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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A little depressing

I just looked at the first few final versions of papers, and I am more than a bit discouraged. I feel like the tree falling in the forest: I can make all the sound I want, but no one seems to be around to hear, so the point is moot. I grant you, I haven't looked at anything by the best students--and I found out only yesterday that several students didn't get my comments on the first versions: they got the returned electronic file, but they didn't see any of the comments I'd made, which understandably put a crimp in their ability to revise. And at least one student didn't actually get any feedback from me, as he didn't submit the first version. That particular instance is actually painful, as I think he's potentially a terrific student, but he has absolutely no idea how to write the kind of paper I require, and since he didn't get any comments on the first one, he still doesn't. I had to stop, even though I'll pay for it tomorrow, because it was simply getting too depressing to continue.

My two reactions to stacks of dreadful papers seem to always be the same: I get frustrated and angry, or I despair. Neither of which is very helpful to the students nor very beneficial to me. A third reaction is called for, obviously, but it will have to develop organically, I think. I can't even figure out what would be more productive for all parties....

The poor students in Nature in Lit are flipping out, too: their second mini-papers were due today, and they're so lost they were thronged around me after class, begging for help. I'm happy to provide it, but we need time. I've already ditched a lot of the deeper level academic requirements for their papers because I realize simply asking them to have a thesis and an argument is a challenge they are not at all certain they can master. But all I can do is work with them--and keep adjusting the schedule for submitting papers, over and over and over and over until they get it or we run out of semester.

I tried something with the 102s which may backfire: I'm a bit concerned that I've taken a step into a kind of pedagogic territory that I disapprove of intensely. I have colleagues who will say flat out to the students that they don't belong in college and otherwise will tell the students in no uncertain terms that their treasured writing is so much shit. I didn't go that far, but I did write a list of words on the board and told them to look up those words and consider why I might be suggesting they know the meaning of them. The list comprises both nouns and adjectives:

truism
cliche
trite
banal
hackneyed
platitude
jejune

Well, faithful readers, I need not tell you the relationship between those words and the writing I see--but the students may well suspect I'm being mean. I don't want to be: I want to steer them away from that ground and into richer fields--but getting them out of the shallow swamps and into fertile ground requires a kind of thinking that they simply have never encountered before.

That came up in Nature in Lit today, in fact. At one point I said "I get the feeling that our working through this has you more confused rather than less," and Miss Enthusiastic said, "Well, you're making us look at it line by line." "Yeah..." (inflection implying "of course, so what's the problem?"). "You're making us think about what it really means." "Um, yeah..." (inflection implying "what did you expect?"). "You're making us look at it intellectually." "Well, yeah...." (inflection implying "exactly right--and that's my job"). They laughed, but it was decidedly uncomfortable laughter. Yes, my little chickens, you need to learn to actually think. With your brains. Intellectually. Specifically. With intelligence.

Oh. That.

I don't know if it's a measure of my levels of burn out or an accurate assessment of reality, but it definitely feels to me as if the students are less well prepared, less willing to work hard, more stunted, more recalcitrant, as the years go by. Yesterday, as I was parking the car and getting my various bags and coffee mug and so on ready to come into the office, I was doing the math: If I could get an early retirement, how many more years would I have to be here? Could I maybe get another sabbatical? Is there any way I could afford to work half time for half pay for a few years and get that masters in clinical psych, start working toward my next career as a therapist...? I also find myself each morning thinking "I need a day off"--and we just had a week, plus a handful of snow days. I know that my mental fatigue contributes to the despair over student papers. But all I can think right now is "and I have to go through this whole process twice more with them all. Fuuuuuuck."

But to reframe, to find that something positive to hold onto at the end of the day: the students in Nature in Lit are coming to me for help. They're not simply abandoning the class: they're looking for help, and they're clinging to what I have to offer. That is gratifying, and will be especially gratifying if I can actually get them to change and adjust and refocus and learn. I reckon all I can do is meet with them and see.

I find myself leaning toward negative thinking again--all the other problems and concerns I could wail about here--but since I'm missing tango class (again), I might as well get myself home and try for an early lights out tonight. Maybe a little more sleep will help tomorrow. Which is, yet again, another day. Remarkable how that keeps happening. Tomorrow always is another day. That in itself may be reason to celebrate.

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