F is for Facile

Let’s say a hypothetical student submitted a hypothetical essay containing assertions similar to those below.

(The assignment is a real one: a report on a series of oral presentations in which students “sold” books to the class.  The books were assigned from a list that I created.  The purpose of the report is to indicate which of the books the student will choose for his or her final reading in the course, based on the presentations and on excerpts.  For more info on the book list, the assignments attached to it and the structure of the course, go here.

Let’s assume, though, that these comments are fictional but are representative of the KIND of comments one student made.)

While listening to all the oral presentations, trying to keep my eyes open and fighting off the boredom brought by the students suffering from social anxiety…

Being mentioned that the story is about a girl being caught in the throes of war in an island made me realise two things that’s going to bother me during my reading. First, no sexist comments intended, I have a hard time putting myself in the shoes of a girl with all the crying and empathy. Second, they’re on an island? I don’t want to get to the part that they throw coconuts at each other.

To conclude, looking through all the chick-flick-like stories and bore-me-to-death-and-cry-me-a-river scenarios, my pick is…

Let’s say that this is just a sampling, and the whole paper takes this tone.  In fact, let’s say that the student has taken this tone all semester and that his teacher has very carefully “managed” him in order to put him, and delicately hold him, in his place and to minimize disruption to the class while avoiding the escalation he clearly desires.

Is it too hands-off, for example, to write something like this next to the first comment above?

Not relevant to the evaluation you are doing here.  Also, not a good way to inspire trust, which is important if you want to engage your reader.

Should a student’s grade on an English essay be affected by the fact that the essay is smug, snotty, misogynist and xenophobic?  How do you keep your personal feelings about students and their behaviour out of your grading practices?

Image by H Berends


38 responses

  1. It is, indeed, difficult to maintain decorum and professionalism when your students submit provocative pieces like the one above^. But to let our own feelings and ego to come in the way would just prove how weak we are, and that may be exactly what the student was aiming for.

  2. Whenever I am faced with this situation (or something like it where the student writes about something that completely goes against my personal beliefs in an offensive way, I make sure I focus on their argument. Does he support his claims with evidence? Does he make academic moves to validate what he is saying? If he does this, then I may make a comment that I don’t agree, but he has at least supported his evaluation. However, based on these fictional examples, the student has not justification for his statements, so you are well within your rights to grade him based on that. Does that make sense?

  3. This may surprise you, but I don’t think this guy should be admonished for the ‘smugness’ of his essay. He wrote his opinion, which is exactly what the question asked him to do. There was no option in the question for any answer other than a ‘positive’ one. He is entitled to NOT have liked ANY of the presentations OR books presented. And he honestly expressed that.

    I also understand his comment, “trying to keep my eyes open and fighting off the boredom brought by the students suffering from social anxiety…” as with time, I have come to detest ‘oral presentations’ myself. I find them boring, sometimes even un-pedagogical as I believe students say what they THINK the teacher wants to hear (so give maybe 65+% and are disengaged), and it’s hard, even for the most engaged student in the class, to stay engaged. After the first 5 I personally want to “slit my wrists” (and I was the TEACHER!). I think there are other ways to get students to ‘present’, that are less daunting, and that oblige the ‘listeners’ to participate. (Co-op learning is one way to do this), or presentations in small groups/stations instead of in front of the whole class. Some people will NEVER be comfortable in front of crowds and will NEVER have to do so in their chosen career – small groups, yes, but that is doable.

    I’d love to be on your side, but this time, I’m on his. He’s surely a bright student, but not getting what he needs – that is NOT your fault however, as he is probably pompous too, and not expressing his needs, or EXPECTING something impossible. He may be sending a message no one else has the guts to – or he could be an arrogant ass….

    Food for thought, I think. But I’m sure that on a whole, your classes are the most interesting out there. Remember, you can’t please everyone all of the time (or even some of the time). Ignore him, and evaluate him on the quality of his work, not what he says.

    Oh, and don’t forget to BREATHE….:-P


    • Paulette: I would certainly agree that he is entitled to express his opinion, and the goal of this assignment was for students to justify, not only why they found a certain book interesting, but also why they were NOT interested in reading the other seven books. So both positive and negative responses were not only encouraged but essential.

      That said, as Lisa mentions above, there are appropriate negative responses – those backed up by evidence and clear argument – and there are responses that are off-topic (they were asked to evaluate their interest or lack thereof in the books, not the students’ presenting abilities) or simply bizarre (coconuts? Montreal is an island – would he expect coconut-throwing if war broke out here?)

