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Student Readers: A Warning

I welcome students readers to this blog. However, be aware that, although I do not use anyone's actual name, the descriptions of behaviors and conversations are not disguised. This is a space in which I may rant, vent, and otherwise express responses that I would do my best to mask or at least tone down in professional interactions with students. This is my personal, gloves off, no holds barred, direct from the gut expression of what it feels like to do my job. If you think you might be hurt or offended or upset by that, read no further. The person I'm ranting about could be you.


Hi! And you are...?

My readership has suddenly blossomed, which is a lovely development--but I don't know who is reading the blog, how you found it, and why you find it interesting. I'd love to hear from you! Please feel free to use the "comment" box at the end of any particular post to let me know what brought you to this page--and what keeps you coming back for more (if you do).

Not you, Barry. You already told me--and thanks!






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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ah, hell

Didn't get the last four papers done for today's 102. The reason? Tracking down proof of plagiarism in two papers. In one case, at first I though the student just had not revised (which he hadn't: duh), and I was annoyed enough about that. But then when I was looking for the sources used by the other student, whose work was more obviously plagiarized, I ran across Student One's entire paper on ECheat.com (tag line: "It's not plagiarizing; it's collaborating"--which demonstrates a snarky, smirking attitude that infuriates me beyond what I can describe). I feel rather an idiot that I didn't pick up on Student One's plagiarism in the first version, but not having any examples of his writing--and since he's generally pretty good in class discussion--here weren't any warning flags. The most maddening part is, if he can write even as well as he can talk, he'd get at least a C. Instead? Zero--and I'm giving him a zero for both versions (retroactively for the first one). I didn't have time to find and personalize the letter about plagiarism that I've stolen (OK, plagiarized) from Paul (I have his permission to use it: I tell myself that makes it OK), so I just confronted the student about it after class and left it at that.

My only concern is that I didn't copy his paper for my records. At first, of course, he acted shocked (shocked, I tell you! How can this possibly be??) Then, when I said there was absolutely no way he could have taken what he did without knowing, he muttered something about "my mother." I said, "Your mother wrote your paper??" No, he said, she "helped" him. I didn't even get into the whole "then your mother plagiarized, and you plagiarized twice, by using her plagiarism" thing. I just told him that it was plagiarism, that I had attached the source I found, but even if he'd found it on some other site, the point was that he had simply copied and pasted the entire thing. He kept trying to get out of it: you mean even the works cited isn't mine? Even the page numbers in the source notes? Puh-leez. I said, "You got caught. You knew what you were doing." Finally, finally, he had the good grace to apologize. I said, "Thank you. That's a more mature response. But apologize to yourself, too. And next time have the courage to succeed or fail on your own merits."

Pretty ironic that we were going over the lesson on accidental plagiarism today (the kind where students just make sloppy mistakes)....

Student Two's paper did have red flags. Her first version was weak on all fronts, but in revision, suddenly she was introducing new ideas--that didn't relate to anything she'd said in her first version (or each other) but that were surprisingly insightful and well written. I went straight to Google. I found one sentence that she raided from elsewhere, but I know there's more and I want to find it. I spent a maddening amount of time trying to download/use free plagiarism detection software here at the office, to no avail--after taking the time to type her paper into a Word file so I could check it. I wish to hell plagiarism detection software was more easily accessible here on campus--and was more than Turnitin.com, which I find doesn't catch a lot of the most common sources from which students raid. In any event, I've e-mailed the paper to myself and will run it through Plagiarism Detector, which I have at home. I wasn't going to return her paper to her today anyway, as I want to catch as much as I can before I do--but I didn't have to explain (or prevaricate about) why I wasn't giving her paper back, as she wasn't in class.

The other three students who did not get papers back today didn't seem to much mind--and I'm hoping like hell their work is actually theirs. After the plagiarism debacle, I now won't be quite as annoyed if they haven't bothered to revise: small peanuts in comparison. But I don't have to think about them for a while. Whew.

Still, having begun to look at some of the plagiarized sources online, I'm now afraid I missed other plagiarists, as much of it looks frighteningly familiar. What this says is that it's time for me to assign new stories, stranger ones that are harder to cheat with. ("Sonny's Blues" and "The Red Convertible" I took from a relatively common textbook, so the "market" is ripe for comparison essays--but "Dance Me Outside" and "Ile Forest" are pretty unusual, thank god, so that pairing is damned near impossible for students to cheat on.) I'll be checking the papers on the Anne Sexton poem pretty carefully: I already know a number of the sources for cheating on that topic (and, again, I think it's about time to pick something more obscure--like the Native poems and critical essay that makes up the other poetry topic--to reduce the availability of plagiarizable sources).

Shit. I truly, utterly hate it when students resort to cheating.

In any event, I am taking home a small wodge of work that I will need to do before the end of break--but I'll do it at the end of the break. After some sleep (which I need so desperately I feel like I've been punched repeatedly in the face), I intend to spend the next days enjoying time with Ed. Not only is tomorrow another day, it's set to be a delightful one. Can't wait.

But sleep first. OK, food, then sleep. Turning off my brains now.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The wall is approaching--but so is the bottom of the pile of papers. I'm still in the office partly to crank through a few more (which I may, in fact, find impossible this evening) but also because a student wanted to come in to see me about her paper before she heads off on vacation. I see no sign of her (she was supposed to be here about half an hour ago), but I have been chipping away at papers in the meanwhile.

