Monday, December 1, 2008

Deadline number three

If I am correct, today is the day my thesis is due (again). It's not done.

I work 50+ hours a week with erratic hours. It's pretty much the norm for me to be up until 5 am Friday and then get up at that time on Sunday. Now there are still plenty of hours left in the week, even if some of them are devoted to my husband. I've not been working very hard on my thesis in the past few weeks.

I decided that today I would come to campus with my husband and go to the library to work. That always is more successful than thinking I'll work at home. I brought my data, my drafts, my calculator, everything I would need. I sat at a table and set to work. But mostly I stared at my papers and felt tired. I wondered what was going on at Burger King right now. I thought about whether I needed to talk to my boss about anything when I stopped by this afternoon to drop off a calendar of events and the deposit key.

Maybe somewhere noisy would be better?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Gregory Schraw, Theresa Wadkins, and Lori Olafson found that students mostly procrastinated because of other priorities. We instructors often get reminded that students have other classes. But topping the list of priorities was personal relationships. This reminds me of a time that I contacted a student about his excessive absences. He said he had to work, but that he knew school should be his top priority.

I didn't say this to him, but my thought was that school should be nowhere near his top priority. His health, psychological and physical, should be number one. Then personal relationships. Even supporting himself financially has to come before school. But none of that changed the fact that I would be grading him based on his performance in my class--it's a writing grade, not a leading-an-exemplary-life grade.

A few weeks ago, a writing center tutor asked me if I thought we should treat students differently based on why they didn't spend sufficient time on their papers. If they were working 40 hours a week, or had family problems, wasn't that a better excuse than partying too much? Or sitting around chilling instead of working?

I suppose it depends on what we meant by "treat differently." It would probably be a bad idea to have some all-purpose lecture about how if you sign up for a class, you have a duty to complete it to the best of your ability. So if I'm conferencing with students who are putting off writing for different reasons, obviously I should have different things to say to them.

But I took the tutor to be toying with the idea of grading more leniently on those with legitimate excuses. And that's just not my style. Either the paper is up to snuff or it's not.

Work Cited

Schraw, Gregory, Theresa Wadkins, and Lori Olafson. "Doing the Things We Do: A Grounded Theory of Academic Procastination." Journal of Educational Psychology 99.1 (2007): 12-25.

Friday, October 3, 2008

How Not to Write

Let's say that all else being equal, procrastination is a bad writing technique. Even if some people "get away with it," they'd have written better papers if they'd gotten started earlier and had more time for research, reflection, and revision.

I don't have evidence for this, but it's the kind of commonsense notion that I expect is hard to let go of without direct evidence against it. Or even then.

It's still not all that useful to tell students not to procrastinate. I mean, it doesn't hurt to give them an idea of how much time you expect them to spend on the assignment. If they've never had to write something they couldn't do in one sitting, they could benefit from a description of a different writing process that might work better. But if the main advice is "start this paper as soon as you get the assignment sheet," then what will the student do?

Those who actually take the advice will most likely use the same writing process they would have used at the last minute. They'll merely move up the timeframe. So instead of writing it all in one sitting the night before, they'll write it all in one sitting the night they are given the assignment. Which is worse, by the way, since those who wait longer will have probably learned more about the subject in the meantime.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Identifying features of procrastination

So I stopped by my university's library this afternoon after walking my husband to class. I didn't bring anything with me to work on...not even a spiral notebook. Just a pen that was riding around in my purse. But I thought I should take a look at recent journal publications. You know, the kind that are actually printed on paper.

Anyway, in CCC, Sean Zwagerman writes about plagiarism and takes a quick swipe at procrastination. He says, "About ten years ago, I was marking an essay whose night-before prose suddently transitioned into sophisticated literary analysis" (676).

"Night-before prose"? What is that exactly? He's clearly referring to a writing which can be easily identified as having been written recently before being turned in. But what are the identifying features? He doesn't say. I don't suppose I can expect an in-depth analysis of procrastination when the issue at hand is actually plagiarism. But, in scholarly articles, how do we get away with such problematic assumptions as teachers who can identify the age of a piece of writing by instructor's intuition?

