Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Be Careful of Teaching What You Love: Part Two

This post provides the reasons why I’ve come to dislike teaching my writing class, a class I originally thought I would adore.

First, and least, the class is a LOT of work.  I spend far more time on the writing class than any of my other classes, and much of that extra time involves grading and commenting on student assignments, which is not my favorite part of teaching. No one can learn to write without writing, so I have to get my students to write a lot, and I need to respond to those pieces to help them grow and improve.

Second, I wouldn’t mind the workload if it actually translated into student improvement. Unfortunately, many students seem to pay attention only to the grade rather than the numerous other comments I write on their papers, and they become so focused on grades that they begin to try and “not loose points” rather than trying to get better at the process of writing.  I hear, every semester, “so you focus mainly on APA style in grading?”  Every time it’s asked I say, “no.”  But APA style is the easiest thing for them to fix so they continue to focus on it.  I do have students who take what I say to heart and strive to get better. These students don’t necessarily make the best grades in the class, but they develop the most as writers. But these seem too few and far between, numbering 1 or 2 out of a class of 25 rather than the 10 or 12 I might hope for.

Third, this class evokes arguments with students about almost everything. When you ask an objective question, as in, “who developed the concept of classical conditioning,” there is one specific answer that the students have been taught (Pavlov) and, if they miss it, they won’t argue about it. But it sometimes seems that students want to argue about everything in the writing class.  If they wanted to argue as a basis for learning, that would be one thing. But it’s clear they want to argue so they can try and squeeze out another point or two for their grades. Many of the arguments take the form of, “But that’s what I meant to say…” and they either don’t understand or don’t want to understand that “meaning” to say something is not the same as having said it. At the end of the semester I never fail to have 2 or 3 students, usually ones who got “B’s” but wanted “A’s” come to see me in my office to argue and argue and argue about the situation. Good writing is somewhat subjective, although not completely so, and I stress to the students that I take off most points for objective mistakes and not subjective ones. But even a mark of “awkward sentence” can evoke arguments from students who don’t think it’s awkward.  When I won’t give in to these arguments, the result is often tears. That really makes my day, let me tell you.

Fourth, and worst, plagiarism. I’ve never taught this class yet without having at least 2 out of 20 or so papers plagiarized in the first round. And not just a sentence here and there, but whole passages lifted with no quotation marks and either no references or the wrong references, the latter of which indicates an active attempt at deception. This is despite the fact that I have a lengthy statement about plagiarism on my syllabus. The book talks about it at length. We cover it in class and I have two quizzes with questions on plagiarism in the first third of the semester. There are two inevitable responses that I get from students when this happens: 1). I just messed up on my references, 2). I didn’t realize that was plagiarism. I don’t accept these excuses and indicate to the students that they should drop the class because the likelihood of them passing has now been greatly diminished. Unfortunately, many of the students have reasons why they feel they can’t drop the class, and when I tell them that I will go over future papers with a fine-toothed comb, they say, “OK.” The final result:  usually a poor grade and more tears.

In fifteen years of teaching this class, I’ve had more students cry (at least one a semester, often when caught at plagiarism) than in any other class I’ve taught.  I’ve seen more students argue over each and every grade they make than in any other class. I’ve seen more students look completely bored in class than in any other I’ve taught. I’ve gotten far more frustrated questions (Why is this important? Why do we need to do it that way?) in this class than in any other. I’ve gotten more outbursts of anger than in any other. Is it any wonder that I don’t really look forward to teaching this class?

The negative aspects came to a head for me in Spring 2011 in this class, with a student who went to the chair and the vice president of the university about her unfair “B” grade, which was the “highest” grade she received that semester in any of her classes. She told our chair that she didn’t care so much about herself and her grade, but she just didn’t want future students to have to deal with my unfair policies in the class. The policy in question was me requiring classroom attendance as a portion of their grade for class participation.  After dealing with that, I was the one who felt like crying.  

Be careful of wanting to do what you love. 
By the way, check out this great review by Keith West of my Under the Ember Star.  This certainly makes me feel better!

Also, a flash fiction piece by me called "Eye Spy" is up over at Beat to a Pulp. Another reason to feel better!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Well, when you put it that way, it does sound like a hassle. And I always thought attendance reflected one's grade.

Chris said...

I've often wondered about this. I have a number of friends and acquaintances in the literary writing community. It seems when you take that path -- for example working for and getting an MFA, then maybe pursuing a doctorate -- the only logical way to use the degree is to teach while concurrently pursuing a writing career. It's hard for me to imagine a more dream-crushing pursuit, frankly. I live in a college town, so I'm pretty familiar with what college students are like. I'd rather not spend any more time with them than necessary.

I would think that what you teach is different enough from what you write that there would be some separation, but obviously that's not the case. I feel for you, brother. Don't let the bastards drag you down too much.

