Alright, I’m letting it all hang out this week. I want to talk about one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve encountered teaching R&C. It’s going to sound gripe-y, but I assure it comes from a place of wanting my students to take responsibility for their thinking and their writing, and to exercise agency over the learning process as a whole.
Before collecting the final drafts of the first close reading papers of the semester, I asked students to write me a letter of reflection about their final draft. In the letter, I asked them to paraphrase the argument they were making, say what they felt good about, what they thought was challenging, and what they’d most like feedback on. While most of the reflections I received were sincere and insightful, I got one that was troubling. And this particular response was downright unsettling to me because it put the onus of responsibility on whether the paper was any good or not on me. The student wrote the following:
I feel pretty good about how I was able to revise and clarify my body
paragraphs after our discussion. However, one thing I found challenging
was incorporating our discussion on Friday about thesis structure into my
essay because you were unable to finish your explanation of what that should
look like. (emphasis mine)
When I read this, I was like WHAAAAAAAAT??! Okay, so it’s my fault then if the thesis doesn’t hold, or isn’t making an argument??! After an initial moment of frustration (somewhat prolonged, I confess), I took many deep breaths and began to reflect on whether or not I’d tried my best to help this student move forward from the first to the final draft. And I decided to give myself a break. But at the same time I didn’t want to let this student off the hook. I felt that not responding to this comment would be an admission of responsibility. So I wrote in the margins to the student the following:
Apart from the extensive feedback I gave, and our conversation
in office hours, there are other resources at your disposal, including
the handouts on the subordinating v.s. additive style, the thesis
checklist, sample essays on the course website, and tutoring. Ultimately
the thesis is up to you. We can talk more in office hour if you’d like.
I have no idea if this student read my marginal response to the letter or no. If I could go back in time and re-write my response I’d probably add something about how writing is a process, that it takes time, patience, and practice to learn how to write a college-level paper, and that I’m expecting progress, not perfection.
At any rate, the point is that it’s hard to deal with student frustration that displaces responsibility for the quality of the writing from the student onto the instructor. It creates this very weird dynamic that’s difficult to address. What’s worse is that it can greatly inhibit student learning because the student can come to see the instructor as a capricious, impossible-to-please gate-keeper who prevents the student from the coveted ‘A’ paper, which comes to be the only measure of success. Ugh! Let’s talk, please.