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.


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.

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.





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.

A Gen Xer, a Baby Boomer, and a duck walk into a writing class…..

June 3, 2013

Now that summer has visited ParagraphCity and it’s possible to think again, we’ve been thinking a bit about the on-going ways the Internet’s wild west of information is affecting our writers. I came across this graphic embedded in a musing by Andrea Lunsford about how well students research online (it’s in Bedford/St. Martins’ BITS ideas for Teaching Composition, here:  )

I hope we are past the hand-wringing-and-calling-down-curses stage of teaching writing now, and instead can use this information about who the students are in front of us (or at least who some of them are). We writing teachers have always started with the students who walk in the door, figuring out their needs and starting where they are.  Pretending they are who we think they are supposed to be has never worked. So this is who they are, different probably from who they were ten years ago, different certainly from who we think they ought to be, different probably even from who they think they are, but still teachable. Knowing where to start is what one might call our expertise.

Please Include Attribution to With This Graphic Digital Research Infographic

The Opposite of Dying in a Classroom

May 3, 2013

I sit still, in one of the few still moments that will happen this week of finals. The room of writers has emptied but for two, one of which is apparently writing slowly and with great anger. The other is meticulously detaching the ragged ends of paper left from having torn a scribbled page from his spiral binder. I know the student, one of those I’ve unsuccessfully tried to teach over the last fifteen weeks.

His writing will be adequate, barely, which is all he really wants it to be but much less than it could be. The effort it would take to organize his thoughts and make his sentences communicate clearly is more than he cares to do, not more than he can do. He will have a general topic, one or two sentences that will make me stop and guess at what he’s trying to say, a conclusion that is a mirror image of the introduction, and the most interesting things he has to say will be flailing digressions. But it won’t be dreadful.

The slow angry student finishes with a sigh that just eviscerates the room. Behind him, after nearly two minutes of pulling, the edge of the paper from the spiral notebook is clean and straight. Those two minutes might have corrected the comma splice or cleared up that confusing pronoun, but I suppose we each do the work that we’re inclined to do and let the rest fend for itself.

In Paragraph City there’s much talk about measuring results, but increasingly I’m more concerned with the individual moment. If I “do” each moment in a way that is somehow right, I trust the little boat of my life will eventually dock at some kindly port.  Over the last few days, I have loved this quote from Will Schalbe, writing  in the NY Times about the book he had not yet published, The End of Your Life Book Club: “But reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying” (

All the things that make up the opposite of dying, this is what I want each moment I “do” to be drenched in. The angry student and the spiral bound student pass this test with me: their writing class and my teaching and our conversations and all the assigned reading, it’s all been the opposite of dying, whatever they choose to make of it. I will never know what that is; somehow, to know would not be the opposite of dying.

Bad Grades, Blame Games, and Defenestration

April 26, 2013

In ParagraphCity, most of the students who fail my courses expire from self-inflicted wounds, often when they are upon the threshold of success. The final draft gets “lost”; their transportation breaks down and they abandon the course; a paper is plagiarized; they acquire a new job, a debilitating case of the flu, a new boy/girlfriend, or a series of court dates,  and they vanish in the last weeks of the course. Almost always the F I record at the end of the semester sprouts out of their own bad choices and not an inability to get a passing grade from me.

“Fear of success” is the diagnosis  from one of our advisors.

“Some people just can’t break old patterns” says another; “missing deadlines, putting fun above work, getting immediate gratification: when that’s all you’ve known and all you’ve seen from your friends and heroes and plus it worked in high school, that’s a pretty hard habit to break.”

My colleague who growls says, “We reward success with more work, and they know that. Get an A once and all you get is everyone expecting A’s all the time: more pressure, less free time, more work, more pain, and certainly less cool. It’s a loser’s choice, getting good grades.”

I can understand all that up to a point: I was a pretty dreadful student in high school and for a couple of semesters in college. But it’s not just college courses; it’s a way of life. At some point, don’t we stop and decide what we want to be – a life that’s the product of own volition (yes, even if that volition is mostly illusory – but still, don’t we fall for the lovely illusion)? And yes, environment and conditions vary wildly from person to person, I know, but I think I should see more people really trying.

