Fail Better

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, I’ll give you 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, remarkably successful 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

Willing to Read and Write

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

 Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

Image by Peter Galbraith

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“Either You Can Be a Teacher or You Can Be the Plagiarism Police”

As the new semester creeps nearer, I’m starting to think about plagiarism again.  My use of Turnitin.com, a plagiarism-detection software, is helping me relax a bit – last semester, the software made discovering plagiarism, and talking to students about it, a lot easier.  However, cheating is a perennial source of anxiety for most teachers, and a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is causing me to re-think my approach yet again.

In Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism, Rob Jenkins asks if it’s necessary for us to focus so much of our energy on student cheating.

“Of course I care about plagiarism, and I certainly take steps to deal with plagiarists once I have sufficient proof. But I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about plagiarism or trying to catch students at it. I’d prefer to direct my time and energy toward something more positive, such as actually teaching the subject I’ve been hired to teach.”

Jenkins then goes on to list steps he uses to deal with plagiarism, most of which are common-sensical: put your plagiarism policy in your syllabus, talk about plagiarism on the first day but not only on the first day, design assignments that make plagiarism difficult.  I do all these things.  It’s his final point that really makes me think.

Let it go. If some students take unfair advantage of the fact that I let them do most of their writing outside of class, or that I don’t use Turnitin, so be it. It’s not that I don’t care. I do…  When I say ‘let it go,’ I mean that in the metaphysical sense. I’m not saying you should ignore clear cases of plagiarism. But the truth is, there aren’t many clear cases of plagiarism. Most cases are borderline, at best. It’s also true that, no matter what you do to deter cheating, some students are going to find a way around it. You can go crazy thinking about that all the time.”

I’m almost ready to embrace that philosophy.  Unlike Jenkins, however, I find that Turnitin.com makes relaxing about plagiarism easier.  Jenkins says he doesn’t use it mostly because it creates an atmosphere of mistrust, but talking about plagiarism at all creates the same problem.

I used to get complaints from students about the fact that I mention plagiarism more than once and have them sign contracts stating that they understand what constitutes cheating and what will happen if they do it.  I think these complaints are warranted, and now, I always reiterate several times that I know most of my students would never cheat, and that they have every right to be insulted by the implication, but that I need to do everything I can to protect people who do their work honestly. That includes having them submit their papers to a program that will help me identify plagiarism.

Turnitin allows me to stop obsessing over every line that is atypically erudite or awkwardly shoehorned in.  If the program doesn’t find something, I usually feel like due diligence has been done.  Also, simply having students submit through Turnitin makes them less likely to copy things, so I feel I can relax a bit about the whole problem.

What’s more, there’s something about the use of a software program that allows me to step away from cheating and take it less personally.  I know, intellectually, that it’s not personal when they cheat, but I can’t help feeling outraged and hurt, especially when I need to waste my valuable grading time looking for plagiarized sources or comparing two student papers line-by-line.  A student who submits a plagiarized paper to Turnitin is not so much saying that he thinks I, the teacher, am a dupe.  He is saying that either a) he believes his cheating skills are invincible (and who knows? He may be right this time) or b) he  feels this is his only recourse, so he’s going to cross his fingers and take his chances, or c) he somehow still doesn’t understand what cheating is or what’s wrong with it, or d) he just doesn’t give a damn.   It’s hard to take this personally, and when I call him into my office, the printouts covered with highlighted “matches” usually head off any attempts on his part to make it so.

A perfect solution?  No.  There are those who object to the fact that Turnitin stores student work, and others who will have noticed that it doesn’t catch everything.  For now, though, I’m grateful for anything that, as Jenkins says, lets me worry less about cheating and more about doing my job.  “Either you can be a teacher or you can be the plagiarism police,” he says.  Well, I may still have to be a bit of both, but I know I’d rather be mostly the former, and the latter only when it’s unavoidable.

What are your plans for dealing with plagiarism this year?  Are you obsessed, or can you find ways to “let it go” so that it doesn’t colour everything you do?

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Yes, plagiarism can make a teacher crazy.  If you’re not convinced, check out some of my real-life cheating-in-the-classroom stories herehere, here, and here.

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Image by Manoel Nato

I’m Not Blocked. I’m Obsessively Diverted.

What does it mean to be “blocked”?  Is it possible for a “block” to be a diversion, a new inspiration, a productive distraction?  Or is it just laziness?

