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…..me.”  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 why they don’t take notes, 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 the 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.”

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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.


Cover Letters for English Faculty Positions

March 7, 2009

Many colleges are holding off on hiring, at least for a year, waiting until they can read the Richter scale on these economic tremblers. With competition for good candidates down, this is a great time to be hiring, and my institution is looking for a comp & rhetoric faculty, full-time, tenure track; read all about it: http://www.sunyjcc.edu/index.php?q=node/2914.

The applications are coming in, and while I can’t comment on them, I can say that in the past I’ve written about how pathetic the typical cover letter accompanying the resume is. So Point #1 is, a cover letter is a letter. As in, it’s a letter, not a label. Really, I see cover letters that read like this:

“Dear Fill-in-the-blank, Thank you in advance for previewing my accompanying resume. Sincerely….”

The cover letter is also not a recasting of the resume into paragraphs (which only makes it harder to read). It’s a letter, and it seems to me that someone applying for a comp and rhetoric position ought to be able to write one whizz-bang of a letter, and this digression raises something else that should be obvious to applicants: In applying for an English position you are demonstrating your wares in the letter. The principles you would teach to your students (we presume), you have first taught to yourself and are demonstrating in the cover letter: economy and clarity of language; a style and grace that is professional and personable; diction that is precise but not stuffy, intelligent without obscuring meaning; language from a human being who might be interesting to work with.

Letters reflect a personality and a purpose; letters are meant to communicate; letters spring from one unique person and reach out in a human way to other human beings. You know, these are missives, epistles, notes; they live in the same rhetorical town as the Brownings’ love letters, Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, Virginia Woolf’s and Anias Nin’s diaries, Thoreau’s Walden, and Michihiko Hachiya’s journal. Remember letters: like a thank you note or a request for a reference letter from your favorite prof, they bring with them the scent of a human heart and a human mind, and we who receive them want to like the people they come from.

Point #2: Cover letters do have a job to do, and like conveying a sense of what’s human about the writer, it’s a job the resume can’t do: explain how this particular position we offer is really suited to you. We on the search committee understand that you want a job, need a job, may even be desperate for the paycheck our business office could eventually send out with your name on it every two weeks. But what we want is what should be important to you.  Again, it’s about your wares: how bad a writing instructor must you be to not know how important audience is.

So address the ad. Remember, if the search committee can’t see how you meet whatever is called “Required” in the ad, they cannot legally hire you and shouldn’t even interview you. For instance, here’s an ad placed on Inside Higher Ed a few days ago (check their job list here http://www.insidehighered.com/career/seekers?page=index.php?categories[714]=true “):

English Faculty position, full-time. Required: Master’s degree in Composition/Rhetoric or English (Ph.D. preferred, with emphasis in teaching writing). Faculty member will teach both College Composition and Developmental English courses.

Desired: Experience in and demonstrated commitment to teaching College Composition. Community college teaching preferred. Knowledge of learning theories, learning styles, alternative delivery systems, and assessment. Experience working with both traditional age students and adult learners. Willingness to teach a diverse schedule. Ability to work cooperatively with other members of the college community. Knowledge of and commitment to the community college mission.

Since your resume makes it evident that you have what’s listed under Required, the letter deals with what’s Desired. So you’d be crazy to send them that all-purpose, stainless steel, cover letter your placement office helped you work up, the one that mentions your brilliant thesis on the burial motifs in Ellison’s Invisible Man and your adjunct work in Enormous U. and the diversity-drenched semester abroad. Those are in your resume anyway, and it’s clearly not what the folks at Chesapeake College are interested in.

Here’s my punch list for this job:

