Grading: A Confession and Cry for Help

This post is part confession and part cry for help: when I sit down to grade my students’ essays, I am paralyzed. This paralysis does not stem from anxiety about being unfair or not knowing how to assign points; the feeling is that I do not know how to help them.

I think part of the problem is that I have never had a writing mentor. My professors throughout undergrad, master’s degree, and now PhD have been amazing and I know that I will graduate from Berkeley feeling well trained in pretty much every way. But I can’t remember a single teacher in my entire post-high school life who has sat down with me and said: “Let’s work on your writing” or “I have these suggestions for your writing.” Comments on papers or proposals, when given, are entirely based on content. This mirrors my experience in the one freshman writing class I was required to take. During the office hour meeting after submitting our diagnostic essays, I was told by my instructor (a PhD student, as I am now): “The mechanics are fine, but I’m left with the feeling there’s no “you” there; there’s no clear voice, you don’t know what you want to say, etc.” So her comments to me throughout the semester were focused on that….

I think another part of the problem is simply time. My professors don’t give very many comments because they don’t have time; I in turn never feel I have enough time to spend on reading carefully, really giving each essay its due. And the paralysis of course does not help with this….

Another facet of this is that I think my own way of learning how to write was very feeling-and-imitation oriented. I was read to as a child and I loved to read. This grew more intense as I got older and weirder (for the Texas suburbs) and the world of books often felt so much more interesting than the world around me. My own writing method is intuitive: I sit down to write and words fall out of me and I let me lead me. All this to say: when I read my students’ work, I often know when something “feels” good or interesting and right and when it doesn’t. But I usually can’t really explain why in a clear way and often end up offering what feels like a very vague comment: “your thesis would be stronger if x…” And of course the thesis would be stronger if the student were to do “x” but it never feels like what’s the root of the issue, which I can’t quite seem to put a name to….

Finally, I think this paralysis stems from the weird genre that is the 10-15 page end-of-semester final research paper (which I recall we talked about in the summer). It’s easier for me to comment on a colleague’s chapter or journal article or conference paper or non-fiction essay than it is a student essay. The students themselves recognize this: we don’t read 10-15 page end-of-term papers together in class and so they don’t have a good feel for the genre either.

So: the feeling persists that I don’t know how to help them or what would really be helpful for them. This is not a feeling that I like. I am hoping our conversation tomorrow will shift something for me 🙂 Thank you for reading!

Our Writing as Teaching

In some ways, my R&C this semester is much like the other ones I’ve taught — I’m using the same contract grading system I’ve always used, and I’ve got my paragraphing patter down pat — but I’ve also been trying a lot of new stuff out this semester as result of our seminar over the summer: in-class seminars with student writing, a final project that is relatively untraditional, and the use of a wordpress site.

Some of that’s gone really well (seminar-ing has been fun), and some of that has been rocky but in a predictable and ultimately productive way (they were initially a bit nervous and unsure about the idea of an assignment that wasn’t a traditional “research paper,” but are now working on projects that are personal to them and they are actually excited to write). The website has definitely been a net plus overall, but my midterm evals made me think more about (or start thinking more about) the implications of sharing our writing with our students, and how that’s different (or not) from speaking to them.

I began the semester saying I was just going to use the course website when it was necessary. That quickly became me using it for every single class session for most of the first half of the semester — I love having my lesson plan ready to go, and the way it forces me to take that lesson planning a bit more seriously is salutary. I also love the way it helps organize my thoughts for more presentational classroom moments: it’s not that I just read straight from it, but it does provide a helpful schematic I can glance to while I’m talking, and I never find myself thinking afterwards, “crap, I wish I’d mentioned that one thing about transitions!” But all good things, and the best laid plans: at this point it’s settled down, and I use it mostly when there is a clear set of directions or other kind of textual point I want to be sure to get across.

On my midterm evals I had several students write about me using words that they didn’t know (which has certainly happened before, and doesn’t particularly bother me as a teacher in and of itself), and two write about not feeling comfortable asking me what they meant (which hasn’t, and does). I was really pretty saddened by this — I’ve always tried to have a classroom where we neither shy away from difficult language, nor pretend it’s not actually difficult.

