An anecdote about dealing with student frustration with the challenges of college writing

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.

Notes from September Meeting

Notes from Koshland Art of Teaching Writing Seminar Monthly Meeting on 9/19/19:

-Getting googled? Same username for class WordPress website as for this site – fear of students seeing our seminar posts on teaching
-Possible solution: use a different name when posting on this site

-How many people use the wordpress site? Students might not be checking in the website very much. Analytics give some clue but not much. Sometimes you have to post on bCourses AND the website (the former for readings, so you’re not publicly sharing copyrighted stuff). recommends exposing your students to the website in class (projecting homework, assignments, etc).

-Afraid students aren’t reading comments on their paper – suggests handing out comments five minutes before class and writing an exit ticket on what advice is most available to them before leaving class.

-Diagnostic essays problem:
the majority of the diagnostic essays are summary! Even though has taken care to make sure that they know that they’re not supposed to summarize. Someone suggests giving one-on-one feedback. Or, break down assignments into summary and argument components so that they don’t just get stuck on the summary. Talk about the distinction between “form” and “content” – some students get this faster than others. Breaking the argument into the “how” and “what” and “why” (the form, what’s going on in the text, and why it’s happening) is a good way for them to think beyond pure summary. Also, reading sample student essays.

Related problem:
to grade or not to grade diagnostic essays? Don’t want to stress out students, but also want them to realize that there are issues in their paper. mentions that diagnostic essays in the English department are not graded. suggests asking them to write a reflection on the diagnostic essay and comments and make goals for the semester, and retroactively reflect at the end of the semester about their progress.

Common Pitfalls in student essays:
argument in the last paragraph, generalizations, “since the dawn of time,” diction, syntax, juxtapositions, binary oppositions—they don’t talk about effect on meaning. Helpful phrase: “identification does not an argument make”—tough to figure out –is this close reading?

Possible solutions to Common Pitfalls problem:
: “Is this close reading?” handout with examples has made up—label things e.g. identification of examples, definitions.
Another option from : devious decoy deadline—have them say the paper is due on a certain day, go over common pitfalls, have them go over them and then turn in on next day. Use examples of close readings vs over-generalizations and not close-readings.

Issues with preparation of classes and work flow when teaching solo and
Possible solutions:
-Student presentations, sheet of activities when you don’t know what to do eg. affect inquiry cards, splitting up readings in pages and —use the materials of others,
-interactive activity: low-labor cost for teacher but high-yield for students. Eg. affect inquiry cards—good for suggestive stories—one side of the index card they put the affect, and on the other side they put a question (they are anonymous)—if you got your own, pretend it’s not your own—and then pair and share—what did you hear, what did you notice, then open up to a group discussion—another version with a quote on one side and question on the other—
-other activity—each student writes down question, they use it as a discussion question, people answer, and then when they feel like it’s time to move on they call on someone else-
-another activity-divide room into 3-4 positions on a text, they choose, people explain their positions, and then they can decide whether to change positions after hearing other students and they discuss along the way, also exit tickets.
-Close-reading activity—3-4 groups, preassigned to small segment of pages in book and present about one aspect of the texts. For example: language and violence–, language and sthing else, also, small group discussions (a waste of time?)
–we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel!—can add people to comp lit resources

Another issue: How to make small group discussions meaningful?:
Possible solutions:
-make them accountable in those small groups: Have them write something down, or work in shared google doc and you can look to see what they’re doing—make it related to a small task (there’s an end goal), have them create questions, have them be responsible for lines of a poem—helping shape what happens later in group discussions,
-give roles: written, oral, keeping time etc…,
-or jigsaw groups—each group gets passage they discuss, or by theme, literary device, and then form groups with one person from each group and then they report back, in large group discussion—when one group talks about something that another group finds interesting, they can jump in and begin after.
-or have them post about readings ahead of time, and then you can reference what they wrote in class—they feel complimented and you know they’ll have something to say.
–also, quickwrites are good—about a question, or about a definition of word: what is a medium?
—or pair writing—gave question, and between the two of the people, produce a paragraph—they are more careful about word choice, etc.., you can add a reflection afterward,–ask them “how what and why” in their own writing, in future paired groups can share with class, or post,

-Other issue: How to get people who don’t talk to talk?
—asking them to talk, or when you’re overhearing you can ask them to bring up good comments and tell them to mention
-Inclusivity in the classroom—a thread in the conversation—go around group and say one thing someone else said they are interested in sharing, or please share one thing someone said during the class—and it’s an organic summary of the class, and have them credit each other–