The painful part to me right at the moment is how to respond to the students who have made a genuine attempt at revision only to make essentially the same mistakes all over again. I thought I had marked the first versions low enough to give myself somewhere to go in those cases, but that does not necessarily turn out to be the case. In fact, sometimes when I see the grade on the first version, I wonder what kind of happy pills I must have been on. (Of course, it's also possible I'm just crabbier and grading harsher now.) But I want to give them some kind of reinforcement and encouragement for the work they at least tried to do, something that will keep them going.

But that's always the tightrope, as I've mentioned before: simultaneously giving them an honest appraisal of their work and giving them a reason to continue to slog on. I will say that--so far at least--only one student turned in an "unrevised, uncorrected, unacceptable" version, and only one engaged exclusively in editorial corrections rather than revising. The rest have made at least some kind of effort at actual revision. I hope that continues to hold as I grade the T/Th 102 section's papers....

But in terms of their willingness to work, one student e-mailed me earlier to say that he was unhappy with his revision grade and wanted to revise again and get it to me before the break. Although I appreciate his desire to work on, I said no. For one thing, of course, I'm not interested in reading and grading it again. For another, I got the distinct feeling that this particular student didn't take the revision terribly seriously or work on it terribly hard. Having gotten his grade, he now sees the importance of the assignment--but um, no. That particular ship has sailed. I did suggest that he take my comments and try to apply them to his next paper, so he could do a better job on the first version of that one; we'll see how he responds to that advice.

In a situation like this, the result of my refusal to allow another revision could easily go one of several ways: the student could take me at my word and try harder on the second paper; the student could essentially shrug and put no more effort into the second than he did the first--or he could give up completely, either in a huff or in despair. Some students have clearly given up before we ever encounter each other, and for them, I find it very easy to simply wave bye-bye as the ship sails off. However, some students genuinely want to do well, want to learn, are working hard--and those are the ones I want to rescue, even when salvage is clearly beyond anyone's abilities in a mere 16 weeks (or at all, in a few sad cases).

Ah well.

And apparently I just hit the wall. I just sat here, looking off into space, with my brain just making white noise for a few moments. Paul is conferencing with his students this week (and he's wonderful at it: I wish I could have him conference with my students, as I think he does a better job at getting them to an appropriate level of sophistication than I do), and at the moment, I find listening to him much more interesting than reading any more revisions. So, Scarlett speaks again. Tomorrow....

Monday, March 22, 2010

I got assignments marked for all but four of my students in Modern Poetry (going to dance class yesterday made the difference: those two hours would have done it and then some--but I just plain old wanted to dance, and I did, and it was great, and I don't regret it). I felt somewhat embarrassed about it, as I'd assured them I'd have the assignments marked and back to them, but they seemed a lot less concerned about it than I was. Bless them. I was so tired today I have no idea if I made any kind of sense talking about the poetry--which is too bad, as we were discussing two of my favorite poems (Robinson Jeffers's "Credo" and "Rock and Hawk"). Because I was tired, I didn't work as well as I might have normally to elicit the responses from them and instead rather handed them some interpretation, but even so, I think it was a decent class.

Today's 102 was, once again, pretty awful. They won't even talk in groups, for heaven's sake, never mind in whole class discussion. I got a little pissy with them today and told them that they should be asking the questions I was asking them, that remaining silent is no way to learn. Again, if I hadn't been so tired, I'd have been more fierce about making them do the heavy lifting. I hope that on Wednesday I have the energy to sit out their silence--and to send them away if they won't grapple with the material.

I'm only here in the office to officially fulfill my office hour, but I'm going to end things a bit early and head home. Getting up at 5 has back-fired: I did grind away this morning, but now I'm unable to do anything else productively. I'd nap and try to work some more, but I'm afraid I'd just have trouble sleeping again and be equally useless tomorrow. I will leave the alarm set for 5--I probably need all those hours plus several this evening, but I'll just hope that getting some sleep tonight will let me work more productively in the morning. I'll have a good long block of time--no club-hour meeting, hooray, and since I went to P&B last week (even though I said I wouldn't), I will let myself bail on that tomorrow if need be.

I suspect that part of what is going on is that I am deeply reluctant to look at the revisions. I have to, but I truly don't want to. However, I have told them all that I will mark exceedingly minimally, so that helps a little.

Nice student moment today. A student from the M/W 102 decided to withdraw, but he felt he needed to apologize to me for missing so much class and to explain why. He said he wouldn't want there to be any bad feelings between us, should he end up in one of my classes again. I could tell that he wanted to do well--always very attentive when he was in class--but he is one of the unfortunates who has to work, and whose job interferes with school, especially in a class as demanding as mine. But he was very sweet about requesting the withdrawal, and clearly concerned to demonstrate responsibility and maturity. Sad to lose him from class, but the whole encounter felt good.

And now I can leave: I'm only missing three minutes of my office hour. Whew.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Week in review

There were eight students in 101 yesterday, and I had to send three of them away because they hadn't done the reading. (Reading on which their midterm and next paper will be based--which they know.) I told the remaining five that they may be it by the end. There is one other young woman who may return: she's smart but her attendance and work have been sporadic. The six of us who were there actually had a pretty cool time: the contrasting arguments put forth by John Muir and Marsden Manson regarding the building of Hetch Hetchy turned into a conversation about whether practicality trumps beauty--or whether "practicality" is often in fact just doing what is cheapest and easiest.... If the class ends up that tiny, it will be more like a senior seminar--and the five (or six) remaining students will get pretty fabulous value for their time and money.

The 102 was fine: they didn't set the world on fire with their analysis of the poems, but they got it well enough. I won't know if they get how to use the critical material until I see their papers. Of course, like everything, some will get it, some won't.

