Thursday, February 27, 2014

Avoiding Despair

I'm teaching an intro to the major course this semester, and one of the small assignments I've given involves asking individual students to each do some minimal research and write a short (like a page) paper explaining a particular period or literary/intellectual movement.  And then they do a short presentation in class, so that everyone gets the idea.

I made up a timeline that we're filling in, and gave each student a copy to fill in as we go.

The idea is to give them the beginnings of a framework about literary movements and such.  So, for example, they should know that the Romantics didn't just pop up out of nowhere, but responded to industrialization, the Englightenment, and so forth.  If they have a basic, rough, narrative, they can learn more start to understand more subtle ways of seeing things in other classes.

So, they handed the printed versions in, and I started grading them on Tuesday, thinking I could get through the pile in a day, since they're fairly short.

I got through about a third of the pile before I was driven to despair.  Some were confused a bit, but mostly my despair was driven by the almost complete lack of acknowledgment or connection between what they'd gotten from their sources and what they'd written.  So, for example, there'd be a paragraph about Romanticism (I don't think I actually read the Romanticism one, so I'm making this up), with now acknowledgment of sources, and then at the end, a numbered list of sources.  Or maybe a "Works Cited" section with two URLs.

I couldn't even bear to read further.  That doesn't often happen to me with grading, but this just really bothered me.  I think of the third of the pieces I read, one earned a passing grade.  (Because I can't in good conscience pass a written piece of college work that uses sources without acknowledging those sources.)

This wasn't plagiarism in the sense of stealing ideas, but, I think, plain confusion about how to acknowledge sources for this sort of assignment, or laziness, or something.  That didn't make it acceptable, though.

I spent a lot of time Tuesday afternoon pondering, and being frustrated, and by Tuesday evening, I came up with an idea.

On Wednesday, I started our two hour class session by asking them to freewrite about why we cite sources, about what the point is.  And then I had them take their freewriting to groups, and they made a list, which we compiled onto the board at the front of the class.

So, I did my best to make sure that they had good reasons why we might want to cite sources, and that they knew they knew the reasons (at least collectively).

Then I talked about my despair at reading their papers.  And then I asked them to help me avoid further despair by revising their work and turning it in again, with full and appropriate citation, which I would then grade for real.  And I wouldn't look at what had been turned in, or count it, unless they felt they'd already done so well on the assignment that they didn't need to revise, in which case they could let me know.

We spent the next chunk of time working out how to resolve specific citation questions or problems using OWL at Purdue and examples.

They agreed.  Next Monday I'll get the results, and I sure as heck hope they're much better.


  1. Anonymous9:20 AM

    I really admire how you handled that. I would have raged and failed everyone. I hope they learned something from your way. Right on!

  2. This has been happening a lot in my classes the past two years. I sometimes fail everyone who didn't actually use citations, put a detailed example on the board, review it in class, and then tell them they have a week to fix it, and I will regrade.

    But this semester, I tried to do the detailed example on board thing *before* they started writing, because I knew it was likely to be a problem for at least a third of the class. I have a stack of those first papers sitting next to me, but I haven't had the heart to find out if that actually worked or not.

  3. Anonymous5:08 PM

    I've tried that. It doesn't work. It's like they think rules don't apply to them.