Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Joys of Academia, pt.1

The Joys of Academia, pt 1 -- on marking papers

I like being an academic. I really do. I am most at home on a campus or in a library or a classroom -- or at a conference, which is like all of those things with all the smartest kids and the couple who are there so you can say, "wtf???"* I love my job. Like most academics, I am no different in that there are those parts of my job that I love to complain about. The most obvious of these is marking papers. We all whinge about it. It takes up huge amounts of time, and can be really demoralizing. Most of the people I know have got to the point where we can differentiate between totally unprepared students and students who just didn't get it, and our responses are different in each case.

When we have totally unprepared students, we can't really feel that guilty about their having done badly. It isn't our fault as college professors that these students never learned to write in complete sentences, let alone an entire essay that answers the question we asked. It isn't our fault if they can't tell water from land on an outline map. They're supposed to know that coming in. Still, as I've said before, a lot of us really have to teach "How to do College". I'm finding that these things are also true at SLAC. I will be marking exams beginning midweek, and I am pretty sure that I will not really be assessing them on how well they've learned the history, because some of them will have failed the exam before I get to historical data and its use. This is a little demoralizing. After all, I'm a professor (assistant) of History, not Composition, right?

Wrong. Historians are writers. It's what we do. It's how we express to others how all the names and dates and stuff that happened go together in some kind of coherent picture that makes sense. I've always known that as a teacher, but I haven't been able to articulate it very well to students when they complain about my not giving them enough credit for "content." Now that I'm writing again, the importance of written communication is much easier for me to explain. Still, there is something very disheartening about essentially failing (or in this case, giving a lot of 'D's, probably) students because they just can't write.**

If a student can't write, I will help them, either myself or by sending the student to the correct places on campus. And since I know how important writing is to my field, I know I am doing my job. I even know, when students do improve, that I am doing my job well. But the necessary focus on writing and other skills the students should already have can mask or interfere with another grading issue. It's an important issue, and I think it's one of the reasons we dread marking, apart from the time-suck. Whether or not we like it, reading and assessing student work forces us (or should force us) to consider our own performance. When we see a consistency in errors, is it our fault? were we not clear enough? Did we not do our jobs well? Of course, that also gives us an opportunity to change how we teach some things to make them clearer. I like that part, but it's hard to get to. I hope I get there with my new students.

This was going to be a post about new challenges that really are old -- marking papers and navigating political waters in a new climate. I'll have to tackle that one later, but I'll give you a not-surprising preview: SLAC has politics. Navigating them is scary and likely to make a new person paranoid.

*or in a restaurant kitchen -- go figure
** including spelling. I have a student who always writes "sum" rather than "some" -- perhaps a texting thing? But I'm trying to figure out a polite and non-embarrasing way to let him know that he really doesn't want to make the equivalent substitution for the spelling of the word 'come'


~profgrrrrl~ said...

You and I seem to be on the same wavelength this morning.

Dealing with poor student writing abilities when teaching writing is neither your content area nor written into the course objectives is tricky. I find that I need to spend a fair amount of time working with graduate students on writing -- not because their undergraduate writing teachers didn't do a sufficient job teaching them but because we're asking them to do a different kind and level of writing without any instruction on how to do it. (A post is brewing ...)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Wow, I hadn't even thought about teaching grad student writing ... and yet, I'm supposed to be gearing up to work on teaching the senior thesis in a year or so.

medieval woman said...

This reminds me of the post over at "Writing as jo(e)" the other day where one of her comp students kept talking about "Satin" and how evil it was - you guessed it - the kid (apparently a devout Catholic) meant Satan. Can you send some of them to the writing center on campus?

Good luck navigating those shark infested political waters!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yep -- after I get some Actual Work done, I'll blog that part! And said student is enrolled in a study skills class now, as well as being encouraged by several people to go to the writing center. One of the problems is that the writing center doesn't actually proof things -- they are there to work on skills. So I expect that homonyms will remain a problem for this student ...

~profgrrrrl~ said...

Yep, I'm finding that even my graduate students who are strong writers need help learning to write up research. Makes sense. As undergraduates they were writing "research papers" that often were persuasive essays on a topic. Now they're being asked to do something entirely different.

