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

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

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


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

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

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

Those who hold one view will say,

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

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

Those holding another view will say,

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

This view holds that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday: how I saved my teaching career.

Image by Bjorn Snelders

Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish.  Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?”  He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”

Menand  poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?”  Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.”  What are the humanities worth?  Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies.  (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)

The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is  its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.

My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things.  He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies.  (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.)  These are not the same question.  Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that.  He’s asking a question that I often ask.  Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?

Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job.  This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic.  For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.

I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert.  I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could.  I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle.  For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.

I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.

What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?

For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician.  To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.

Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies.  Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available.  Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience.  If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.

What are the problems with such a system?  What are the benefits?  When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning.  Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them.  Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

Methinks the Lady Doth Explain Too Much

At the end of last semester, I posted about an extremely frustrating email exchange I was having with a student, but I didn’t post the exchange itself, as I was concerned about the niceties of using student correspondence in blog posts.  However, I kept the conversation in my drafts folder, suspecting that I would make use of it someday.  I came across it again this weekend.  I have enough distance that I can doctor the student’s messages a little while retaining their essence.  The student’s name has of course been changed, and other identifiers have been eliminated.  My replies are reproduced verbatim.

I wanted to post this now because we have come around to that same time of the semester – the final couple of weeks – and my dread of infuriating student emails is welling up.  However, my perspective on this conversation has changed in so many ways.  In particular, I see my own role and replies entirely differently.  In the moment, I was so furious with and bewildered by the student that I was unable to step back from my own behaviour and evaluate it.  Please read and give me your thoughts: what am I doing wrong here?

Student: Hi,its concerning my topic for the oral I choose to do it on war to stop war in the world are poverty.

Siobhan: Dear Shayla: Your guidelines state that in your oral, you must teach the class a skill that you have.  Is stopping war or poverty a skill that you possess?  Please reread the assignment guidelines.

Student: Goodmorning ,it is concerning toodays class.Since last yesterday,I catch a flue which was catch by my relatives in my household.I woul like to know if i can met with you next week to review what I will be missing in todays class.

Siobhan: Shayla: I’m sorry to hear you are sick.  You are welcome to meet with me during my office hours next week to discuss what you’ve missed.  In the meantime, you still need to give me your topic for your oral presentation, as you will be presenting next Friday; please send me your topic as soon as possible.

Student: Hi,I wanted to know concerning the orall date can i present the wednesday  after?As i missed a class and didnt get to choose my oral date

Siobhan: Shayla: Your oral date and topic were due last week – you were free to email me with your date and topic at any time!  However, as Friday is quite full, I can move you to the next date.  In general, though, not attending class is not an excuse for not taking care of your class responsibilities.  Please send me your oral topic AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, as it is now very late.

Student: My topic is to change poverty  int the world because it sais if there was one thing you had to change what would it be .And thank you for being patient and giving me a chance to do the oral another dtae.

Siobhan:  I believe I already wrote you about that topic: I think you are confusing your argumentative essay with your oral presentation.  Your topic for your oral presentation needs to be to teach the class how to do something that you know how to do well.  It has nothing to do with the topic for your argumentative essay, which is to identify something you would change in the world and explain why.  These are two different assignments.

Student: Hi,its concerning two zero I have.I have a zero on quiz 3 and 4?And concerning the essay and oral,I will see you tomorrow and talk about it ,because I am quite confuse.I will talk to you 5 min before class if that’s okay with you,because after you’re class I have gym and the time of break is just enough for me to get ready.

Siobhan: Shayla: It is not clear to me what your question about the quizzes is.  You have zeros on two quizzes because you were not in class on the days they were given.  If you have a medical note excusing you from the latest quiz, you can bring it to me tomorrow.
As for the oral, I expect you are confused because you have not been in class when we have discussed the guidelines, nor as the other orals have been presented.  I will be happy to talk to you, but the time before class is not the best time; it would have made more sense for you to come see me in my office well before now.  You have missed a great deal of class time, and this is putting your chances for success in this course in jeopardy.

Student: Hi,I wanted to know tomorw can i see u before class in ur office for like 10 mins? or at 330 pm?

[Interval: I yank student out of class to explain again that no, she cannot come to see me in my office ten minutes before class time for any reason. The next class, the student is unprepared to do her oral presentation because she believes that her date is the class AFTER the extended date I agreed to above.]