At any rate, I tried my best to turn it into an opportunity: when I reported back the results of the midterm evals as always, I gave them a little pep talk about asking me what a word means if they’re unclear, and I shared with them my own stories (and feelings of fear, timidity, and — well, not shame, but its weaker cousin) from my current semester as a student in a three-person Mandarin reading class, where the two other grad students both have excellent Chinese and where I am very much the person who has to raise his hand and ask the teacher what a word means — precisely the situation they’re in.

Students have been more vocal about clarifications in the second half of the semester, which is great, but I’m left with some — what? Concerns? Questions? Inchoate thoughts? It was clear from their evals that issue largely came up when reading my writing — which must be the writing on the website (especially since it also hasn’t been an issue on evals when I’ve taught other courses where my teaching has not been quite so closely tied to my own prose). And that perhaps makes sense: when we’re reading something aloud in class, I’m always (or try to always be) careful to stop to gloss any words that seem particularly likely to be unknown, and I’ve tried to do the same when I teach off the cuff — but apparently that sort of self-monitoring fell out when I was teaching with my own prose, or when I was thinking about writing my longer, more discursive assignment prompts.

I don’t have any particular direction to go in this post, except to say that I’d love to think through with y’all what the effects are not just of having a written record of our teaching that we use, but of having so much of that —and of our prose — be student-facing.

Reaching Out to Students in a Time of “Instructional Resilience”

Maybe it has something to do with the power outages and the shuffling and rescheduling that followed in their wake, but teaching this semester—more than any semester before—has required a lot of follow-ups and check-ins to locate students who have either missed multiple class sessions, failed to submit assignments, or have otherwise gone MIA. While I’ve encountered some issues with absenteeism and missing assignments when leading discussion sections for large lecture courses at Berkeley, I’ve never confronted so many problems with coursework and attendance in the R&C classroom.

In past R&C courses, it seems that weighing course attendance and participation in final grade calculations has provided sufficient extrinsic motivation to keep students attending class sessions regularly. Similarly, a system of gradual deductions applied to assignments submitted late has likely helped to keep writing deadlines on track. However, this semester, I have several students who have missed multiple class sessions and/or multiple assignment deadlines. When I have been able to discuss these matters with them (both in terms of the content they’ve missed and the concerns it poses for their grade) they seem generally unperturbed. Frankly, when so much of the undergraduate culture of achievement at Berkeley seems GPA driven (or at least highly GPA conscious), I’m at a bit of a loss for how to best motivate these students to do the bare minimum as far as participating and completing their writing assignments. 

One of my primary concerns is the breakdown in communication that is happening. I recognize that our students are dealing with a lot every day, and that it is all too easy to fall through the cracks at a large university, especially if you don’t have the skills or knowledge of how to navigate the system (what some call the “unwritten curriculum”). I do my best to reach out via email if I notice that students have missed a few sessions, or haven’t submitted assignments. I try to stage these interventions as kindly as possible, making clear my concern for the student as a person and my commitment to supporting them in the course. But I also don’t want to micromanage college students, or devote so much time and energy to moonlighting as a truancy officer (albeit a nice one).

I’m wondering if others in our group are confronting similar issues this semester (especially post PGE outage), and how you are dealing with them. I’m especially curious to hear about strategies for communicating care and concern and offering additional support that avoid tacitly endorsing or directly exacerbating a kind of customer service approach to teaching. In this brave new world of contingent labor and “Instructional Resilience,” it sometimes seems as if all impediments to student achievement and learning are placed at the feet of instructors—problems to be solved through hard work and pedagogical ingenuity. While I clearly want to see all of my students succeed, I also want to ensure that they remain active agents in their own learning. With at times competing institutional logics at play (changing norms and expectations that, I would add, are not lost on many students), how might we as instructors strike this delicate and important balance?

On (Not) Teaching Grad Students

Posted by Joe Harris for Lucy Sirianni

As some of you might recall, I am the lone Koshland fellow in our merry band who is teaching something other than Reading and Comp.  As my department’s Assistant Pedagogy Coordinator, I’m teaching not writing but the teaching of writing—in other words, I’m co-teaching a pedagogy course.  In doing this, I’m reminded continually of my very first semester of teaching, not just because I’m witnessing others start their teaching journeys but because, in this very new role, I find myself facing again the very uncertainties I grappled with as a first-time teacher.  As we sit around the seminar table, the questions we discuss and my own unspoken questions about how to support this group of colleagues I’ve been asked to “teach” tend to overlap, and I find myself thinking through ways to make this return to uncertainty meaningful.

