decided to once again throw caution to the winds, and ordered Scott Spencer’s Endless Love for my course on novels about adolescence.

I’d been meaning for years to read Endless Love, based on recommendations from a number of book critics I respect.  I’d even downloaded and read an excerpt on my e-reader, and was blown away by it, and had been intending to buy and read the whole thing ever since.  I hadn’t gotten around to it, but I figured that my impulse to keep reading, and the general critical acclaim the book has received, and its focus on adolescent love, made it suitable.  So I placed my order, and got myself a copy, and started reading.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Is it worth the hassle?  I’m three-quarters of the way through now; for the last 250 pages, there has been no sex, although I can see some on its way.  (Yes, another concern is that this novel is LONG.)  It’s a really good book, and some of them are going to love it.  If I want to pull it from the course, I need to let the bookstore know, like, now.

What’s a teacher to do?  Trust that they will choose wisely and handle the consequences?  Take the chance that there will be fallout?  Find another book?  What would you do?

Image by matchstick

The Art of Running Away

meSMNSmIt’s been a tough semester.

I’ve described some of the trials already: a new course that didn’t work very well, an unsuccessful experiment with blogs, a number of unpleasant end-of-semester exchanges.  More than a month after the end of classes, I’m still dealing with a challenge to one of my plagiarism rulings, and still awaiting a decision on what to do about a very rude email.

I’m also trying to work out a solution to a bigger problem, and the solution I like best is the one that probably reflects worst on me.

This semester I had an unusually high number of failures in one of my sections.  Actually, “unusually high” is hedging it – eleven out of forty failed.  For me, this is unheard of: I was consistently astonished by how weak the majority of the students in this section were, how resistant they were to following instructions, how unpleasant the atmosphere in the classroom was.

I interrogated myself about it.  Yes, the course was more challenging than it should have been, but I’d made adjustments, and the other section of the same course was doing fine.  (Four students in the other section had failed, three because they disappeared from the course and/or stopped handing in their work early on.) With only one or two exceptions, those who were making a good effort on all assignments were squeaking by.  It just seemed that there were a lot of students who weren’t invested, weren’t skilled enough to skate through, and weren’t really getting along with each other or with me.  The whole experience was nasty, and it was borne out in the course evaluations: while the other section was very positive, this section returned the worst evaluations I’ve ever received.

Generally speaking, once the semester is over, the grades are submitted, and some straggling complaints are dealt with, it’s time to move on.  Out with the old! Learn from your mistakes! etc. However, there’s a wrench in this scenario.

This course is a requirement for a major.  I’m currently the only teacher who teaches it.  This means that all these students – as many as FIFTEEN REPEATERS, not including students who have failed the course in previous semesters – will end up back in my class next winter.  This includes the student who has filed the plagiarism challenge, the author of the rude email, and the other students I mentioned in the post about requests for makeup work.  It also includes other plagiarists, other students who got angry at me about something or other, other students who have ALREADY failed the course before, and all sorts of other problematic situations.

Perhaps you can imagine how I feel.

So here’s the question.  My “good teacher” instinct is to say: Here’s a learning experience for you!  What are you going to do with this mess?  It will involve, obviously, a close examination of everything that went wrong with the course, and everything that I didn’t do to address issues as they came up.  It will involve up-front discussions with all the failing students right at the beginning of the semester.  It will involve careful “handling” of students who will be resentful and will believe that their failures are all my fault.  What a challenge!  What an opportunity for growth!

My “self-preservation” instinct is to ask someone else to teach this course next year.

I finished this semester exhausted and overwhelmed.  In addition to the struggles outlined above, I’ve been juggling other work, home renovations, MEd studies and, less and less, attempts to work on my own writing.  (As you may have noticed, my blog fell mostly by the wayside.)  The idea of not only trying to fix this broken course but doing it in the face of a pile of students who are coming in with a grudge feels like way, way too much. What I really need is a sabbatical, but I can’t afford one.  So maybe what I need is a sabbatical from this course.

This feels like a massive, cowardly cop-out.  It’s also what I really, really want to do.  Is there a way to justify it?

