Essay Writing: The Cake Analogy

This week, I am working on essay structure with my post-intro students.  After 22 years of teaching essay structure in various forms, I am, as you can imagine, sick of it.  But then I came across this little analogy: how to bake your essay like a cake!  It’s cute.  It’s tasty.  There are things here they might actually remember.

This got me thinking.  A lot of you out there must have analogies that you use over and over in your classroom, because they work.  Or maybe a teacher gave you an analogy years ago that you’ve never forgotten.  Could you please share some of them here?  That way, the rest of us can learn, steal, or just admire your ingenuity and  that of the teachers you’ve known.

Image by Jonathan Fletcher

I Like Teaching You

Today is the first day of the new semester.  I’m not exactly pumped.  I’ve been working all weekend to find a motivator, or an inspiration, or a visualization to turn to when I feel it’s all too much.  What’s my objective for the next fifteen weeks?  What mantra will I repeat to myself on the days when I’m wondering what it’s all for?

In mulling it over, I asked myself, “What have I done for my students lately that made me feel good?”

In December, as I was marking students’ final papers and writing feedback, I found myself, in a number of instances, appending the line “It was a pleasure having you in my class” to my comments.  A simple thing.  I wrote it only when it was true.  And each time, a little wash of warmth swept over me.

I need to remember to do this, I thought.  Whenever I’m writing final notes to students, I need to acknowledge the enjoyment those students have given me.

But why restrict it to final notes?  Could I make it a practice to ALWAYS say positive personal things to students when they occur to me?  Not just “What a great pair of boots!” or “You did a bang-up job on that paper,” but also “Your contributions really light up the classroom” and “Your friendly demeanour is going to open a lot of doors for you in your life.”

When I first began teaching, I saw each student/teacher relationship as an intimate connection.  Once I started teaching CEGEP, I burned out quickly; the emotional energy necessary for such a connection with every student was not sustainable.  Since then, I’ve been trying to find a balance, and I’ve erred on the side of being distant and chilly.  Perhaps it’s time to start working toward a middle ground, one where I can say, in myriad ways, “I like teaching you.”

Do you have a goal for the semester?  Did you have one for last semester?  How did it pan out?  I will keep you posted on how I do with this one, and on any consequences I observe.

Image by Richard Dudley

Top 10 Posts of 2011

It’s that time of year again.

(Actually, it’s a little past that time of year – it was that time of year, oh, two weeks ago, when it was still last year.)

Nevertheless: a roundup!

Here are the posts from Classroom as Microcosm that received the most hits this year.  The reasons for their popularity are varied and, in some cases, mysterious.  No matter.  If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t been able to keep up, they give some indication of what’s been going on around here.  If you like what you discover, please subscribe!  (Look to your right.  See the button that says “Sign Me Up!”?  Click it, and away you go.)

1. Fail Better

This post was chosen as a “Freshly Pressed” cover story by WordPress, which guaranteed that it would get tonnes of hits (over 11 000) and comments (245 at last count – about 15 of them are my replies, but I soon ran out of steam.)  In this little anecdote, I explore a problem – my students are so afraid to fail that they won’t even try – through the lens of some recent research – Paul Tough’s NYT Magazine article on “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”  The results are inconclusive but gratifying.  All in all, it was a good week.

2. Should We Bid Farewell to the Academic Paper?

Another “Freshly Pressed” pick.  This one received almost 9 000 hits and 177 extremely interesting and thoughtful comments.  It’s a response to an article by Virginia Heffernan on Cathy N. Davidson’s book Now You See It.  Davidson’s book proposes, among other things, that the academic paper has had its day and needs to make way for more current tech-friendly forms.  I, and the commenters, are not so sure.

3. When in Doubt, Make a Plan

This post is a response to a reader’s plea for advice.  Nick’s not sure college is the place for him, but he can’t see his parents agreeing to any other path.  I can’t solve his problem for him, but I have some suggestions, as do readers.  His original query, and a lot of interesting reader responses, appear here.