      • Agreed. That’s what I meant to say in my response – you can ‘get’ him if he doesn’t provide the ‘correct’ answer based on what was asked of him. Bizarre answers just don’t cut it even if perfectly written! 🙂 I like the comment from your colleague, where maybe more modelling and or explaining of what you expect is needed. 🙂

  4. I have this exact problem at times. I think your comment is appropriate and the best way to get across that how this person addressed the assignment wasn’t correct, and quite possibly, inappropriate. Also, would love to hear how you managed him in class- I have someone that things everything is dumb, and since we’re on a standardized syllabus for 101, I didn’t create the assignments, and while I KNOW the reasoning behind them, since I didn’t make them, this student just picks everything apart.

    • NTW:
      The managing has been a balancing act. For example, I have been known to say things to him like, “I don’t think the question you’re asking is sincere – I think you’re just trying to pick a fight – but there is nevertheless an important point in there that I think we should discuss as a class.” When possible, I respond to him with seriousness. When he acts out his boredom, I point to the door and remind him that this is college and he doesn’t have to be here. He seems to have developed a grudging respect for me, so this makes things easier, but it’s exhausting. We can’t fix students’ emotional problems! The best we can do is stay engaged and willing to use a firm hand if necessary. Good luck with your guy – it’s never easy.

  5. Ha! I wish this was the kind of paper I had to read instead of some of them. His opinions about women are his. If he can back them up with supported evidence, bully for him. If not…F. We all have our triggers. This isn’t one of mine. He’s trying to get attention. That speaks to a deeper insecurity on his part. When I know that it isn’t about me…I am less likely to get upset. And…he’s not doing that “tongue-in-cheek” passive/aggressive stuff where the student is attacking the professor in a paper. Those are the ones I have a harder time with. For instance, the student who used Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” and also used “second person” so it was hard to tell if she was attacking me because I’m the white English professor, or if she was just attacking all white people, or if it was simply her use of “you” throughout the paper that led me to feel that she was speaking to me. (Attacking or alienating one’s audience is the reason I do not allow the use of second person in student essays.) In this student’s case, I believe it was the latter, as I have had no issues with her and have received positive emails from her even after the course ended. However, the subject upset me because it felt personal and I knew it was unwarranted.

    This student of yours is presenting a character. A bad one, perhaps, but a character. If you know he wants you to be mad, don’t give that to him. I would bet my cat that this guy is looking for attention from women that he is unable to get elsewhere. If he says things that are controversial, it will incite discussion – something that he is likely missing in his real life. And when I see it that way, it’s funny. Pathetically so. Perhaps you could ask him to seek out and find a testosterone-soaked piece of literature that meets your requirements and write about that. If he is complaining about what you offer, make him find something else that is going to suit his interests. This ends the discussion about crying females and takes the wick off of his candle. It will require more research on his part since he isn’t given the reading list. He may decide that your choices aren’t so bad after all. Or, he may shine through with some amazing piece of literature. Or…he may continue to present the same ill-researched junk he’s been offering and that will make your grade a lot easier to give. After all, you’ve done everything you could to accommodate this person.

    As far as handling him to keep those discussions from escalating, I have found that peer pressure tends to keep that from happening. Some student will call him out on his idiocy in a way that you cannot. And once the group decides to alienate him…his whole purpose has been defeated.

    • Susan:
      The observation that he is “presenting a character” is very astute. I haven’t thought of it in those terms, but it’s absolutely true. And as for peer pressure, you are spot-on. This particular class is weak on skills but strong on good-natured personality, and the atmosphere is a positive one; his peers do indeed keep him in line, and it’s been nice to watch.

  6. While I really agree with Lisa, I find that sometimes writing the comments that I’d quite like to make (but not actually giving them to the students) can be very cathartic.

    Student X,

    I began reading your essay but was quickly plunged into near-fatal boredom by your poor use of language, inadequate register for an academic essay, many irrelevant points, ignorance of the true nature of the books and the tragic attention seeking, look-at-me immaturity expressed in your misogynistic and xenophobic views.
    For these reasons, along with the poor attitude that you always show in class, I didn’t bother reading to the end of your essay and would like to take this opportunity to remind you, yet again, that college is not compulsory. Perhaps a less academically demanding path, such as toilet cleaner, might suit you better.