Image by Moi Cody

Makeup Work: 3 Scenarios

meZaC80I have a blanket policy against end-of-term makeup work for students who have failed.  If you didn’t complete all the assignments and get the extra help you needed during the semester (and if you did, you probably passed – it is extremely difficult to fail my courses), then you need to face the consequences.

This semester, I’ve received more requests for makeup work than ever before.  It’s exhausting.  Over the last few days, in particular, I’ve grappled with three scenarios that, when I add them all together, I can’t come to a comfortable decision on.  I need your advice.

1. Student 1 is a competent writer and could easily have passed the course.  When we met at midterm, we agreed that she was in serious danger of failing if she didn’t buckle in, come to class and do the work.  Nothing changed.  She did not do the required minimum of blog writing and didn’t show up to do her oral presentation.  A few days before the deadline for her final essay, she wrote pleading for extra work, citing personal problems throughout the semester, a need to graduate etc.  Answer was a blunt “no.”  She failed the course by a few points and wrote again to plead for allowances.  Answer?  Still no.

2. Student 2 failed this course with me once before, due to both poor skills and inattention to work and deadlines.  She was always pleasant but seemed confused and tuned-out, and repeatedly expressed surprise when it was pointed out that she had not followed (very clear) instructions.  For the first half of this semester, it seemed that her approach would be exactly the same as it had been last time.  By the second half, though, she started to try to pull herself together, mostly without success.  There were glimmers of potential in some of the things she produced, but deadlines were still missed, word counts nowhere close to met, writing riddled with all manner of errors.  Again, she looked surprised when told that she had failed assignments for these reasons.  A couple of weeks before the end of classes, she asked me to tell her honestly where she stood, and I told her honestly that there was no realistic chance she would pass.  She soldiered on anyway, and handed in what amounted to a good final paper, but it wasn’t enough.  The day after her final grade was posted, I received an email from her in which she began by wishing me a “pleasant good day” and then went on to say that she couldn’t believe that I “had taken pleasure in failing her by only 3 marks” and that it was clear that I had been “determined all semester to see her fail.”  She informed me that she had thought about “taking me to the dean” but had decided instead that she would benefit from doing the course again because she “had learned nothing in my class.”  (Perhaps she hasn’t put it together that, if she wants to maintain her major, she needs to take the course for a third time WITH ME.)  She ended by wishing me blessings from God.

3. Students 1 and 2 wouldn’t really trouble me if it weren’t for Student 3.  She is a nationally ranked athlete.  Her spoken and written English are very poor, and she was spotty in her completion of assignments.  At midterm, one of her coaches wrote to me and asked me to call him.  I hesitated, but did so, after confirming his identity with the student.  Only during the conversation with him did I discover that he was not a college coach, but a private one.  He informed me at length about Student 3′s prospects, including a scholarship to a major American university contingent upon her passing all courses.  I explained that I understood the situation but was not going to GIVE the student grades she wasn’t capable of, or dedicated to, earning.  I also asked some questions to find out who at Academic Advising is responsible for monitoring her progress (a setup in our “Sports Etudes” program in which elite athletes are given some academic flexibility to accommodate their training schedules).  I suggested that in future, the coach should ask this contact person to deal with me, and should not write or call teachers directly.  Nevertheless, I received a message from the coach again yesterday, asking about Student 3′s final results.  Although she had made significant effort on some assignments, others had remained undone, and I had posted her failing grade the day before.  I didn’t reply to the coach right away, but minutes later got a panicky email from the student, asking for extra work or other ways to make up her grades.  I immediately wrote to their contact at Academic Advising, asking him to handle the situation and contact me if needed.  He has promised to do so, but I am left with the question: if her results in my course are the only thing standing between her and the next important step in her academic and athletic career, do I take that into consideration?  If I decide to be flexible, should I also be flexible for Students 1 & 2?

What would you do in any of the above situations?  Does leniency for Student 3 also require leniency for the first two students, or should the answer be a “no” across the board?  Or should I lighten up when it comes to borderline failures and allow students to do makeup work regardless?  I would be very interested to hear  your thoughts.