Today, before my ride, I did manage to get through a few assignments for 265--all pretty lousy, but done. Tomorrow after placement reading I'll go to the office and see what more I can crank through. I'm having dinner with Kristin tomorrow evening (seems like we haven't seen each other in decades), and if I can, I'd like to try to grade a little more even on the train on the way in. (I know I'll be too pooped to do any more on the way home, but any little bit helps). Then I'll have to see where I am on Sunday, and whether I can afford the time to go to dance class. I will be miserable if I have to miss it--but I might have to miss it. We'll see.

In any event, once again, blog entries may be few and far between for a while. Once this huge push through piled up assignments is finished, it will be (desperately needed) spring break, and I know I won't do any work to speak of over that break--and probably won't blog much, if at all, in that time either. Just so you don't worry I've fallen down a hole somewhere if the posts become far less regular.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The good, the bad--no ugly

I find that my days are pretty evenly split--and, fortunately, tend to end on good notes. Monday and Wednesday: unresponsive 102 followed by 265, which is a blast. Tuesday and Thursday: rapidly unraveling 101 followed by a 102 that is at least lively--thanks in part to a couple of the men in the class, who will talk with vigor and at least sufficient intelligence about nearly anything.

So, despite the fact that I intended to walk from class directly to my car (with only a brief stop in the office to fling down the class folder I'd be carrying with me), I decided to blog a minute before heading home. Part of the reason to blog here and now is because, today at least, I do not want to have even a whiff of work in the apartment. (I am in desperate need of a recharge, which means being at home doing the Scarlett O'Hara/sea cucumber impression until an early bedtime tonight.) The other reason for writing here/now is because the day is fresh in my mind, and it was fun.

I grant you, in 265 there are a couple of students, still apparently hanging in there, who probably won't make it to the end. There are now three young women in the class who have been having problems getting work in and who are struggling to hold it together long enough and well enough to end the semester with something approaching the kind of grade they'd like (or even just to get to the end at all). But the upside is that two of the young men are very vocal and smart--and a number of the young women (including some of the ones in potential trouble) are somewhat less aggressive but responsive and crackerjack bright nonetheless. Sitting in the circle makes things relaxed and low-pressure. Today I talked to them about some of the wilder critical responses to the poems; I did very quick research, turned up a few analyses of some of the Williams and Stevens poems, and was both fascinated and amused by the variety of approaches and takes on the material (some of which I copied for them). Some of the analyses were way out there--and to my mind, pretty idiotic and unfounded in the actual words of the poem (but then, I do not profess to be a specialist). The students also were amused--and seemed to be relieved that I personally favor a less overwrought approach, particularly to the Williams poems. Great stuff going on in our discussions. One said, "I thought we were your favorite class." They are. They're delightful.

I also had another moment that drew on my compassion today: a student showed up for 102 after six absences. According to my attendance policy, that's withdraw or fail time. However, she did have a note testifying to the fact that she'd been hospitalized for a while. My policy is that the reason for the absence does not matter, only the fact of the absence--but she desperately wants to complete the course. So, as I did for the student in yesterday's 102, I'm giving her the same chance under the same conditions: if she completely, utterly toes the line from now until the last day of class, I'll give her the incomplete so she has a chance. Apparently she has finally gotten serious about her education--but is, at the moment, on the edge of academic dismissal because she's withdrawn from too many classes and screwed up too many times. And she's smart as hell. Her contributions to today's class discussion were among the best--and her presence (and intelligent, confident responses) enhanced the overall class dynamic so it was less flat and flabby than it's been.

I suppose if I had to sum up my overall philosophy about student chances, it is that I will give a lot of slack to a student who seems to have sufficient intelligence, drive, and skill to make it. I will be helpful to the ones who have drive, even lacking the intelligence and/or skill, though I won't devote quite as much time or energy to them. Intelligence without drive drives me batshit, and I come down extremely hard on those students. Skill without intelligence I have no patience for--unless the student is willing to work on the quality of his or her responses. If the student is content with pabulum, I tend to dismiss him or her pretty sharply. (Speaking of which, I ran across the snotty smirking student from last semester's 229 today, and she looked daggers at me. I had a brief flash of a desire to rip into her, just to try to get through, but then--within a nanosecond--dismissed her. I hope she gets the rude awakening she deserves, but it doesn't have to come from me.) All in all, my rules can be flexible--and my compassion is most evident for the students I consider worth the energy that compassion requires. I don't think students are aware of this, but when we give them extra chances and extensions on deadlines and guidance--everything we do to make things easier for them--it's harder for us. Doing so takes not only additional time but additional intellectual and emotional energy (and, in my case, additional organizational skills that are somewhat lacking under the best of circumstances). But I'll do it, and gladly, for a student who might benefit from the chance. Sometimes they still manage to hang themselves, which is a shame--and I'm a lot more willing than I used to be to allow the negative consequences to play out, even for the students I truly want to help--but when that extra chance can turn things around for a student, I am immensely gratified.

And now I'm immensely hungry and tired. Homeward bound.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stick a fork in me...

