Amnesiacs and Consequences

December 31, 2015

In Paragraph City, the calendar is punctuated by crescendos of panic and pleading, timed to the semester’s end.  It’s such a human thing, this amnesia of what’s to come:  we plod the mall on Christmas Eve, we summon lawyers to deathbeds to draw up our wills, we fiddle away our children’s childhood as the center of our attention and then try to teach thankfulness when they are teens. And in Paragraph City we turn our every resource to earn the grade we need in the last four days of the semester.

These days it happens via email or phone, the post-final encounters with amnesiacs; they used to bring faces of contrition or anger or panic to office doorways; but the words are essentially the same. I’m thinking just now of two, let’s call then Jonah and John: different young men with different stories and different woes but the same basic route to those woes. Yet what’s interesting to me is how I’m affected by part two of their stories.

Jonah is right out of high school, and I see him on the first day of class in a simple, five week orientation to college class. He looks like success. It’s not that he doesn’t fit in or isn’t a regular guy, but he’s alert and noticing everything happening – not the bored slouch that’s the usual uniform of the freshman. He jots down a few notes on the syllabus, already has the textbook, asks a useful question, and doesn’t pack up his goods before the class ends. So the semester proceeds. He skips a couple too many classes, doesn’t do one project, but is otherwise great and gets a B in the class. Grades are recorded, ten weeks go by, and now final grades are posted and I get a call from his mother.  She’s polite and since I’m also Jonah’s advisor it’s not completely out of line that she wants to know some things about his scholarship. Jonah has a full ride scholarship, I learn, which he will lose if his grade drops below a 3.0, and though they are still waiting on his English Comp grade, Jonah has finally spilled the beans that things look grim.

So I explain to mom about final grades, that once the semester has ended there’s probably not “something he can do,” but that the grade in a course is entirely the instructor’s decision. And that the scholarship is probably gone for good once his GPA has crashed, but to call Financial Aid.  What I know but can’t tell her is that Jonah’s comp instructor has also noticed the success thing about him and has bemoaned his lack of attendance, his lack of interest in revising, and his absence in the prep sessions for the final exam.

The next day, the day that final grades are due, four days after final exams were given and ten weeks after he got the grade in my class, he emails me to ask if there isn’t something he can do to raise his grade in my class. His D in the comp class pulls his average down, but if he could get an A in my class – he and his mom have done the math – he could keep his scholarship. So that’s his ‘part one.’

John is in my English Comp 2 class, having breezed through Comp 1 on his natural abilities as a writer. He’s a vet and ready to work hard, though it helps if he can see the reason behind the hard work, and I suspect that reason is hazy when it comes to writing. He has a pragmatist’s perspective to life. He skips class too frequently, but is judicious about what to skip and never loses points by his absence. He’s getting a C in the course. Or he is until the final paper, which is longer, more formal, involves more sources, and has more components, the relevant one for this tale being an annotated Works Cited page, required for the paper to be acceptable. When his paper comes in late, I see the annotations missing and email him that he has until the late deadline, about 24 hours, to get the annotations in. He doesn’t, the paper is unacceptable, and he fails the course. (None of this should surprise him: it’s in the assignment, we wrote annotated entries in two different classes, I distributed a checklist of essentials, and we looked at successful and failing papers from a prior semester, including those missing this piece.)

A day after the late-deadline ends, he says he can email me the missing piece. I email back that it’s too late. He asks me why I waited to the last minute to email the warning to him. I remind him that he turned the paper in late. He says the annotations aren’t that important. I refer him to the checklist and assignment and the fact that they add about a thousand words to the assignment. He wants to know what he can do. I refer him to my dean and let him know I’ll send the assignment, checklist, reading assignments covering annotations, and the dates we wrote the annotations in class so my dean can have some background for the discussion.

What I know but can’t tell Jonah and John, is about Sharon, a single mom in John’s class, every single day, who hired a baby sitter so she could work on her paper, and took on extra hours at work so she could afford a good internet connection at home so she can submit work late at night, and broke a date in order to finish that final paper on time. I imagine myself telling her that I gave Jonah and John some extra time to do their work because they asked for it. And I can’t tell them about the woman in Jonah’s class, whose child has cancer and who emailed her work into her instructor from a waiting room of Roswell Cancer Institute, or Jack, who is living in his in-law’s basement with his new bride while they both work two part-time jobs and keep two full-time student loads in order to maintain their student grants and loans.

So I just tell them both that I’m sorry, but I can’t give them privileges that no one else gets, and that I know that’s hard to hear, but also that it’s not the end of the world. They will work around it. And a day passes and something interesting happens. John makes an appointment with my dean and then cancels it. Jonah sends me an email saying he understands, and he apologizes.  He says it’s not who he is, someone who wants the rules broken for him, that he just got caught up in the financial crash coming at him and lost his way for a while. John’s OK with me in a no-harm-no-foul sort of way, but Jonah I’ll be looking to do a good turn for.