Image by Sigurd Decroos

Student Blogs: Challenges

mi40mFwSome of you have asked to hear my final thoughts on the individual student blogs I used in one of my classes this semester.  I have a lot to say on the matter, but I may wait until I get the course evaluations back from my students before giving you my ultimate reflection.  As all you teachers well know, sometimes our assumptions about how things have gone turn out to be less than accurate from the students’ perspective.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some PENultimate thoughts.  I put these down in a recent journal entry for a course I’m taking on IT in the classroom.  The journal assignment was to write about the challenges of integrating information technology into the classroom setting.  Here’s what I had to say.

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This semester, I had my students keep blogs.  I’ve used blogs in a course before, and then stayed away from them for years because they require such a time investment.  This year, I decided to take a stab at them again, and although there were a lot of benefits, I will think twice before using them in another course.

One of the main issues was that the course, as a whole, is brand new.  Although I spent a lot of time thinking about the general topics I wanted to explore, and the assessments that I’m REQUIRED to include in such a course (some sort of research component, an oral presentation, a 1000-word essay…), I was aware from the beginning that my desired learning outcomes were…vague.

I wanted students to think about the concept of “character” and examine how that concept is portrayed in children’s literature (these are Child Studies majors).  I wanted them to come away knowing more about the way we learn, the way we grow up, and the things we can do to make our lives, and the lives of children we know, better.  I also wanted them to think about reading, and whether reading is a valuable activity for children, and, if so, what children should read, and how the things they read will affect their characters.

So that adds up to a whole lot of thinking.  How can they demonstrate to me that they’re thinking?  By writing a whole bunch of stuff making connections between these different ideas.  And then having conversations that I can observe.  So a blog is perfect: they need to write regularly about the ideas we’re discussing in class, they need to make connections between these ideas and things they already know, and they need to comment on what others have written, generating conversations about these subjects.

The potential of these tasks to lead to deep, authentic, long-lasting learning is exciting.  Writing and commenting on a thoughtful blog post requires a high level of what instructional designers call “cognitive complexity”: the students are understanding, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing in order to create their posts.  Writing the posts involves a number of different “types of knowledge”: conceptual knowledge (understanding the theoretical works about childhood character that we are reading), procedural knowledge (understanding how to write a coherent post whose logic, grammar etc. communicate clearly) and a certain amount of metacognitive knowledge (not only are they reflecting on the theoretical material and how it relates to the novels they’re reading, to other things they know and to their personal experiences; but they are also, to a certain extent, recognizing those leaps of understanding when they make them, and recognizing that they are something worth writing about).

Which is to say: BLOGS ARE AWESOME.  They are, like, the perfect learning tool, if you do them right.

And I think, in purely pedagogical and methodological terms, I did them right.  I set out very clear requirements: they had to post at least three posts a month, and spread their posts throughout the month (one per week for at least three weeks out of the month).  They had to comment at least three times a month on others’ blogs, also spreading their comments out throughout the month.  They had to reply to all comments left on their blogs.

I promised to read and comment on every post.  I did my best to keep that promise for a while, and as I read and commented during the first month, I was truly impressed.  Some of them were just banging out the minimum, or not meeting the requirements at all.  Most, however, were writing very interesting things.  They were MAKING CONNECTIONS.  They were HAVING CONVERSATIONS.  It was clear that writing about the seven character qualities that children need to succeed, or the “licking and grooming” theory of parental nurturing, and applying these concepts to other things both fictional and personal, was helping them understand what these things mean.

So what went wrong?

What went wrong was that I hadn’t thought it all through.  Of course I hadn’t – it’s impossible to think a course entirely through before you teach it, no matter how well you plan.  The problem is, if you’re teaching a new course AND using unfamiliar (in this case, technological) tools, problems multiply.

The first came from my willful disregard for what I knew, from long experience, about many of my students.  Regular writing, including written discussion, about complex topics is a great tool for students who are already good communicators.  For students who have language issues, who are not habitual readers or writers, and/or who already have an awful lot on their plates, this kind of regular written communication is extremely demanding.