Right now, I am “blocked” in a number of ways.

  1. I’ve been working on a novel for the last ten years.  I use the term “working on” loosely.  I go through periods of productivity.  Every so often, I sit down for a week and have a pretty good time “working on” this novel.  Then my energy wanes.  I get bored.  I lose focus.  I decide I’d rather go for a run in the morning or spend the day doing school prep.  At the beginning of this summer, I promised myself that I’d make this novel a priority, but it hasn’t happened.  The story is still a baggy, unfocused, structurally unsound mess, and I have no real desire to fix it.  I’d like to throw it away, but I feel a strange sense of responsibility toward it, even though no publisher is waiting for it.  I feel like I have to finish it.  Perhaps this is because I’ve received government funding to write it and have been awarded a place at a competitive writers’ workshop – twice – to work on it.  Tossing it seems disrespectful and lazy.
  2. For the past few years, I have taken stabs at becoming a serious meditation practitioner.  I’ve taken classes in Shambhala philosophy, have attended week-long meditation retreats, and, for brief periods, kept up a regular morning meditation practice.  For almost a year now, however, I haven’t meditated at all.  When I think about sitting down to meditate, my chest tightens, and I do something else instead.  I trace this aversion directly back to a “city retreat” I attended last August, where I threw myself fully into five days of meditation practice and Shambhala community participation, only to emerge feeling raw, shaken and hurt, mostly because of one long-time member of the community who, for reasons I did not understand, was rude and mean to me throughout the retreat.  (My sense of alienation was not mitigated by the fact that almost everyone else at the Centre had been only kind and welcoming.)
  3. For the past few weeks, I have been trying to find something to write about, in order to get Classroom as Microcosm up and running again for the fall, and the only thing I can come up with is that I’m blocked.  So I’m writing about being blocked.

There’s a blog about writing that I like, called The Urban Muse, that has lately proposed a couple of explanations for blocks, writers’ blocks in particular.  One suggestion is that we get blocked when we overthink what we’re doing.  Another is that we get blocked when we are doing something that isn’t coming naturally.  I think both these explanations are plausible, and connected.

I think teachers should take the question of blocks seriously, because we see them happening in our classrooms all the time.  We ask our students to do things that they are (usually) not naturally inclined to do.  We often ask them to overthink what they’re doing, or they overthink of their own accord, because they don’t know where to begin, or because they panic and try to think/plan/flail their way out of paralysis.  They may also have unpleasant, humiliating experiences associated with whatever we’re asking them to do (a mean lady at a meditation retreat, a bad grade, a teacher’s or peer’s derision) that make it scary for them to even try.

I think we can see blocks in a subtly different way, however, a way that is perhaps more productive and healthy.  We can see them, not as blocks at all, but as diversions.

This summer, for example, I promised myself I would work on my novel, but I’ve been diverted by a couple of things.  First of all, I’m planning my wedding.  Planning a wedding is a big and complex job.  It is a job that causes many people a lot of stress.  However, I am at an advantage in that I have a long summer vacation in which I can, if I like, focus almost all my energy on this job.  I discovered that if I focus on the wedding planning and don’t try to squeeze it in around other projects (like a novel), planning a wedding can be really fun.  It’s a pleasant and interesting diversion in which I’m learning a lot of things, including how to book tables for an event, what “wedding favours” are (we won’t be having any, but still), and how to do my own makeup.

This last has become a full-fledged diversion in its own right.  Since the age of about eighteen, my makeup regime has consisted, on a good day, of a smear of blush, a swipe of mascara, and maybe a bit of lip gloss.  About a year ago, a makeup professional gave me a lesson in how to apply concealer, and on the days I get it right, this can take about ten years off my face.  My plan was to have my makeup done for me on my wedding day, but one morning, I was flipping through a “wedding magazine” and came across a section on doing one’s own makeup.  It didn’t look that hard.  I was suddenly possessed by the desire to buy myself some eyeshadow.  So I ran to the pharmacy, bought a four-pack in neutral brown tones with instructions on the back, and spent a few minutes in front of the mirror.  I liked what I saw.  The next day I took a trip to a fancy cosmetics store and set up an appointment for a consult.  And within the space of a few days, I had accumulated a massive pile of fashion magazines and several books on basic makeup.  Eyeshadows and mascaras began spilling out of my bathroom cabinet.  I was OBSESSED.