And both of them are like us all, in the mall or spoiling our kids. We just lose our way sometimes, and we take the consequences. In my office in Paragraph City, after grades have been turned in and I leave at last for Christmas, I turn out the lights and feel the burden of being in charge of consequences, in itself a consequence.


Driving Students Crazy Students Driving

June 19, 2015

In Paragraph City, a week after the semester ends, the streets are paved in flux and possibility furls from the street lamps. Every professor has at least one student in mind who should have passed the class or should have gotten a higher grade but blundered in some clumsy way, a way that might be blocked with a bit of course re-design. So we all engage in some subtle adjustment to the carburetors of our courses, trying to figure out ways to save students from themselves.

Mostly it’s hopeless, like trying to end suicide by a) prohibiting it and b) taking away the means.  Suicide ends when people love life. College is not that much like suicide (in spite of the parallels my students find), but for the most part, failure ends when students want to learn more than they want other things. Nonetheless, I recently walked down to Paragraph City’s MicroAdjustment Labs to walk past the bays where courses are hooked up to diagnostic computers, engines revving and needles swinging into red zones while professors in white lab coats hunch over their learning objectives, head and shoulders deep under the open hoods of their vehicles.

Col. Klondike has been rebuilding his attendance policy every summer for twenty years, convinced that if only students would come to class, he could teach them anything. “It’s the key lectures,” he mutters to the crescent wrench in his hand. “If Gabrowski had just been there when I explained cretaceous poriphiny he wouldn’t have incinerated on his final exam. So I’ll require they come to that lecture, and I’ll record it, and make them watch that if they don’t come, or else they can’t take the final!”

Prof KuklaFran&Ollie failed students this semester who were there in class during demonstrations, but apparently paid no attention and remembered nothing about them. “I could be more compelling,” she says, tapping the throttle and noting the lack of responsiveness. “Three jokes, every class. Anthropology jokes aren’t that hard to find. Three jokes, a diagram or chart, and a small group activity, every class. Take that, Gabrowski, just try to get bored now.  If only I taught chemistry, I could add an explosion.”

Doc Comfort has been convinced for a few years now that students don’t comprehend how much he cares about their success. “I need a more compassionate avatar, maybe. Crying after mid-terms didn’t work, and after Gabrowski complained to HR I had to stop hugging, but maybe that photo of my puppy…” He adjusts slightly the tension on a serpentine belt. “Students have my home phone and I follow all their Twitter feeds. Maybe the slogan will help.” On the hood I see it in red script, “Nothing But ‘A’s – all other grades hurt so bad. Because Doc Comfort Cares!”

And I walk on down passed garage bays where some are color coding policies in their syllabi or creating learning contracts that explain how if students will attend every class and do 60% of the assigned reading, the instructor agrees to be scintillating during office hours. Others are having students teach the class by making instructional videos or building the exam questions or selecting the chapters for study at the start of the semester.

It’s a dedicated team of drivers here at Paragraph City, and I learn a lot from them as I refine the suspension of my own little chariot. I think of how many changes have occurred over the years, and while I would never go back to that 70s era model I first drove, I’m not sure my students are any more successful, or the ride is any more joyous, than it was back then.


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.


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.


Commenting on essays: how frank is too frank?

June 17, 2013

This morning in Paragraph City, I’m commenting on rough drafts of the first paper in a writing class.  At the end of a student’s first paragraph I write, Terrible opening, full of unsupported platitudes and padding. Cut the crap and say something meaningful.  The faculty equivalent of my spidey sense sounds but I go on with my reading and commenting anyway. Then just before I return the rough draft, I delete that last sentence and write instead, You need to establish a focus and point the reader toward your thesis.

The thing is, I’m not sure which will communicate better to the student. Certainly the second sentence won’t get me into trouble with any administrators. (The scenario unfolds like this in my imagination: student’s father is well-connected in the community and phones my dean asking if ‘this writing is crap’ is an appropriate way for faculty to talk to students and my dean says ‘well, let’s hear the whole story’ and that means that next week I’m seated at a round table with my dean and an online student I’ve never seen and a man in an expensive suit, and I’m explaining the educationally efficacious advantages to calling the introductory paragraph of an essay “crap.”) I do not like this scenario.

And yet, the intro was crap, or specifically the more volatile bullshit: fluidly composed generalities about Chekhov’s writing and place in Russian literature and influence on later writers that had nothing to do with the short story the student was assigned to write about; no thesis; and but one reference to the story, calling it soporific – not, certainly, the word she meant. Now to some students, all that’s necessary is to say ‘cut the crap’ and they get it. They’ll throw it out and go back to the assignment’s directions.