4. The Five Best Podcasts in the World

In May, these were my top five, and I still love them all, although “The Age of Persuasion” is now defunct (but was replaced on Saturday by Terry O’Reilly’s highly anticipated followup, “Under the Influence.”)  If I wrote this post now, I might rearrange these and introduce a couple of new favourites, including “On the Media” and “Planet Money.”  If you have a favourite podcast, please visit the post and leave a link in the comments.

5. What Do Students Think Should Change About School?

I got so many responses to this open call that I followed it with a full week of guest spots: five posts from students explaining how school could be better.  You will find most of those responses in the comments section of this post, along with lots of other interesting ideas on how to improve the education system.

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

Ah, plagiarism: the inexhaustible inspiration for teacher rants everywhere.  Here, I discuss an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Rob Jenkins explains that we need to just chill out.

7. Character = Behaviour: A Lesson Plan

This extremely successful lesson, in which students write reference letters for fictional characters and, at the same time, learn a bit about how their own behaviours reflect on their characters, is just now coming home to roost.  This winter, I am receiving an unprecedented (i.e. crushing) number of reference letter requests from students who clearly took this lesson to heart.

8. Life and Death and Anthologies

The stats for this post took a couple of random spikes, and I’m not sure why.  I like it a lot, but it’s just a quiet little meditation on the joys of anthologies and of travel, and on the links between the two.  In particular, it describes my experience of reading an anthology of Irish short fiction while travelling through Ireland.  It seems to have resonated with some people.  Perhaps it will for you.

9. Why Do I Have to Learn This?

We don’t always take this question seriously.  Louis Menand says we should.  I agree.

10. What Young Adults Should Read

After a Wall Street Journal essay made some indignant pronouncements about the trash that young people are reading these days, and after everyone got all upset about it, I threw in my two cents.  This post makes special reference to the thoughts and writings of Linda Holmes, blogger at NPR’s “Monkey See” pop culture blog, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” and person I most want to be when I grow up (granted, she’s probably younger than me, but I still have a long way to go.)

And, just because I loved it:

Bonus Post: Rolling In the Girls’ Room

I walked into the women’s washroom outside my office.  I discovered three students, two of  them male, sitting on the counter, rolling joints.   This post transcribes a Facebook conversation with my friends and colleagues, in which my response to this event is analyzed, critiqued, and mostly (but not entirely) supported.

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Resolutions for 2012:

  • Continue to post on Mondays and Thursdays.  Posts will, if all goes well, appear around 9 a.m., although dissemination to Facebook, OpenSalon etc. may be slightly delayed, as I am teaching early classes.  If you want to be sure to know about posts the moment they go up, please make use of the “Sign Me Up!” button at the top of the right-hand margin to receive email notifications for every post.
  • Tweet more!  I am lazy Twitterer.  However, I find all sorts of cool stuff that I don’t have time to blog about but should really share with you all.  So now I will.  Again, there is a button to the right that will allow you to follow me at @siobhancurious.  Follow me!
  • Be present, be present, be present.

Do you have a favourite post that you read here this year, and that I haven’t mentioned above?  Do you have blogging or teaching resolutions that you’d like to share?  Please leave a comment.  I always love hearing from you.

Thursday’s post: my favourite reading experiences of 2011.

And finally: Happy New Year, everyone!

Image by Maxime Perron Caissy

Formatting Blues

The following conversation took place earlier this week on my personal Facebook page.

Siobhan: Open memo to a student who shall remain nameless: Going into your final paper, you had an overall average of 59.7%. Did you not feel the stakes were high enough to invest half an hour in formatting your paper properly? Because if you’d done so, you would have passed the course.

And now I find myself in one of those infuriating ethical dilemmas. To pass or not to pass?

Colleague A: Does it benefit the student to take it again? That’s what I always ask myself. Sometimes the answer is a clear yes or no, but sometimes even this does not make it an easy question to answer.

Siobhan: It might or might not. I think it WOULD benefit him to stop goofing around, and failing might impress this upon him.

Colleague B: At a 59.7% final average? PASS.

Siobhan: 59.7 before the final paper. Now, 57.5. To give him a pass, I’d have to raise his grade on the final paper from a 53 to 61.  Note: formatting is worth 10%. He got 0.8/10.

