Mental Students

May 12, 2015

If you teach writing in Paragraph City, in the very shank of the semester, students sometimes take up residency in your head. They gain access without permission, in clandestine ways. They stay there on a stool in Noggin Central because you care and usually because you can’t do a thing for them.

They are not the students who tell excuses, which is to say saying whatever in order to get something from you. Just assuming the excuse is not true is easier than chasing down the real story, and it avoids the let down when you find out that lying to you is just what they do, just the game, just the excuse, and you, dear professor, look a lot like a patsy.

So excuses go into my refrigerated heart of not-caring. The real stories from student lives creep into the attic in other ways, ways that aren’t manipulation.

This semester the stories couch-surfing my head came in via blog entries and a chat about tension, normal class talk and an email explaining why one guy was 75 miles away from home. I’ll call them June and Greg, Maura and Mike.

As prep-writing for a reflection essay, I asked students to write a blog entry on what they’ve been thinking about in the last week. About being thankful for little things, Maura wrote. Like being married for two months and living in her parents’ basement and the family still being able to eat dinners together, while she and her husband and her father hold down seven part-time jobs between them, and two of them work at being full-time students. She wrote about her father’s worry about losing the house, and she wrote about being handed an envelope full of cash in church by someone she doesn’t really know.  It’s the envelop I remember at odd times, months later: the church pews emptying and people shaking hands and the fat fold of paper there in her hands.

Mike sent me an email, asking for his oral presentation to be delayed, maybe a week. It’s according to my policy, since presentations haven’t begun yet, so I typed back an OK and ask for a specific day. That’s when I find out he doesn’t know exactly when he’ll be back. He’s seventy-five miles away at the region’s best cancer hospital where his mother is in her last days. I told him to take care of family and we would work out school later. Ten days later and one parent less, he was back in class.

“Can I have a minute before class starts?” June asked and looked out at the hallway.   Out there she says she’s kind of fragile and she might leave class but she’s OK, she says. I ask, or maybe I just looked a question. I know her boyfriend, a student of mine from some years ago; she’s taking my class on his advice, she told me earlier, the same conversation when she said he’s had brain cancer in remission for two years. We’re in the hall now because remission is over and surgery is imminent.

In my writing class, we talk about proof-reading and revising. I urge them to find editors to work with, maybe people in the course, “Maybe your mom” I always say, “but someone patient enough to really read your words and give an opinion. How many have someone like that?” Some of them have a friend or an aunt or an older brother in grad school. Greg says his wife is a great writer. Then I ask who’s looking for an editor and start to pair them up and Greg’s there, too. He shrugs. “My wife’s losing her eye-sight pretty fast,” he says. “She’ll be blind soon,” and he pairs up with a quiet guy behind him.

I sometimes fume alone in my office about being ignored when I write comments in their papers or when I review in class yet again some strategy that is just not that hard to follow. But looking at their faces in the classroom, and at quiet moments away from campus, I wonder how they do college with lives that leave no room for it. Maura’s managing pretty well, with youthful energy and some fine natural talent. Mike’s major paper was a disaster; I don’t think he’s ready to be back, but he will be back, next semester, likely in that second seat in the third row. June is taking an incomplete, and hasn’t said how the surgery went. Greg’s grade is fine, and the quiet guy behind him turns out to be pretty helpful. I asked vaguely about his wife at the end of one class. He shrugged and looked somewhere where I wasn’t.

Seven Step Common Core

November 4, 2014

In Paragraph City there has been much bluster about Common Core and how it will change the landscape of the college classroom. We are into the second or third year of the bluster, so Common Core is still an infant and no one knows just how the lad will turn out. Yet experience tells us that children raised in single-minded administrative households so often turn out bad, frequently strangled before they are out of adolescence.

The Common Core has the goal of re-tuning high school classes so students are ready for college, without remediation. The worry in Paragraph City, however, is that this is all focused on content, where the deeper problems have to do with process.  Yes, high school graduates are handicapped by a shallowness in their knowledge, but the greater disability is in how they approach learning.

