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!