    • Cat: You are absolutely right – I should write these comments down instead of rehearsing them over and over in my head and wishing I could say them out loud! This is one thing a blog is good for…

    • Brilliant Cat! 😀 I have done my share of writing what I really want to say (or at least telling my husband what I really want to say and then toning it down for the actual comments). I love this comment.

  7. Interesting…My teaching strategies are often avoidance tactics–i.e. avoid situations like what you describe. When I was in grade thirteen, I had a wonderful English teacher and I tend to model myself after her. She would tell us that in our lives, we are welcome to like or dislike whatever we want, but in an English class, especially a highschool English class, we are not really in a position to evaluate texts. Using the Bloom’s taxonomy model, the level of learning that comes before evaluation is synthesis, i.e. comparing and contrasting, bringing different ideas together. Her argument was that we, as highschoolers, had not done enough comparing and contrasting of texts–books, poems, plays–to be able to evaluate whether a text is “good” or not. She said that she herself was not necessarily able to engage in that evaluative practice. She also said that we were free to discuss amongst ourselves outside of class how “boring” or “stupid” or “sucky” and particular assigned book was, but in class we needed to show respect for the texts and each other. Much like how our spoken English is different from our written English, our spoken opinions are different from our written arguments.
    Anyhow, I’ve tried to pass this message on at the CEGEP level (which seems pretty grade thirteen-ish to me)…and avoid any assignments which ask for a preference or any kind of evaluation. Sometimes I’ll engage in oral assignments that ask for opinions, but only sometimes 🙂

    • This is an interesting take. The purpose of this assignment in my mind is to have students begin to … let me see … I don’t think “evaluate” is exactly what they’re being asked to do (although this student, despite all explanations to the contrary, continues to believe that it is.) They are in fact being asked to analyze their own instinctive responses, so this would fall into the “analysis” level of Bloom’s taxonomy. (Their next step is to write a comparative essay, so this seems to be following Bloom’s track.) Throughout the report, they identify each book and then explain why it did or did not appeal to them personally. The overall goal is to have students know more about themselves as readers, and to think carefully through their reasons for being drawn to some things and not others. Your comment makes me think that I need to spend some more time explicitly explaining this to them!

      (We have spent SOME time discussing it. In fact, when this assignment was announced, the student described here raised his hand and “asked,” “What if all the books suck?” My response – “I think what you mean to ask is, ‘What if I don’t like any of the books?'” – was followed by a class discussion of a. reasons to read books we don’t like, b. reasons to think carefully about our personal tastes, and c. the value of being able to explain our tastes. Maybe a lesson for them on the difference between personal opinion and “evaluation” is in order.)

  8. If this assignment was only to describe his opinions, well, unfortunately, those ARE his opinions. If, however, he was supposed to be writing these as a critique that other class members might see, that’s another matter. Annoying as this guy sounds, his attitude can’t influence his grade unless his classmates were meant to be his audience or he was supposed to be providing examples of constructive criticism. Now, if this guy starts saying things like this to his classmates, kick him out!

    • osozeroposo:
      It was in fact neither: he was not asked to give his opinions on the oral presentations. He was asked to choose one of the books presented as his third reading, and to explain why he did or did not choose each of the books. A comment like “I found the presentation on this book really boring and so I wasn’t inspired to read it,” would have been perfectly acceptable, even if it makes him sound arrogant. (Several classmates wrote comments along these lines, although many worded them in a more polite manner.) The comment above, however, being an unnecessary sweeping statement that is not really relevant, seems out of place to me.

  9. This is such a difficult situation! This guy is giving clear reasons for his choices (in your examples, anyway); he’s just not doing it respectfully. And he’s making it very hard for you or anyone else to respect his choices, except for people who already share his opinions and admire his assholic expression of them. I think respect for the work (in the sense of not just the texts themselves but also the work we’re all doing there in the classroom, the learning itself) is a reasonable basic expectation.

    How do I keep my personal feelings out of the grade? I guess in a situation like this I would try to deal with my emotional response first, without a pen in my hand, and come back with a cooler head (probably after a walk and a bit of something entirely different. I don’t think I’d continue grading other papers without a little break after something like this). Then I would probably just write “Your tone in this paper is inappropriate to college-level work” and leave it at that. It’s not disrespectful, and it sets a limit about what’s appropriate. I wouldn’t engage in comments about why his tone isn’t appropriate; I don’t think the paper warrants a proper critique from you. I don’t think I would grade it at all — i’d ask for a re-write with a more appropriate level of language. If he doesn’t know what that means (though i’m sure he does, if he can wield a phrase the way your examples suggest), he can ask. Though i’d probably have a base grade in my back pocket in case he didn’t hand in a rewrite. It wouldn’t be a passing grade, and it wouldn’t come with feedback — that i’d keep for the grade review session, should it go that far.