So here is my Seven Step Common Core. Students who could do these would ride the waves while their classmates tread water in the troughs.  You might read them and think, “Hey, isn’t this stuff taught in elementary school?”  What do you mean by ‘taught’, I’d say.

  • Read.  This is the number one handicap, and while for some it’s a lack of ability, for most it’s a lack of willingness. Students just don’t believe it’s worthwhile to do the assigned reading. Many do not even buy the books. Somehow, this does not change in online courses.
  • Really read. The other side to the reading issue is that many students do not know they are not reading. They huddle over a book, the eyes travel over print, their minds are miles away. Nearly every reading assignment there is someone in class who believes they have read the assigned reading but cannot tell me anything about it. It’s as if they are saying, “It felt like reading, it hurt, it was boring, so I must have read it.”
  • Attend class. This is so obvious nearly everyone understands it’s something to be done, but for many it’s understood as a duty, not as a means to learning. I see this in two ways. When students miss class and ask, “Did you do anything important?” many of them mean it. Class is usually unimportant to them. For proof, just say “No, nothing important” in response and see how it goes down. Secondly, most students who arrive fifteen minutes late or leave ten minutes early are certain nothing happens when they are not there. They are shocked and feel cheated if deadlines are changed, assignments are explained, or  opportunities given when they are not in class. “You didn’t tell me,” she says to me when other students are turning in a last minute revision option I gave. “You weren’t in class to tell.”  “But you told everyone else.” “They were in class, and I posted an announcement in BlackBoard.” “But you didn’t tell…”  Somehow, my dean was able to explain it to her.
  • Attend in class. Because class is a duty, the duty is done simply by being there. Texting or day dreaming or surreptitiously working on another course: that’s OK because they have met the duty of being in class. Or, as with reading, some students think they are listening when really they are not:  the person with perfect attendance who cannot do or even remember talking about major topics covered while they were in class, omitting requirements from assignments and neglecting necessary processes. If every student took notes that reflected the class, what a difference could result.  “I can remember it,” they may say when asked, not knowing that note-taking is mostly to help with listening.
  • Understand that multi-tasking makes you stupid. Every semester I have this discussion, usually after an in-class essay which is usually one of the better essays. Mostly they write with phones turned on and pinging, kids needing things from them, TV on, multiple screens open, family or roommates strolling by to talk. It’s no wonder the essays are disjointed and lack unity. When they in-class essay gets grades that are up a level, even though they spend less time on it in preparation or writing, I make my case for turning off all the devices and going to the 19th century for an hour to write their essays. Or the library. But most – and they tell me this – can’t see themselves doing it. They lack the discipline to cut off the world for an evening, or an hour.
  • Do the work early. “If” I say, “you would write a complete rough draft three days before it’s due, leave it untouched until the morning it’s due, and then spend a half hour improving it before you submit it, you’ll have a better paper.”  But mostly the papers are written at the last minute. It’s always been just fine to do the homework on the bus as we go to middle school, why change now?  “I work better under pressure,” I often hear.  Actually, they mean that they don’t work at all unless they are under pressure. Doing something well isn’t on the radar; it’s enough to just do it.
  • Plan your life, plan to not have children before you want them, plan how you will get to class before you register for them, plan for how you will fit college in with your job and your family, plan for when you will do the studying and reading and writing you know you need to do, and finally, plan the essay.

So for instance, I’m working with Milton, a barely 20-something guy who has all the signs of a bright student. He’s just started a family and wants to turn his life around by caring about things he never cared about before: getting a good job, being respected for what he does and who he is, committing to his family.

In our most recent conversation, I saw how part of Milton’s strategy includes never reading.  He’s silently refusing just now to read my handbook to see how MLA formats a Works Cited page.  A great example is on page 231: I’ve assigned it, projected it in class (on three different days when he wasn’t in class), and recommended it to him in marginal comments on his papers. The book is available used for under $10, another model is free on my class LMS (which he hasn’t visited since the third week of the semester), and copies of the book can be borrowed from the library or learning center.

