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Monday, June 1, 2015

You know, it's the little things...

I've spent today working on my reconfigurations of ENG101, the first-semester freshman comp class, and as I was trying to keep straight in my own mind what information students would need at each stage, I kept getting confused and forgetting what I've done where and how I wanted it all to work--and how to get it all to work the way I want it to.

I started to feel, "OK, I've got all the individual parts sorted out"--but when I went back to look at the calendar, I realized I'd forgotten one little detail: that I need time to evaluate the students' submissions and return them. I can't ask them for a response to my comments if they don't have my comments yet. (Duh.)

What this means is that I need to have all the assignment bits printed out next to me, my 17-week calendar grid next to that, and a very large eraser, so I can juggle things around.

Some bits I think I can have the students do in class. That's another thing I tend to forget: If they're submitting completed work on a specific day, that's great--but how are we going to spend the class time? One day for peer review, yes, but then ... well, it all sort of falls apart in my head.

As I'm writing this, I'm also thinking it through: maybe the in-class work on X date can be that they get their papers back with my comments and they write their responses and revision plans right there in class...?

The most maddening bit is to have felt like I had it nailed and then realizing that I didn't, that I need to very carefully and methodically work through step by step.

It almost makes me wish I'd decided to work on the Betrayal and Fidelity chapter instead--except that Wednesday and Thursday of this week, I'll be on campus, trying once again to understand Blackboard, the online course platform, and I want to have real material that I can use when we play around with it. The last time, we did just "make believe" sort of exercises, and that approach doesn't work for me: I'm not very good at the abstract; I need concrete. I want to put my syllabus and assignments up online: how do I do that? I want students to access Turnitin through the online platform: how do I do that? I want to have a discussion board online: how do I do that? As I've mentioned before, I really don't give a rat's ass about most of the stuff that the IT folks want to show us: they get all excited about various bells and whistles that I think will be of zero value to my students, or my courses. They're used to dealing with the kinds of classes in which there is a body of information to be mastered--specific facts to learn--which is decidedly not what composition classes are about: there's quite a significant difference between learning even a complex set of interconnected facts (as well as the interconnections) and learning a process that underlies a skill. I can't even quite express what teaching writing really is: yes, it's a skill that needs to be mastered, but it's not like learning to knit or something; it's a great deal more complicated than that and less mechanical.

No wonder a lot of our colleagues don't "get" what we do: how the hell can one explain it? I probably told this story before, but it's in my mind again: I met with a friend last week at a largish gathering of people I didn't know, one of whom asked me why I needed to provide guidance for students to read The Left Hand of Darkness. Because, I said, they can't read. "What do you mean, they can't read?" "They can understand individual words on a page, but they can't put them together in their minds to form anything that makes sense." She was utterly, completely incredulous--though my friend, who's taught freshman comp in the past, backed me up--and she asked how that could possibly be. As my friend said, "Well, there's a long answer to that...."

Students are not adequately taught to incorporate written language into their own minds. They are even less adequately taught to use written language for clear expression of what is in their own minds--or anyone else's. And that's the world in which I work, trying--very belatedly--to give students the ability to do both. And yes, it's shocking and frightening that that is what I need to do, that I have to approach language with them on such a fundamental level. But that's where our educational "system" has brought us. There are, of course, the wonderful students who belie everything I just said: they can read and write with intelligence and creativity and deep engagement--but they are in a minority.

Ach, if I go on like this, I'll get too discouraged to go on. So, let me reframe: what I'm doing is working on breaking down the writing process so it feels more manageable to them. What I'm struggling with is finding a way to make each step clear and just challenging enough that they'll learn without being so challenging that they'll give up in despair. And much as there is some sense of despair behind my cheerful reframe here, I have to admit that the attempt, taking on the challenge, is the kind of brain work I love.

Now, however, what I will love is packing up my stuff--I'm at the library--checking out the books I've pulled off the shelves, and walking home through chilly, almost March-like weather. Tomorrow, seminar hours committee meeting (o joy!)--and maybe I can get some work done around that. Time will tell (as opposed to "we'll see"). One thing's for sure, it will, in fact, be another day.

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