Monday, August 20, 2012

Service Announcement: We Are (Probably) Not Our Students

I'm enjoying reading peoples' thoughts on how to best mark student papers, but Fie's response below got me thinking that it's the beginning of the semester and time to remind myself (and maybe some others) of this simple, basic thing.

I'm not my students.  I wasn't my students even when I was a student.  Not most of them, anyway.

1)  My subject was (relatively) easy for me.

If you're a math instructor, you probably loved math.  It came naturally.  If you're in this conversation, basic writing stuff probably came easily to you.

I didn't take a single English course in college (the first time around).  Not one.  Not composition.  It was required, but it wasn't required for me because I'd scored above some magic number on one of the entrance exams, so sometime during my first term, I walked into the English department with a piece of paper, then walked a different piece of paper over to the administration building, and voila, 10 credits of English, done.

My current school has a similarly mysterious system for deciding that some students don't need to take our first year composition class.  That means I never, ever see students like myself in my first year writing classes.  (I would have benefitted immensely from taking a first year writing course, however.)

2)  Preparation differs.  Think about where you went to undergrad, and then where you went to grad school.  For me, I went to:

Science oriented R1 (BS)
Community college (took a year plus of classes and became a humanities type)
Regional comprehensive (did the basics of an English degree and some MA work)
Fairly Fancy R1 (phud)

I teach at a regional comprehensive, much like the one where I did some MA work.  I also did a bunch of training in teaching composition there, in a program for people who wanted to teach at local community colleges, which was closely connected with an MA in teaching composition.  That's also where I taught my first classes.

I would say that the level of preparation for college work could be mapped as a U there.  The two R1s were fairly selective, but the others weren't very selective.

What does "selective" mean?

I don't think it means smart.  I think it has more to do with students coming to campus already speaking academic English, or something very near.  My peers entering college with me were mostly white, mostly middle class, pretty much top 10% of their high schools (in an age when the state had mostly pretty good high schools).  Now, the students entering that same school this fall are not mostly white, not mostly middle class (maybe), but they're pretty much top 10% of their high schools.

My current school has lots more first generation college students, lots more not quite middle class students, and we pull probably from the top 30 or 40% of high schools, with other schools in the state taking a large number of the top 10% students.

My students don't speak (or write) academic English with as much comfort as the students who did better in high school.  That doesn't mean they're stupid.  It means they don't speak or read that register as fluently.  The top 10% now probably mirror the top 10% of my peers in their abilities with academic English.

3)  Are students getting worse?

For the reasons discussed above, I don't think my experiences as a student give me a good sense of how other students were back in the stone ages.  But here's a little story anyway:

When I was a senior in an upper level majors class (with about 3 years worth of prereqs), we had to do a paper.  On the day the prof walked into the class with the stack of papers, he gave us a talking to about how horrible our writing was, how bad our grammar was, how dismal the stack was.  We all hung our heads.  Then he handed back the papers, and it turned out mine had an A- on it.  I felt a lot of relief.

A few years ago, I found that paper again.  It was shit.  Total shit.  Poorly written shit.  A senior turning that in to my senior upper level majors class would be lucky to walk away with a C.

I think what's changed is that I see students who come in less prepared for academic English than my peers were and certainly less prepared on average than I was.  But they aren't me. 

I never got to read any of my peers' papers in college, except for my roommate one year who was in composition, and whose papers I'd proofread for her.   I have a feeling a lot of those papers weren't pretty, and wouldn't make me any happier today than they made the TAs of that day.

4)  Frustration Bias.

I think when we're reading student work, we focus on problems, and we find them because we're looking.  How many of you read my piece here and got cranky about the fragments?  I use them sometimes, and here I was using them for emphasis.  They may not have worked perfectly, but I'm willing to bet most of you gave me a pass and didn't actually want to mark "frag" or whatever on your screen, because you figured I knew I was writing fragments and intended them as such.  Do you give your students the same pass?

I have students in pretty much every class whose writing style and verve I envy.  Some of them are just stunningly good writers.  But when I'm frustrated at 2am, I'm not thinking about their papers, because I read their papers in about two minutes way earlier in the evening.  I have other students who are "correct" but don't have any real style or life to their writing.   They frustrate me, too, because I can't figure out how to help them.  I don't feel like I've got tons of verve or style myself, so while I recognize it, I can't do or teach it.  But at 2am, I'm focusing in the things that frustrate me most, and that pretty much blinds me to the really good student writers whose papers I'm not frustrated by.

So there's my pep talk.  I should be working.  Welcome to the semester/quarter.


  1. At Bard this summer, we talked about the possibility of not writing "comma splice" or "frag" in the margins of students' papers but instead in the final comment asking, "What effect were you going for with the comma splices here?," treating students as though they were "real" writers making careful decisions about style. Now, for the most part I don't think my students are actually making careful decisions about style, but it might be interesting to treat them as though they were; would they rise to the occasion, such that this expectation would become a self-fulfilling prophecy? I don't know, although I think I'll give it a try this year and see what happens.

  2. This: I think when we're reading student work, we focus on problems, and we find them because we're looking. Joseph Williams' essay "The Phenomenology of Error" is a classic on how we read for error in student writing.

    Also, professors have been complaining about the declining quality of students/student writing since at least 1884. I think your note about different kinds of preparation and different demographics are right on.

    I also think what you call frustration bias plays a role, too: just as we ensure that we'll find error in student writing when we look for it, we're going to find deficiencies in students' overall levels of preparation when we look for it. If we don't also look for what strengths students bring with them, then we won't see those.

    Don't get me wrong: it's not as if I don't think students have much to learn in college. I work at a regional, comprehensive, minority-serving university with a high percentage of first-generation students. My students are not at like those I went to college with at a SLAC (BA) or R1 (PhD), but those differences play out in both positive and challenging ways. So in saying that we attend to students' strengths, it's not as if I turn a blind eye to what they need to learn; it's more that I use those strengths to put their weaknesses into perspective.

  3. We've still got two weeks before our term starts. I am semi-panicked as I try to push through lots of tasks including course preparation. Your post was helpful to keep the reality and not the perception in mind as I get ready for the term, thanks!