But this is not his process for learning; instead, he is working by trial-and-error to find the proper form on his papers and by stopping in my office to ask a question here and there. But I will not read to him and it’s a fool’s mission to explain what I’ve already explained in class and what is clear in the reading. I ask him if this is a good plan he’s following and he grins and shakes his head and stares at my shoes, “No, no, I guess not.”  My pal Milton will fail the course, though, in part because he’s still calling it Citations instead of Works Cited and he won’t put sources in alphabetical order or identify the medium of the sources. I’ve corrected these errors on his papers, but Milton doesn’t read those notes either.

Or maybe he thinks he does. He sits in the back, usually with earbuds around his neck or plugged in place. When I ask he says, “Background music, just background. It helps me listen.”

Not Your High School’s Writing Assignment

October 27, 2014

In Paragraph City students complain about their writing assignments. Occasionally the complaints come from students just trying to make their lives easier, which I generally don’t hold against them. I don’t do much of anything with such complaints; it’s just the whining that’s part of warming to a topic. But just as often the complaints come from students genuinely confused about what’s being asked, often because what’s being asked is something they have never done before. These complaints one takes like a pat on the back; sometimes it’s the only praise students will ever offer a beleaguered writing instructor.

As much as high school students are told that college will be different from high school, mostly they expect it to be the same. I see it in when they are surprised to find:
 Some of their English teachers’ ‘rules’ just aren’t rules (never use the word “I”; never start an essay with a quotation; never start a sentence with the words “and” “but” “which” or “because”)
 Looking up a word in the dictionary is not “research”; neither is the use of a quotation from BrainyQuote.
 Explaining the obvious is bad writing, even if comes wrapped in perfect punctuation.
 A paper assignment with a maximum length of 800 words does not mean that a 1,000 word essay is going “above and beyond” normal effort.

So one of my guides to creating writing assignments is that students are being challenged to do something new. Ideally it’s something that they don’t think they can do. I’ve written here before that a great assignment is one that students know they cannot do until they learn something from the class that enables them to do it. This is where confidence comes from.

The assignment I’m thinking about originally looked like this: Build an essay around some important idea or concept you learned in one of your courses this week. I loved it immediately. The topic would be at college level because the idea comes from a college course. It acknowledges the importance of another instructor’s material, and it would be cause for the student to study up on an important idea in that course, chasing after a little more depth or detail or application.

Students hated it immediately. Nothing important was covered this week, they said, or their other courses were boring, or how could anything done in Psychology or Intro to Art or US History or Anthropology or Problem Solving be described as “important”? So I extended it to course material covered in the last month. Next semester I said told them write about any idea from any course anytime this semester. The complaints were even worse. Last semester I said, “any college course you’ve ever taken.” No better.

So I changed the focus of the assignment. “Write” I said, “about your worldview, and how something covered in one of your courses reinforces or opposes that worldview.” Suddenly the content of their courses is no longer a matter, but class after class someone asks what a worldview is, and I start to run out of ways to explain a concept I thought would need no explanation. One student came to my office: “I don’t think I can write this assignment,” she said. “I don’t have a worldview.” Is it possible that the world means to her only what she is told it means?

Next semester I’m going to drop the worldview from the assignment and dial the clock back to material covered in the last month. Because the problem, obviously, isn’t in the timeframe or the course material. It’s in so many students having no idea that their courses are packed with life-rocking, world changing, landmark ideas. They expect nothing but some sort of work-sheet, date-drill boredom, and that’s what they turn their courses into.

So here’s what lots of my students have to do that they’ve never done before. Find an idea that shines in one of their courses, and write about its luster. “Life is meaningful, I tell them, only when you make it meaningful. You make it have meaning. You do it in an essay and you do it in your living.”

Meanwhile, five students stop by my office to ask for advice. “I’ve got a dozen possible ideas just from my Antro class,” one says. “How am I going to decide?” Yep, there we go.