Tom Doolan said...

Is this class in any way a core requirement for any program? If not, than I have to wonder why these kids are taking it, when they clearly have no interest in it. Is it the age-old cliche of it being a perceived "easy A?"

Cloudia said...

Perhaps there is a journal of education that would wish to publish this revealing piece? Very significant on several levels. Thanks for this, & congratulations on the review. Aloha

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, students really really fight the idea of attendance effecting grades directly these days.

Chris, It doesn't affect my fiction that much, but it does affect my nonfiction, a lot of which has to do with writing related issues. Thanks, man!

Tom, it can serve either as an elective or as a requirement, depending on how the student structures their curriculum. Most are probably taking it as a requirement.

Cloudia, I'm thinking about something like that. I will have to look into it.

Chris said...

I think there are many people who think writing is easy. And, to do it well, it isn't. I liken it to playing the bass guitar. If you want to get by, yeah, it's pretty easy. Just plunk away on the root note, learn a couple simple runs, and you can totally get by. But if you want to do more than just "get by" it takes a lot of friggin' work. People who discovered they have a knack for getting by often often lack the self-awareness to recognize when they ARE just "getting by" and get all kinds of angry when they are challenged. I think that is what really separates the excellent from the just okay.

Drizel said...

Sorry but ungrateful brats.....they should be making notes and listening and seeping every part of what you have to say and teach through their skins....I would give anything to learn from you. Sorry they giving you such a crap time.... HUGZ

Charles Gramlich said...

Chris, very good point. I think a lot of students do exactly that. They decide they're doing well enough and don't care whether they really get proficient or not. They don't understand the benefits of that for one thing.

Drizel, I'm sure I'll feel better about it when I'm separated a bit from all the grading I've been doing lately.

Riot Kitty said...

I don't understand plagiarism. It's so bold. Like they won't get caught - hello!

Deka Black said...

Plagiarism is the laziest of laziest things to do. Also, moronic, sorry. I mean: the work you do copyng, instead, use it doing something original!

SQT said...

I agree with Chris. When you're a "good" writer in high school it's hard to accept you're only okay at the college level (if that). I think this generation of college-age kids are so used to getting their way, thanks to years of indulgent parenting, and you're the first stop in their entry into the real world. You're bearing the brunt of something you didn't create-- and that sucks.

Charles Gramlich said...

Riot Kitty, I don't get it either. It almost always gets found out and I tell them that right up front in the class.

Deka, agreed. And with plagiarism, no real learning takes place.

SQT, that's quite likely an element of it. No one likes to be confronted with their imperfections, but that's sort of what college is supposed to be all about.

David Cranmer said...

Just amazing how many folks don't think twice about plagiarism.

Richard Prosch said...

I sure can relate. Almost a decade involved with a college English dept. where Gina taught freshman comp. She experienced much of what you describe-- and I'll bet it's only gotten worse in 15 years. Hang in there!

Vesper said...

Yeah, I can see that. You'd think such a class would be chosen by people who truly want to write. Disappointing...

Lorna said...

As a retired high school teacheer, I feel your pain. :-) However, the glimmer of light in a student's eyes is worth the struggle. Keep on keeping on, and I suggest a gentle merlot or frozen daiquiri with crackers and cheese. Easy boy. :-)


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, thanks for a thought-provoking piece on your writing class. I think every teacher irrespective of the subject he or she teaches will find this article very interesting. In context of what Tom Doolan said, I too wondered if the students took writing class because they could enhance their grades without hassle. I think they have learned the hard way. I was delighted to read about your emphasis on attendance which, in my opinion, should be linked to a student's overall grade. In most colleges in India, 70 per cent classroom attendance in both semesters is a must; otherwise, a student can be barred from appearing for the finals — an effective threat. College professors even send "notices" home and summon the parents for an explanation for their student's absence from class.

laughingwolf said...

damn... so many foolish students fooling themselves, for the most part

would that the yahoos were clear your class is not, and never will be, an 'easy A'

is there some way to bar them from finals, like prashant says about schools in india?

you're head honcho, can you bring it up with the admin bigwigs?

the walking man said...

I was never even close to a college classroom until I was 45. Good God! The number of times the "kids" asked me to shut the fuck up because it might hurt their GPA.

Of course I was merciless with the professor (except in Algebra...shrug) and they with me. I didn't care about the damn grade but the information being presented and when I thought the spin was a bit too subjective from the front, hell I'd call that shit out in every class, especially the writing classes.

What the kids never knew was every semester, never missing a class, always leading it to discussion and argument...(hell I just spent 20 years arguing with foremen, professors are easy they only give grades not paychecks)...My GPA never fell below 3.6 and I had received two school recommended scholarships.