  • Find out what the community college mission is, and how it’s expressed in the mission of Chesapeake College. (You’re an English major, for crying out loud – is anyone better at doing research than we are? So do some.) That’s language that goes into the letter.
  • “Experience working with …adult learners” means you won’t look at the unemployed coal miner who wants into the criminal justice program like he’s a leper. That you believe a crack at college belongs to all people, and you act that way (reference the community college mission). If you talk that talk in the cover letter, they’ll like you.
  • Learning theories and styles: this is a test, designed to sort out faculty who communicate to students with a concern for learning from faculty who are founts, gushing information which students then gulp down using whatever crockery is at their disposal. Much learning theory, particularly that about learning styles, is suspect, and maybe you should say that (gently, for it’s sure to be the pet theory of your first reader that you’ll use the hobnail boots on).
  • Developmental English is another test, and if your resume doesn’t show you have worked with students who struggled at the basics of language, account for this. If you don’t have formal experience, then you tutored a friend or you met individually with a floundering student. You need to prove you can work within the processes by which people overcome years of deficits in their learning to slowly become literate in the academic language of, say, sophomores (yes, sophomores; the bar’s not set that high).
  • “Diverse schedule” = summer, nights, weekends. The idea is that the college will schedule classes when students can come, not around when faculty want to teach. How can that not be a good thing?
  • The reference to cooperating with other members of the community sounds like it originates in a problem the department is having (or had) with someone. Poke around the web site: might it be the tutorial center, writing center, Writing Across the Curriculum people, developmental studies people…? Or are they still fighting the English department’s Civil War: comp people vs . lit people. In your cover letter, be Abe Lincoln.
  • “Alternative delivery styles” = usually means online courses & a CMS system to supplement your classroom courses, so they want proof you acknowledge the existence of the Internet.
  • Assessment: this can be a hot potato among faculty, and unless you’ve had specific, positive experience in doing program assessment for outside agencies, you might want to let this one alone.

Finally, remember that 95% of English faculty got to be that way because once upon a time they were so in love with reading fiction that they wanted to do just that for the rest of their lives. Embed glimpses of your life story in the letter, maybe just one or two times, as you give some support to your claims. Let them know you have a story, a good one.


Driving a Thesis

May 9, 2008

In the future, a student in Paragraph City who needs to write an essay will take the Tube to the second sub-level of Locution Towers and for 25 rubles lease a 2024 Thesis. She will get behind the wheel, stroke the biometric ignition and engage in a complex set of Q & A until she arrives at her prime assertion. Next a Garmin mind map will guide her in locating supporting evidence for her assertion before the Thesis roars off on its verbal highway toward a conclusion, jettisoning as it does any words which could possibly be seen as having racial, sexual, gender, political or spiritual overtones.

Now the only good part of this fantasy is that our student would begin with a thesis, and for some of my folk, purchasing a thesis might be the only way to get their hands on one. The main obstacles seems to be the distinction between a topic and a thesis. Locating the thesis in Staples’ “Black Men and Public Space” or Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” or Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”: they can do that. Build an essay around a thesis: well, maybe not.

Here’s the essay that so many of my students want to write, and it’s a glutenous, plastic form I see over and over again, one I suspect succeeded brilliantly for many in some adolescent Eden when naming a topic was an adequate replacement for thinking about an idea:

  1. Begin with a global statement so obvious that four year olds say “duh!” “The world is filled with people, many of whom desire happiness in which to live.” Stating it awkwardly is not part of the formula, but is a frequent characteristic since the writer doesn’t care what he’s saying. He’s merely looking for a way to reach the last sentence of the first paragraph.
  2. Meander around for two or three more sentences, being careful to never touch on the true topic of the essay but showing how all things are connected. “People may look for happiness in religion, in movies, in horticulture and in a loving relationship with a significant other. Some people may search for happiness unsuccessfully for years in which they live unhappy.”
  3. Arrive at your topic in the last sentence of the introductory paragraph, a relatively brief and simple statement which, by its contrast with its context, is so blessedly clear that readers will mistake it for an actual idea. It is required to have at least one incomprehensible pronoun. “This happens to puppies when they are abused.”
  4. Finish the introduction by giving the essay a title which is a single dramatic word so vague no one can guess what the essay is about : “Devastation!” 
  5. The rest of the essay writes itself, each paragraph a description of a puppy the writer has known. The conclusion is the challenging part since the writer has to say exactly what he said in the introduction but with mostly different words. This is what makes writing so hard.

 Lately I have been abandoning the mossy “thesis” for terms that may have more meaning to students. “Main idea” is inadequate, since it is far too much like “topic” and since students already “know” by rote that thesis = main idea = topic = abused puppies are sad. “Claim” is a great word, and one which is gaining momentum in the rhetorics and handbooks I come across. However students often seem to think a claim is something false.

“Gatekeeper idea” was a phrase I used for a few semesters, thinking that the image of a concept that allowed material into the essay if it offered support but denied extraneous material admittance would communicate to my students. Mostly it didn’t.  I currently like “assertion” though it’s a bit far from student vernacular. I’m open to suggestions, though I do realize that concentrating on the label is just a way to fool myself into thinking I’m actually working on the problem when I’m actually wool gathering.

The real work has to be this: to stimulate students to think, to find or force an idea they want to say to the surface, to reject the facile observation and the stereotype and the easy excuse that they aren’t that bright, to have them seriously look at what they write, and to pay off thoughtful content with a thoughtful response.  

 


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