Colleague B: Oooooh I see – now I can feel the ethical dilemma. If 53 is what he deserves on the paper, and if your marking criteria are clear and known to the students, I do not believe you should increase his mark to 61.

Outside Observer C: Yersh. Do you have to make the grades add up to 60? Could you just round up the final mark?

Siobhan: You mean just round it up when I submit the final grades, without changing the details of the grade breakdown? I expect that’s possible, but difficult to justify.  I am considering sending the paper back to him and telling him that if he formats it perfectly before Friday, I will give him a 60% on the paper.

Colleague B: Yes – that is a very good, even better than what I was thinking.

Colleague D: I have high pass rates in my classes because I do stuff like asking for additional work to justify bumping up a mark to a 60. It is futile when the student is riding on a 47 but if it’s mid-50’s or more, I often do it, as (for example) the optional make-up or bonus work I lay out on the last day of class. But hear me out. I, too, ask if it isn’t simply more helpful for a particular student to sit five English classes instead of four. And indeed, sometimes the answer is clearly yes.  So I would support you if you decide to have the boy reformat his work. If he doesn’t learn his lesson, then he will pay for it sooner or later in ways that we will not be around to watch.

Colleague E: I wouldn’t let him fail the course for formatting issues. I vote for “give him till Friday to reformat.” It’s not making you do any extra reading.

Siobhan: Just to be clear: he’s not failing the course for formatting issues, although that hasn’t helped. He’s failing for a whole pile of reasons, but if he’d just bothered to format the damn paper, he would have scraped through. If he’d done a host of other things, then his formatting on this paper wouldn’t have made much of a difference.  I have written a friend at the Learning Centre to see if he’ll work on it with him (to prevent the paper from being passed to a classmate for reformatting.) I’ll see what he says and write the kid in the morning. So. Tiring.

Outside Observer F: Was formatting an outcome of the course?

Siobhan: Yes.  In all my courses, 10% of each of their take-home assignment grades is given for formatting.  We review formatting in detail and they are given links to appropriate formatting guides.

Colleague G: Sometimes my only thought is whether I am willing to impose this student on one of my colleagues (or potentially back onto myself!) teaching a later course… Mind you, the alternative is to impose him/her on me or one of my colleagues as he repeats the current course… Oh, this was not a useful reply for you at all…

Colleague H: This may be dangerous to admit, but I tell my students that I don’t give out final grades that end in 7, 8 or 9. I always round up. My justification for this is that language (and analysis) is not an exact science, and my marking therefore perhaps has a standard deviation of about 3 (hence the 7, 8 and 9 possibilities). This means that anyone with a 57 gets a 60 or an 88 gets a 90. However, if someone has a 56 (or 66 or 76 or 86) they KNOW that they didn’t do that wee bit of extra work (like formatting in MLA style gosh darn it!) to give them the little bump. So that’s my justification…if you think this is horribly wrong, I’m willing to change. It’s just been terrifically helpful in dealing with students and having them understand the less-than-exact science that is grading….and by “you”, I don’t mean Siobhan particularly, just the whole general world of education and pedagogy 🙂

Siobhan: I remember you talking about that policy awhile ago, and I even considered whether I should implement it. However, over the years I have developed very detailed rubrics with precise criteria, and I assign point values to each criterion, and then I simply add up the points. This is not really less subjective, of course, but it does give both me and the student the feeling that the grade is a fairly accurate reflection of their abilities. In order for the grade to be rounded up, I would have to decide that I hadn’t graded fairly for a particular criterion, and change that. If students want to argue their grade, they have to convince me that they did better in one or more specific areas than I gave them credit for, and why. I have still been known to fudge grades one way or the other a bit if I feel a student is borderline, but it always comes down to their mastery of particular criteria. (I say always. Let’s say: almost always.)

Colleague J: If students like this put even a fraction of the time and effort into doing their work that their teachers put into evaluating it and wrestling with the ethical dilemmas it creates, we wouldn’t find ourselves in these situations so frequently.

Colleague G: Yes!  Why on earth do we agonize so much over work that, clearly, has not been agonized over by the student him/herself??

Colleague J: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve marked an essay and been convinced that it took me longer to mark it than it did for the student to write it. For me, such a lack of care prevents these issues from having an ethical dimension; if I pass the student, it is not because I am concerned about doing the wrong thing by letting him/her fail.