I had never given a damn about makeup before.  What happened?  Why was I devoting all this time – time that could have been spent writing or meditating – on something that I had never cared about and that could be seen as completely inconsequential?

The fact is, I had always been intimidated by makeup, and so had never bothered to learn anything about it.  If anyone had suggested that I spend an hour doing my makeup, I would have greeted this suggestion with derisive laughter.  I had far better things to do with my time.  And this might have been true, but at the root of my derision was insecurity – I simply didn’t know how to do makeup, and didn’t believe I could learn.  This same insecurity led me to avoid physical activity for many years – I wasn’t the kind of person who exercised, because I was too busy developing my mind.  It never occurred to me that exercise, and makeup, could be FUN.

And fun is really the point here.  I have been lamenting for several years now that writing fiction is no longer fun for me.  Hell, even READING fiction feels like work a lot of the time, maybe because I’m an English teacher.  And meditation certainly isn’t fun.  And while blogging often is – at least, it’s fun in the sense that it often helps me enter a state of “flow” – there are times when I need to get away from thinking about teaching and do something entirely different with my brain.

So instead of doing the things I think I should be doing with my summer – writing a novel, meditating, blogging – I’ve been planning a wedding and playing with eyeshadow.  And it’s been a lot of fun.

But more than that, I see a deeper purpose to throwing ourselves into these little obsessions, these little diversions.  Writing fiction started out as an obsessive diversion for me when I was a child (growing out of another obsessive diversion: reading).  Fortunately, my parents encouraged me to read and write, and never made me feel like these were frivolous wastes of time.  Meditation and Buddhist philosophy were also obsessive diversions, and blogging is, too.  My interest in these activities waxes and wanes, but they are always there for me when I go back.  There is no need for me to treat them as jobs.

This is not to say that painting my face is going to become a central activity in my life, the way writing is.  I’m not going to go to cosmetology school.  But new interests are great fuel for writing.  One of the main characters in my novel, for example, is the sort of person who might become obsessed with makeup.  And writing about her obsession with makeup would probably be a lot of fun.

Here’s the point I’m trying to get to in a roundabout way: obsessive diversions are good.  They bring us a lot of pleasure, and they help us learn.  We can’t predict where they’ll come from, and we can’t necessarily create them in others.  But is there a way we can make our classrooms less block-prone and more obsession-friendly?  Can we create environments where our students are more likely to become obsessed with something we offer them?  Granted, calculus and Shakespeare and molecular biology are not eyeshadow, but we know they can be fun.  If we can get our students to fall in love with them, to want to know more and more, to cram their bathroom cabinets full of them, then we can stop hounding them to do their homework and stop texting in class.  How do we do this?

Image by Christine Weddle

Blogger’s Block

Lately, I’ve had blogger’s block.

I could say that I’ve been busy. (It’s true. The school year just started. There’s stuff to do.) But that’s not really what it’s about.

I’ve been blocked. I recognize it, because I’ve experienced it so very often in the more classic “writer’s block” form. You think about writing stuff, but you are seized by inertia or resistance, both of which are really fear in disguise.

In fiction writing, the fear is usually (for me, anyway) the fear of wasting my time and effort. “I’ve spent years on this manuscript, it’s still a mess, and it will never be fixed. It’s been fundamentally flawed since the beginning, and it’s not salvageable. Nobody will want to read this book. I should throw it out and start again.”

In blogging, I’ve discovered, the fear is about something a little less subjective.

More and more people are reading this blog. That’s great. I love knowing that the little notes and essays I write are going out to the world, and that people are getting something out of them. I love it when someone I know tells me that they’ve been reading the blog and it’s been meaningful to them. I love it when I get a comment or an email, even a negative one, when it’s thoughtful, thought-provoking and respectful.

I’ve discovered, though, that there are people out there who have a lot of time on their hands, and a lot of rage that they want to express. These are the sort of people who go trolling for blog posts they don’t like and then write comments like “Kill yourself.” These are people who get an almost sexual gratification out of provoking and maintaining the equivalent of a screaming match, and become infuriated if you don’t rise to their bait (or sink to their level.)

And many of these people have a real problem, in particular, with teachers. They are angry at teachers. Maybe with one teacher in particular, but that teacher has come to represent all teachers, everywhere. And an anonymous teacher who isn’t grading them and doesn’t even know their real names is a convenient target for all that anger.