...I'm done. Not as in finished: the heaping K2 sized mountains of student stuff continue to grow. Done as in cooked, crispy, crunchy, burned to a cinder, toast. I was unable to make myself get up early enough this morning, realized on my way in that I had to put unmarked assignments aside yet again so I could photocopy all the forthcoming assignment handouts and know that I'm on top of that. I blew off yet another department meeting (and given what was discussed, rather wish I hadn't: a nice reframing of the "retention" issue, given the suggestion to call it instead "student persistence"). I was going to blow off P&B, too--had already sent word to Bruce and various other committee members that I wasn't going to attend--but I got the backlog of 101 review sheets marked prior to the meeting so decided to go. Glad I did--in part because I made it perhaps a little too vehemently clear that I cannot review 11 applications for adjunct positions prior to the break. Won't do them over the break, either. Got the others in the committee to agree that we'd have them ready by the second meeting after the break. Whew.

Meanwhile, 101 is falling to pieces. Only a little more than half of the few remaining students were there--and two of the students who were there are no longer among the remaining: both had already reached the point of no return. (Some of us have been discussing the fact that the early warning system is not early enough: by this time, a lot of students have already sunk themselves. But that was something else that came up at the departmental meeting: the effectiveness of a simple phone call to a student to point out that he/she is in trouble. More on that anon.)

Of the students who were there, a number did not have their papers. I had to emphasize that technical problems are not sufficient excuse for turning in a paper late. One student kept telling me her saga about her e-mail not working, her printer not working, her file on the flash drive not printing at the library, until I cut her off about the third time. She then said, "But I have it!" at which I said, "But I don't, and that's the key here." She couldn't argue with that. I have a sinking feeling I'm going to end up with about six students in that class--which makes the whole final project thing a bit problematic. Most of the problem isn't so much that the students are doing bad work: it's that they are not doing the work period--or doing it so late that I won't accept it.

And my Indian student (Mr. Incomprehensible) showed up in the last 30 seconds of the class with his paper and a million excuses for why he was missing required components. He then asked me to recap what I had gone over in class. Nope. I suggested he talk to some of his classmates on Thursday to see if they have notes they can share, but I'm not going to re-teach a class (especially, I hate to say, for him, because he hits all kinds of buttons in me and I'm terminally annoyed by him). Then he wanted to set up an appointment. For the hundredth time I told him that if he can't make my office hours, he needs to e-mail me to let me know when else he is available so I can figure something out. He tried to tell me his availability right then. Nope. E-mail me.

Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

But for the few who were there, I did a little work to set up the readings that are due on Thursday. (I'd intended to do an in-class thing about plagiarism, but I'm saving it until I have more of them there.) I've resurrected an assignment of opposing viewpoints about the fate of the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park, written prior to the construction of the dam. I remember from a million years ago, when I last taught the essays, that the students need a lot of background to get any kind of handle on the material. So I told them who John Muir is, the significance of Yosemite, of Hetch Hetchy, of the counter-argument, of the fact that this is part of a larger issue and that the debate continues today, 100 years later. They seemed to be taking it in and asking good questions.

The same was true for 102. This one flew much better than yesterday's (which was a disaster of epic proportions. I was teaching a classroom of flounder, apparently. Pun somewhat intentional.) Today, despite having brains with the approximate vigor of overcooked noodles, they managed to do some decent work on the first of the poems we're reading in this particular segment of the class. We'll see how things go from here, but they did good group work and we got a good discussion out of it. I did the same set up of what we're doing: now adding into the conversation between us and the literature the voice of other people who also analyze the work, what that other voice is for--plus an extremely broad introduction to the differences between poetry and prose. Yesterday's class didn't even get involved in my usual lesson on denotation versus connotation: I put the word "underpants" on the board and then ask them to call out other words that mean the same thing. Usually students love it: they can get silly and try to top each other's suggestions--and then we start talking about how the choice of words can tell us something ("The muscular, handsome young man stood at the window, wearing only his panties..."). Yesterday, pancakes would have more altitude. Today? Fun. Plus they got the point.

Anyway.

Shifting gears back to the idea of phoning students who are in trouble. I am on the fence about that. I do frequently call a student up at the end of class and gently point out the missing assignments, the absences--but I confess I often don't do it early enough (it's the insane optimist in me, that thinks the student will pull it together any minute now, a-n-y minute now....). I also wonder if there is some strange psychological difference in the student between the conversation, face to face, after class, and getting a phone call at home. I tend to resist hand-holding: part of me feels, dammit, they know the attendance policy, they know the assignments, surely they can keep track themselves, why should they need a warning from me? But part of me feels, no, here, in this kind of institution, they are still learning to keep track of things themselves. They need to be further socialized into what their responsibilities are, learn the skills for taking care of those responsibilities. Mmmmmmm, don't know. I'll have to mull that one over.

But speaking of which, one of the 102 students who did not turn in a paper and who missed her conference--and who had disappointed me on both scores, as I know she is smart and capable--turned up today. I took her out in the hall and in a friendly, concerned way asked her what happened. She told me she was under a lot of stress because she was working too many hours, and she started to cry. I am often suspicious of the waterworks, but she wasn't trying to make any excuses or ask for any favors. She said that she knew she'd already probably failed the class by missing the assignment but she was quitting her jobs so she could put her focus on school from here on, regardless. So I cut her a deal: if she keeps up with absolutely everything from here on, and does well with all of it, at the end of the semester I'll give her an incomplete so she can finish this missed assignment in June and get a reasonable grade. I emphasized that she would have to completely toe the line--any missteps and the deal is off--but she got that, and took the opportunity very seriously. We'll see if she keeps to it: I've had mixed results with this sort of thing, but if anyone can do it, I think she can. She's a lovely young woman in every way, and I choose to trust her unless she shows me I can't.