And seriously, what are the identifying features of procrastinated writing? It's not surface error. It's not length. It might be the use of evidence, but how does that translate into "night-before prose"? How are we analyzing student prose? Sentence structure? Diction? Beats me.

I think about a basic writing student I had last year, "Patrick." Patrick had the strongest prose in my class, yet was one of the biggest procrastinators. The paper he wrote in an hour before class was more interesting than the one he worked with a tutor revising. This is not to say that the paper he wrote quickly was well-organized or well-supported. But I'm pretty skeptical that weak prose is a sign of procrastination.

You know what weak prose is a sign of? A student that needs to work on their prose. It's not just time pressure, it's gaps in learning that are the issue. Problems in student writing are not a moral issue with the students, something that would be solved if they'd merely shape up and follow the rules. Problems in writing exist because students haven't mastered the skill of writing--which is kind of why they're writing students in the first place.

Zwagerman, Sean. "The Scarlet P: Plagiarism, Panopticism, and the Rhetoric of Academic Integrity." College Composition and Communication 59.4 (2008): 676-710.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gender and procrastination

My husband asked me if having a male teacher correlated to more procrastination than having a female teacher. Well, beats me. I wasn't particularly interested in gender for this study. All three instructors in my study are male. I don't see any reason to expect that this would be a problem for the study, but I suppose someone could conduct a study to answer my husband's question. I could imagine certain teaching methods that encourage or discourage procrastination might actually correlate somewhat to gender, but it doesn't strike me as something that would make an obvious impact.

He also asked if the gender distribution of the class contributed to the amount of procrastination. Again, beats me. I didn't collect any data about the students' gender. I didn't even ask the students to report their genders on the questionnaires. I haven't tried to guess students' genders in assigning them pseudonyms.

Procrastination and Proofreading

Of the students I studied, procrastinators were half as likely as non-procrastinators to report proofreading. At first glace this seems like a useful statistic, but I'm not entirely sure.

I didn't set up my questionnaire appropriately to actually study this question. I did not ask students whether they had proofread, merely what changes they had made to their papers. It's possible that students proofread but neglected to mention it. For instance, an instructor might have made a point in class about how proofreading could not stand in for more substantial revision. So when asked what changes they made to their papers, students might have felt they should report the changes their instructor liked to hear about, like organization or elaboration.

In order to determine whether a student had proofread their paper, I simply read what changes they reported making to their paper over time. If they said something along the lines of "fixed grammar" or "changed spelling," I counted that as proofreading. One student said he "added some commas," which I decided fell into the category of proofreading. I did not count "sentence structure" as proofreading.

Studying whether procrastinators proofread would properly require another study, preferably one that validated the reports with direct evidence of the students' writing processes. Since I'm only looking at the end product, the amount of surface errors more appropriate to measure. It just doesn't tell as much about the writing process, if that's what you're interested in.

Another concern I have is that students in Matt's class, procrastinators or not, were more than seven times more likely to report proofreading than those in Lee's class. So while procrastination does appear to correlate to proofreading, it isn't the best predictor of my data.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mort doesn't have much trouble

Mort says he planned his paper for three weeks before drafting it the night before it was due. He says he spent enough time on his paper and when asked if his reasons for waiting a long time to start his paper said, "Don't fix something that is not broken."

Mort's paper was the longest one I studied, 2798 words compared to his class's median of 1465. Where some of his classmates resorted to increasing their font size to make their papers physically larger, Mort seems to be using the Word 2007 default 11-pt. And it's not a string of block quotes making it longer. Instead, he takes on five possible solutions to the problem he poses. And while this doesn't make for the most unified papers, it doesn't immediately suggest procrastination even if it is actually a consequence of putting the paper off to the last minute.

Mort's rate of surface error is in the second quartile. And his problems really do seem often to come from trying out more challenging constructions. For instance, he has a few number agreement problems when the subject is compound and far away from the verb. Mort reports proofreading.

Mort's problems with evidence are also in the second quartile. His only issue is making unsupported claims. This is the kind of thing I'd expect from waiting to the last minute. I know when I'm rushing to finish a paper I often include claims I know need citations to support them but I simply don't have time to find them.