Now, I know there’s no need for me to take any of this personally. But there’s also no need for me to take it personally when some guy smashes into me in the grocery store and curses at me. There’s no need for me to take it personally when a student doesn’t show up to class for three weeks and then throws a tantrum when I don’t accommodate him or give him special treatment. These incidents are not personal, but they make me want to never leave my house.

I am, fundamentally, an introvert. Even the nice people I love sometimes exhaust me; mean, angry people who have no sense that other people are real, sentient beings make me want to crawl into a hole.

And so every time my blog stat counter begins spiking upward, I feel a little jolt of panic. A lot of people are reading my blog, and some of them are going to be mean and angry.

Any writer needs a thick skin, and in the online world this is especially true. I’m always amazed and appalled when I read the comments sections of major online newspaper articles. It used to be that the angry crackpots who spent all day, every day, writing “Letters to the Editor” were relatively rare. Now it seems that the world is lousy with them.

So I know that if I want to keep a blog, especially one that attracts more than a few readers, I need to accept that some people will give less than helpful feedback. I need to find a way to get past that and keep on writing, if writing is what I want to do.

So I will, as long as people keep wanting to read what I write (and maybe even beyond that.)

But maybe there are bloggers out there who have special internal tactics for dealing with the flack. Or maybe not just bloggers – maybe you have a job where you need to deal regularly with people who are aggressive, impolite and self-important. Maybe you’re a serious person who doesn’t get a charge out of screaming matches, but you still manage to deal with the nastiness of the world in a graceful way that doesn’t get you down.

If so, maybe you’d like to share your secrets with me.

what makes a blog good?

pencilkeyboardWhat do you think are the characteristics of a good blog?

My goal for today is to put together a handout for my Travel Literature students, who will be blogging next semester as one of their major projects. Before they begin, I’d like to give them a list of criteria for a good blog, focused on the criteria on which I’ll be evaluating them.

I found this wonderful list over at “43 folders”, and I’ll be handing this to them as an additional reference, but I’d like to give them my own list with more simple and concrete guidelines. Here’s what I’m starting with:

  • A good blog is personal. It’s about things that interest you. It doesn’t have to be about the intimate details of your life (although it can be), but it discusses things that have caught your attention and that you want to give more thought to.
  • A good blog is regular. I’ll require you to write in your blog once a week, but popular blogs with loyal readerships are usually updated at least a few times a week. You’re welcome to post to your blog as often as you want, and you may find that writing regularly about class topics helps you retain and understand them better.
  • A good blog is focused. Some interesting blogs may seem to be random, but they usually have some sort of topic: “my family” or “stuff I do for fun” or “this is the place where I practice writing” or even just “my day-to-day life.” The topic of your blog will be this course, Travel Literature, and that can include a lot of things: thoughts about the readings we’ve done or the ideas we’ve discussed, thoughts about travel in general, thoughts about travel blogs or other travel texts, etc. If I can’t find a link between one of your blog posts and the course topics, that’s a problem!
  • A good blog is well and clearly written. You may be writing online, but that’s no reason to be sloppy. LOLspeak and emoticons are fine on MSN or in emails to friends, but your blog is a place where you need to establish your credibility and skill, so that people can understand your ideas easily and will want to read more. You don’t need to use a formal academic tone – it’s fine to be relaxed and conversational; in fact, it’s often preferable – but you need to spell correctly and use clear, well-structured, grammatically correct sentences.
  • What would you add to this list? I want to keep it fairly simple, but also thorough, and in my experience, I always mess up criteria the first time around and leave out something important. If you can help me out, I’ll have a better chance of starting the students out on the right foot.

    Watching a Fire; Skimming across Water; Painting a Dragon and Dotting its Eyes

    I should be marking papers on this, the last day of my Easter weekend, but instead, I’m checking my Twitterific and being sucked into reading blog posts. Clay Burell at Change.org has posted this tantalizing bit of info from Richard E. Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why . The post picks up on Nisbett’s discussion of the different methods of writing taught it China. Burell presents this wonderful quote:

    In Chinese literary criticism there are different methods of writing called “the method of watching a fire across the river” (detachment of style), “the method of dragonflies skimming across the water surface” (lightness of touch), “the method of painting a dragon and dotting its eyes” (bringing out the salient points). (p. 18)

    I desperately want to know what all these things mean, so now I have to go find Nisbett’s book. One more thing to read. Damn you, Clay Burell.

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