Siobhan: To be fair to this guy, I think he really did make some kind of effort (such as he was capable of) on this paper, out of desperation if nothing else. It looks like he made an attempt at some sort of formatting, but without looking at any of his guidelines or using any common sense. (Triple-spaced? Half the paper left-justified and the other right-justified? Identification info in the header? What?) It’s more than he’s ever done before, even if it’s all wrong. His last paper was single-spaced and entirely in italics, with no name or other identification on it anywhere.

That said: I sent him a detailed message yesterday with instructions including “go online and make an appt. with the Learning Centre NOW and email me when you’ve done it.” I included the link. According to the message system, he read the message yesterday. He has not emailed me. Looks like this guy’s toast.

Colleague J: I was going to say let him re-format it and stop spending any more energy thinking about it, but I agree with your latest comment. From your perspective, he’s got to show at least some effort at this stage.

Siobhan: The situation itself is frustrating, but I’m actually finding the conversation about it quite stimulating!

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What would you do with such a student?  Give us your thoughts.

Image by Billy Alexander

More Ways To Cheat (Because Where’s the Fun in Doing the Work?)

This week, The Tenured Radical has an imaginary conversation with her imaginary college-age progeny in which she explains why he/she should not cheat in order to get through the hellish last weeks of the semester.  In the process, she directs us to some more online cheating resources (see one of my earlier posts for an enlightening one).  My favourite: a detailed video on how to cheat using a Coke bottle, a scanner, Photoshop, and all that time you could have used to study.

TTR also gives the progeny some tips on how to avoid plagiarizing and how to avoid being accused of it if you haven’t done it.  I heartily wish I’d found this post three weeks ago – a number of my students could have benefitted from its wisdom.

Image by Alice Luidelli

When In Doubt, Make a Plan

On Monday, I posted a letter I received from a reader, asking advice about whether he should stay in college.  I promised you I would post my reply today, and here it is.  I sent this response before posting his letter here, and before reading your thoughts on his situation, but some commenters will notice that my advice jibes very well with theirs; others, not so much!  I welcome your comments.  Did I do right by N?

Dear N:

I’m very sorry to hear that you’re in such an unhappy position.  I am not a therapist or a guidance counsellor (and I think it might be a good idea for you to see one of each; your college services might still be available to you, or they might be able to tell you where to go.)  That said, it doesn’t sound like your situation is hopeless at all, although you are definitely in an uncomfortable spot.

One thing that encourages me is that you say your father sometimes tells you to come home and figure things out.  Next time he says that, would you consider taking him up on it?  I think you will have to demonstrate to both him and your mother that you are not just dropping out of life, but are actively trying to figure your life out, maybe by taking a temporary job, exploring some activities you’re interested in, continuing to pursue your writing etc.  It may be that college really is the best option for you, but not now.  It sounds to me like you are the kind of person who likes learning and would enjoy college (maybe a different college or a different program?) if you were feeling less pressured and confused.

Let me tell you a story.  When I was 21, I returned to school to study education.  I was at a very unhappy time in my life, and was living in a city I didn’t like and studying in a program that wasn’t for me.  I could have completed my program in a year, but I was paralyzed and depressed.  So, less than 3 months before graduation, I dropped out.  I moved to another city, got myself a job in a clothing boutique, and spent some time just figuring stuff out.  Two years later, I went back to school – a different school, and still in education but in an entirely different program – and was very happy there.  I just needed time, experience and reflection to work out my next moves.

Now, I had the support of my parents, although they were worried.  But it sounds like you have the worried support of your mother, and that your father might come around if you presented him with a plan.  What if you said, “Dad, I need to take a year.  I’ll get a job, pay you some rent, and a year from now, I will give you some definite answers about what I’m going to do next.”  How do you think that he would react?

I don’t know your parents, but in my experience, parents are able to be a bit more flexible if they know their children have a plan.

Life without college is definitely a tougher row to hoe in the long term, (especially in the U.S., from what I understand.)  Our society is not constructed in a way, right now, to support people who take the road less travelled. However, I don’t think you need to put yourself on that road for good, at least not yet.  What if you took a year, kept busy, and explored what is out there?  You never know what opportunities might fall in your lap.