That takes me back some twelve or fourteen years ago, when I’d have never even thought to call someone’s writing crap, but then I had this great student writer who wrote that sort of first paper, all padding and no content.  “Oh yeah,” she said when she read my comments. “It’s crap, I know it, but at least it was on-time crap. I had a chemistry exam to prep. Sorry. Next paper, no crap.”

It was so refreshingly clear and honest. No timid tip-toeing around the fragile student-writer ego, no making up one good thing to say for every bad thing, no convoluted expressions that allow you to say something stinks in the sweetest-smelling way.  I know with basic writers I need to be blunt because they listen to how you say things more than what you say, and an overly kindly criticism can sound like praise to them, but lately I’ve been wondering if that’s restricted to just basic writers.

Yet you really can break down the lines of communication by appearing to dismiss the writer with the writing, by appearing unapproachable, by giving the impression that you’re not only unwilling to be satisfied but that you have undecipherable standards.  So with this morning’s student, who is writing the course’s first paper and is a high school student with excellent English grades, I split the difference between the short, frank stomp and the tip-toe. The intro is terrible, so I say that, but I replace “crap” with a bit of an explanation of what the essay should be doing, and which I think the student knows it should be doing.

And I hope she doesn’t just perfume what is already on the page instead of dumping it all and starting with an actual idea.


Student Lexicon: every essay’s a ‘too hard’ essay

June 12, 2013

The foreign language department of Paragraph City is writing a new version of Rosetta Stone which will translate the language of our students for faculty. I was chatting with one of the translators today, who told me she was working on the student phrase, “too hard” (as in “this assignment is too hard” not “these chairs are too hard” or “I like to hoard cottage cheese containers”).

In this context, I told her about a survey I’d taken in my composition course. I had just handed back the last essay of the semester, the only timed, in-class essay I’d given. Remarkably, it was the best essay of the semester for 10 of the 15 people left in class. Other essay assignments were made weeks before they were due, they had a broad range of topics, we read sample essays of a similar nature, we workshopped drafts in class, students had free use of the campus tutorial center, and I answered any questions about the assignment in class or by email.

Yet this hand written, in-class assignment with a 150 minute time limit on an assigned topic based upon journal articles they read the week before produced markedly better writing from nearly everyone. That didn’t make sense to me, so I passed out slips of paper and asked for a two or three sentence explanation, unsigned.

One person said that since it was the end of the semester, they could use everything they had learned on this last essay. I liked the sound of that, but I didn’t believe it. (The previous essay had come in just one week earlier, and they were not so good.)  The most common answer – easily 2/3 of the class – was that they wrote better because there were no distractions in the classroom. Many of those people also said that they spent more time writing the in-class essay than they did the other essays.

In other words, though students had easy control over these two crucial factors (how long to write & with how many distractions), they did better when they gave up that control and let someone else decide where and when they would write. For at least some of these people, they weren’t weak writers because they couldn’t write well; their weakness came from having too many screens open, dickering with their phones, and working a the last minute.

“So, you see what this means,” I told the class. “The next time you write an essay, all you have to do is get alone in a room, turn off the computer (or at least all the other windows), turn off the phone, and give the essay a good two hours.” They were nodding heads politely, so I was encouraged. “You don’t need to study harder, learn anything new, go get help of any sort; just write like it was 1960 for two hours and you’re good.”

The nodding continued, but a voice from the back of the room said, “Yeaaaaaah, that’s not going to happen.”

“What isn’t?”

“I can’t see turning off my phone. I might miss a message.”

“Yeah, and I’m not going to write it without my computer, and if my computer’s on then chat’s open.”

“And two hours is an awful lot of time, you know.”

My translator friend looks a little piqued. “So you’re telling me,” she said, ” that we can’t define ‘too hard’ as ‘the point at which students determine that the effort they put into an activity is valued less than the rewards they see themselves receiving from that activity’?”

I said that I didn’t think it was that complicated a process. “What I think they were telling me is that any school work is too hard – or maybe too repugnant is more accurate — if it means turning off a phone and concentrating for an afternoon.”

She said something about an anecdotal irrelevancy and went off somewhere to speak French. At the time I thought she was speaking of my survey and that class, but maybe it was me she meant.


Explaining the Black Hole of Applying for Community College Jobs

March 22, 2013

EssayCity, the larger metropolis north of Paragraph City, published in its newspaper an article on that gap between when you apply for a job and when you hear back from the employer (http://career-advice.monster.com/job-search/getting-started/job-application-process-following-up/article.aspx  ). They refer to that time as the Black Hole, and I have to think that it must be even worse for applicants for faculty positions. However slowly business progresses, certainly a faculty committee moves slower.