Am I rooting for procrastination?

As I type up my thoughts on the causes of procrastination in these student papers, I wonder if I'm not being open enough to the idea that procrastination is a problem. I seem to explain away everything that might suggest procrastination is harmful. Which is reasonable in that if I do want to suggest procrastination has effects, I need to first rule out other explanations.

But I wonder what I feel as a teacher.

If procrastination accounts for a large proportion of problems in students' papers, what do I do? Do I just force them to turn in drafts and participate in other process-oriented activities? Part of me thinks it's easier to blame procrastination because it's a factor teachers don't have to feel responsible. We remind our students not to put off their assignments, so when they write bad papers at the last minute, it's their own fault.

Bryce has the expected problems

Bryce began planning his paper 16 days before it was due but didn't actually write it until the day before. He felt he spent enough time on it, but perhaps would have benefited from time to "consider what [he has] written."

His paper's length falls in the first quartile. His rate of surface error is in the third quartile, and his problems with evidence are the highest rate in his class. This is pretty much what one would expect from a procrastinator--not enough time to fill the length requirement, to proofread, or to find and effectively use evidence. But so far he's the only procrastinator to fit the stereotype.

Every single one of Bryce's surface errors could be fixed by adding or deleting a comma. They are not the kind of errors he'd be likely to notice in proofreading since he probably isn't quite sure what the rules for comma usage actually are. In fact, Bryce reports that he proofread his paper. He doesn't say what specific kinds of changes he made, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of his errors were introduced as he was proofreading while others were corrected. I don't think procrastination causes students to unlearn punctuation rules, although it might make it harder to apply rules they have to think hard about.

Bryce's top two problems using evidence are weak lead-ins and using quotations where paraphrase would be more appropriate. Bryce mostly introduces his quotations in the sentence before but fails to set them off with signal phrases. As I said before, I doubt that this problem would be fixed with more proofreading. I can't imagine being too rushed to type "X says" and yet having time to explain the relevance of the quote.

Bryce has more trouble using unnecessary quotations than Otis. The fact that he sets off titles of competitions in quotation marks suggests to me that he is sensitive to issues of plagiarism, so he errs on the side of caution. I don't see any reason this fear would be more common in procrastinators, but they could feel it more intensely if they don't believe they have time to put evidence in their own words.

Otis proofreads but struggles using evidence

Otis reports that he began research for his paper a few weeks before it was due but he didn't begin drafting until three days before he turned it in. He says he spent enough time on it because he "didn't feel rushed."

Otis's paper is in the first quartile for length--1192 words to his class's median of 1465. He has the lowest rate of surface errors in his class, but he's in the third quartile for problems with evidence. Otis does report proofreading.

A lack of sentence variety might partially explain Otis's lack of surface errors. But the fact that he tends to have overlong subjects with short verbs suggests to me that he's attempting an academic voice, even if it isn't one that his instructors appreciate. Another explanation is that Otis actually proofread his paper, despite putting it off. I still haven't crunched the numbers to see if procrastination makes one less likely to proofread.

Unlike Mary and Mark, whose evidence problems centered on just a couple areas, Otis has several problems. His top two are no lead-ins for quotations and weak lead-ins for quotations. He only once uses a signal phrase and rarely sets up the quote in the previous sentence. His next most common problems are using quotations where paraphrase would be more appropriate and citing his "own" conclusions. I'm particularly interested in his habit of using quotations instead of paraphrase, because in Otis's class, this problem was much more common among procrastinators than non-procrastinators. (The same is not true for Mark and Mary's class, however.)

When I say that paraphrase would be more appropriate, I'm talking about quoting facts that are worded in unimpressive ways. My feeling is that students do this because they find paraphrase difficult or intimidating. Perhaps the original quote was difficult for the student to understand, so they couldn't put it in their own words. Or the student has been warned about the problem of paraphrasing incompletely, risking charges of plagiarism, so they simply resort to quotations to avoid that problem.