Meanwhile, some time with therapists and career counsellors might be a good idea…

I hope that is helpful in some way; I wish I could offer you a pat solution.  I feel sure, though, that you will work this out if you give yourself some space in which to do it.

Best,
Siobhan

Three Things That Are Driving Me Crazy This Week

1. Plagiarism

In my remedial class, we have been talking for two weeks about paraphrasing, integrating quotations, citing sources and so forth.  Nevertheless, three students have received zeroes on the first version of their final paper because of incorrect use of source material.

There are a few mitigating factors here.  First, I don’t believe that any of the students intended to plagiarize – they simply don’t understand, still, what constitutes plagiarism.  Second, this version of the assignment is worth only 10% of their overall grade, so it is not going to make or break any of them.  Third, this is their first draft, and, given that I don’t think any of them are wilfully cheating, I am willing to allow them to make up the difference in their final version and adjust the grades accordingly.  Nevertheless, it has made for a week of very stressful email and face-to-face exchanges, and I’m exhausted by it all.

Here’s what’s driving me crazy: why aren’t they learning how to use sources correctly when they’re in high school?

2. Underhandedness

Here’s a consequence of using Turnitin.com that I hadn’t foreseen: discovering that a student has submitted the same paper for your course and for someone else’s.

But then, what do you do?  I have been told in the past that this is not acceptable; to fulfill a course’s requirements, a student’s work must be specific to that course.  However, I can find no guidelines in our college policies as to whether submitting the same paper for two classes actually constitutes cheating.

You tell the student that you know he’s done this, obviously.  You communicate the problem to the other teacher.  But in the end, is it really such a big deal?  As far as I’m concerned, as long as the student wrote the assignment himself and has met my assignment requirements, it makes little difference what else he’s done with it.

Here’s the question, though – why didn’t the student ask us if it was ok?  Did it not occur to him to ask, because he just assumed it would be all right?  Unlikely.  He assumed we would say no, and so kept his mouth shut.  And this is not cool.  To be expected, but not cool.

It reminds me of another situation I encountered a few years ago: during an in-class essay, a student was trying to hide a paper under her books.  As it turned out, the notes on the paper were completely acceptable and so there was no reason for her to hide them.  But if she thought there was a problem, why didn’t she just ask, or not bring them at all?  This kind of sneakiness makes me mad.

3. Students Who Submit None of the At-Home Work and Do a Half-Assed Job on the In-class Work and Do Not Come for Any Extra Help and so Currently Have an Overall Average of 29% but Still Keep Coming to Class

Because their only motivation for being in school is the joy of talking about literature?  Because they are in love with me?  What do they think is going to happen?

At least a couple of them will send me panicky and/or angry emails once the final grades are in.  A week or so before that, one or two others will show up in my office asking “what they can do to pass this course.”  I know there are all sorts of biological, neurological and environmental factors that cause 18-year-olds to be completely detached from the knowledge that their actions have real consequences, but dammit, people, you’re making me nuts.

Phew.  I need to get myself to a yoga class, stat – or maybe I just need to get a little drunk and stay that way until Christmas.  Only two more weeks to go.  Wish me – and all of us – luck.

Image by Channah

What Will Happen If I Leave College?

Last week, I received this query from N, a college sophomore.  I will publish my reply on Thursday, but for now, I’d like to know what you think.  What should he do?

Dear Auntie Siobhan:

My senior year of high school I found myself going from a good student in AP classes to having no motivation and pretty heavy depression. I fell behind, skipped class and if it weren’t for the help of my school administration I probably would not have graduated high school! My dad lives and works out of state and comes home on the weekends and did not know about any of this, but my mother knew. Before senior year I would have never imagined I would be one of *THOSE* kids who barely graduate!

These issues I have had with motivation have carried over into college and I have not done well. I am in a difficult major. I was not ever certain of why I have these issues with school but lately I am wondering if this has something to do with if I am even meant to be in college.

I know I am intelligent and a competent person. I like science and writing and when I am have the motivation I do very well on exams, much better than my friends who are constantly hard at it. But still overall I am not doing well in college.