What I learned from my side of the desk about the "kids" was they thought the grade was the knowledge. Don't you dare start to teach down to their level Charles but make them rise to the level appropriate for the knowledge you are trying to impart.

If they are bright enough to know you want discussion and argument in the class not after it's over then they are bright enough to rise to the challenge.

The other alternative is to not have office hours once the class is completed. If you can't be found they can't cry.

SzélsőFa said...

aw :(
as someone has pointed out in the comments: some students (if not most of them) were probably hoping for an easy A, especially that they were conditioned of being capable of anything.
they are not and writing is not that easy for everyone.

and i sense how stressful it was (is) to you with all that unjustified whining, bleh.

Charles Gramlich said...

David Cranmer, I know, or as if it simply doesn't apply to them!

Richard, I didn't even talk about the students who don't even hand in papers but somehow still think they'll be able to pull out a good grade in the end.

Vesper,I think that's why adult writing groups are much more rewarding. The people really do want to learn how to write.

Lorna, I replaced the merlot with a couple of dark beers but otherwise I'm right there with you. :)

Prashant, Xavier has an attendance policy for Freshmen only, but I do believe it's an important element and in 90 percent of cases poor grades are directly reflected by poor attendance.

Laughingwolf, unfortunately, our educational system is becoming more and more "consumer/customer" based. It makes it difficult when students begin to think of themselves as our customers.

Mark, thanks for the insight. I have increasingly avoided any office hours at the end of the semester for exactly that reason, to avoid as much of the tears and arguments as I can. Email has made that much harder to do though. I don't "see" the tears but I still get the arguments.

Szelsofa, I bet you're right, though anyone hoping for an easy "A" in writing probably doesn't know enough to take the class anyway. :)

BernardL said...

The one who inspired me to write was my professor for the creative writing and English 1A and 1B classes in college. He was a hard line grader. I wager he saw many tears shed during his teaching years. :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

In the writing classes I took, there was never a grade on our stories--just comments. And I do wonder if they want to learn to write, why they are so fixated on grades. Our biggest problem was we all read every story and it was hard to read so many bad stories. But other than that, we all loved the class. But we all wanted to be writers. Everyone was there every week. I think basically, if you did the assignments and participated in discussions you got a Pass. If not, you got a fail. Could you give Pass Fail rather than a letter grade?

ivan said...


I guess you need to set your students on fire...But I see some appear already in asbestos suits.

While teaching at a U.C-accredited college, I have had underachieving students on the G.I. bill begging, me, "Please. If I fail, I will have to go back to being a gardener in Texas."
Reluctantly, I gave him a A, as required in the MFA program, but it was on the strength of his poetry rather than his performance in class.
At a party later, I kicked his ass.

Greg said...

Wow, that does sound like a lot of work for a payoff that should be greater. Kudos to you for teaching the class -- we need more teachers who actually try to get students to learn and improve.

It doesn't seem right that the grades should be the main focus of a student's efforts. Too bad the class can't be offered as pass/fail or something similar, so students could put more emphasis on learning rather than getting an A or B.

G. B. Miller said...

So they complain about mandatory attendance in the class?

Imagine what their reaction would be if they had to deal with the consequences of no attendance in real world:

1) bad job evaluation
2) no good job
2) no job

Golden Eagle said...

That sounds like a stressful class to teach.

Congratulations on the review, though!

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernard, I would imagine he did.

Patti, pass/fail is not an option for this course in our curriculum. I do have students on occasion who really seem to want to learn and they are a pleasure to teach.

Ivan, I get a fair amount of begging.

Greg, GPAs are a major issue in college because of the wish of many of these students to go on to professional schools. Without the right GPA they might not make it in.

G.B., I have been known to bring this up to them and they tend to nod politely but I'm not sure they grok the similarity.

Golden Eagle, stressful enough, for sure. Thanks for the congrats.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A lovely story on BTAP, Charles. Sensational images.

Vesper said...

Charles, great story at BTAP! When it starts it is so mundane and then the weird, the doubt, the fear even, seep into the narrative and stay there... I loved it!

Ron Scheer said...

Well, I feel your pain. The attendance policy was a requirement of the department when I taught, and always spelled out in the syllabus. Anybody attempting to fight that would get nowhere.

I frankly found student attitudes so deteriorating over the dozen years I taught that I felt I was no longer on the same planet with them. It was a fight to keep them from checking their laptops and phones for messages instead of actively participating. And some were openly defiant over the issue. They'd find their own way to be absent.

The university subscribed to turnitin, and students had to submit their work through that system, which would identify the plagiarism in maybe a majority of the cases. This however did not identify papers written by ghost writers, which was often the case with international students.

My sense too often was that students considered themselves good enough as writers, and that was good enough for an A. Since I gave a lot of comments where improvement was needed, I'd start any conference with them about grades with (a) Did you read my comments? (b) What did I say? (c) What didn't you understand? That took care of a lot of their grievances without my having to explain any more.

