Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fall Breakdown

So, anyone who knows me knows I love a good pun. When teaching an article on the gendering of meat, I made sure to ask my students, “What is the beef the authors have with this topic?” My students chuckled ironically while looking away in mild embarrassment. I simply can’t help myself, which is why the title of this post is not “Fall Break” (too boring), but “Fall Breakdown.”

It’s also called “Fall Breakdown” because, it seems, every fall there is a breakdown for both instructors and students. For students, it’s a result of the first round of midterms coinciding with the first (or second) round of papers at the same time they have the realization that—especially in the case of freshman—they had better get their rear in gear if they’re going to get the grades they want this semester. For us teacher-folk, the breakdown is the mid-semester head-clutching that starts happening when the papers aren’t improving, student morale is flagging, and we start questioning our techniques, syllabi, and texts. This head-clutching in turn leads to long evenings “talking shop” with other instructors, complaining about these issues as well as the general poor state of the American education system, which, I think we can all agree, allows its students to graduate high school and enter college with what many would deem a sixth-grade reading comprehension and writing level.

It’s hard to see the big picture when you are confronted with sentences in papers that have no verb, no noun, no visible grammatical structure, and, in general, seem as though they had been penned by a monkey taught to type on a computer keyboard. Obviously, some mistakes are the result of laziness—often flagrantly so. Not only do students leave words misspelled that any even half-way decent spell-check program would underline in bright red, but they also occasionally misspell my name…and sometimes, even their own names. Yes, typos: the obvious sign that you wrote the paper an hour before it was due.

Then there is the next level of writer error: the writer herself has no clue that she has
a) completely misunderstood the assignment;
b) completely misunderstood the text she is writing about;
c) merely paraphrased class discussions and sprinkled in some quotations with no regard as to whether they make sense or not;
d) so many grammar errors that it is next to impossible to understand the English in the paper; or e) a combination of the above.

When I encounter ten or more of such errors in a single class of 25 people, my faith in the education system begins to crumble…

This is generally how I feel about halfway through grading a stack of papers.
In discussing these issue with colleagues, we toss out various and sundry reasons for these issues…Student laziness, No Child Left Behind, increased reliance on standardized testing, Gen Y feelings of entitlement, school administrators’ resistance to failing students at the K-12 level or fear of having too high a drop-out rate. In the case of writing and reading comprehension, the obvious factor that students just don’t read very much for pleasure (if at all) is probably a realistic factor, as reading directly correlates to good writing.

So, what is a comp teacher to do? My job is to prepare these students to write at a college level, whatever that means. I take it to mean writing in a sophisticated, formal style that would be appropriate in nearly any job, whether in a lab report, brief, patient summary, grant proposal, etc. It also has to mean that students will be ready to write a variety of papers they will encounter during college: reports, summaries, argument papers, various kinds of analytical papers, and also lab reports, paper proposals, annotated bibliographies and reflections. When I think about all of this preparation, and the fact that my students are struggling with basic issues of organization and sentence structure, not to mention that half the time they don’t seem to understand the nuanced arguments of the (relatively simple) essays we read in class, I start to feel like I will never make a dent in all the things they need to know to become good writers.

When the mid-semester breakdown gets bad, I remind myself that good writing is not achieved in a day. While I myself may have entered college at a higher reading comprehension level or level of writing sophistication, I was not perfect.  There is, in fact, no such thing as a “writer genius.” Writing is never a matter of throwing words on the page (except, perhaps in the most basic of cases such as grocery lists or post-it notes), never to return to them. Writing, as I tell my students, is a process that, in the real world, often takes many more drafts than we would ever have time for in a comp classroom. Just as they cannot write a perfect paper in one or two drafts, so they cannot become perfect writers in one or even two semesters. I can try to give them detailed feedback, encourage them, and set them on the path to good habits as writers; I can motivate them with grades; I can make assignments that challenge them and introduce them to the requirements of college. Beyond that, they simply have to get through it and go on.

 I think about the kind of writing I did as an undergrad and even as a MA student—and I cringe. Even writing from the beginning of my PhD studies pales in comparison with my dissertation. And I have no doubt that my dissertation will be but a shadow of the writing I do in the future. The more we write, the better we become. The hopeful, optimistic side of me believes that my students will become better writers during the 15 weeks they have to endure with me, even if their writing level is still much lower than what I would wish for college freshman to have. Similarly, I hope that they will keep writing in future classes and will keep improving. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t think we need more rigorous standards at all levels—we do. But, as an instructor, I have to take these students as they come to me and do what I can: make as much lemonade as possible, to strain a metaphor.

So, maybe fall breakdown doesn’t have to be a breakdown. These are the moments, after all, that motivate us as teachers, even as we (sometimes) feel paralyzed by the size of the task before us. I will probably never come to terms with just how badly some of my students write, but I do what I can to help them improve. In the end, teaching writing is yet another way that my writing improves, too. After all, how many times can you write “where is your topic sentence?” on a student paper without thinking about where are my topic sentences? Similarly, I think back on previous semesters and I know that, at some point, most of my students will turn a corner. They will start to comprehend what it means to write a college paper and how to improve their writing, and they do it. Their papers improve—for the most part. Those who don’t improve, don’t improve because they didn’t try, which is a factor that I cannot control and, consequently, do not worry about.

So don’t you worry, either…I didn’t spend all of fall break thinking about my fall breakdown! I took some time off, put things in perspective, and returned to grading with hope and optimism for the rest of the semester. And booze in the fridge.

Just kidding!
(Not really.)


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