What’s more, they’re working on a platform that is new to them.  Most of them have never written blogs, and it’s not just the technological aspects that are unfamiliar to them, but the communication medium: what should a blog post consist of?  If it’s not an essay, then what does “logical structure” mean?  And so forth.  The instructions I gave them – not just on setting up their blogs but on how to earn a passing grade or 100% – were very clear.  However, because this clarity involves so many facets where blogs are concerned – one can’t take for granted that they know ANYTHING – these instructions were also extremely long and detailed, and students don’t fully understand them.  Even now, two weeks before the end of term, a number of students are not sure why they’re earning 59% even though they put up the minimum number of posts (“But Johnny, you didn’t leave any comments for anyone.” “But I did!  I answered the comments people left for me on MY blog!”)

There are things I can do to improve the evaluation scheme; for example, if I’m ever foolish enough to do this again, I will separate the grade for blog posts from the grade for commenting, and I will clarify and delineate criteria so that it’s possible to earn a passing grade even if you fall short in one area.  Nevertheless, figuring out how to grade this new form that has few formal standards is extremely challenging, and it hasn’t worked very well this time around.

Using a newish tool like blogging in a course has much in common with teaching a new course in general: it’s exciting and full of energy because you never know what happen, but it’s also messy and fraught and doesn’t always work because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.  I’ll probably take a rest from blogs next time I teach this course (maybe a discussion forum would be simpler and less demanding?)

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I’d love to hear about experiences, successful or otherwise, that the rest of you have had with blogs in your classrooms.  What could I have done differently?  Is it worth taking another stab at it?

Image by Jakub Krechowicz

When the Syllabus Goes Wrong

mhC7ZMoI cannot tell a lie.  My new course is a failure.

This semester, I did a complete overhaul on the English course I teach for Child Studies majors.  The earlier version of the course was a solid one.  It focused on the topic of childhood relationships in literature: parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendships.  We read a couple of books, wrote a couple of essays, researched famous childhood relationships and presented them to the class.  The final assignment was to write a story, fictional or non-fictional, about a childhood relationship.

It always went pretty well, but I was sick of it.  If I had to hear another presentation on the Jackson Five and their father, I was going to lose it.  And I was on a high from another course in which students chose their own readings, I course that I enjoyed teaching more than any other.  I wanted to try blogs again, and I was in love with Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, an exploration of the character qualities that lead to success.

So I had a few epiphanies and redesigned the course.  I knew I’d be flying by the seat of my pants for most of it, but, because this had worked out well for me in recent memory, I wasn’t too worried about it.

  1. Because I wanted to use Tough’s book, I called the course “A Question of Character.”  The guiding questions: What is character?  How do we define it in real life?  How do we experience it in literature?  Can reading literature influence a child’s character?
  2. I wanted each student to read a different classic work of children’s literature.  I compiled a list of books for them to choose from, all of which I was excited about reading or re-reading, and they dutifully signed up.  The plan was for each student to present his or her book, and its lessons about character, to the class.
  3. I wanted to use blogs as a way for students to exchange ideas and explore their own thoughts.  In the first few weeks we spent a lot of time setting up blogs, addressing questions about image copyright and moderating comments, and ironing out other issues.  In the first month, I fastidiously read and commented on every post, and compiled lists of the best posts of the week on my own blog.  They were to receive a grade for February, a grade for March, and one for April, with suggestions and feedback as we went along.

In the beginning, everything rolled along nicely.  I didn’t have a lot of grading to do, so reading the blogs was not stressful – in fact, I loved reading them.  Even the banal ones were interesting at first, as I got to know the students and the way they thought and wrote.  We started the term by reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone all together, and the students were mostly ecstatic about it.  They also seemed interested in the ideas in Paul Tough’s work, and wrote thoughtful first essays in which they discussed whether Harry Potter and his friends supported or contradicted Tough’s theories.  I slowly read my way through the book list, revisting old favourites and discovering new ones.

Things started to come apart around midterm.

First, I started feeling the burden of reading 80 blog posts every week.  Which is to say: I stopped reading 80 blog posts every week.  I couldn’t grade everything else and do that too.  I’d met with students individually in mid-March to discuss how they’d done on their blogs in February.  I’d planned to do that again after the March blogs were done, but there simply wasn’t time; once I’d given them all their blog grades for March (by entering them into the online gradebook with a couple of comments), April was almost over and there was really no time for them to implement the feedback.