I have withdrawn from all my classes this semester and only my mother knows. You must be wondering, why all the deception?

When he was a young man, my dad moved to America from his home country and completed and paid for his masters and PhD in under 4 years… yeah. He is VP of a large and well-known international company. To begin with, I feel like there is a lot of pressure to complete college because of the very fact that my Dad did so quickly and was very successful.

In addition to that pressure, there is of course the societal pressure… if you don’t go to college you must be some lazy loser. I was told from Day 1 that college is my only option.

I am getting no guidance from my parents in this matter. My mother just gets scared. I have called my Dad in tears several times, and his reactions are mixed. Sometimes telling me that I should come home and figure out what I want to do. Sometimes telling me that I have NOTHING to be unhappy about because I am at a good school, have college paid for etc…

I have no idea what to do. I do not even know my options besides a 4 year college. I WAS NEVER TOLD ANY! That is what makes me most angry! I feel almost forced into this! I feel like I have NO TIME to even stop and think “is this right for me? is this realistic for me?” because I have people yelling at me from everywhere that college is my best bet and that I have to get out quickly to compete… but at the same time everyone is yelling at me that college will not even guarantee me a job in this country! What on Earth?!

I am sorry that this might just be a long desperate rant… but I have no one I can reasonably talk to about this! I am upset, locking myself in my apartment and not coming out or seeing anyone for days.

What are my options besides college?

Do you have any advice for N?  What would you do in his shoes?  I have already sent him my thoughts, but I’d like to hear yours.

Image by gerard79

When to be Nice

Three weeks left in the semester.  I am trying not to drown.  I can’t write much today, but please read this and tell me what you think: is there such a thing as too nice, especially where female academics are concerned?

Image by Chris Bowers, from the Images from #Occupy Facebook album

Five Purposes of Higher Education

What do you think higher education is for?

Back in September, Richard Kahlenberg gave a convocation speech in which he outlined five “Purposes of Higher Education.”  I don’t entirely buy them.  Kahlenberg, in his speech, is critical of the extent to which higher education has accomplished these things; I wonder whether they should be our goals at all.

1.  To ensure that every student, no matter the wealth of her parents, has a chance to enjoy the American Dream.

2. To educate leaders in our democracy.

3. To advance learning and knowledge through faculty research and by giving students the opportunity to broaden their minds even when learning does not seem immediately relevant to their careers.

4. To teach students to interact with people different than themselves.

5. To help students find a passionand even a purpose in life.

“4” and “5” work for me as ideals.  How often are they accomplished?  As Kahlenberg says, not very well.  Every time I walk through my school’s cafeteria, I notice that, even after a year or two or three in college, students are still choosing to interact with people very much like themselves.  And a few hours in a few classrooms will show anyone that many college students feel passionate about very little that school has to offer them.

Where “2” is concerned: educating “leaders” is overrated.  We can’t all be leaders, and the world needs educated, successful followers, too.  Kahlenberg seems to be suggesting that those who go to university should be the leaders; this is an outmoded view.  Nowadays, plenty of people who go to university will be employees in large companies, or civil servants.  There’s no reason that higher education can’t provide for them, too.  Kahlenberg is worried that universities are perpetuating old norms by giving preferential admissions to the wealthy and other “legacy admissions”; I think there is a greater problem with the idea that a university education needs to be focused on leadership.  A university education needs to be focused on learning, in all its forms.

Which brings us to “3,” which seems like two different things to me, and neither mentions “learning how to learn,” the most relevant skill to any career or life.  In fact, “3” doesn’t seem concerned with student learning, per se, but with the “advancement of learning” in an abstract sense.  If higher education is to be “education,” it needs to put the concrete, day-to-day learning of students at its center.  “Giving students the opportunity” to “broaden their minds” suggests that faculty are spouting wisdom that students are welcome to partake of if they wish – this view of “education” sits very poorly with me.

And as for “1”…well, I’m not American, so maybe I don’t know from American Dreams, but the concept has always seemed like a great big fraud to me.

Take a hop over to the article, and then come back here and tell me what you think.

Image by Carlos Alberto Brandão