I've sent students to the writing center, and at SU we required students with the biggest writing problems to take a 500-level writing course from the technical writing program (only grad-level writing courses available). The problem? Well, while our international students may have learned about using articles (certainly valuable) and all of them about learned about writing copy for certain kinds of business-oriented topics, technical writing is not what we're asking them to do in our courses.

Bardiac said...

Yay for you! I love hearing how folks in other departments take writing seriously and teach it. Writing's such a developmental issue; students should be working on their communication skills in pretty much all their classes.

Dr. Crazy said...

This is a great post, ADM. One way that you might address the content vs. writing issue is to put comments on writing in one color and responses to content in another. That can give students a clearer picture of what you're responding to in their work, and it's not something that takes a great deal of extra time (though it does take some getting used to). Another thing that can be helpful is to have some kind of checklist that deals first with content related things (did they respond to the assignment, did they make effective claims and provide adequate analysis, make insightful points, etc.) and then in a separate section deal with the writing stuff. You may already do some of this stuff, but I thought I'd throw these things out there because I've found them useful in dealing with writing in literature classes. Both (either used together or if you just pick one) can help to demonstrate to students that you ARE responding to the content of their work, but that their content is compromised by their failure to articulate themselves clearly.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Dr. Crazy -- I actually do use a matrix for grading, and it's divided into content and mechanics criteria. I hand it out with the exams so that they know what I'm looking for ...

Dee said...

ADM, I've just decided I'd rather build in time to deal with writing, even if means I have to cover less content. One thing I do, also, is give quizzes that mimic the "short answer" section on exams, so that I can try to teach them how to take the exam before they get to it, as we discuss the answers in class. And I gave up on in-class midterms because I realized doing well was more about how to take the test than knowing the material, and I didn't want to teach how to take a 50-minute midterm.

Dr. Crazy, I like the color switch suggestions. Thanks.

I'll be quoting this in class on Tuesday, thanks much ADM:
"Wrong. Historians are writers. It's what we do. It's how we express to others how all the names and dates and stuff that happened go together in some kind of coherent picture that makes sense."

Another Damned Medievalist said...


Kelly said...

This is a great post! I assign analytical papers with a specific format that go with the Major Problems series of texts (historiographical says and primary sources). The first (and second and third), I always receive some papers that are in general about the topic but in no way follow the directions. This happens even when I have them do preliminary outlines, etc.

It is our job to help students understand what we expect from their writing assignments. It's just like the content presentation that varies from instructor to instructor. A and B students will figure this out.

Many students, I'm afraid, however, have never been pushed to do more than rough drafts and don't understand the entire writing process - including the historical analysis we expect.

As high schools are expected to do more and more and history is marginalized because it isn't tested, it's a good time for us to all discuss how we deal with these issues.

BTW part of my going back to grad school was a principal who told me (this obviously pre-dated NCLB by a longshot) that "kids don't need to write in a history class." Of course, I had already brainwashed them into getting at least a point for properly restating the question versus getting no points for a wrong multiple choice question.

Keep up the great posts on the differences (or lack thereof) between teaching at a cc and a slac.

Greg said...

This goes so far down the food chain it's ridiculous. I have read undergrads who can't write, wondered why, and then taught high school kids who, quite literally, did not know what a noun is. Now, the kids I taught were, for the most part, not going on to grad school, but even the ones who had aspirations beyond high school were hard-pressed to string sentences together coherently. I was trying to read novels with these kids and I needed to teach them grammar, and 16-year-olds don't want to learn something as tedious as grammar. It's mind-boggling, and I have no idea how far down we have to go to find the source of it. Writing is such a cornerstone of so many disciplines (including math and science) that it's almost unbelievable we don't put more emphasis on it at an early age. I feel for you, I really do.

Of course, when I was grading undergrads, I got a great paper in which the student called Alexander the Great "Alex" the entire time and wrote something about "the possibility of Persia," which I still remember as a brilliantly misguided phrase. So even as you're banging your head against the wall in frustration, you get fun stuff like that.