Sigh. My eyes have been burning since yesterday, as I'm still in some kind of sleep deprivation mode, and I'm unbearably cranky and pissy about just about everything as a consequence, and I know I need to get an early start tomorrow and grind grind grind--but, again, I'm still going to dance class tonight. (I tell myself I can head home early tomorrow and nap profoundly. I hope I can. I keep telling myself I can sleep later--and then I don't. Problem.) This dance obsession is getting dangerous: I found out that my favorite instructor teaches yet another class after the double on Sunday afternoons--and the later class is held about five minutes from my house. I could conceivably dance four or more hours on Sundays--but that's usually also prime paper grading time, so, youch, tough choice. I'm going to have to balance this very carefully: feed my spirit but also not dig myself into a work trench that keeps me miserable. A challenge.

But now I'm going to change into my high heels and a different skirt (shorter, flirtier, more fun to dance in) and head off. Today also was a gorgeous day, with more like it to follow as the week goes along. Lovely.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thank you, Russel Stover

The key to the last, exhausted push of paper grading? Chocolate. This past week has been hell on my Weight Watchers program, as I've eaten comfort food (i.e. fatty starchy sugary) by the truckload, but the chocolate was the key. I didn't get all 10 papers done before 10 a.m., but I got enough graded Wednesday evening that I was that crucial tiny step ahead of the conferences. And I got through the papers Wednesday by following this sequence: grade a paper, eat a few chocolates, grade a paper, eat a few chocolates....

I was going to try to grade a few papers for 265 today (without the chocolates), just to get a jump start, but I also needed to let myself sleep in, so no jump start, as I now won't have time before I have to leave the house. But I do feel much more relaxed heading into the coming week. The papers for 265 and the backlog of other detritus from the comp classes simply is not as onerous as those first papers.

I'm back to thinking that--despite the lack of visible improvement in the theses I got in papers--the draft thesis assignment is a good idea. But it needs to be reconfigured. I need to put more emphasis on the information and idea gathering aspects of it. I'll be mulling that over for next semester: I don't think I'll do it for next papers, as one of the things I said in conferences, over and over, was that this first version of their papers was what I meant about having to write one's way into a thesis. I'll try to re-emphasize that point for their next assignments....

The both happy and sad news is that, of course, I will have fewer papers to grade in the next round. Between the students who officially withdrew (two), those who have now exceeded absences (haven't counted, but I'd guess close to ten across the three sections of comp), and those who did not submit papers and missed conferences (therefore, I assume, gone), the first big wave of attrition has happened.

On the other hand, a student showed up yesterday whom I have not seen since before the February break. He's been sick: he hasn't been to a doctor, but from the symptoms he described and his obvious pallid and exhausted condition when he met with me, I'm guessing he has mono. He came to tell me he wants to return to class and get caught up. Against my better judgment, I'm giving him the chance, largely since (before he disappeared), he was one of the better students in terms of reading, responding, and intelligent reading journals. I'm allowing him to submit the paper that just passed, just so he has something other than a zero for it. We'll see if he pulls it together.

But I'm not very pulled together. Despite the late morning in bed, I'm still utterly pooped and not entirely functional. I am going to ride today (I very nearly canceled but felt too sad at the thought--and sometimes I ride better when I'm in this state, as I tend to overthink; when I can't think, my body can take over and do what it knows to do). Then I expect to collapse relatively early this evening. It sure is nice to feel I can stop pushing so hard for a while. Whew!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Deep breath...

I have 10 more papers to grade. Theoretically all by 10 a.m. tomorrow. The last three days I have been in the office at about 8 a.m. and here until at least 7 p.m. Last night I did go to dance (as long as I know Wingo is teaching, I refuse to miss those classes), but tonight, it looks like I'll grab dinner, and then I hope I can make myself grade something, anything. This last batch of 10 won't be very good: all the students are on the shaky side, including several who have appointments but did not submit papers. I got notice today that one of the latter went to the Writing Center yesterday for help. Pick your cliche: a day late and a dollar short, closing the barn door after the horse has cantered off into the distance--in any event, a pretty useless gesture, as her paper won't be accepted, period, because it's too late. This, by the way, is Miss "I read people like books," who has yet to come through on just about anything in terms of class work. Of course, she's the last student I'll see tomorrow, so I get to deal with giving her the bad news just before I go off to do placement readings....

Perhaps partly because I'm tired and running out of patience, I found myself struggling today not to simply shove the most basic and simple thesis structures on students who had a slightly more novel approach. The novel approach often backfires, as either the student doesn't really have a clear enough idea what he/she is trying to prove or because the idea cannot be proved, period--but often I can't tell whether that's the case from the way the student presents the idea in conference. I want to allow them the latitude to step outside the simplistic approach, but I also want them to have a focus that will work. Two of the students I saw today worry me: if they can follow through on what they were talking about and clarify it as they go, they'll have something. If not.... And one of the most problematic students was late for her conference, had not looked at my comments prior to the conference, and only after I pressured her to, glanced at what I said, going "Yeah, yeah, I get it." Of course I don't believe for a moment that she does, but I reckon she'll have to find that out when she gets her revision back.

Today's 265 was interesting. I'm not sure we did a great job on the poetry (a few by e. e. cummings), but it was a relaxed and fun class anyway: we got off on some tangents (though I was able to bring the attention back to the poems); the students got a little insight into me personally (which they always like); and after, as usual, I ended up chatting with a couple of students about various bits. One student was concerned about missing work, so we figured out what she can do and where she should put her focus. At some point I'll talk more about the one poor student in that class who is confused as hell--and very vocal about it. The other students are pretty sweet about him, but he also seems to drive them just a little bats (me too). Today he left after telling us way too much about his health problems; class worked better without him, I have to say, but I'm not ready to toss him. I am afraid he won't make it, however, even though he's another of those "I have to make it in this course because I need to graduate this semester" students. So often those are the ones who don't make it. Sad but true.

