Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Students never change. Except when they do.

Like many of my readers, I took a big, fat stack of essays with me on my Thanksgiving travels, and while I got through as many as I needed to, in order to face my students this week, I certainly didn't get through all of them.

I find myself grading more slowly these days, oppressed by encountering the same mistakes and writing the same comments over and over again. I try to remind myself that this student hasn't yet had me make that correction on a paper, and that I need to explain myself as clearly as if his were the first paper I'd ever seen with that particular citation error, or a heap of sentence fragments, or a paragraph that ended up being about something completely different than whatever its first sentence promised.

It's a struggle, and I understand why crotchety older faculty sometimes insist that college students are getting stupider: when you see the exact same problems, semester after semester, it's easy to foget that most individual students do improve, sometimes quite dramatically.

I keep telling myself this, and I think it's been changing the kinds of comments that I make on my students' papers. Here's an example: I read an essay that did a fairly nice comparative reading of two of Shakespeare's sonnets; it was a solid, respectable B (which for an essay in my class is pretty good), but the last page veered completely off track into an explanation of how relevant these poems are to us today, and how true to life, and how many examples of this situation we can see around us in the world today.

In the past, I would simply have slashed out those two or three paragraphs with my pen, written "inappropriate" in the margin, and moved on.

This time, reminding myself that many of my students don't have a stable sense of what is and isn't appropriate in a literature essay--and reminding myself, further, that this particular student was a sophomore and had chosen a rather challenging topic--I wrote something like, "This is all true, and I'm glad that you're so personally invested in this subject. However, this isn't appropriate in a formal essay. You'd have done better to use this last page to expand upon how the poetic devices that you so nicely identify on page 4 actually work within the poem."

(Yeah. You can see why it's taking me longer to grade these days.)

I'm not an especially patient person, and neither am I, by nature, a validator. My knee-jerk reflex isn't to say, charitably, "well, I can tell that you're really passionate about this topic, Suzy!" but rather to think, "Jesus Christ. What kind of stupid person would say that?" But I've been forcing myself to be more patient, in part because I've inadvertently learned a little more about the academic histories of some of my most impressive students.

Let's start with Liz, a senior, who is unquestionably my smartest and most thoughtful student this semester; it didn't surprise me to learn that she was applying to grad schools in English and that faculty members were practically fighting to write her recommendation letters. What did surprise me was when I met with her to talk about her applications, and I learned that she'd started her college career in the honors program at a nearby university, flunked out within a year, spent a couple of semesters at a community college, begged her way into Regional U. . . and has gotten nothing but straight As ever since.

Another one of my standout students did indifferently well in high school, fucked around for several years afterwards--but since starting at RU has gotten nearly perfect grades in his two majors while also holding down a full-time job. He rocked the LSAT and has gotten into several top-10 law schools.

Those are two students who have volunteered information about their academic histories. But as I look at the transcripts for my other top students, I see a similar pattern more times than not: this one got all Cs her first year. That one failed or withdrew from as many classes as she passed until her junior year, when suddenly her grades become all As and Bs.

I don't know what happened with those students--family or personal crises? Not ready for college? Stuck in the wrong major? I have no idea. But the fact that so many of my best students have chequered careers is reminding me that this year's C student might, next year, be the student who drops by my office just to boast about how she'd talked her way into the rare books room at the local R1 because she wanted to hold their 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass in her hands.

And even if she won't be, I need to treat her as if she could.

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saxifraga said...

Great post. Knowing that I was one of those kids who were not really mature enough for university and developed from someone who got below average grades to high scores all around, PhD and independent scholarship, this is very close to the way I teach and treat students. I have seen several students grow from this kind of belief in their potential. I do however worry sometimes if this is a way of paying more attention to mediocre students rather than challenging the excellent ones.

By the way, I am a new commenter, but have been reading for a long time and love your blog.

Hilaire said...

Oh my god, that is *such* a helpful post right now, Flavia. Thank you!

Anthony said...

That's a wonderful post, partly because it confirms that super-consistent nerdship (my own path through school) might somehow not be the way that the biggest talents take. The most brilliant student I have ever taught--now a very high-up and very wealthy software designer in Seattle--had his troubles as an undergraduate, in courses that didn't excite him. But mostly because of its last sentence: pure gold.

What Now? said...

Lovely post!

