Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Morning After

No, not the morning after a wild, dissolute night out on the town.

Nor the morning after an orgy. (Though yay for Plan B being legal and otc and stuff!)

Alas. But, dream on. I'll be here when you get back.

I'm talking about the morning after returning my writing class final research essays.

I've had several appointments with students who want to talk about their papers. You can guess that they don't want to thank me for my incredible generosity, for all the wonderful help I gave them, and for my insightful comments. Nope, they really want to talk about their grades.

Grading is painful for most of us. No one wants to turn in work and get it back with an F or even a C minus. I've had students cry over a B+ (but not today). No one wants to read a really horrible paper, either. It's demoralizing to try to communicate well about choosing and using sources, setting up arguments, contextualizing evidence and then read a paper that cites Wikipedia or Google to justify a controversial point. (I know; I use Wikipedia here to set up links for definitions on occasion. Pot meet kettle. But, if anyone thinks what I write here is a peer reviewed academic piece that actually counts for anything professionally, please step forward and write the Dean a letter saying so!)

So morning after meetings and conferences are vitally important and difficult. (But, in the grand scheme of difficulty, probably a 2 on a scale of 1-100. Let's be real here; my students, so far as I know, aren't packing guns to shoot me with if I say something slightly wrong.)

I know the student's coming because s/he is unhappy about the grade. But I don't know the source of unhappiness, or how to resolve it in a useful way until we start talking.

Sometimes students really do want to understand how they could organize the paper better, or want reassurance that they're not stupid for getting an F or that I don't dislike them. Under stress, students (and the rest of us) do sub-par work; it doesn't mean they/we are bad or stupid. But at the same time, it doesn't mean we get do-overs or endless revision opportunities.

Sometimes they need to just let go and the paper for my class is the straw that breaks the metaphor into tiny little atomic pieces of big bang unhappiness. I actually feel that I can be useful to students at that point, that I can help them refocus on their remaining work.

Sometimes students want me to explain "how many points [they] lost" for doing (or not doing) something. I don't give points on essays, I explain. Each essay starts as an F. Hand in a blank piece of paper, and it gets an F. Papers work up from there.

Sometimes students want to argue that a specific sentence isn't "confusing" or whatever, so I have to explain what I think is the source of my confusion. Often it's some sort of definition. I had one of those today; the student used a term from some sort of social studies field, and I found it confusing. So, right there in the meeting, I asked her what it meant. She didn't quite know how to define it, and quickly recognized the source of my confusion. [There should be a rule of writing: if you can't define a word or term, don't use it; if you need to define it for your reader, take the time to define it. That simple rule would prevent galaxies of readerly misery (at all levels! Kristeva, I'm looking at you!).]

If I do my job well, the student leaves feeling that they've gained something, even though they usually haven't gained a change of grade (unless I couldn't add correctly on an exam). I hope they feel that my grading is fair and just, and that they know how to do something better the next time they write an essay. I also hope they leave feeling some little human connection, that I care about them and wish them well (because I do).

ps. It's also the morning after a nearly sleepless night. Why do I stress so much about little things that usually go pretty darned well?

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