In any event, I'm very hungry, and very tired, and have miles to go before I sleep (I didn't teach that one by the way), so enough for the nonce.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oh, gawd

I don't know how I'm going to do this. I'm tired enough that it's hard to see, literally/physically, and frustrated enough that it's hard to see metaphorically. I have encountered the same problems over and over and over and over, and I cannot bear it any more. I'm also deeply disappointed that one of the students whose paper I was counting on to be good has apparently not come through: I just glanced at his opening paragraph, and it's personal anecdote, nothing about the literature at all. I've been wading through vague thesis after platitude after hackneyed phrase after mindless bilge, and I just don't know how to face any more. And yet I have eight more papers that need to be done for tomorrow morning, another by 1:00 tomorrow (a late submission), and another five that need to be done for Wednesday morning. Plus there may be one more late submission from a student whose conference is also tomorrow. And there are only so many hours between now and then. Even if I call some students and let them know their papers won't be ready until later, I still have to deal with the papers I've promised for Wednesday morning: the domino effect may make that plan a less than viable solution.

Of course, a good amount of the time I'm spending is because the papers are so dreadful. Or dreadfully mediocre. Trite, banal, hackneyed, lacking in anything approaching actual thought, certainly of the sustained variety. They even stick to a platitudinous thesis when it is flatly contradicted by the evidence they present, apparently utterly unaware of the problem.

I want to scream and cry and throw things--preferably at the students. I want to give up, go home and go to bed--and let the students try to revise without any written feedback at all. Paul even gave me a dose of chocolate to help: it was utterly delicious chocolate, but it didn't carry me through the next paper.

Sufficient whining. The point is that I need to strategize: what can I do that will make it possible for me to get through at least a few more papers tonight? Blogging is helping; I've blown off some steam--and taken a break, so for at least a few minutes I've not been wallowing in their turgid little minds (as Paul is wont to say). I'm now going to sit at my desk until I figure out what I need in order to keep going. I won't mark another paper or leave this room until I have a strategy. I will breathe deeply and evenly and let my eyes rest. And when I have sufficiently fortified myself in whatever way I determine necessary, I will launch myself again into the fray, bloodied but unbowed.

It will all be worth it, however, if their revisions show even a modicum of improvement. Shall I hold my breath?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I was soooo excited about the draft thesis assignment and how I could point out to students that they didn't have one before they wrote their papers. They read my feedback; many of them came up to me to run a thesis by me again--and yet virtually every paper I've read today, what's been the problem? No thesis, or at least not one that's strong and specific enough to hold up. Maybe I've been reading papers from the students who didn't turn in the draft thesis assignment--or maybe the assignment wasn't as good a fix as I'd hoped. I know that even when something is pointed out, it takes a while before the student can let go of old habits and put the new understanding into practice. But I am so discouraged that I hardly want to have conferences next week, as I know I'll be saying the same fucking thing over and over, just like always, and doing the same work to try to point students to the evidence/focus they need, just like always.

I even reworked the assignment for 102 to specify that they needed to pair the short stories in the way that I intended when I chose them (two about the relationship between troubled brothers, two about murderers who can be forgiven for their crimes). I all but gave them the thesis and the focus--and they still are screwing it up.

I also thought I had very cleverly worked things out so I wouldn't have to grind myself to a nubbin to get papers graded: I have rolling pick-up times, so I don't have to have the last of the papers done until Thursday morning. However, what I didn't anticipate is that the vast majority of the students signed up for appointments on Tuesday--so I've promised that 22 papers will be on my office door by 10 Tuesday morning. Twenty-two! And as obsessively as I mark and comment on first versions, that's a hell of a lot. I got a few of them done today, but since it's now after 8 p.m. Sunday night, and I have conferences or class straight through (with a little break to eat lunch) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow, I don't know when I'm going to find the hours to get them done.

I don't even have all of those papers yet: the students who submitted late via e-mail have to print out their papers and bring them to me, as I won't use my ink and paper on their essays. (Their e-mail submission simply stopped the "late" clock.) And of course, once again, my body got in my way yesterday: I didn't feel well, so couldn't crank through papers the way I'd intended. (That "road to hell" analogy again.) Today I've been pretty dilligent, but I had to do some life maintenance, which took more time than I anticipated. And the phone keeps ringing. I should just ignore it, I know, but I find that very difficult most of the time. I am not not not in a chatty mood, so I expect my friends and family who have called got the distinct impression that I was not fully engaged in the conversation. And they were right. All I could think was "I have to get back to papers."

Right now, I'm not sure what I'll do with the rest of tonight. I'm ravenous at the moment, so I need to eat something for dinner. And even if I do some more grading, I need a brain break (to regain some patience and compassion, so I don't just write "No" on the papers. (I don't even want to take the time to say, "This sucks": too many letters.) If I can make myself grade even a few more, it will make my life tomorrow much easier. But I'm not sure I can. I do know I have a couple in the pile that are likely to be good--at least better than the rest--but I'm saving those for a while, interspersing them among the poor to middling majority.