On search committees, I have always felt terrible about how little we can respond to applicants, so to salve my conscience, here’s something of an explanation.

I’ll start by describing the steps that a faculty search committee in Paragraph City goes through, once enough applications have come in to rev our engines.

  1. Preliminary sort, either by the committee as a whole or the committee chair. Committees are formed of four or five faculty. We eliminate candidates who do not meet the minimum requirements as stated in the ad: usually the degree held and the amount of experience in college teaching, but it can also include particular coursework, leadership experience, and amount of familiarity with the community college. As per our HR office, it is illegal to consider applicants who do not meet “applicant must have” job requirements, and we don’t even look at those.
  2. Then we each read the resumes, cover letters, and transcripts of the remaining applicants; time passes. Applications with missing parts go into a kind of limbo, some never to emerge if the transcripts or references or whatever never come through. Others that we consider ‘acceptable’ we each put in a ranked order of preference.
  3. We meet (often harder than you’d think, given our various teaching schedules), share our ranking, agree on a committee ranking, and decide on a group of candidates to interview by phone.  This number varies by committee, but it might be as high as 15 or 20; often more like 10.
  4. Now more time passes as someone has to mesh the committee schedules with candidate schedules and find a block of half-hour periods when all can talk on the phone. If you are not in this group to be contacted, you must wonder what’s taking so long, because you’ll hear nothing from us. If these interviews aren’t satisfactory, we may well go back and pull you out for a second round of phone interviews, so we don’t tip you off that you have been put in a second tier somewhere (which is still not as bad as limbo).
  5. Over a couple of days, the committee or its subgroups interview candidates, trying to decide which we most want to meet in person. We meet & decide on five or so to bring on campus.
  6. Now we each take one or two of these five candidates and phone their references. Depending upon the time of year (Spring Break, President’s Day holidays, the dates of a major conference in the discipline), it can take a few days to speak with three or four of each candidate’s references. The candidate can’t come on campus, though, until we do.
  7. If the reference checks don’t produce any surprises, we finally have a go-ahead on five applicants. Five candidates means that the entire committee has to free up most of five different days to meet with them. In Paragraph City we consider it rude to have candidates bump into each other, and we also expect to need several hours at least to know whether or not the fit between the candidate and the college is good. You see, we already know you can do the job; the review of credentials and phone interview told us that. We’re now in the business of comparing to find the best of the competent.
  8. Once I was on a committee that could meet only once a week. Those five candidates took five weeks to interview.  Between every interview I thought of those applicants in the Black Hole. Yet if those five we brought on weren’t satisfactory, and the candidates we had phoned had all found jobs elsewhere, it was possible we would still go back to that second tier pool of candidates.
  9. On campus interviews usually involve this: meeting time for anyone on campus interested, interview time with faculty, a teaching demonstration, a meeting with deans and a meeting with the president, a tour of the college, and a meal.  It’s surprising how much comes out over the meal, good and bad, about the candidate and the college.
  10. After the interviews, assuming all has gone well, the committee passes two names on to the administration, which can accept one or reject both (a rare event), so a few more days pass. Then the candidate is contacted and the job offer made. Often the candidate wants some time, possibly to consider (or wait for) other offers. When she accepts verbally, a contract is mailed to her, and only when a signed contract is returned and HR is happy with all the paperwork, then are applicants sent a Thanks for Applying letter. How much time has passed? Not always as long as two months, but that’s common.

The article linked above gives great advice on what to do while waiting in the Black Hole. I’ll add a few more tips.

  • It’s probably ok to call, and most understandable if you are in that phone interview or personal interview group. But know that you are more likely to reduce your chances of getting the job than you are to increase them.
  • If you call, what you are doing is re-opening the interview, so act and sound that way. You may speak only to an administrative assistant, but his or her office is probably three steps away from the division chair, and what you say will be conveyed those three steps.  We don’t want people who are easily annoyed, self-important, impatient, or rude teaching our students, so don’t communicate that.
  • Better action is to follow-up any interview with a thank you note. I’m more impressed by something that comes through Snail Mail and is not the generic silver Thank You script on a white card with a generic remark inside. Make the note as unique as you want to be remembered and send one to each member. Don’t jot off an email to the chair and ask her to forward it to committee members. Then if a couple more weeks pass, instead of the phone call, contact them by email with an offer to send any more information the committee might desire, and at that point ask for an update on the process. You can control the message better in writing. Communicate a sense of how interested you remain in the qualities of the hiring institution, and feel free to get a little specific (without being long-winded).
  • Then let go. You finally have very little control over the process once you have sent in your materials. It is not a reflection upon you personally if you are not called for an interview, and if you were called in, and you were genuine during the interview, then just trust in the wisdom of the committee. They thought you would not be happy there, and why not leave it believing that they were right?

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