Note to self #3,874: if you provide students with material that they can see in terms of a cliche, they will see the cliche, even if the material specifically, in so many words says, "I'm not talking about the cliche." Case in point: in Billy Collins's poem "The Lanyard," he specifically says that what he wants to say to his mother is "not the worn truth // that you can never repay your mother"--yet essay after essay, the student author writes that he wants to say you can never repay your mother. I also presented them with poems that deal with the monstrous parent--in one of the poems, even specifically equated with Saturn--but all they can come up with is "abuse is bad, and these children will probably become abusive themselves, because they didn't have good role models." (OK, I'll be honest: sometimes "they didn't have good roll models." Kaiser? Cloverleaf? Parker House?)
So, the addendum to note #3,874 is, for spring 2017, I either have to replace the poems (aw, really??) or I have to be a lot--a lot--more directive in the essay topics than I like to be.
Side note: a student in SF today was looking at my "pump priming" questions in one of the possible topics and he asked me which one he was supposed to answer--and whether he needs a thesis for his essay. (Oh, Bernard...)
I really, truly do not want to have to go searching for poems that the students can write about that aren't plagiarism traps but that are accessible enough to provide material they can work with--but I do not like constraining their readings of the poems to fit with my analysis. And if I'm brutally honest, I have to say that even I would have a hard time coming up with a clear and coherent thesis about some of the poetry unless I were to head into pretty rarefied air, and do a hell of a lot of research. That should have been in my considerations--but I mostly simply wanted new poems that the students might be able to connect with, and I really liked the fact that at least some of my choices used very non-poetic language. It may be easiest simply to return to what I used to do: the same poems I used to use, the critical essays I used to pair with them, the requirement that students practice using critical material.
I'm rather worried about that this semester, in fact. I'm not actually introducing them to much in the way of research: what they do, for The Left Hand of Darkness, is going to stem entirely from the annotated bibliography and critical reception portions of the apparatus I created on my sabbatical. They'll still have to track down the sources--but they don't have to do as much evaluating of the sources: I'll have done that for them. I know they need a lot of scaffolding for critical research--which is why I no longer ask for it in my lit electives: too many students have absolutely zero clue what critical research is, how to find the source or what to do with them once they're found. But I know students from my 102s may end up in classes with professors who do require some critical research, so they have to be introduced to the concept at least.
And one of my classes has been selected for an assessment of "information literacy," so they really do have to do a little research...
Gawd. But all of that is a can I'm going to kick much further down the road.
More immediately, here are some thoughts about what I'm seeing in the essays I've graded--and although I have nine more to do, I've graded enough now that I can make some generalizations. For the most part, although they struggled with finding an actual argument (instead of proving that the sun shines), they did a much better job of creating a thesis of some kind and then tracking it through, following a clear organization. They're over-quoting and under-explicating--no surprise--but at least they're quoting.
That's in general. I do, however, have to mention one young woman. I'm almost dreading our meeting tomorrow--because I know she's going to be deeply wounded. Nevertheless, I've had to convey the painful truth that, whatever her ideas might be, her sentences are so screwed up that the ideas are not coming through. She's absolutely darling, too: not the kind of young woman who is used to getting by on being attractive, but genuinely adorable, in terms of looks and demeanor, a vibrant little brown-eyed sweetheart--and she cannot write an intelligible sentence to save her life. I don't know what's going on with that, but truly, if she can't write a sentence that makes sense, she can't pass the class, and I have to lower that boom now, rather than later. I hope she can find the help she needs to address the problems, whatever the problems may be--but if she doesn't I simply cannot allow her to pass. I just checked, and she got a B in 101, so what I have to say is really going to hurt: she's gotten this far without anyone--even me, I confess--telling her just how completely unacceptable her writing is on the most basic level.
There is at least one other student who probably can't pass, and probably shouldn't be allowed to keep trying, and I know he will be hurt, too, as he wanted an A--which was completely out of his grasp. He's another sweet and gentle soul, the kind I hate to hurt. But hurt them I must, in good conscience.
I'm trying for a more positive reframe for the day, but as it stands, the best I can come up with is that, although I won't be doing my time in Advisement tomorrow, and will have to make up the time on Tuesday next week, I will have those hours in the morning to mark the last of the essays--and maybe even get a start on the mechanics reviews, which would be great. The more I can get done before the weekend, the happier I'll be. (And the more likely I'll have time to get to the grocery store. Jesus, I am not kidding: I need a wife.)
That's it. Brain just officially shut down for the next 12 hours or more...