I was also utterly bogged down in the book list.  I resented the volume of non-voluntary reading I’d assigned myself.  I found myself beginning a book and casting it aside, feeling sorry for the student who’d chosen it – The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Call of the Wild… why on earth did I inflict these on anyone? I wondered.

Then we started with the oral presentations.

One of the requirements was that they each find at least one scholarly article on their book and discuss it.  It turned out that the literary databases at our college are so limited that it was impossible to find even a book review on novels as classic as The Naughtiest Girl in the School or From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I had to adjust the criteria to the point that the research component of the assignment became basically meaningless.

I’d instructed each of them to present for 10-15 minutes, and we spread the presentations over 8 classes (5 presentations per class).  The first handful of presentations was enjoyable, but it became clear early on that requiring a “plot summary” without practicing how to make a plot summary clear and concise had been a big mistake.  The plot summaries dragged on endlessly, rife with minute detail, and the rest of the required components were treated in a couple of moments – a number of presentations were over 20 minutes long but consisted primarily of a brief biography of the author, lifted straight from Wikipedia regardless of my warnings, and a meticulous overview of the plot, followed by 90 seconds of analysis.  By the time we’d dragged through 5 or 6 of these, there was little time for anything else in the class period, and regardless of how different the books were, the presentations were ALL THE SAME.  It was agony.  Students stopped showing up for class.  I didn’t blame them.

One of my two classes is, for whatever reason, considerably weaker than the other.  I just finished grading the blogs for that weaker class, and the class average is 59%.  Ergo: this assignment was not a success.  The oral presentations were not a success.  They are working on their final papers right now, and were required to come in small groups to work on their outlines; barely half of them showed up for their small-group meetings.  The other class is faring better but there is still a general feeling, at least in my mind, that this course is a random, pointless mess.

Despite the issues, I feel some good things came out of this course.  Those students who kept their blogs diligently wrote some really inspiring things, and the conversations in the comments sections showed some deep and broad learning.  I certainly enjoyed reading the blogs more than I ever enjoy grading papers.  Some students reported being inspired by the children’s novels they read, and passing them on to younger siblings.  Some reported finding Paul Tough’s book extremely interesting, and their papers, blog posts and discussions about it indicate that most of them understood his ideas well and are applying them constructively to their lives and the literature.  So it’s not that there’s no learning happening, but I’m expecting a lot of scathing reports on the course evaluations about the confusing and meandering way that learning came about.

At this point, my plan is to shelve this course and return to its earlier incarnation, and take a couple of years to revise, revamp, reorganize, and reconceive.  I would love to hear your advice, and your stories.  Have you ever given, or taken, a course that just seemed like a bad idea?  If you gave it, what did you do to improve it?  If you took it, why was it bad, and what would you have changed?  Beyond that, can you see any solutions to the problems I describe above?

Image by Steve Woods

The Least Stressful Job on Earth

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy husband sent me this article this morning: the Globe and Mail summarizes some key points from a list of the most and least stressful jobs on earth.  #1 least stressful job?  University professor.

I’m not exactly a university professor, and some of the conditions I work under are quite different from theirs.  My students, for example, don’t “generally want to be there,” at least not if by “there” you mean “English class;” in some cases, they don’t even want to be in college. There are also some university professors who are comfortable walking in, giving a lecture and then walking out and going off to do their own stuff while TAs grade their papers.  I can agree that such a job sounds pretty low-anxiety, and it’s not how I operate (although if I could get someone else to do my grading I would be ALL OVER THAT.)

However, I don’t have to administer standardized tests, and I have tenure and a good salary.  Do I have one of the least stressful jobs on earth?

Maybe.  I can agree that military personnel, airline pilots and taxi drivers have it tougher than I do.  That said, there are days when I think the belligerent students, sky-high piles of marking and standards of performance I set for myself are a bit too much for me to handle.

Post-secondary educators and those who know them: what do you think of this assertion?  Do university professors have the  least stressful job out there?

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

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