It's possible that spending more time on his paper would have helped Otis introduce his quotations better (as with Mary), but it seems unlikely that it would have prevented his dropped quotes (as with Mark). I could also imagine that spending more time would have helped him write more paraphrases, but that seems like a reach. He had plenty of evidence, he just didn't use it very well. Practice might help, but just writing for longer probably wouldn't have.

Monday, September 15, 2008

"Mary"'s paper pretty average

"Mary" reports that she'd been planning her paper for a few weeks before she actually drafted it three days before it was due. She says she "rewrote" the final draft because of computer problems, but it's not entirely clear whether she means that she had to start over or whether she merely had to retype it from an earlier printed draft. She doesn't think she spent enough time on it, mostly because of the computer problems she had at the last minute.

Mary's paper is right at the average for her class. Her rate of surface errors is in the first quartile. She's not writing grade-school level sentences, but she could use more sentence-level transitions. She'd probably run into more errors if she were writing more complex sentences, but she's not clearly avoiding challenges either. She didn't report proofreading.

Mary's rate of problems with evidence is the median for her class. Her top two problems rank one and three among non-procrastinators: weak lead-ins for quotations and lack of follow-ups. Where Mark's quotations fit clearly in the context of the paragraph but lacked signal phrases, Mary's quotations have signal phrases but neglect any explanation of how they fit in the paragraph. She's learned the rule against dropping quotations in, but she still doesn't really use her evidence, she just tosses it in and puts "According to X" in front of it. But she doesn't really do this more than her non-procrastinating peers.

If she'd spent more time on her paper, she might have been more able to explain the relevance of her quotations. I know that when I'm rushing to finish a paper, it's usually my explanations that suffer. I find myself hoping the reader knows where I'm going with my point. But it's also possible that Mary would not have noticed this problem in her paper, since she already understood the point she was trying to make and might not have realized that someone else wouldn't follow.

"Mark" has few mechanical errors, but struggles with evidence

Now that I've gotten a feel for the general differences between the procrastinated and non-procrastinated papers I collected, I'm going back over the procrastinated ones to better understand what's going on there. Here's what I've learned about "Mark"'s paper.

Mark reports that he wrote his research paper two days before it was due and then rewrote the whole thing one day before it was due. He says he put it off so long because he's "lazy," but he feels he spent enough time on it anyway.

He's right at the average length for the papers in his class and has rate of surface errors in the first quartile. And his sentence structure seems reasonable for a FYC class with pretty frequent subordination. So his lack of error isn't obviously caused by avoiding challenges. He didn't report doing any proofreading.

On the other hand, his rate of problems with evidence is the highest in his class. His top two problems are weak lead-ins for quotations and unsupported claims. (These are the top two problems for non-procrastinators in his class as well.) In Mark's case, most of his quotations are "dropped in" without signal phrases, but they do logically follow the sentences before them. He also relies completely on secondary sources about a comic book character, never directly citing the comics themselves.

It's hard to say whether starting his paper a few days sooner would have helped Mark. It might have given him more time to look up sources for some of the claims he wanted to make. But it probably wouldn't have prevented his dropped quotes. In my experience teaching and tutoring, people who drop quotes simply don't understand that it's a no-no--even after multiple one-on-one sessions intending to explain it. Unless he used those extra days to take his paper to the writing center or conference with his instructor, Mark probably wouldn't have fixed those dropped quotes because he probably didn't think they needed fixing.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Procrastinated papers have more problems with evidence

While mechanical errors didn't prove any more of a problem for procrastinators than their non-procrastinating peers, the same is not true for problems using evidence. Under evidence problems I'm including problems integrating quotations, unsupported claims, and using the wrong kind of evidence (such as quoting others' opinions to stand in as the writer's conclusion). I do not include citation errors. Since these were freshman research papers, most of the evidence was of the sort found in books and websites, but I count examples under evidence as well.

Both classes had procrastinators in the fourth quartile for rate of errors in use of evidence. That's .37 and .13 errors per 100 words for the classes overall but .67 and 1.0 for procrastinators. Looking over the kinds of errors, nothing jumps out as being more of a problem for procrastinators than for the rest of the classes. The distribution of kinds of evidence errors looks to be about the same.