Student: Hi,its regarding the argumentative essay we have to write my topic is going to be pauverty …Ihave told you that before,but you said it wasnt good but i saw on the paper in class someone chose it

Siobhan: Shayla: I told you (twice) that poverty was not a good topic for your ORAL PRESENTATION.  Poverty is a fine general topic for your paper.  They are two different assignments; I was hoping that by now your confusion about these two assignments would have cleared up!
There is no need for you to tell me the topic for this paper now.  We have done a great deal of work on it in class, most of which you have missed, and I will not be tutoring you about it over email.  I would suggest that you do the best you can with your first draft (which is due on Sunday night) and that you take advantage of the opportunity to come see me in person about making improvements for your final version (due the following week).  I don’t want to get any messages from you about this between now and Sunday – you are on your own!  The guidelines are available in our online classroom.

[Interval: several face-to-face meetings in which I carefully explain to the student that she needs to read the assignment instructions and my email messages, and COME TO CLASS, if she wants to have a clue what is going on.]

Siobhan: Dear students:  As you know, your final English paper is due by midnight this Friday.  Classes finish on Thursday.  As I explained during our last class, I will be in meetings and other engagements all day on Friday, and so will not be available in my office or by email.  It is therefore essential that you contact me with any questions BEFORE 6 PM ON THURSDAY.  If you contact me by email, it is essential that your question be brief and specific – I cannot review your whole essay for you.  If you have more general questions, please come see me in person during our final class period, when I will hold office hours specifically for your class.  (Note: even if your question is brief, it’s always better to come see me in person if you can.)  I will also be available for regular office hours.

Student: [sent at 11 a.m. Friday]: Hi,I did not get to see you thursday as I was still working on my paper ,I actually even redid another one.I was wondering can you just take a quick look and tell me what version would be best? [attached: two full-length essays]

Siobhan: [sent after the essay deadline has passed]: As I explained in a previous message, and in class, I was not available to answer any questions on Friday.  I hope you submitted your essay on time.  Have a good holiday.

[Interval: final papers are graded.]

Siobhan: Shayla: PLEASE READ THE MESSAGE BELOW SLOWLY, CAREFULLY, AND AT LEAST THREE TIMES.  Please do not contact me asking me to answer questions that have already been answered below.
It is essential that you do your English course again.  You have failed it this time for two main reasons:
1. You missed a lot of class time, and so did not learn the material you needed to learn, and
2. You seem to have a lot of difficulty reading and understanding instructions in English.  This includes both assignment guidelines and email messages.
I have looked over your final paper.  I know you worked hard on it, but it is not a passing paper. It is not properly formatted, your thesis is still not adequately supported, and your organization, especially your conclusion, still needs a lot of work.  However, the main problem is this:
In at least one spot, you have used words directly from a text without presenting them as a quotation.  You have cited the source but you have not paraphrased properly.  (If you look at the “Originality Report” for your paper on Turnitin, you will see this section marked in purple with a number “2” beside it.)
As we discussed in class, using quotations properly was a major part of your task on this paper.  Using them improperly is a serious problem, and the usual result is that you get a zero on the paper and a letter goes into your permanent file saying that you have plagiarized.  However, I do not think that you deliberately plagiarized here – I believe that because you missed so much in-class time, you did not know how to do this properly.  I am therefore not going to put a letter in file; instead, I will consider this optional paper “not submitted” and will give you the same grade for your final version as you received on your original version.
I hope that next semester you will make an effort to attend all classes and to give more careful attention to the instructions you are given.

Student: [message 1]: Hi,I wanted to know what version of the assignemt u read because I have send about 4 assignment making a mistake only 1 is the gudd version the latest one.

Student: [message 2]: Hi,I just reviewed my essay and I do not see where I did plagirasim I went on turnitin and recheck with my text in front of me .Is there a possibbility of me scanning the text I have and show you.

[Interval: Siobhan writes several long, detailed, patient, tooth-gritting messages and deletes them all, settling on this:]

Siobhan: Shayla: I am truly surprised that you continue to send me messages.  Obviously, a plagiarized sentence is not the only reason that you failed this course, and the fact that you will not accept responsibility for this is extremely frustrating for me, as it is taking time away from all the other papers I need to grade – this is not fair to the students who invested a lot of time and effort throughout the whole  semester.  I will be at the college this afternoon at 4:30 for a meeting; I can meet with you briefly before that.  I am not happy about this.  There is not need for you to scan or bring anything.  Please let me know if you can come to my office at 4:00.

