Flexing the Assignment Out of Shape

A favorite essay in Paragraph City is G. K. Chesteron’s piece on forging your own reality (or at least your own reaction to it): “On Running After One’s Hat” located here ( http://essays.quotidiana.org/chesterton/running_after_ones_hat/ ), in a lovely hodge-podge of public domain essays called Quotidiana. It’s been particularly windy in Paragraph City these last several months, with the result that I’ve spent more time indignantly chasing my hat than I have speny laughing at myself. It’s a trend worth reversing.

On the theme of creating our realities, I’ve been thinking of how students occasionally create their own versions of my assignments, though not in the positive, creative, way that intuitively aligns with the intent of the assignment, but rather the revision that defeats or alienates the assignment’s nature.  (And yes, I’m still stuck singing the song of the alien-minded student.) Three examples:

  • In an introductory literature class students research to support/extend their understanding of a poem; a Marge Piercy poem is one of the choices. I caution students against easy-to-find, unexpert sources and remind them about source standards for academic essays at the college level. When the papers come in, I find a student citing as a source a handsome website on Marge Piercy with fine generic information on the poet, but posted by a capable middle school student. In what way is an 8th grader an expert any self-respecting college student would quote? (Yet since the first, two more students have cited the same site.)
  • For a Comp 2 essay, a student paraphrases a work on Martin Luther King Jr. with a title that strikes me as odd. Amazon has the book and a review from a children’s book reviewer: it’s a graphic novel, “comic book style,” 32 pages long, “targeted to middle school readers.” Shouldn’t a college student feel uneasy using a picture book for a source?
  • In an online course, where both quantity and quality of discussion response carry some weight, a student writes a well phrased general response praising another student’s comment, then copy & pastes it to every other student comment in the discussion. When I asked why, she says she misunderstood the assignment.

Now these choices may have been poor, but I don’t think any of these students are stupid. So why did they redefine the assignment in ways that seem bizarre – at least to me? I can only come up with two explanations:

  • to make the assignment easier in ways they thought I would not notice (enough students seem surprised that I read all of what they write to make me think they’ve encountered faculty who did not – or so the student thought).
  • to make the assignment suit the time or energy or resources they had at hand.

So they made what they thought were reasonable alterations in  the assignment, in ways that seemed “good enough.” Perhaps they learned from my response that it wasn’t good enough, that they set the bar for themselves too far below where I set it. But one other thing separates these students from students who score high on the same assignments:  the alien mind students bent the assignment out of shape because they viewed themselves (and their schedules and their way of doing homework and the amount of time a piece of writing “should take”) as inflexible, certainly less flexible than the assignment itself. The reverse is true of the more successful students I speak with; they flex their plans, schedules, and abilities to adapt to the assignment.

The reason that’s a more successful strategy is because, it seems to me, that’s how most assignments are used to teach, and here I am thinking of teaching as producing change in understanding and ability. The assignment is meant as a workout; your workout changes you. Less successful students expect to stay unchanged, to “serve time” in school, and to make an assignment into whatever they can already do so they don’t have to break a sweat.  As I write this, it occurs to me that this is probably a successful strategy in some some other field of endeavor, but isn’t it a design for failure in the college classroom?



5 Responses to Flexing the Assignment Out of Shape

  1. Cassandra says:

    Dale said, “Now these choice [sic] may have been poor, but I don’t think any of these students are stupid.”

    Why deny the power of Occam’s Razor?

    Why deny that the behavior you’re observing is actually an indication of lack of aptitude?

    I truly believe that about 25% of the contemporary undergraduate population lacks the capability to earn a degree. It is only the collection of beliefs enthroned in the policy of No Child Left Behind that allowed many of them the grace of a high school diploma. That same collection of beliefs emboldens their continued pursuit of higher education, often to their own detriment and that of the students and faculty they encounter.

  2. John says:

    I’m glad you finally got around to updating this again. I thought you abandoned Paragraph City.

    I think I understand what the students are thinking in each situation since I graduated from JCC last semester. The first two are the same problem: people are terrible at using computers and the Internet. Most people tend to get very familiar with a few web sites and applications that they use frequently. However, when it comes to some unknown web site, common sense goes out the window and little things like the essay being written by an 8th grader or the book being a graphic novel for middle school kids are completely ignored. Why? Mainly because people can’t learn to navigate new web sites fast enough and evaluate them as credible or not. I don’t think the students thought they could slip a bad source by, but rather, they couldn’t tell the source was bad.

    Do you happen to know if the student in the online class has taken online classes before? One thing I encountered in my online CS classes is that teachers did almost nothing to enforce quality discussion. If people thought they could get away with copying from the book, copying and pasting articles from the Internet, or bypassing posting requirements by breaking a single post into three separate posts, they would. Maybe they thought posting something was better than posting nothing like a lot of students do. If I had to guess, I’d say that student was previously in a class where the standards for online discussions were so low, that things like that were tolerated all of the time.