My co-teacher, a professor in the English department, talks often about teaching as a “performance of mastery,” while the grad students taking the class routinely ponder how to balance maintaining “authority” with remaining approachable and friendly.  It’s a question I imagine we all grappled with at first and periodically revisit from time to time, but it’s one I find myself thinking about much more than usual in the context of this class.  For me, the balance isn’t between authority and friendliness as those in the class tend to frame it, but between providing the guidance I’ve been hired to offer without diminishing the collegiality and camaraderie that I think should be found in a roomful of grad students.  Will my comments about what’s worked for me in the past come off as patronizing? If I don’t say enough or am overly self-deprecating, will I come across as lacking in the expertise I’d like them to see so they know I can offer them valuable support? If I come with a detailed plan for the part of the class I lead, will it seem infantilizing? If I don’t, will I seem unprepared?

These questions have served to remind me of the tight-rope we walk as teachers, and especially as grad student teachers with less distance from the students we teach—not to mention as teachers who occupy other minority statuses that may affect how students perceive us.  They’ve also made me re-evaluate past teaching experiences.  I’m a teacher who values learning alongside my students as a community of equals.  The fact that even in a group of colleagues—in a space where I don’t think of myself as “teaching” but as facilitating—I worry I’ve fallen short in attaining that egalitarian environment makes me question whether previous classes, too, have not quite lived up to my goals.  And then I wonder: should they? Of course teaching Freshman Comp is very much not the same as working alongside grad students, but I tend to think that at their best, the two experiences should differ widely in content but less so in community atmosphere, though I recognize this may be quixotic.  Conversely, if I’m correct in my feeling that in my most successful undergrad classes I have been able to balance competence and camaraderie, structure and spontaneity, what is holding me back in this new kind of classroom experience where these things might be thought to come so much more naturally? Why am I so much more comfortable in the undergrad classroom than the grad one? The built-in authority of being “in charge”? The sense that grad students will be more attuned to my stumbles/mistakes/shortcomings? Residual anxiety from certain grad seminars? Or maybe just my lack of experience in this new environment?

Ultimately, I think I have so much to learn from my involvement in this class, not just from individual students but from the experience where my primary role is not to teach or to grade or to explain or to prepare but simply (or maybe not so simply) to create a community where we can productively think together about all these facets of pedagogy.  Another point my co-teacher often returns to has to do with the classroom as a “social space.” In fact, we’ve redesigned the course syllabus to focus less on the theoretical and more on the practical aspects of creating and existing in this “social space.” I feel less at ease in this new space than I do in the comfort of my undergrad classes, but what a privilege to have this chance to learn to make it feel like home.

Answering the impossible questions

Over the past few weeks, several of my former students have approached me asking for career advice. Some want to know if they should consider graduate school in the humanities, or whether law school would be the better choice. Others, having developed skills as non-fiction writers in the classroom, ask me about pursuing careers in journalism, and wonder how to secure internships and jobs down the line. I find these conversations a little difficult because on the one hand, I’d like to be as open and honest as I can with these students–both journalism and academia are trying and often unstable career paths–but on the other hand, I don’t want to discourage them from pursuing anything that they want to try out, especially so early in their careers.

I wonder if there are ethical best practices for guiding students through the initial stages of thinking about their writing lives both inside and outside the classroom, encouraging them to continue pursuing whatever writing practice they choose, but also being realistic about the professional writing landscape. In so many ways the community of working writers, journalists, and editors is a lively and enriching group. But I do think that I have something of a responsibility to at least share my own experiences in the professional writing world, if only to illustrate that it’s not always an easy road.

And old professor of mine, Peter Coviello, attempted to answer similar questions in an essay for Avidlywhere he writes: “I assume that if you’re considering going to graduate school with any real seriousness you need not have recited to you the litany of reasons, from the Marxist to the Karmic, not to do so. If you cannot say those reasons off to yourself like beads of a rosary then perhaps you have not, in fact, given the matter enough thought.”