    I’m interested in knowing what you finally decide to do!

    • Susan:
      The expectation of an “appropriate tone” is an interesting and complex one. This report falls into a bit of a grey area, as it is meant to be a personal response but is also meant to show clear, substantiated argumentation.

      What happened is this: I gave him full points for organization, middling points for expression (as I tried to illustrate, his word choice and sentence structure can be rather strange) and failing grades for content, as he did not support his response with accurate understanding of and evidence from the texts and presentations (these criteria were clearly outlined.) He ended up with a grade in the mid-70s. He’s unlikely to be happy with this, so we’ll see what happens next!

  10. I think this student is being deliberately provocative. I remember doing that as a high school student to “shock” my teacher. I got no reaction out of the teacher, other than a normal grade. I think my teacher’s action was correct. I would also suggest focusing on the writing and the argument.

  11. wow. Sounds like you’ve gotten some really good feedback and have been doing some really good things to practice what you talked about several posts ago–maintaining presence with this student. The advice a colleague gave me before my first parent-teacher conferences has helped me with similar difficult situations: focus on the specific facts of the behavior, he told me, don’t express your surmisings about the reasons behind the behavior as facts. Basically, I’ve tried over the years to identify and address the behavior itself and what it ought to be; working from that objective point of view has helped me to be able to separate my feelings from the behavior . . . most of the time. However, the fact that such situations are emotionally charged (because we care about our students and their learning so much), makes it hard to know whether or not our comments are truly objective.

    “Not relevant to the evaluation you are doing here. Also, not a good way to inspire trust, which is important if you want to engage your reader.” Is a great comment. It deals with two objective issues–first, the fact that he missed the goal of the exercise (he was, I gather, supposed to be evaluating the books themselves and giving concrete reasons for his opinions, something that his comments partially touched on, but not effectively); second, the fact that he is in a writing class and writing for an audience.

    The comment made about how his complaints did reflect (albeit grudgingly perhaps) some of the reasons for not liking the books is so true, but it’s difficult to know what to do when the style obscures the material. Sometimes it helps to just state outright the position the student has put you in (dear ____, when I read this, I find myself in a difficult position for grading this and giving you feedback: you’ve stated some opinions and possibly have even given me good reasons for those opinions, but the manner in which you have stated them makes me have a hard time taking you seriously. I find that your tone clouds the logic of your comments and makes me unable to give you as high a grade as I really really wish I could. Please come and see me so we can talk about this paper.)

    The hardest thing for me in situations such as these is to maintain presence while remembering that I may not completely win this one. Proverbs 26 has two back-to-back verses that address this kind of no-win problem (verse 4: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.” and verse 5: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” Basically, with some people it doesn’t matter whether you say something or keep quiet–neither way will be right.) Remembering this helps me to let go of the good I wish a student would let me do him and focus on doing what I can and only that. The truth is that the good we do for our students DOES have an effect, even if we can’t see it right now. It may take a longer time than we have with the student for it to take effect. The fact that he bears you grudging respect says a lot for the gently forceful way you have handled him already. Keep it up!!!

    *cheering you on* =)

    • MissJoyous:

      Wow, what a great response. Thank you! I love your colleague’s advice to “focus on the specific facts of the behavior…don’t express your surmisings about the reasons behind the behavior as facts.” I’ve found through the years that telling people why you think they’re doing the things they’re doing is absolutely counterproductive, but mirroring their behaviour back to them can help them see things differently, or help me come to a new understanding.

  12. The overlay of “smart alec” in this student’s comments on the island book was, I assume, continued in his comments on the other choices. He certainly does have an attitude problem, and it sounds as if you have handled him well during the semester.

    At another level, it also sounds as if this assignment had a lot of moving parts. I have found that for some students, that in itself is a deterrent to enthusiastic participation or any participation at all. A post above suggested having him choose his own book (I believe that “testosterone-soaked” was mentioned . . . love that!) and simply do the assignment. I think it’s a good idea to mix the complicated, multi-step assignments (which indeed do favor well-organized female students) with more traditional assignments of the “read the book; write about the book” type work.