The Difference Between Motion and a Movement

August 21, 2014

It was called a movement when I first got involved: the community college movement. That appealed to me by its romance of revolution, by breaking to pieces the chains that kept the poor and powerless in their places.  My circle of friends would talk about living lives that forced change. We wanted to break the self-charging cycle of privilege and open up doors for the kids shut out of the candy shop. We were going to be elementary school teachers, social workers, writers, reporters.

And so we graduated and scattered to jobs (them) or graduate school (me) and I first heard of community colleges. They had been around since 1950, but no one anywhere I’d been had ever spoken of them as if they were real. They were places I drove by, nothing more. But suddenly there was a surge of students wanting or needing college and not enough room in the 4 years; they became more selective; the community college enrollments grew and so did new faculty positions.

I jumped into a graduate program designed around community college teaching and was in the movement.  That movement opened the doors to give everyone a chance at a college education. It dropped the tuition cost. It planted community colleges within driving distance of nearly everyone in the state.  It hired and promoted according to teaching ability, professional development, and contributions to community and profession.  It drew people who dropped out or flunked out, who were too poor, who never finished high school. And it needed a teaching faculty who could take real academics, drain the pomposity and egoism out of themselves and their disciplines, and make it all meaningful.

I still like that challenge. I found, like my circle of friends did, that the problems of poverty and privilege are far more complex than we imagined, that enthusiasm and good intentions don’t take one as far as we thought.  But there is still the feel of a revolutionary movement in much of our thinking about this kind of education. Neil Postman wrote that teaching was a subversive activity, and it is.


Frying that Last Faculty Fuse

December 4, 2013

In ParagraphCity the longevity of faculty is measured in blown fuses. When we hire, we look for professors with solid, well-tuned circuitry, but of course that’s the sort of thing that can be hard to determine in a resume and interview. We once discovered at the end of an interview that the candidate was on his very last fuse; close one there.

Ideally, you want to retire to something less maddening before your wiring gets into that shape. My colleague plans, when she leaves teaching, to employ art therapy in reforming feral cats – says she’ll enjoy the increased peace and order such work will bring to her life. But the greatest danger comes from being unaware of just how many fuses one has left, or even when a fuse blows. A hypothetical situation might be illustrative.

In the third week of the semester, at the end of class Alyce comes to me with a question about the next writing assignment. “I just don’t get it,” she says.

“OK. What don’t you get?”

“All of it.”

“Well, let’s start at the beginning. Have you picked a topic yet?”

“No, that’s part of the problem,” with a whine starting to zing in the words. This should be a warning that we are about to leave the rational world I keep assuming people usually inhabit. “What’s the paper supposed to be about?”


“You are writing about your reaction to something you learned, something from your formal education. Alyce, have you read the handout that describes the assignment?”

“You mean like in school, then?”

“Yes, school. Alyce. Have you read the assignment?”

“No,” with more whine. “I came in late when you were talking about it.”

“Alyce, you are still responsible for knowing what happens when you miss class.  Check with someone in class to see what you missed.”

“Yeah, yeah. And I talked to Rufus and he told me what the paper was …… but I don’t understand it cause Rufus doesn’t get it either!”

“Alyce. You need to read the assignment handout.”

“Oh fine, fine, FINE. If you won’t answer my questions I’ll just have to figure it out by myself,” this last being loudly directed at the floor as she pulls her books and purse and cellphone about her and stomps to the door. “Teachers always say we should ask questions…” and she’s almost to the door “… but that’s just more teacher bullshit,” and she’s in the hall and gone.

Now as an aside, I suppose it’s clear that my big mistake was in following Alyce down the rabbit hole to Crazyland, where instead of reading a paragraph she has had for two weeks, it makes more sense to ask someone else who also doesn’t understand it for an explanation and then get the professor’s explanation in the 60 seconds he has between classes. In a less hypothetical world, maybe I would find a time when I could sit down with her and have her read the assignment to me, followed by her explanation of what sense it makes to her. I’m pretty sure she can read, but there’s not much difference between those who can’t read and those who won’t. I’ve been thinking lately that in ways we ought to treat that second group the way would help the first. But I was talking about fuses.