I was a little surprised after finding little difference in terms of length and mechanical errors to find a difference in use of evidence. One explanation that jumps out at me is the possibility that no one--procrastinator or not--is effectively proofreading her paper. I should look back over the questionnaires to see if procrastinators were any more or less likely to report proofreading.

One thing that separates mechanical errors from use of evidence is the expectation of prior knowledge in first year composition. While the classes probably had some instructions in avoiding comma splices, I'm sure if I asked the instructors they'd confirm that more class time was spent on research and quotation integration. So why might non-procrastinators do better here? Well, I'm tempted to think that non-procrastinators were more likely to actually be in class. I don't have any data on attendance, so this is just speculation. But if a student procrastinates because they don't want to work on the assignment, they might just skip class for similar reasons, missing out on important lessons. On the other hand, students with no free time (such as those working full time) may not be keeping up studying or may miss class for other reasons. So I can imagine that students who wait until the last minute to write their papers might also be students who miss out on lessons. But that may be a reach.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why would procrastination reduce error?

As I said below, my data indicate a slightly lower rate of error in procrastinated papers than otherwise. It'd be a bit of a leap to conclude without more research that procrastination helps. But lets say it did turn out that waiting to the last minute resulted in writing with fewer errors. What might the reasons be?

Usually when students explain that they prefer to procrastinate, they allude to creative energy of some kind that only arrives as the deadline looms. I can't recall a student ever telling me they made less errors that way, but such a situation isn't entirely unimaginable. In my imagination, the student thrives on the stress of needing to put a paper together in a short amount of time and actually becomes more productive. Although this is possible, I'm fairly skeptical. Sometimes I've thought I became productive when I procrastinated and then found a bunch of performance errors circled by my professors.

Students who struggle more with cognitive errors (a term I'm not in love with) may be a different matter. Since they misunderstand the rules of grammar, they can actually make their papers more error-filled the more they work at them. But since my study was of freshman composition classes and not basic writers, this seems unlikely to be the main explanation.

Maybe fewer errors isn't even a good thing. People screw up when they push the boundaries of their comfort zone. Freshman papers often contain errors that simply come from imitating a style they haven't yet mastered. Helping students to master the style they're already going for is a lot easier than trying to get students to stop writing sentences that sound like they could follow "See Spot run." Students who think that grammatical errors are what separates good and bad writing may have perfect grammar but still write bad papers.

I need to go back to the papers that were procrastinated on and determine what kinds of errors they contain and whether the lower rate of error might have been caused by playing it safe and not attempting anything more complex than a compound subject.

Procrastination Reduces Errors?

As it turns out, of the students in the three classes I've studied, the procrastinators didn't write particularly worse papers. At least not by the two indicators I've looked at so far.

One might think that waiting to the last minute to start a research paper would result in it being too short. Nope. There was more difference in length from one class to another than between procrastinators and non-procrastinators. One of the procrastinators actually wrote the longest paper in his class. None of them wrote the shortest. Procrastination has no clear consequence on paper length.

It would also seem reasonable to expect that procrastinated papers would contain more errors, for two reasons. One, waiting too long to start the paper may leave the writer without time to proofread. This should leave evidence of "performance errors"--the kinds of mistakes we all make when we don't watch ourselves. Two, students who avoid the task of writing may well be doing so because they believe they are bad at it. These students might leave evidence of "cognitive errors"--the kinds of mistakes we make when we are confused about the rules. These mistakes will simply not be caught by self-proofreading and can actually be made worse (since the proofreading is done by the student's wrong impression of the actual rules).

But no, procrastinators don't make more errors. Of both classes with procrastinated papers, the error rate was lower with procrastinators. The procrastinators in one class had an error rate of .5 errors per 100 words. The class average (median) was .67--slightly higher. In the other class, procrastinators had an error rate of .9 errors per 100 words. That classes averaged 1.7.

