Saturday, December 24, 2005

The toughest assignment from last term

Well, I'm late getting on the road, and I've been writing instead of other things. Is it me, or does everyone end up taped to various pieces of wrapping paper?

I've been rereading and and thinking about my graduate students' work today.

The class had a series of writing assignments, something short due every week, except for weeks when something longer was due, until the final couple of weeks when they primarily worked together on their research paper drafts. We used an electronic message board to turn in papers, and in addition to other assigned reading, each student was required to read and respond to the work of every other student every week. It was a lot to ask of them.

I didn't grade a single piece of work during the main part of the semester. Rather, I commented and made suggestions in writing, and we spent much of each class talking about what they'd written, as an opening to talking about what they'd read for the week and also in order to talk about their writing as writing. Basically, it was a hyped up writing class with some theory and a small canon of poetry. (Imagine! Several of the high school teachers talk about how useful they find Christensen's paragraph analysis; a couple others mentioned it, too.)

Their grade was based on a portfolio which had to include a variety of pieces chosen from the different things they'd written during the semester (which they could revise if they chose) their final research essay, and reflection/self-evaluation pieces in which they should talk about what they learned by doing a certain piece of work and so forth. The final section of the portfolio required them to evaluate their contributions to discussion, both in seminar and through the electronic message board.

I've done this seminar before, and used the same format, but for some reason, I didn't really get a sense of what a struggle writing their reflections was with the last class. Maybe I did something differently enough, or these people are just different enough, but their portfolios reveal a striking vulnerability this year. I get much more of a sense that they're putting things on the line: they're much more up front about their perceived weaknesses in writing, discussion, reading, and critical thinking than last year's seminar. There's more at stake with this class in some way.

The result is that some of them have written just incredible reflections, and if they're honest (hey, I can write lies, and I suspect all of us can), they learned a lot about their writing and thinking in the class, and less about discussion. Some of them hint at pain in recognizing weaknesses; after all, they're in graduate school and they got here because they were pretty darned good undergrads, and now they've spent a semester having their writing and thinking publicly critiqued. It can hurt when you put your best foot forward and someone criticizes your work, even if you recognize the validity of the criticism and learn from it.

It's a bit humbling to read these portfolios. I'm just feeling that some of them are so exposed, for lack of a better word. And how the dickens do they trust ME to read and respond to their recognition of their weaknesses? Me? (Heck, I'm over 30, so I don't trust myself!)

I've simply read too much Freud and Lacan to take the self-evaluations totally at face value. Yes, there's all sorts of stuff going on here, and I'm just inadequate to deal with it.

As I'm rereading these, I can't imagine how I'd respond to a portfolio reflection assignment such as this. I write my little blog, and I'm safely anonymous (or at least I pretend to be safely anonymous), but even so, I don't really blog about anything that would make me vulnerable. I may joke about my lack of winter skills or think in pixels about how writing or teaching writing works, but I'm pretty close about self-censoring. What would I do if asked to do a self-reflection?

Yeah, I'd probably fake vulnerability, pick out things to talk about that aren't really scary, and say exactly what I think the authority figure wants to hear. I'd talk about how I'd moved from weakness I to point of greater strength J, and how I still need to learn to get to K, but that I can now see that there must be a K out there. (Mr. Ramsey, anyone?)

And I bet I write well enough that the authority figure would buy it.

Do my students write that well?

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