Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Well, school has started once again. The campus is humming and buzzing with activity now. It almost defies belief to remember how quiet it was on campus at the end of summer when you come face-to-face with the hordes of freshmen barreling down on you from one direction or another.

Teaching at 8 am is more of adventure this time than it was in Corvallis. Of course, there I lived about a ten minute walk from the building I taught in. Here, it's a half hour bus ride (assuming no traffic and few stops). My students are, predictably, sleepy and, equally predictably, tentative. Any statement I make seems to be greeted with outright terror by half of the class at this point. The first couple days are the worst, of course, but they don't know that fact yet. Starting with Friday's class, our first chance to really discuss a reading that isn't a fairly abstract introduction to the concept of "college writing,"* I think what I've set out for them to do over the next fifteen weeks will seem much less daunting. I've tried to a spend a great deal of time situating our entire class within the abstract concepts we've been discussing so far (which accounts for some of the terror: they're encountering the entire course as some type of monolithic mountain and they think I'm asking them to climb it in one fell swoop, rather than knowing that we might not get to that mountain at all this term and are instead going to spend a great deal of time practicing our techniques on relatively flat ground and small hills) under the assumption that an understanding of the larger structure of the course will make each individual day seem more useful and meaningful. If they can understand the end goal and what it entails, they'll probably be able to understand why we're doing the particular task we're focused on that class. I understand this is probably not the case, but I figured it was a worthwhile experiment.

A more interesting experiment, and one I might start conducting over the remaining semesters I'm teaching here, suggested itself to me after I received some of the first day surveys I handed out to my students. These are meant to supplement whatever introductions we do in class on the first day and to provide more in-depth data on their attitudes towards writing, their ability to self-assess and accurately diagnose what works and what doesn't in their writing, their level of comfort with the class, etc., etc. One of the questions--and the purpose of this question is simply to gain some information that will allow the student to stand out in my mind and make learning names a quicker and easier process (I've got about 2/3 of them down after two classes)--is "What is the most interesting thing about you?"**

This is a fairly bland question, I'll grant that, but it amazes me how little information it generates. I can understand that students may not be comfortable sharing personal information out loud in class on the first day, and I give them the option not to answer that question during their introduction if it will make them uncomfortable (I've noticed that a tendency to answer the question seems to correlate pretty well with the student's level of participation throughout the semester). I have assumed, though, and maybe this is where I'm going wrong, that students would feel far more comfortable answering the question in the "privacy" of the survey. I'm the only person who sees these surveys. I will never bring up any information a student shares with me on the survey with the class or with another student unless it is information that the student has already volunteered in class him or herself. Nevertheless, every semester I get answers of the "I like to run" or "I have a dog" variety. Sometimes students have information that could be interesting and useful, like the always popular "I like to travel," but unless they attach specifics to their fact--"I like to travel and have visited four continents," for example--it remains largely useless. These questions might have inspired Barthes to write Writing Degree Zero they're so flat and colourless and neutral. It's almost impossible for students to offer information that says less about themselves.

I was complaining about this fact today on Facebook and Twitter (tongue firmly in cheek; I was asked to do this same activity the other night and my mind went totally blank--although, this was partly due to the fact that I have few interests outside of my academic interests that I can state without the need to burden them with thousands of qualifiers and clarifications). I had a thought, though: are students reluctant to provide actual information, or are they incapable of providing the kind of information I'm seeking? If it's the former, does this reluctance have something to do with privacy concerns or their overall comfort level? Is it too difficult or uncomfortable or scary to share information about one's self with a person who is, essentially, a complete stranger and who one assumes will be judging one's self throughout the coming fifteen weeks? If it's the latter, is this inability the result of currently unrefined skills (i.e. students can't write about themselves because they don't yet understand how to write effectively)? Is it due to a misunderstanding (or incomprehension) of what the terms "interesting" or "unique" mean? Or, and this bridges the two sides, does this have something to do with a culture that tells young people that they are all unique in the same way? Is this related to the rise of social networking and lure of appealing to a group by demonstrating you think the same/feel the same/like the same/desire the same (conveniently symbolized and actualized at the same time by the Facebook "Like" button)?***

Another issue that emerged from the first batch of surveys I received today (I'll get the rest on Friday) has to do with students' expectations and attitudes toward writing. When I first started giving this survey (which was not that long ago), the majority of students' answers to "What is the best experience you've ever had with writing? The worst?" usually involved an anecdote about working hard on a project in high school (quite often a "senior research paper" or similar assignment) and receiving a high grade. Sometimes they would mention winning a contest or publication of some of their work. Their worst experiences also tended to relate to unpleasant high school projects, most of which had been left to the last minute and that the students felt reflected poorly on them.