So she has just left the classroom. If you bark Alyce’s name, kick the lectern, swear, or laugh madly, you have blown a fuse. If you follow her to the hall and do that, it was probably your last fuse. (It’s said that you can hear them pop.) Blown last fuses find you defending yourself in a Dean’s office, on the phone to parents, or worse, your lawyer. It’s why you’d rather be working with feral cats when you fry that last little copper strip. No one expects them to be rational.

Student lexicon: “I don’t understand.”

September 16, 2013

In ParagraphCity this classroom statement is always said with raised, expectant brows and a heavy, anticipatory silence. If it is followed by any further words, its meaning is entirely different, but in the usage considered here, the phrase clearly places a burden on the instructor. “I don’t understand” is spoken, but implied is “and it’s your fault so go ahead, right now, and make me understand.”

I make it a rule, though, to avoid going down that rabbit hole, where awaits a world of excuses, blame, and confusion, but rarely a solid understanding of whatever it is the  student doesn’t understand. All this while the rest of the class is stunned into suspended animation so deep you will need to pull the plug in order to reboot the class. Largely this is all because (though the student who claims to not understand truly does not) the larger meaning is behind the words, in the possible other meanings “I don’t understand” has.

  • “I didn’t do the reading so I can’t be expected to understand, though I will politely listen and pretend if you will talk for a while about it.”
  • “I asked someone else about it and they were confusing, though they seemed to get it but now I feel inferior so if you will talk to only me for a while I will feel better.”
  • “I discovered that this will be kinda hard to do, but if I ask enough questions you will simplify it to the point where it gets easy, and though I have yet to recall anything you have said in class, I will be able to quote this oversimplified version back to you perfectly, three weeks hence.”
  • “By making the point that this concept is more than we can be expected to grasp, I will be justified later when I prove, by exam or homework or essay, that I really do not in fact understand.”
  • “It will take work for me to understand, and if any work is going to be done around here it will be the professor, not me, who’s doing it.”
  • “I understand this fine, but if you go on into new material it means more work, so the longer we can keep you talking about the things we already know, the better.”
  • “I like it when I’m the center of attention. That’s all.”

If the student means any of these things, there will often be one or two others who nod their heads and agree and may even utter ‘yeah’. I used to take that as a sign that I really had been obtuse and did need class discussion time; now I think it’s just that the students have complementary motives, one wanting the attention, another trying for an easier version, a third trying to dilute the class session.

What the statement posed this way almost never means is the obvious implication that student rarely see they are suggesting: “I’m really very stupid and easy concepts are so impossible for me to grasp that I shouldn’t be in the college classroom.” But don’t go there; it’s just not helpful, I’ve found, to point out what they are implying about their mental capacity.

Sometimes, though, not often, there’s a genuine confusion that’s pervading a student’s consciousness in the course. It may be associated with other kinds of self-doubt or lack of sleep or worries about family/job/security, and the failure to understand something plain is due to these rough waters. Like all the other situations, it’s a bad idea to address this in class.

For all these meanings, I talk with the “I don’t understand” student in an audience-free conference, the kind where I mainly ask questions.  But what about those times when the request for an explanation is genuine, how can we tell those? First I remember that these are not idiots, but sensible folks, and we cover truckloads of material that is likely to be new, surprising, unsettling and even difficult. People often don’t understand things, and we’re in the business of helping them understand, but it’s about helping them get things that take work to understand, their work. Those things do deserve class time.

Aliens in a College Culture

September 10, 2013

In Paragraph City, we have been discussing issuing a rule book to incoming students, largely because they seem to come from a society which operates on foreign traditions — that is, foreign to we who dwell in higher ed — and it seems only fair to spell out our culture’s rules. It’s much like any travel to a place of unexpected customs: they behave in a way we see is weird and illogical, and no doubt these academic tourists think we are arbitrary and bizarre.