    As for what Cassandra said, I think it’s sort of true for JCC. For most in my high school, JCC was the place you went to if you didn’t think you could succeed at college, but you felt obligated to attend anyway because everyone you graduated with is going to college. These people always end up dropping out after doing poorly for a few semesters.

  3. Dale says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, John. You probably have more insight to our students and their mindset than I do, and I recognize the “posting something is better than nothing” philosophy. It’s a lot like the “there’s no stupid question” philosophy.

    Both are true only within limits. Questions that reveal a student hasn’t done the homework, doesn’t understand the foundational material, and belittles the professor’s previous efforts may not be stupid, but they live right next door to it. Similarly, postings which reveal your low opinion of your classmates and annoys them to boot are not better than nothing.

    Cassandra, I expect what you say is a truth that we (or at least I) have to hide from ourselves. Peter Elbow calls it “the believing game” and it’s much like Chesterton’s attitude management in the essay I link to in my post. Knowing that a percentage — let’s use your 25% — are going to fail, I must teach as though they all will pass. I choose to believe they are who they say they are: earnest, thoughtful, hard working, intelligent students willing to be challenged by their coursework and with the intellectual muscle to rise the challenge. If I don’t see them that way, I’m judging by appearance or by their past record or applying pity or tempted to lower the standards for those who just aren’t up to it. My high opinion of them, it seems to me, is one thing that students are buying with their tuition.

    Now this isn’t to say I’m entirely in fantasyland. In advisement sessions or in other relationships with them I probably use truer eyes. And certainly students prove my high opinion of them wrong every semester, but many don’t, and the ones who rise to the occasion are sometimes students I would not have predicted could do so. So I promise myself each semester that my students are not stupid, and I teach to those students. Faith is always a little foolish, at best, isn’t it?

    And I apologize for dropping the ‘s’. I’ll go fix that now.

  4. Amanda says:

    Have you ever thought that they truly did misunderstand the assignment? One of my professors told my class that our questions often surprise her because she thought she had already communicated that information. Some things always get lost in translation. Maybe you should make sure that you are communicating your requirements in the best way that you can. It’s easy to forget what we haven’t told people because we know it already.
    Also, I don’t think choosing poor sources is trying to subvert the assignment. It is simply a poor choice of information due to several possible factors (NOT all of which are laziness or selfishness). Also, and I have been dying to tell this to several of my professors, please realize that YOUR HOMEWORK IS NOT THE ONLY HOMEWORK WE HAVE.
    You said, “The alien mind students bent the assignment out of shape because they viewed themselves (and their schedules and their way of doing homework and the amount of time a piece of writing “should take”) as inflexible, certainly less flexible than the assignment itself.” It is impossible to survive in college without sticking to what you need to get done. I would have no time to sleep, eat, attend all my classes, go to work, go to my play rehearsals (20 hours a week) and clean the apartment if I sat working on one assignment out of fifteen for the amount of time that it would take to do it to the absolute best of my ability. I think you are just disillusioned by the fact that school is just school. Yes, we should care about flexing our “intellectual muscle” and “rising to the challenge,” but honestly, we’re just trying to get a degree here. Get off our backs.
    Are you telling me you never did anything like that in college?? 😉

  5. Dale says:

    Hi Amanda,
    That clear communication check is a good one to make. My assignments are explained in writing, posted on the class website, and I’ve been updating each recently with an FAQ list made up mostly of questions that past students might have asked to avoid some major errors. The problem I’ve created now is that the assignments are getting too long; they run to two pages, and the students making the biggest errors simply aren’t reading into the second page.

    I do think that the time issue is important. Every semester during advisement I challenge perhaps a third of my advisees on the plan they are creating for themselves. It usually goes like this:
    “Those are time consuming courses, and you’ve got work and family commitments, too. Do you have enough time to do all this?”
    “I’ll just have to make time. If I wait until I have time to spare I’ll never get my degree.”
    “Well you could cut back on a course…”
    “No, I can’t. I need to be full time for financial aid.”
    “OK — you know twelve hours is full time.”
    “No, I can’t do that. I know I won’t be doing my best work, but I’m satisfied with Bs and Cs.”
    Sometimes those Bs and Cs turn into Ds and Fs, but that’s the chance students take. Afterall, what do you do if you don’t have the time in a week that you need, and you must have the degree within so many months? Something has to give; problems arise when students expect that it’s the course that has to give.
    I often wonder if students aimming for the Bs and Cs are choosing the right corners to cut. I’ll usually take 10 minutes of a class on this, cautioning students to examine just what is worth the most points and to decide what they will give their limited attention to based on what returns they will get in their grade. Successful students do this, but many seem to be working on what they can do more easily or more quickly, regardless of how much it will help their grade.
    So did I cut corners in college, skippiing reading assignments, for instance. Of course. But I never ignored a faculty caution that “this has to be in the essay” or “be sure to cover such and so,” and I was fairly quick to learn what faculty expected – how much they meant what they said and how tolerant they were of stretching the guidelines. My students are much more uncertain about what counts; this academia is a foreign land for them, yet they don’t seem to know they are sojourners.

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