I have the pedagogical advantage of having failed a class in my first semester of college. Although it was a horrible experience at the time, it's done wonders for my teaching, mostly because -- out of self-protection if nothing else -- I can never assume that a student who fails is an idiot. I'm living proof that one can bomb academically and then turn over a new leaf, and I try to remember (although I don't always succeed) that my students may be in the same position.

Breena Ronan said...

The problem is that it's difficult to see what effect conscientious commenting and grading has on students. Sometimes I doubt my students read anything beyond the grade.

kfluff said...

We all do better when we remind ourselves of the individuality and humanity of our students. Thanks for that crucial point, Flavia. I try to remember this too when I go to class and look out into a sea of exhausted faces that seem to shout "I don't care anymore--I have too much work to do." When and where do they learn to manage it all? When and where did we?

Anonymous said...

i remember failing my first exam in undergrad. i was in shock. but it was a wakeup call. i was in the wrong major.

you are so right. it does take a lot more time to be the sort of professor you are being right now with the comments. but it is so much better for the students. and i as a student appreciated it. and i am sure your students do/will as well.

Flavia said...

Thanks, all, and a special welcome to my new commenters--please stick around!

Breena: I'm not always sure how much my students read my comments, either; some of them surely don't read them at all. Others I'm sure absorb the tone, if not the instruction itself--and that's also an important part of what I'm trying to change about how I grade. Sometimes I think that showing my students that I respect them, and I'm engaged with their ideas, is as important (especially in the early stages of a student's career) as whatever specific advice I might actually have to impart.

That being said, I DO have a number of students who come to my office hours to talk about their essays after the fact (or in preparation for writing their next one), which means that at least some of them ARE reading my marginalia--even if only in preparation for mounting an objection to it!

MJMatos said...

I am, too, a new commenter, albeit I have followed your writings from your previous blog. I do love your way of writing about your teaching experience, so lively. In part, that is related to the fact that I am not so straightforward as you are when I write about my own experience (by the way, my blog is mainly in portuguese, so don't bother).
I did not had major dificulties in high school or university, so I cannot locate any specific episodes of "awakening". What I find is that my particular experience makes me less sensitive to the influence I may have over my students. So, thank you for your inspiring words.

Tiruncula said...

This is such a good reminder. I had some amazing students at my old job, kids who when I met them seemed like lost-sheep-sophomores but who turned out to have been through a lot even before getting to that stage, and who became pretty darned amazing by a few years later. Some are still good friends.

Kristen said...

I frequently struggle with writing paper comments, so thanks for posting about this. It is nice to know that others are dealing with the same issues. I want to help my students, so like you I write a lot on every paper, but I also wonder if I'm wasting my time. This last round of papers most everyone continued to use the first person, even after I'd corrected that on their previous two papers. I try to look for improvement from paper to paper, but when they continue making the same glaring mistakes each paper, it gets discouraging. I can forgive comma errors, since comma usage can be trickier, but constantly using first person is less forgivable. I think I need to announce it in class--"When you are writing a formal history essay, do not use first person!!!" Also, I've started writing comments on the computer in the comment bubbles. I keep my clipboard open and just copy and paste the general comments that I tend to write on every paper--it cuts down a bit on the time (plus I type faster than I write). Another benefit is that then I have saved copies of their essays and can chart their improvement. The downside is that my head hurts after all that extra computer time. I don't know if it helps, but I just thought I'd offer. Good luck with the rest of the semester!

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

I love love love this post. My husband and I spend a lot of time talking about his father's disappointment that his kids didn't turn out exactly like him; I think we as professors have a little of that disappointment when students don't approach college exactly the same way we did. It's important to remember they all find their own way, and it's a lot more likely to be not like ours.

k8 said...

Oh, I'm one of those students. I never cared about grades or school all that much, and my performance throughout much of my educational career has the scars to prove it. Now, though, I'm working on a dissertation and teaching students very different from myself. The students I don't understand are the hyper-achievers. I really don't get it. As I mentioned, I never cared about actual grades (which isn't to say that I didn't care about learning). I was more interested in what I got out of a course. I can't even imagine thinking, let alone asking, what I needed to do to get an 'A', as many of my students do. But then, I'm weird.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

In terms of getting the point across to students in paper comments -- I find that when I do a short matrix to give them general comments and then type their comments, I give them more complete comments and they ask more questions about what those comments mean. Sadly, I also find that this takes a lot of time - -but it is worthwhile if I'm expecting them to do revisions.