So for instance, those fresh off the Royal Caribbean merchantman docked at ParagraphCity’s admissions office are likely to follow traditions such as these:

  • All regulations, policies, requirements, and mandates are actually suggestions, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions can be determined by violating any “requirement” and measuring the response. The first violation of such requirements will always be overlooked.  If you are met with repeated insistence that some activity is “mandatory,” you may properly suspect that eventually you will need to comply.
  • All information from a college instructor is inferior to information previously learned in elementary and high school. The longer you have held onto something taught, the more inviolate it is.
  • Teachers of every level never mean literally what they say. It’s all open to interpretation. The best recipe for truth is to mix the statement of a professor with equal parts of what you want to be true and what has always worked for you in high school and elementary school.

What I find fascinating about these traditions is how self-sustaining they are. In the face of them, for example, our notion of a rule book becomes perfectly impotent. There is no piece of guidance you could put there that wouldn’t be nullified by “Profs never really mean what they say” or “Every requirement is a suggestion.”

So for example, recently in a writing course on the first day of class I had each student exchange contact information with two other students. If they missed class, they could contact one or both and find out what had happened. My guideline was the familiar “you are required to know what occurs and what is taught in class, even classes which you do not attend,” and considering classes were over three hours long, that could be a lot. One student missed a class to attend a reunion; we knew it ahead of time and I told him what we expected to do, but during class students asked for a major modification of an assignment and it struck me as a great idea, so we changed it. The missing student, of course, never contacted other students (or me) following the missed class, submitted the original assignment, was penalized for missing elements, and blamed me for pulling a dirty trick on him, the dirty trick being that I had meant what I said.

I had a similar experience recently with a plagiarist who took his case to my dean, explaining what he took to be a perfectly reasonable complaint: that this was the first time he had plagiarized paragraphs in a paper. According to his tradition, he deserved a second chance. My dean, steeped in a culture which maintains that we should try to be truthful with students, accepted that my policy of immediately failing plagiarists was reasonable. His message: it’s the student who needed to comply with my course policies, and not the other way around.

Of course, there are a hundred smaller ways students hang onto these traditions, ways that don’t result in significant penalties, with the result that the college culture slowly wears away the old traditions and draws students into the new ones.

For example, take a look at my writing classes. Within the first few lessons I mention the importance of titles in essays: that they are more than labels but work with the first sentence or two to pique the reader’s curiosity about the topic and hopefully the thesis of a paper. “A paper is unfinished without a title,” I always say.  About half the first papers come in without titles. I reiterate; we look at examples from the first papers. The second essays run about 70% with titles and the third essays about 85%.  At that point, I’ll find a moment before or after class to have a word with that fifteen percent (whose papers were unacceptable without titles), and the most common remark is, “But I never had to use titles before.” It’s always said as if it is perfectly reasonable and logical, the way we would speak about any cultural tradition that we still have a firm grip on.

So we have trashed the idea of a universal rule book, but we have asked Bedeckers to visit ParagraphCity and see what they might recommend. For now, we will stick with syllabi, but I do find it enormously helpful to think of students being from a foreign land, struggling to shed the behaviors of the old country.

“Really, it’s that important that I was 400 words over that 800 word limit?”

“So no, I didn’t use the drop box, but I texted it to you and you still got it. Didn’t you?”

“What do you mean ‘Who’s Ed?’ That’s the guy that wrote the story, right? Ed. Edgar. Eddie. Whatever. Ed Poe.”

Not lunatics or rebels, I calmly tell my colleagues. Just visitors from an alien culture. It’s why I believe faculty should read more science fiction.





Math with Bad Drawings

Math, teaching, copious metaphors, and drawings that will never ever earn a spot on the fridge

Incurably Stir Crazy

because life is too short to sit still

University Diaries

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.


A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.

Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious Says: Teachers are People Too

Comments for Joanne Jacobs

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.

Confessions of a Community College Dean

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.

Ferule & Fescue

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.


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