And continues:

But if I don’t quite have a dog in this fight (whether or not graduate school is good for you is likely to depend upon variables too numerous and case-specific to generalize about with much non-polemical efficacy), still I do want to offer a small testament to at least one of the ways a graduate-school education might be of real human use to you. I’d put it, at its briefest, like this: one day, at some unanticipated juncture on the trajectory of your adult life, something cataclysmically bad is going to happen to you. It will be, in the ordinary way of things, shattering and unendurable. And when this comes to pass you may be startled to find that you have an extraordinary resource in, of all improbable things, the years of your graduate education: in the people you loved there, of course, but also in the ways you learned to think there, and in the worlds that, by loving and thinking and talking and fighting in that same shared space, you learned how to make together. That’s not everything you might wish for, after many costly and laborious years, I know. But neither is it nothing.

I’d love to hear what others think about having these kinds of conversations with students.

Trying Not to Mansplain

I hope it will be okay for me to lumber into the conversation here. I’ve recently had a classroom experience that I’m not quite sure what to make of—and I’d be eager to hear your thoughts about it.

I’m teaching an intermediate-level English course at Delaware this semester on Writing and Diversity. It’s listed as a “second writing course”, which means that it’s largely filled with Juniors and Seniors from a wide range of majors who need to meet that requirement. They’re a fun group—seven men and seven women. I’ve tried hard, if not always successfully, not to let the course devolve into simply writing about diversity—in which we would move from one class to the next reading, talking, and writing about one identity group or another. Instead I’ve tried to focus it on the question of how to write across lines of difference and conflict—that is, of how to communicate in what Mary Louise Pratt has famously labeled “contact zones”.

I thought that an apt, perhaps obvious, reading to include in such a course was Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me”, since in it she so clearly sillustrates the barriers that male presumption and arrogance place between actual conversations between men and women. Mansplaining. Not Solnit’s term, actually, but the phenomenon she describes so well.

However, it seemed to me, as I thought about the conversation I hoped to have in class about the piece, that it would be an unbearable irony for me, or any of the other men in the room, to try to explain Solnit to the women sitting around the table with us. So I asked us to begin our conversation (after some fastwriting, you know me) by having each of the seven women in the class offer some first thoughts about a section of Solnit’s piece that they found especially striking or provoking.

It turned out to be an odd few minutes. It was fun, for instance, to watch Winston—a thoroughly likable, politically conservative baseball player and guy’s guy—almost explode with the effort of not explaining to the women why he (and his friends) didn’t explain things to them. (When I opened up the conversation, after each of the seven women had spoken, he was the first person to almost literally jump in.) But it was also difficult to observe several of the women struggle to respond to Solnit, since they seemed almost as eager as many of the men were to to make it clear that, as one of them put it, “most women understood that this was just a problem some guys had”.

Which was what finally got to one of the students, Kate, who pointed out, with some vehemence, that the problem was not that all men acted this way all the time, but that enough of them did much of the time to make it an issue that women had to deal with and think about constantly. This comment was met with (a) at first no response at all, and (b) then several restatements that nobody likes those other jerks who talk over women. The conversation having thus ground to a halt, I brought up ideas of patriarchy and cultural hegemony, and in doing so basically re-explained Solnit to anyone who was still listening. After class, Kate stayed late to apologize to me, which I of course assured her was not at all necessary. She’s actually going to conduct an “experiment” in class tomorrow (it involves needles and balloons and differently colored water) to try to illustrate the “not-all-but-enough” principle. We’ll see how that goes!

So I realize that one, and completely accurate, way of interpreting the class is to see it as enacting—or at least dancing around—the very problem in communicating across genders that Solnit describes. And I don’t mean to suggest that it was a bad class; indeed, I’ve had several conversations about what happened with students afterwards, which suggests that they found the session intriguing, too. But I’m not sure it was a good class either, and I remain uneasy about having pressured some young women to talk about their interactions with men in front of a number of men. I’m not exactly sure what I was imagining when I asked them to lead off the class with their responses to Solnit, but the moment ended up feeling much more awkward and fraught than I had expected.

I’m interested to hear what you think!


I’ve also added course sites from Marlena, Tara, Max, and me to the Course Sites: Some Examples page on this site. Sorry for the delay in doing that.

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.