While there's an obvious connection between good experience and rewards in those anecdotes, the anecdotes themselves have been simplifying over the past few semesters to become "I worked hard on a paper and got an A (or some equivalent, like 100%) on it." Today's batch of surveys featured the most blunt statement of this kind of attitude yet. To paraphrase: "The best experience was every time I got an A on an assignment. The worst was every time I didn't get an A." It is tremendously difficult to get students to see the value in work that they're doing in this class (and in other classes, I would imagine) when they tie success/good writing experience solely to the grade they receive. Similarly, it becomes even more difficult when they assume that effort (regardless of whether or not that effort is directed in fruitful ways or produces work of any quality) must always be rewarded with an A. Thus, for the student, effort is only rewarded if the piece of writing is successful, and a piece of writing is only successful it receives an A.

I disagree pretty fundamentally with both of those statements, largely because lots of writing that students put plenty of effort into is "unsuccessful" by this measure, but is "successful" in more important ways. I'm obviously not stating anything revolutionary here. Unfortunately, the above attitude seems to be becoming the hegemonic student orientation toward not just writing, but university (and education as a whole) in general. I'm not even lamenting for the decline in the "I love learning for the sake of learning" types--frankly, I think their numbers have probably always been drastically overstated. What I am lamenting is the decline in estimation of honing a craft among students, of putting into practice new skills, regardless of whether or not the end result is "exceptional" or "superior" or any of the other terms I (and others) use to describe A work. I'm not sure I even understand how to communicate this to students, though, without them thinking it's only a tired version of "hard work is its own reward" (which it is, but it's so much more than just that).

Anyway, some thoughts on teaching and students after a couple of days back at it. I have no answers to any of the questions I've asked, which I'm guessing is actually something of a good thing, for the most part. I imagine that it's beneficial to have these issues as live questions while I think about teaching and plan my lessons each day.

To lighten the mood some: keep watching this and this. They both just get funnier and funnier.

*As a term, "college writing" causes me no end of cognitive dissonance: to my mind, the term to describe our class should be "university writing," as, thanks to the differences between Canadian and American applications of the term, colleges and universities are quite different things. While there is nothing wrong with colleges in Canada--indeed, they are far better than universities for certain kinds of programs and disciplines--I have a certain residual snobbery attached to the connotations of the term because in high school designating a course as "college" signified that it was less difficult than those courses designated as "university." Perhaps an all around less problematic term would be "academic writing?"

**They also had trouble providing an kind of useful information (in the sense of information that provides any insight into the student's character or motivations) with the question "What is, or what do you expect will be, your major and why are you interested in this field?" Though every student in my class has a declared major, only one could offer any sort of explanation for their interest in their chosen field. I'm not sure I could have articulated any kind of fluid or coherent narrative about my interest in English when I started my undergrad, but I think I could have done better than what my students offered.

***In deliberately crafting their responses to appeal to this communal uniqueness, perhaps the students engage in literary craftsmanship (as Barthes describes it here):
"if not the reconciliation of the writer to a universal condition, at least the conferment upon him of the responsibility for his form, the transmutation of the writing handed down to him by History into an art; in other words, into an obvious convention, a sincere pact which would enable man to adopt a position he was familiar with in a nature still made of ill-matched realities. The writer then gives to society a self-confessed art, whose rules are visible to all, and in exchange society is able to accept the writer."


  1. In high schools in the U.S., advanced courses are part of what is commonly known as "college prep." So, students in A.P. Calc and A.P. English are on the "college prep" track. There is no similar designation related to "university."

    This is, I suspect a result of the fact that colleges (which, in the U.S. system, are neither inferior nor superior to universities) are generally smaller, do not offer graduate degrees, focus on a specific area of study - and are generally what undergrads attend (I'm sure there are exceptions) even if they are students of a larger "university." Harvard University, for example, comprises Harvard College (for undergrads) as well as the various masters and doctoral programs.

  2. Yeah, I understand the way the two terms are used in the United States, and I don't know why it should still throw me, but it does. I guess it's just up against some deep-seated understandings of the two terms in my head.

    For example, at home, none of my friends would ever say they "went to college" or start off an anecdote with "When I was in college..." unless they specifically attended a college. Even if they attended a college within a university (like King's College at the University of Western Ontario), they would still talk about being at university or going to university.

    And, again in contrast to the US, in high school (at least in Ontario), there are at least two streams of any given class. In grades 9 and 10, all classes are either "academic" (the more advanced version--aimed towards students who will be planning to attend university) or "applied" (aimed towards students who will be attending college). In grades 11 and 12, the streams switch to "university" (in place of "academic") and "college" (in place of "applied"), with a smaller number of "university/college" classes.