Here again the difference between classes is stronger than the difference between procrastinators and students as a whole. Procrastination doesn't increase errors, but the numbers are awfully close (.5 to .67 and .9 to 1.7) with a limited amount of data (less than fifty students) to jump to the conclusion that it helps.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My Thesis

So I've had some troubles with my thesis. Getting human subjects approval took longer than I anticipated, and there were some hangups collecting data in a timely fashion, leading to me collecting data right up until when I was supposed to have the thing actually finished.

But I knew I could finish over the summer. Then my husband and I separated, shaking up my whole life. I thought I'd still be able to work on my thesis but I stupidly ended up working two jobs to total about sixty hours a week. I was sleeping in split shifts, so the thesis was not getting done.

Then my husband asked me to move back in with him. I got back to only working one job (thirty hours) but was focusing (rightly) on my marriage. But part of what we learned in counseling was the importance of alone time--so I should have been able to make time for my thesis.

When my manager at Burger King found out I didn't have job prospects for the fall, she offered me a promotion. Maybe it was stupid to take it. Now I'm working fifty hours a week. I'm telling myself that now that my husband is in school instead of home all the time in the evenings like he was over the summer that I'll be able to sit down and actually write. But I presume I'll come up with another conflict then.

When I walked through the Missouri State campus today, I realized I was seeing potential Burger King customers, not writing students. That concerns me a bit. I realize that when I quit Burger King last fall in order to concentrate on school, that I missed it more than I'm missing teaching.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Bending or Breaking My Own Rules?

My department has a policy that all major assignments must be turned in, in the order assigned, before a student is eligible to pass a course. I state this in my syllabus along with my interpretation : I will not accept a paper after the due date for the next paper. In accordance with this policy, I emailed a few of my students a while back to let them know they would no longer be eligible to pass.

One student asked for an exception. He "really need[ed] to pass." He hadn't been to class in over a month and hadn't turned in a paper in two months (and those by email). For a while there, I honestly couldn't remember what he looked like.

I told him to come by my office with a better case than "I really need to pass" and we'd talk.

I looked through my grade book. In order for him to pass, he needed to submit a revision, four new papers, and make nineteen blog posts, all in less than a week, all at passing quality. When he showed up for his appointment, I told him that I didn't think he could pull it off, but I'd let him try.

I'm still not entirely sure I should have budged on my interpretation of the English department policy not to accept papers turned in out of order. But I feel like at least this way he can't blame his teacher for his failure.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Comp Exams!

I just finished my comp exams. I only spent four days studying (but one of those was the entire day). I'm pretty happy with how I did. The comp exam questions for my area of emphasis are clearly fifteen years old, as they deal with dead issues and don't mention any theorist who was first active past 1990. But I went ahead and worked a current theorist into one of those questions that was situated in the 1980s. I hope that makes me look smart rather than evasive. (I did cover the old stuff too.) I also answered a question about personality theory because I love to talk about the Myers-Brigg. I ran out of time on that one before I was able to refine it too much, so I hope it still makes sense.

Update: I passed!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Grammar Game

Last semester I didn't cover grammar extensively in my basic writing course. I started using worksheets to fill in time around mid-term, and I marked recurring errors in students' papers. But it killed me that one of my hardest-working students was unable to pass my class because he never shook a grammar problem that I marked in all his papers but didn't spend much classtime on.

I may have gone overboard this semester by assigning each student a grammar presentation, but my hope is that if nothing else, students learn the one issue they present. I've been wanting to incorporate grammar games for a while, but today was the first time I had the extra classtime to do it. Grammar games give students the opportunity to use grammar to control sentences instead of merely fixing mistakes. In "Grammar Games in the Age of Anti-Remediation," Margaret Tomlinson Rustick shares a game called "Sentence Survivor" (53). Basically, you start with a long sentence on the board and the students take turns erasing words until there's no way to make the sentence shorter. They can take one, two, or three words, as long as they're in a row. Rustick says to use a compound-complex sentence, but I'd say anything over six words will do. The idea is to leave a complete sentence but for the opposing team to get stuck. Obviously the meaning of the sentence changes with the various moves.

The students liked the game, and we had a surprise star. Near the end of the second round, she asked me if she could add punctuation. Of course--that makes the game more interesting. She jumped up and erased three of the last four words leaving only, "Why?"