Maybe this is just an old-school guy talking, but my sense of what they expected as students was that education should not require any effort, and it should never be boring. So we seldom were on the same page about that.

Sounds like you need a year or two away from it.

Ron Scheer said...

Read your story at BTAP. It put me in mind of du Maurier's "The Birds," which is good company to be in. Thanks.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, thanks. I appreciate that. I had that basic idea for a while but it finally gelled.

Vesper, I get a fair amount of ideas from staring out the window. :)

Ron, I started using turnitin just this semester, and I'm finding it quite helpful. I have been googling stuff for plagiarism for a long time. I'm getting ready to send back a paper to a student who soundly ignored all the comments I made on his first paper. His great reflects that but I'm still expecting some argument. We'll see. thanks for the good word on "Eye Spy." I've read "The Birds" and it is definitely a good one.

ivan said...

More on "Be Careful teaching what you love," Part Two.

This piece jogs an unpleasant memory for me from my days of teaching.

How charming of fate, that after ten years of being something of the local Mr. Chips (twenty years of published writing and teaching under my belt) that I should come upon a clique of students who seemed in some kind of personality cult whose aim, oddly, was to dispirit the English department-- and maybe even take over teachers' jobs.
The attitude seemed to be that local community college teachers (we) didn't have the proper credentials,while this new class, already with degrees from other universities--did.

On this September morning, this batch of new students-- seemed to feel for sure that they had forgotten more about writing than I was prepared to teach them. They were so good. They were so precocious. They already had their B.A.'s. They felt for sure that they would be the next generation of teachers and writers, even without handing in resumes or applying for jobs at Seneca College King Campus.

--Except that they couldn't write, and any criticism or advice I had to offer was somehow a personal affront!
I gave them writing assignments and they would not complete them.

(Feelgood education back then, in a skewed high school system in Canada.

The child, the student, was held to be a unique and creative individual and, Pink Floyd? "Teacher leave those kids alone."
Here is how it used to work in the so-called open concept plan:

A dominant Alpha type of kid would appear and he/she would set up the projects and tasks. Teachers would just throw out challenges, monitor the kids--or go into the faculty room to smoke, or, in some cases, work on their inferiority complexes.
So it seemed that by University, students knew how to shuffle paper, but not much else. They had fair handwriting and they would be good bureaucrats).

One day I was thrust into a class of these know-it-alls whose sole claim to literary fame was the desire itself.

But I soon found out they were writers who wouldn't, couldn't write... And not at all willing to learn. They had to take my course as a prerequisite to their Historical Interpretation programme. (You needed at least, a writing workshop).

Two months go by, and no essays, no written pieces. "I already took that in university."

What in hell? I thought university taught you discipline.

Not in my nature, but I had to fail some of them. The ones who stayed turned out to be good writers, and I helped them as much as I could to gain access to publishing.

I swear there is still a "feel-good" crowd out there, the know-it-alls, who seem to know how it's done, but, like literary critics--can't acrtually do it. And any criticism of them is a personal affront.

Charles, I feel for you, man.

I ended up failing a whole group of underachievers.(This probably didn't matter, as their course head would probably trump my grading at the promotion meeting.
I did have words with him afterwards and he did seem something like a Jim Koresh imitator. Damn, the woods of Newmarket seemed full of funny people at the time!)

I was congratulated over my sticktoitiveness by the dean, and offered tenure.
But I was so pissed off by that time that I went to Mexico to recover part of my balls. Egad.

Sidney said...

I'm finding that focus on grades a lot as well. I wanna say: "Just focus on making it something new, fresh and good!"

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, a student came to thank me for my comments on her good paper last week and at first I felt rather good about it. Later I got an email from her asking if I would now reconsider her score on the first paper because she did well on the second paper. So her "thanks" to me were nothing more than a manipulation attempt. I should have realized.

Sidney, it's getting worse.

Jessica Ferguson said...

Charles, loved Eye Spy! Wonderful story.

As for the writing class: I think most students think of writing classes as an easy A. Only real writers love it and want to learn something. I still have a passion for the writing classes I took and the writing teacher. Two things i hear in his voice, even today:

He said: "You can disagree but don't be disagreeable." I always remember that when I feel disagreeable. :) He also said, "Assume nothing because to assume means you make an ASS out of U and Me." Crazy that I should remember those two things. Of course, I remember other things but these are like flashing signs in my mind.

I hate that you're not enjoying your class. Tell your students they're not allowed to speak--muchless, cry. :) One can only write in a writing class...and listen.

Travis Cody said...

Wait...you had a student go to the head of your department to complain because you required students enrolled in your class to actually attend the class? And the student actually thought that she was "protecting" future students from an unfair requirement?

Oy. No wonder teaching that class is bringing you down.