[Student is never heard from again.]

Image by Ambroz

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

Penny Gives Up

Penny was in one of my courses last semester.  She failed.  Her basic skills – reading comprehension, written and oral expression, logical organization – were all very poor.  However, she was motivated and hardworking, and didn’t seem discouraged throughout most of the term, even when she failed quiz after quiz and assignment after assignment.

It was only at the end of the term that she started to show her frustration.  After receiving 40% on her first version of her final essay, she seemed to be at a loss.  It was the first time I saw her show signs of anger.  “But I asked some friends to look at it!” she said.  “They said it was good!  I don’t trust these people any more!”

I tried to speak with her logically with her about the difficulties she was having; she didn’t even seem to grasp that her skill level was so low that it was unlikely she could solve her problems in one term.  We had a couple of conversations in which I told her that she needed to be prepared for a possible course failure.  “But I work so hard!” she said.  Yes, I acknowledged, she was working hard.  She was also a lovely person and a delight to have in the class, but she still couldn’t construct a comprehensible sentence.  And, as predicted, she ended the course with a failing grade.

At the moment, I am the only person who teaches this course, so this semester, Penny is in my class again.  She seems to have entirely changed.  She missed the first two classes, and has come late for the others.  (She missed no classes last semester, and was always punctual.)  When she does show up, she seems sullen and distracted; she doesn’t ask questions, and moves listlessly to join her groups or write on the board.

After the first class she attended, she asked to speak to me.

“You said talk to you about my essay,” she said.  “I don’t understand how I failed.  If I didn’t rewrite the essay, I would had a passing grade!  But I fail the rewrite and you fail me for everything!  In class, when I show you the essay rewrite, you say it’s all good!  But then I fail!”

And so forth.  It was more apparent than ever that explaining the mathematics of her grade, of reminding her that I did NOT say that the rewrite was “all good,” etc., was not going to be productive.  Nor would it help to tell her that when I said “Come see me in January,” I meant “Come if you want to look at this essay in detail together,” not, “Come if you want to negotiate with me about your grade.”  So I simply repeated what I’d already told her several times: her skills are very weak.  If she goes into a 101 course now, she will fail.  If she works as hard this term as she did last term, she may very well pass the course, but she needs the extra practice.

“But I feel so bad!”  She laughed a bit, and I saw a glimpse of the Penny I knew in the fall.  “I feel so bad since then!  I think, ‘Why am I so dumb?  Why I can’t do this?'”

“I know you feel bad,” I said.  “Failing a course feels bad.  But if you can get past your bad feeling, if you can put it aside, then this can be an opportunity for you.  It’s a chance for you to learn more and practice more, so your skills will be strong.  You are not dumb.  How long have you been in Canada?”

“About seven years,” she said.

This pulled me up short.  What?  “Seven years,” I said.  “But you went to high school in French?”

“No, in English.”

She has been going to English school for seven years.  How is this possible?  “Did you do well in your English courses in high school?”

“English, no, but everything else I do fine.”

I took a deep breath.  “I hope you will try to see this as a chance to do better, Penny.  You are a good worker.  Don’t be discouraged.  If you keep working, you will improve.”

Today in class, Penny was finishing her paragraph homework assignment instead of paying attention.  (Last semester, she ALWAYS came with her homework complete and was ALWAYS completely attentive.)  When I called on her during grammar exercises, she had no idea where we were; she hadn’t even opened her book to the correct page and, as it turned out, was using the course pack from last term, which means that she hadn’t made any attempt to do her grammar homework at all.  It seems likely that she will fail her quiz next week.  What concerns me more, though, is that she seems completely deflated.  I have no idea what to do about this.

What can we do when students are so traumatized by failure that they can’t pick themselves up and move on?  In a previous post, I discussed research that suggests that “grit” – or resilience – is the most important ingredient in student success.  What can we do if a student’s “grit” seems to be all used up?

There’s a Rilke quote I love, and that I turn to when I feel like I just can’t catch a break.  Penny won’t be able to hear it – I’m not sure she’d even understand it – but I wish I could find a way to deliver its meaning to her whole, as a gift.

Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Is there anything I can say to convince Penny that the solution to her problems is to just keep going?

Photo by Cherie Wren

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.


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!


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

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