Here’s an example. It’s one of the most debilitating self-inflicted wounds I see:  Blaming others for the fate we ourselves choose. Just recently, I’ve seen the student Blame Game played these ways.

  • “My computer (or my flash drive, your course management system, the Internet, my cable company, or a virus) destroyed my paper.” Every semester, a colleague tells me about a new conversation that follows this same old pattern:
    • “You didn’t submit a paper. Do you have it?”
    • “Yes I have it. Great paper.”
    • “Where is it?”
    • “On this flash drive.”
    • “So you don’t have your paper.”
    • “No I have my paper on this flash drive.”
    • “You don’t have a paper to turn in, one I can read.”
    • “I have a paper; it’s on this flash drive.”
    • “I can’t read a flash drive, but I’ll give you ten minutes more so you can print it out.”
    • “I can’t print it out. The computers at the college won’t let me.”
    • “So you don’t have your paper.”
    • “I have my paper on this flash drive but my computer has a virus so the computers at the college won’t let me print out my paper.”
    • “So you don’t have a paper to turn in.”
    • “Oh, I have my paper. It’s here on my flash drive. See?”  (I love the tech, but I much preferred it when it was a dog eating papers.)
  • “You don’t explain things.” There are plenty of times when this is not a blaming but a real effort to understand something better, like an assignment, so I’ll usually respond,
    • “Well let’s see what we can do about that. What don’t you understand?”
    • “Everything!”
    • “OK, let’s focus on this paper that’s due. What don’t you understand about that?”
    • “Alright, now how long does it have to be?”
    • …and at this point I know it’s Blame Game time. Of all things to understand about a paper, the 600 to 800 words length given in the document that describes the paper is not that tough to understand….except for those who haven’t read the assignment yet and who haven’t been in class when we discussed it.  I’ll certainly see this blaming in my teacher evaluations.
  • “The things you assign for us to read are too hard to understand.” This too is sometimes a real asking for help. It becomes Blame time when I find out the student doesn’t know what the readings are, hasn’t tried to read them, and in a recent case, hadn’t bought the book yet. “I can’t afford these books, and you don’t put one on reserve in the Library for us either,” was a different spin on blaming me, not his reading. Now, the book we were discussing costs $3.05 new, $2.40 used. The material that was too hard to understand was a John Updike short story. I wonder if such students ever think about what they imply about their incapacity to be college students via such blaming.
  • “The placement test put me in the wrong class.” At the beginning of the class, we blame the placement test for putting us into a class that is too easy; by mid-semester we blame it for putting us in a course that is too hard. It must indeed be a terrible instrument to put us in classes that are both too easy and too hard.
  • “Your homework takes too long. Re-write the paper? Read that chapter? You ask us to do things there’s just no time to do. Some of us have jobs and families you know.

I imagine blaming is wonderfully rewarding in the short run. Responsibility for my own bad work is lifted from my shoulders, plus I get all the benefits of not having to do any more work. As I spread the story of blame around among my friends and parents and teacher evaluation forms, I may even get a self-righteous rush. “What a success I would have been if not for …..”  And the sympathy I win from those Rescuers in my life feels even better (again in the short run, and it’s all about the short run) than the good grade would have felt.

I think of it as sort of voluntary defenestration. Mostly our classroom windows don’t open, but still the image of bailing on a class is pretty familiar, and in ParagraphCity we’re dealing with metaphorical windows anyway, which always open.

What the student says: “It’s true I didn’t do the first two papers, and remember I told you that was because my Uncle’s house was practically destroyed by that hurricane, and I missed some classes when I was sick, but I am going to come to all the classes now and if you give extra credit – you give extra credit, right? – I will do all that. I know I can catch up. English has always been easy for me.”

What I hear: “Please professor, just give up all hope that I will put any effort into this class and kindly fling me out the window with all dispatch”


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University Diaries

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