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Monday, April 18, 2016

Well, I needed a Plan B...

Despite all my firm intentions to grind through student assignments all weekend if need be, I kept hitting the wall, so I headed for bed last night with a reasonably large stack still to do and the knowledge that I wouldn't have time today to get everything marked. I didn't have a Plan B, but I figured something would come to me.

It did--but not by conscious decision. My body decided to manufacture a cast-iron reason for me to stay home today and woke me at 4 a.m. with a monster headache. I kept hoping to sleep it off, but at 6:30, fifteen minutes before the alarm would go off, I realized it was settled in for a good ride. I took one of my magic headache pills, turned off the alarm, and went back to sleep. I could have just "called in sick" to the time in Advisement, but I decided to take the whole day. I've spent the last several weeks trying to decide when I could play hooky on a Monday: I guess this was it. The headache receded significantly by noon; I got a good nap--and then I got back to the grading.

I haven't quite finished what I brought home; I have two students' worth of stuff still to mark for the Poetry class, but I did wade through everything I'd collected from the M/W 101. (More on that in a minute.) I have an early a.m. doctors' appointment tomorrow--and at that point I'll decide whether I think I can get everything marked for the T/Th class between the end of the appointment and P&B or whether I'm going to swing past campus, pick up the work, cancel class, and come home again. Right at the moment, I'm leaning toward the latter--in part because I'll be more sure to have time to get everything (including those last Poetry class bits) marked if I bail on everything on campus but also because I simply don't want to hold class. I know we're almost over the finish line, but this chunk of the semester was a long stretch with no break (both our breaks coming early in the term), and, well, I feel like I'm due.

And yes, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I have a job that allows me this luxury: paid breaks and the ability to take "sick" time whenever I need it. (And I still have quite a few days of untaken sick leave that I will be able to cash out when I retire.)

Getting to the actual teaching content part of this blog, however, I have to say that my despair over the M/W 101 simply increases with every new assignment. One student clearly doesn't give even the smallest of shits about the work: his demeanor was pretty hostile (albeit quietly) at first, and although he has smiled once or twice and occasionally made a comment, what he's turning in is either an indication of a lack of comprehension about how much it matters that he engage (if I'm generous) or evidence how little he cares (which is what I honestly think). Of course, eventually he'll learn that no matter how little he wants to do something, if it has to be done, he still has to do it, and do it well. The same goes for Miss Confusing: she seems to want my approval sometimes, but her work is so slap-dash that I can't believe she cares about doing well or learning anything. I was finally reduced to making a rather harsh comment about how eventually she'd have to give up high school tactics--and that I'm happy to help her but she's running out of chances.

I don't usually fail students who make it to the end of the semester, but honestly, they both should flunk. And I know that Miss Confusing has taken the class once before--and I just looked at her transcript, which indicates that she came out of the BEP program, which is the program for students who test as needing more than two remedial classes (among math, writing, and reading). I have a student in the T/Th 101 who also came out of BEP, and she's struggling but doing much better than Miss Confusing. Well, Miss Confusing may well get another F on ENG101.

Two other students truly do seem to care--but they both have fallen apart as the semester has progressed, either not submitting work at all or submitting it so late they might as well not have. One of them seems highly intelligent and capable--at least in theory--but he's also been talking about health problems all semester. The other? Let me provide an example.

I frequently express my worry about our students' ability to read, and this young woman provides case in point. In one of the articles that students read for their second essay is the following sentence: "Whereas communities before the emergence of agriculture were generally small in size, nomadic and relied primarily on hunting and gathering, the ability to grow food and raise animals made it possible to become sedentary." I understand that a student might have to look up the word "sedentary"--even (worrisome though it may be) the word "nomadic"--and, in fact, many students did have to look up those words. However, this young woman circled the first two words of the sentence, and her annotation read, "What's that?"

She thought that there was some kind of entity called a "whereas community." (I'm reminded of the student who thought Annie Dillard was crazy and thought she was male because she wrote that she returned to a place "as a man returns to a field of battle" (or words to that effect).)

This isn't exactly aliteracy--which is the ability to read without the desire to (or without understanding any value to reading). It's worse. It's more frightening. These students know what individual words mean but can't read an entire sentence and make sense of it.

It's true that the student who wondered what "whereas communities" are also should fail, based purely on the numbers, I find it harder to contemplate flunking her--because she clearly is trying and does care. But am I doing her any favors to pass her, even with a D?

And I confess, the other thing that weighs on my mind is my awareness that I could potentially be flunking half the students who have managed to hold on this far. There were eighteen students at the start; what does it say if only four pass? So far, no one on the administration has started calling us on the carpet about our "success" rates, but they don't need to in cases like this. This kind of experience gives me serious doubts about my pedagogy.

I've been through this periodically as long as I've been teaching, these moments when I wonder if my standards are too high, if I truly am being too demanding. But I have already let go of so many expectations, I just can't feel right about going any further in that direction. This whole process was devised in order to help students see the creation of an argument essay step by step--and it still seems to be more than they can handle. And I think about the class I just observed, and how much simpler the process is as that colleague conveys is--but also how much simpler the project is: comparison contrast, and he provides the examples they use?

I don't know.

I don't know, but I begin to feel I'm running out of the energy--and the will--to keep trying to reach down to students who are further and further below where I believe they should be, where they need to be in order to be well-informed citizens of a participatory democracy (or just capable of informing themselves, period). This is why I spend almost as much time trying to come up with retirement scenarios that work as I do trying to come up with assignments that work.

I usually try to reframe the blog post of the day in such a way that I can leave it with something positive, but today, I don't have the energy to do the Pollyanna cheerful in the face of everything deal. I can barely do the Scarlet O'Hara kicking the can down the road. In the words of a little boy (as reported by a friend), I am motionally and fizzily zausted.

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