Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Worst (and Best) Mistake of Last Term

Reflecting on my teaching a bit last term, I realized that I made one single, serious mistake (I made lots of little ones, too). Surprisingly, that mistake was also one of the best things I did all term. What was it you ask, intrepid and curious reader?

I allowed revisions of papers in my Shakespeare class. Stupid stupid stupid. Say it with me. 35 people in a class, and each one wants to revise one of the three short papers.

Say it again, stupid stupid stupid.

Well, actually, some students didn't revise a paper, and I was able to limit the revisions to one per student, so it wasn't quite an extra 35 papers to reread and regrade, more like 25. And a few students dropped, so the class wasn't 35 at the end, either.

On the other hand, it was also one of the best things I did all semester. It started because one of my students earned an F on her first paper and came to see me about it. She didn't whine, but asked about it, and asked if there was any way she could revise it. And I said yes because I'm a pushover and a whuss, and more importantly because she seemed to have learned something about writing and Shakespeare while we were talking and I thought it would help her to revise. You know, that education thing we're supposed to be doing and all.

But of course, trying to be fair means letting others have the same opportunity. And in almost every case, the student came to talk to me about revising, took revision seriously, and did a significantly better essay the second time around. Generally, that meant that s/he did a better job on the other essays, too. Certainly that was the case with the first student who came to me. Perhaps they had a stronger sense of expectations, felt I cared, I don't know. But they did.

Of the three papers (an explication, a scene or character analysis, and a summary and response to a published article of criticism), the explication and scene/character analysis were the only ones people revised. I think that was because most people did one of those for their first paper, and held the summary/response for their final essay. (In an effort to get small batches of essays at a time, I gave students multiple options for each text; the stipulations were that they had to write on three texts and turn in two essays by the midterm date.)

Still, an extra 25 papers to grade adds a fair bit of pain.

The extra conferences were usually quite fun and good teaching/learning experiences. They were fun because students seemed to feel that they were there for their benefit, rather than because I was punishing them, so they didn't have the sort of resentment my first year students seem to often feel about revisions.

(Why? How do I get first year students to see revision as an opportunity rather than a punishment?)

And frankly, I do my best teaching in office hours, where I can respond to a student's ideas and try to tailor my teaching to meet his/her level of readiness and understanding.

Most of our NWU students would benefit a lot from more one on one time with instructors. Some realize it, and do come to office hours. But most don't.

And since if they all came to office hours, I'd be overwhelmed in that Indiana Jones and the Crush of Students way (except that my office is on an upper floor, so escaping out a window would require more athleticism than I've ever exhibited), I don't know how to balance the need to encourage them to come see me with the time issue. At least a couple times this term, I know students didn't get a chance to see me after hanging out in the hallway during my office hours (because there was a line of people waiting and they had to leave at some point). I was able to reschedule with some of them, though.

Did I mention that I have to "thank" one of my Dear Colleagues for the original revision request? As I learned afterwards, the student had gone to DC in a panic after getting back the F essay, and DC suggested she come talk to me.

Do I dare make the same mistake again?


  1. I did it when I was a TA, and I hated myself for doing it--but at the same time, maybe ONE of the students who took me up on the offer (out of eight or ten) made amazing and dramatic improvements. And I kinda felt like it was worth it, and kinda felt pissed at the others. (This was at the land of the superachieving students, where why WOULDN'T you revise, if you thought you could add even two points to your total grade? God, those students suck.)

    I can't, can't offer revisions now, teaching 110 students, but in some ways I do regret it, because I do think that one-on-one helps some students dramatically.

    But if I had to give you advice, I'd say that, if you go this route, at least make the rewrite as punishing as possible. Tell students you'll AVERAGE their grades on the original and the revision, and if they only go up 1/3 a grade, they get nothing. Emphasize *how much work* they'll have to do. Require meetings and drafts. Hopefully, that'll scare off everyone but the students who get c- and below.

    But, it's still a risk. . .

  2. Here's the question - how can you recreate the revision dynamic in the regular course design without making all that extra work for yourself? Do they do drafts? Maybe if you graded their drafts "unofficially", sort of a "this is the grade you would get if this draft were the final paper" would give then the feedback that only a grade can give. Because helpul comments,edits, suggestions and advice just that. But a grade places that advice into a context that shows them where the bar is. Maybe some kids need to see where the bar is, so they know how to make the jump.

    You seem like a great teacher. And being a great teacher is always more work than being an average teacher.

  3. Hmmm, I have about 85 students this term, which doesn't seem like a lot, perhaps, certainly not compared to 110. But it's still daunting to have an extra 20 papers to grade.

    Thanks tbtam, for the kind words. In my first year writing classes, students do drafts and peer revision. In my more advanced classes, I try to space out assignments a bit so that they'll be able to work to their own schedules/strengths somewhat, and also so I won't be overwhelmed by 35 papers at a time. That means that I don't take time in class to have peer revision, though I do talk to students about revision when they come to office hours.

    I don't grade unofficially, because it would take as long to do that as to actually grade, AND because, at some point, students have to take responsibility to be done with their work, to say, yes, I've finished what I'm going to do on this given the limitations of time/space, whatever. My first year classes give students more space to go back and revise, but at some point, in the real world, we really don't get do-overs.