  13. I actually found the “complicated, multi-step assignments… favor well-organized female students” comment to be a little too stereotyped (no offense intended to EB). There are male students who are well-organized and some that are not, and the same goes for female students. You do have to be careful with complicated assignments and how you set them up and explain them (and it sounds like you have developed this assignment quite a bit for them), but such assignments are hardly gender biased. All students are going to face complex tasks at many times in their lives, and it’s worth helping them be able to deal with such things.

    It sounds like you have some good ideas in these comments to adjust how you model this assignment (and possibly adjusting what books you give them as options to read), but I wouldn’t say there is anything wrong with the assignment for anyone.

    This isn’t all that different from an issue I face in my advanced writing class for upperclassmen in my university: having more assignment for them to work on at once. We have a research project that they know about for over a month, and we have other assignments that we work on during that time (including homework, quizzes, and other major writing assignments). I occasionally have the complaint that “it’s too much to keep track of at once.” This rather disturbs me, as almost all of my students have more than one class at once. How do they keep track of it all there? We have a syllabus with a calendar, and I keep them apprised of what they should be working on that week, so this worry of theirs bothers me. It’s made even worse when many of them are education majors! How are they going to handle the rigors of a classroom when they can’t even prioritize an assignment that is due tomorrow over one due in three weeks?

    The best advice I have received on this issue (from a co-worker at my university whose job is to improve our instruction) was to give them some advice on keeping track of more than one assignment at once. So not modifying the assignments themselves, but just adjusting how they are presented. Sounds good to me, and we’ll see how that helps next semester.

    Last, but not least, a bit of commiseration for student assignments that make you wonder how to respond. I have an assignments in the above advanced writing class where students have to create a scenario of their own choosing to explain a topic or concept to an audience that does not know much about it, and then write an appropriate document on that subject to the audience. So… something like explaining to parents of autistic children how autism will affect their child, and what they can do to best help them, etc. That’s the common approach, since I mostly have students that are human services majors (education, sociology, etc.).

    However, I had a student create a brochure on BDSM. Yes, no joke. His basic scenario was that he was working at a sex therapy center, and it was information on the subject (on its benefits, etc.). I often have students deal with sex education, which makes sense for human services (and I’m perfectly fine with those), but this one really threw me for a loop. Was he doing this as a joke? To bug me? I was not sure I particularly wanted to read it, both for its content, and what it possibly suggested about his personal life. Even worse, my students peer review each other’s work, so some other student had already read this!

    In the end, I just commented more on his writing than its content. So its layout, organization, etc. Much the same feedback you are getting for this student and his snark. Seems like a good idea.

    It turned out this student is a Psychology major and they were talking about it in a psychology class, but I now have a requirement with this assignment that the topic be one that “everyone can feel discussing in a writing class.” Hopefully that will prevent something like this happening again!

    • Neal: I think breaking complex assignments into parts is hugely important, especially when it comes to students of my age group. In this assignment, for example, they have note worksheets to fill out for each presentation, and then, about halfway through the presentations, they submit a paragraph on one of the books and are given detailed feedback. This seems to help a lot, but I feel like it would be a good idea to have them submit two paragraphs at different times and to work on intros and conclusions as well.

  14. Neal, your points about not stereotyping are well taken. I have to admit that I was being influenced by the fact that I’ve taught at several different levels, starting with Grade 1. While it’s true that we have to expect good organization from all students, not knowing what they will face as adults, I do insist that boys come later to those skills, on average, than girls do. Also, it sounds as if many of your students are already on their way to being teachers — which is maybe the occupation that calls the most for good organizational skills. I do believe that students who aren’t already pretty good at keeping organized self-select out of Education majors (and that’s a good thing!!!).

  15. You have already given him his grade and I think it sounds about right.

    One thing you didn’t mention, and I didn’t see it in the comments either, is the importance of audience. In a rhetorical situation, considerations of audience (either you as the grader or the other students as peer reviewers) are very important. He did not address the topic in a manner that his audience would have found persuasive.

    • Dr. Davis:
      I think the comment I wrote in response to the first example speaks to audience – inspiring trust in the reader is an essential part of acknowledging your audience. That said, I think discussions of audience need a larger place in my classroom; in courses where we write blogs, we discuss it quite a lot, but in others, it seems to fall to the bottom of the list.

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