Sunday, December 30, 2007

Okay, back to the real world in which I am a Lit Professor...

We've inhaled all the Christmas, fatilicious consumables (not that more can't be acquired) and we have lovely New Year's plans with colleagues tomorrow that will involve playing board games, eating the baby cheesecakes I'm going to make (told ya I could get more sugar-laden treats), drinking champagne, and watching that damn ball drop. Medieval Pop left today after spending 3 days with us - it was lots of fun, but not much work got done. The article is going very well, so I won't jinx it by talking about it at the moment.

But, I'm now turning my hand to next semester's syllabi. And I'm also thinking about how dismally horrible the majority of the student writing is in my classes (I know, I'm not special or anything, it's just frustrating to be handed 78 papers of varying badness and a few fabulous ones). This is part of a larger problem that my (mostly untenured) colleagues and I have been talking about lately. I teach upper level literature courses in my field. Most of my students are senior English majors. And most of them don't know the difference between a statement and an argument. They usually can't construct even the most pedestrian of thesis statements.

Like I said, so far I'm not saying anything that many of us don't already know and experience. But the questions I'm asking myself in this syllabus-writing time is: what (if anything) should/could/would I do about it?

We have a very good composition program at the Dream Academy - we have Ph.D. students majoring in Comp/Rhet. It's a respected program. My job description does not include any comp or basic writing classes. I am a medievalist and I teach the literatures of that period. But the students are taking writing classes and in most cases aren't learning how to write a basic academic essay (i.e., 1) constructing a basic, persuasive argument, 2) supporting the reading through evidence drawn directly from the text, and 3) gesturing even in the broadest strokes to the importance of that argument - not in the sense of universal importance, but explaining what we might understand about the text by looking at this character, scene, language, authorial voice, etc. in that way).

Is this a tall order? Maybe given the training most undergrads get it is. But should it be?

The enrollment cap in our classes is 40. And they're always full. So, the possibility of doing any kind of real, nuts and bolts writing workshopping or instruction is very limited. Having 80 students a semester doesn't really allow for it. And many of my colleagues would tell me to protect my time vehemently until I get tenure; and I intent to. When we're not teaching writing-intensive classes (which have a lower cap, but still plenty of students), most of us don't have many papers or writing to grade because we can't assign it and get it all graded without going insane. What I did for my classes last semester was put a kind of writing guide on our course webpage. This consisted of different handouts on writing I've made up over the years. Things like a thesis statement checklist, paragraph handouts, incorporating textual evidence correctly, etc. I pointed them toward those things multiple times before their papers were due. I took part of class time to reiterate the most important things about paper structure. And I still got a third of the students who would either not use any direct quotes or who would throw in quotes willy-nilly and not cite page or line numbers. I'm talking over 25 papers. And this is just using textual evidence!

Going on will not make my frustration any better - you all know what I mean. But I feel like I want to do something to pre-empt some of the most serious problems ahead of time. But what can be done? What have any of you done when you have a single class of 40 and no delusions about being able to look at drafts of everyone's papers, etc. I'm teaching a grad class as well, and my plate already runneth over...

So, by way of being proactive, I'm thinking of having a thesis statement assignment. I will probably have their paper be a short close reading. Baby steps, baby steps...but, if I give them a thesis statement handout/worksheet kind of thing, I can have them look at that material and make them due in plenty of time before their paper. That way I can give them a bit more detailed feedback ahead of time. It's extra work, but I'm feeling that in my "new prof", corn-fed, apple-cheeked way it might be worth it to read slightly less-challenged papers.

Whaddya think? Any ideas? Suggestions? Things that have worked/failed for you? I continue to think that we all basically have the same job, so I'd be so happy to hear your thoughts...

Happy New Year!

9 comments:

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

I wonder if the problem is that they're not getting any exposure to these things before they get to upper-level classes, or that they are and they're not retaining them past the end of the semester. I'm increasingly getting the feeling that students think of assignments as discrete hoops to jump through and immediately forget, rather than things that build on each other throughout a class or from semester to semester.

Barbara said...

I'm a history prof, not lit, but my classes are pretty writing intensive (my choice, but I think writing well is a really necessary skill). I'm lucky enough to teach at a place where my Early Modern Europe survey courses are capped at 25, and higher-level courses at 20. But I still have 70 students a semester, all writing three papers over the course of the semester. I too am frustrated with the inability to write decent papers, so what I've started doing, aside from similar types on writing handouts on the web page, is to have students email me their thesis statements. I give them a look and respond with specific suggestions, if necessary, or a "looks good" if that's the case. Sure, it takes a bit of time to do this, but since it's via email, I can do it during office hours, and it seems to help. Not as much as I'd like, but at least there is *some* sort of thesis now!
Barb

Flavia said...

I don't have any easy answers to this one, but I've developed a handout for my Shax class (2 papers, midterm, final) with tips for writing literature papers, and it includes a section on thesis statements that (at least in theory) shows my students the difference between a statement and a thesis by giving several different examples of bad/good ones, with commentary.

I also use a grading matrix, which I circulate and talk about in advance, that spells out the criteria for lit papers.

Does any of this help, or does it help anyone other than the already-good students? I don't know. But would be happy to email to you if you'd like--right now am crashing down from MLA!

Happy New Year to you & TD...

Sisyphus said...

You know who has great posts on this? Dr. Crazy! --- She's done a lot of work on fitting the little assignments into a coherent whole for the bigger assignments so that students can see there is some actual *point* to what you ask them to do.

When I have a choice about how to stagger assignments, I like to have a very short close reading paper *very* early in the course and then I grade the hell out of it w. lots of comments and low scores --- then I taper off on the amt. of comments and harshness, but the students who want to pass their later papers really try to put effort into it. And even the people who are willing to risk crappy grades start throwing in quotes by the end of the quarter. If not, you know, explicating them.

Belle said...

How about getting some of your grad students to come in and talk about writing clearly? Have them take a couple of theses statements, in class, and rewrite so everybody can see the process?

What Now? said...

I completely agree with you about these writing difficulties, and I continue to struggle with how to deal with these problems. My only concern with having students turn in their thesis statement is that I like to distinguish between a *working* thesis with which one writes the first draft and the final thesis statement, which has often changed (or at least should have changed) during revision.

One idea that I'm going to try out this spring is to have students turn in a rough draft -- which I am NOT going to read in its entirety -- with the thesis statement and topic sentences highlighted, which I will read. This ensures that students have something that they think fits those categories, so they may have a few moments of revision there, and that they've written a draft a few days before the paper is due, so they might even take it to the writing center in the intervening days before the final is due.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I think Pilgrim/Heretic is right about students thinking of all their work as discrete assignments, not building between classes. What about trying in-class work on thesis statements? Take a sample passage; what will you argue about it; how can you formulate a thesis statement for such a paper? Students can work alone or in pairs/threes. Volunteer a few to put their theses on the board and then critique them. And then make the lesson explicit--"This is the process I expect you to go through on your next assignment."

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Unclear pronoun reference: critique the thesis statements, not the students. Be generous with statements like "You're working under pressure; this is a draft attempt" etc. to the students.

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