Ah well. If it comes to it, I'll have to tell some of the students that their papers won't be ready until later. The killer, of course, is that most of those 22 students will not pick their papers up anywhere near that soon--but I don't know who will and who won't. **heavy sigh**

I'm being truly ferocious with grades--mostly because I remember that in the past I've wanted to give the student a bump up to reward an attempt at revision but found I couldn't in good conscience as the mark on the first paper was as high as I could reasonably go on the second. (If that makes sense.) This time I'm giving myself room to go up. I'm also taking penalties. Last semester, on first papers I told them what the penalty would be but then said I figured an F was traumatic enough. This time, gloves are off. That means I've given a 13, a 22, a couple in the 30s and 40s (that's out of a possible 100). The only thing I'm giving them a break on is the length penalty. I've taken the idea from Kristin: if I ask for a 4-5 page paper and I get 3 pages, that's 25% less than the minimum to meet the requirements of the assignment. That's 25 points off, right off the bat. Half a page is 12 points. A quarter is 6. But I'm not taking the quarter page penalty at all, and I'm halving the other two: from 25 to 12; from 12 to 6. Or, in once case, from 35 to 17. Still, that's a huge ouch. But dammit, four pages should not be hard! If it is hard, then the student has some serious work to do to be at the appropriate skill level.

See, it's all beer and skittles until the papers come in: then gloom and doom descend; the students freak out and get completely discouraged and dispirited--and so do I. I wish I knew a way to let them know, firmly and clearly, just how far below expectations they are without making them feel they're hopeless. They aren't hopeless, but it is going to be incredibly hard work for them to get where they need to be. And I wonder if many of them know how to work hard--particularly on the right things (because, as I tell them, working harder at the wrong things won't help, so doing more of what they've already done isn't the solution).

I feel like I'm talking in circles. This is why I need a dinner break, at least, if not a break for the night.

And I haven't even mentioned the students who simply did not submit a paper at all. Some of them surprised me: I was sure they'd be there with the paper, right on time. And I'm absolutely certain that a number of them will show up with their papers tomorrow (or left their papers for me on Friday) and will be shocked to be reminded (REMINDED, mind you, not told for the first time) what my late paper policy is.

Man, this part is always hard. I don't have a good solution for any of it yet. Except ... break for dinner.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Paper grading begins

OK, I officially am pissed off with students. I canceled 265 this afternoon so I could go home, nap, and then come back to get working on papers for 101 and 102 (about which more later). (And I came back because it's easier to work in the office--plus Paul and I had a date for dinner that I didn't want to miss.) So I left the 265 students a note saying that they should leave their papers in my departmental mailbox. I left specific directions about where the mailbox is (including that it's below my name). I came in, and there was ONE paper in my mailbox. There were five in the box above my name. There were a bunch more in the box on my office door.

Now I ask you, what is so difficult about the instruction? Of course, I know the actual answer, which is they didn't fucking READ it. (One student did. I need to give him a gold star or something.) I came in an immediately ranted to Paul about it--and he said that of course I should go in on Monday and say that I only got one paper and have no idea where the others are. When students panic and tell me where they left their papers, I'll say that those in the box above mine were probably swept up by my colleague, are now in a huge stack of things and won't be uncovered until May--and that the cleaning staff routinely clear papers off the office doors overnight as they're considered a fire hazard, so those got thrown away. And of course, by the time I see them on Monday, it will be long after the 72-hour grace period for submitting papers late, so any papers I don't have will not be accepted and will get zero credit. I should give the students fucking heart failure--and then tell them that I was actually kind and generous enough to hunt down their papers. It's typical of their haphazard and irresponsible approach to, well, just about everything, and I'm not amused.

OK, I'm a little amused, mostly because I'm thinking about how I can wind them up.

More on the "I'm pissed off with students" front, yesterday's 101 was a manifest disaster. I arrived and there were six students in the room, two of whom did not have papers to review with their peers. They told me they didn't know the due date had changed because they missed classes last week. I reminded them that the due date had been postponed: if they didn't know about the new date, they should have had their papers ready last Thursday. I also reminded them that it's their responsibility to find out if anything changed when they miss classes. One of them hasn't turned in a thing all semester and has missed something like five classes. Clearly he's a wash out. The other I may be able to salvage, but it's dicey. Then as the class period continued, six more students showed up--one without a paper at all, one with a hand-written and incomplete draft, all of them anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes late (out of a 75 minute class period). So the peer review process was a mess. And my Indian student (who speaks too fast, too quietly, and with such a heavy accent that I cannot understand him 90 percent of the time--and who is always so busy trying to justify himself that he doesn't hear what I am telling him) had a paper but didn't want to turn it in until after he goes to the Writing Center. I reminded him of the late penalty, but he kept saying he needed to get a good grade on the paper. OK, but he won't get a good grade on the paper because now it will be late....

In any event, it seems I now have to not only specify that it's an absence if they show up without a paper, I also have to specify that they must be there with a paper within the first five minutes of the class period. That way, once I go over the various handouts and the instructions, I will know exactly how to match students up and they can just work without constant interruptions.

From that debacle, I went into my 102, and I told them how frustrated I was about what I'd just been through--and said, "Don't you guys do that to me. Be here, with your papers, right at the beginning of class, OK?" We'll see. Today's 102 was fine: two students were there without papers; four students were not there at all; the rest were ready to roll and did a great job of working with each other. I feel pretty good about how I put the pairs together, too. It will be interesting to see what feedback they gave each other.

Having come back here to get through some papers, despite a fair amount of preliminary noodling, I did in fact get a few marked. I'd be more panic stricken about having them ready for pick-up according to the conference schedule, except that a bunch of the students who would be picking up tomorrow didn't turn in papers at all, so I caught a break--and that's why I feel I can take the time to blog tonight instead of putting my head down and cranking away. Scarlett speaks again, that whole thing about tomorrow....