Hmm. Rustick didn't mention that possibility. There's nothing grammatically wrong there, but it's not actually a sentence. It led to the other team using "Ferocious!" as their final move a couple of rounds later. I'd say "Why?" is more acceptable, but if the students are able to envision contexts in which "Ferocious!" is acceptable--well, that's the whole point of the game, right?

Work Cited
Rustick, Margaret Tomlinson. "Grammar Games in the Age of Anti-Remediation." Journal of Basic Writing 26. 1 (2007): 43-62.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Downside of Tutoring

The downside of tutoring is that students expect their papers to turn out perfect.

The course that teaches future basic writing teachers (the course I originally wrote this blog for) requires grad students to arrange tutoring sessions with basic writing students. It's a great idea, since most of them will only have a vague notion of what these writers are like. (They're pretty normal people.)

After I passed back my students' second graded paper, one student approached me visibly upset about her grade. She explained that the tutor hadn't seen any grammatical problems and that the problems in her paper were the result of his suggestion.

I've been a tutor. I don't honestly believe that this particular tutor gave her bad advice. She simply misunderstood his advice, or in trying to apply his advice, took a risk and used devices that she hasn't yet mastered.

I guess I need to further emphasize that the goal is for them to leave this class as good writers. If the tutor hadn't made suggestions, she might not have had those grammar errors. But she would be in the exact same place she had been as a writer. It may seem to her that something bad happened because her grade wasn't so great. But hopefully in the end something good happened--she learned something new.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Was Thinking about Letting Class out Early

My students had a paper due today, and five of the fifteen of them were giving presentations. When I started class, only six people had showed up--and only two of those who were supposed to be giving presentations. I keep a few worksheets and activities on hand at all times in case my lesson plans run short, but I wasn't sure I could justify an hour of busywork. And these six students were the ones who actually showed up, so they deserved to go home early, assuming that's what they wanted.

Most of the rest of the class showed up fifteen minutes late. We did get to see all five presentations, and there were only fifteen minutes left at the end. I got up to clarify something from one of the grammar presentations (on pronoun-antecedent agreement), and next thing I know students are asking questions about semicolons. So we talk about semicolons and other ways to connect independent clauses. And then a comment about colons. By the time I briefly cover the grammar questions, we're out of time.

For those who have taught college writing, this is probably not surprising. Students want grammar. They know (or think) they struggle with it and want to be able to follow the rules. However, teaching grammar is not hip in composition circles. And of course, I'd never teach grammar at the expense of other elements of writing. I insist that one of the requirements of a good paper (not even excellent, but just good) is that it actually be interesting.

If only I could get them to pay as much attention to discussions about other issues as they pay to explanations of punctuation.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

What makes for a good narrative?

Honestly, all I wanted was for someone to say that a story needs to have a point. But instead my students suggest that good dialogue makes a piece more interesting. Another student suggested dramatic irony. And, yeah, he knew what it meant. Stories that float around the office are a lot more likely to degrade students than to brag on them. But it was pretty cool to have such sophisticated suggestions. Being able to analyze literature doesn't mean they're good writers, but it might mean that they're good readers, which is halfway there. There's only so much I can do to help a student who's never read a book.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How will I know what to fix?

Today my students had a peer review scheduled, so they were required to bring drafts of the papers which are due Friday. When I clarified that they would not be turning these preliminary drafts in to me, one student asked, "How do we know what to fix if you don't read our papers?"

She didn't know what kinds of changes her rough draft could go through that weren't specifically directed by her teacher. Which is a reasonable concern from someone who may have never been asked what she thinks about her own paper.

With this class, I'm trying to instill the notion that revision is about making things better, which may not involve "fixing" anything. Last week I asked if anyone had ever read anything they didn't like. (The answer is pretty obvious.) One student hadn't liked Animal Farm. We discussed why that was. It wasn't because George Orwell had bad grammar or even wrote confusing sentences. It was just the idea of animals running a farm that bothered the student. So, I emphasized, the kinds of things that would have improved the book are not the kinds of things students usually change in a rough draft--spelling and word choice. Making something good is more complicated than making it correct.