And despite the nap, I'm still seriously tired. It was a championship nap, too. So, dinner with Paul, home and abbreviated wind-down, and up and at it again in the a.m. As for tomorrow and the weekend, I know what I "should" do. Whether I will? Moot point.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Starting the week off

Pretty good day today in Modern Poetry. We sat in a circle (15 students plus me) and talked about Prufrock. Everyone contributed--even the previously silent students. Hooray! Something about being in a circle and seeing each other's faces (and my set-up that I was going to be sure to get something from everyone, but then I didn't go around the circle, I just opened it up, asking anyone to start us off--and then everyone jumped in). I'm not sure we got to any deeply intelligent read of the poem, but the students were picking up on some important points and paying nice attention to specific details. I am content with that.

I returned their mini-papers to them at the end of class: I didn't want them to see the papers at the beginning because I knew then that they would spend the class period miserable about the grades instead of paying attention to the poem. Not all of them would have been miserable, of course: some of them did pretty well--certainly in my universe, in which an A is a signal honor and mighty hard to achieve. And I reminded them they can revise. I know they won't often get that chance when they move to 4-year schools, but they're still learning, especially still learning what I want in particular (every professor wants something different, and that can be a tough learning curve). Since I'm ferociously demanding, I figure it's only fair to give them more than one whack at it.

A couple of students hung around after class to talk to me about ideas for papers, or missing assignments, or what went wrong on the mini-papers. The last of them--the young woman who wanted to get a jump-start on the semester before the semester even started--walked back to Bradley with me so we could talk about how she can avoid misreads. (She got hung up on the "cheap hotels" bit at the beginning of Prufrock and so saw everything in terms of prostitution or a sexual mistress... oops.) She is a terrific student so far: the mistakes she makes are for good reasons, and she works to correct them so she won't make them again. I'm very happy to have her in the class. By contrast, another student who was certain she could get caught up seems to have vanished: she turned in a wad of work all at once and I haven't seen her since. Not to mention the student in 102 who simply refused to try to make sense of "Ile Forest" in her reading journal. (I ranted about that to Paul earlier; I won't get into it now, but I slapped her down hard in my comments. I do hope she understands how absolutely verboten her response was.)

Speaking of vanishing students: against my better judgment, I allowed a young man into my M/W 102 very very late--mostly because he is the friend of a student I had several semesters ago, and I liked her very much (she wasn't a great brain but a very earnest student). This young man seems to be quite intelligent, but he registered late, missed a class, came, and then vanished again. He turned up again today, but he has already missed five classes--at least. (I never got a card from him, so I haven't been able to track his attendance.) He wanted to give me a doctor's note, but I told him that the reason for the absences doesn't matter, only the fact of them. (Side note: my nephew's girlfriend was on Facebook the other day, complaining about mandatory attendance. She had a good argument, and if I were at a school like the University of Montana, I'm not sure I'd be so draconian in my policies. Every now and then I even wonder if it's worth the policy here, or if I should just let 'em sink or swim. On the other hand, I know that a lot of the learning process actually happens in class, so.... hmmm. Dilemma for another day.) In any event, again against my better judgment, I have told the student he can stay in the class, but I also told him he was responsible for figuring out what handouts he needs, what he's missed, and what he needs to do to get caught up. And that if he is absent again, he'll have only two options: withdraw or fail. I'm not interested in taking up the slack for him--or anyone else at this point. We're too far along in the semester.

It was another lecture-laden day in 102, which I felt bad about: I know it's very hard for them to handle the "chalk and talk" stuff, and it's not the best learning experience. However, I had to lay some groundwork for them: quick reminder about quotation versus paraphrase, discussion of the need to integrate quotations and paraphrase (what Paul and I call ICE: introduce, cite, explicate), the need for in-text citations plus a works cited page... and how to avoid the bozo errors. I did my little fourth-grade lesson on plurals and possessives, which students are often stunned by: why didn't anyone teach them this before, they wonder? (I wonder, too.) I also told them about a mysterious thing I've noticed about plurals: no one, ever, confuses "man" and "men," but students routinely confuse "woman" and "women," using the wrong one. Why?? Why can they do it right with man/men but not woman/women? I find that very strange. I might bring it up with Bruce, our resident linguist, to see if he has a theory.

But back to 102, I am exceeding glad I did the draft thesis thing--and I told the students so--because it helped me to catch them in the usual thesis errors before the papers were finalized. The few students who have started on their papers can now go back and work for a tighter focus. The rest can try to do it right period. I'm hoping madly that I'll see a difference in their papers themselves. But even the students who had not turned in the assignment came up after class to run a thesis past me--and they had the same problems, which I helped them to see (I hope).

I still have to finish marking the draft theses for the T/Th 102, but I'll do that tomorrow (and with luck will have brain and time left to churn through review sheets for the Wednesday classes before those meet). I have an 8:45 a.m. meeting (not going to be pretty), but then I don't have a club-hour meeting (hooray!) so theoretically I'll have from 10 to 1 to crank away. That chunk of time is especially important because I won't be doing anything Wednesday morning: I have a 9:30 meeting that day, so I'll go straight from meeting to 102. I might also be able to grind through some work during 101 tomorrow, as the students will be doing peer review of their papers. They'll probably have questions for me, so I can't count on doing much, but anything will help. And then I'll have a little time after 102 and before dance (and I'm not missing dance tomorrow, dagnabbit). Assuming I have any brains left at that point. Much will depend on tonight's sleep, so I need to start my wind-down as of ... (ready, set) ... now.