Friday, October 12, 2007

This week and whatnot

It has been an utterly exhausting week, and I have no one but myself to blame for that. Rather than ruining last weekend's house-buying excitement and gorge-fest with a slurry of paper-grading, I put it off. That meant that every minute of this week that I was not either in front of the class teaching, holding one-on-one conferences with my students, or getting some much-needed (but minimal) sleep, I was grading a student essay.

Luckily, I'd given them an assignment that produced some really wonderful writing.

The assignment asked students to inform a general academic audience of something they thought we should know. They were to choose a subject about which they already had a good deal of knowledge--one which wouldn't require the use of outside sources. In the early stages of generating topics, I had students coming to me and tearfully saying, "I don't know anything worth writing about."

My response: "P-SHAW!"

It is always a pleasure to explain to my writing students that the range of "worthy" subjects is limitless, and that in order to be worthy, it need not be lofty or weighty, a la Global Warming or Capital Punishment. I love watching the gears turn when I say that yes, they can write about the Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival or about their high school marching band (the topics of two of my favorite essays this time around.) And I love helping them craft essays-worth-reading from the material generated solely from what they already know.

So the content of the essays wasn't what exhausted me. What exhausted me were the sheer numbers of them that needed responses. I've worked and worked at developing methods to cut down on my response-time while also providing thoughtful, helpful comments, but inevitably I end up writing too much and spending too much time agonizing over how to strike just the right balance between praising what's good and giving 'em a necessary dose of tough love (read: this is good, but, well, this isn't.) I think what I find most difficult is that I want my students to understand not just what is wrong, but why it's wrong, and doing that succinctly is just plain difficult.

Another reason this week was so exhausting was that I held conferences with all of my composition students. I do this several times throughout the semester. One-on-one conferences with my students are the most productive aspect of my teaching, and my students seem to agree (nearly all of them mention them in their final evaluations of the course). But they are time-consuming and tiring.

Here's how my student-conferences work:

Several days before the conference, students hand in a paper. Before they do, I ask them to use out the handout on "Writing Standards" to award themselves a grade and to explain why they believe their paper deserves that grade. The self-evaluation is not an opportunity for them to convince me to give them that grade, and, in fact, I don't see their self-evaluation until the conference (when I have already responded and given the essays a grade based on my assessment.)

On the board, I write a list of items they need to bring to the conference: 1) A written self-evaluation of their most recently-submitted essay, 2) a draft of their current essay, and 3) a list of no more than three specific questions about their current essay. I find that making students come to the conferences with "homework" shows them that the conferences are not mere rap-sessions, but that they are, in fact, a vital part of the class, itself. (Back when I first started teaching, I met just once with my students, I didn't make conference assignments, and I took a much more casual approach to the time spent with them. As a result, I discovered my students didn't take them seriously, and that our time together was often chaotic and sometimes unproductive.)

At the beginning of each conference, I say hello and how are you and whatnot, and then I make the purpose of the conference clear: "The purpose of this conference is to discuss your last essay and to address any concerns you may have about your essay-in-progress." Announcing the purpose of the conference helps keep us on track and establishes a clear objective for our time together. It helps us get stuff done efficiently and effectively.

Then, with the student's previous, graded essay on the desk (between us), I ask them to get out their self-evaluation and tell me what grade they would give the essay and why. I have the Writing Standards taped to the desk (facing the student) to remind them that these are the criteria for their self-evaluation.

After they announce and explain their self-evaluation, I am able to assess their understanding of the criteria on the Writing Standards handout. Typically, they don't do very well with this the first time they meet ("I gave myself an A because I worked really hard") and so I point to the sheet and say, "Hmmm, I don't see 'A for Effort' here, so you're saying it's [insert criteria here]." When they admit that, well, they don't think their prose flows smoothly or that they have a clear thesis, I can then "lead them" to what I think is the correct assessment of their work by highlighting the language that most fits their work. While they are sometimes pretty bummed to discover that their work is, say, D-quality, instead, I am able to use the writing and grading standards to teach them what "development" really means. So I am able to use assessment not as a gate-keeping tool (which is how students typically perceive it), but as a teaching tool.

Anyways, I realize this likely does not interest many of you, dear readers, but I positively love holding conferences, in spite of just how tired I feel after having 30-something 15-minute conversations on similar subjects. There are typically tears from a few students, defiance from others (not surprisingly, the defiance usually comes from the less self-aware students), and a whole lotta epiphanies. It's pretty darn rewarding, is what I mean, so the exhaustion is a good kind. I finished my last conference an hour ago, and I feel, well, a little bit high from a week of learning more about my students and vice-versa. Whoo-hooo!

Also in happy news: I've been given a major vote of confidence by the Department via a new work assignment. I will now be the Coordinator of the Transfer Proficiency Exam. Because I am an unretained instructor, and a young-ish faculty member, being given this role means that they must see something in me. On the other hand, one could look at it and say, "Sounds to me like they're taking advantage of your non-retained status to pressure you to perform admin-work." I don't see it this way mostly because the offer was prefaced with a lengthy explanation of its not being a thinly-veiled "assignment," but a genuine offer. I took it. Because my primary interest with comp-rhet is assessment, coordinating one of the major assessment tools of our department will be a great learning experience for me. Now, if I could just decided whether or not I actually want to go for a PhD.

I met with the chair of the department about my interest in PhD programs two weeks ago, and he said that of course getting a PhD in a field that interests me would be a good thing, but that my interest in returning to UNO to out that PHD to work was risky. What if they didn't have an open line for a comp-rhet PhD when I was ready to return? How would I fare if I were then competing with a national pool of candidates for a similar position (especially if my degree were from an in-state school)?

He didn't say this, but I found myself wondering, "What if the school continues to go downhill in terms of enrollment and my instructorship is no longer available to me, either? Or worse, what if there's another urricane-hay and there's no Ew-Orleans-Nay to return to, at all?" Well, then I guess at least I'd have a degree that would make me an attractive candidate at other schools, especially since I haven't written a word of fiction in ages.

Oh, I am still right back where I was: not knowing what I want to do.

Complicating my confusion even more is my beloved Holy Cross. Last night was another Holy Cross Neighborhood Association meeting, and it was uplifting, as ever. I've volunteered to be on the website committee, and Simon and I will continue to work on the community garden. The more I get involved with the HCNA, the more that work feels like some of the most important work in my life. And if I am off getting a PhD for the next however-many-years, I won't be able to commit myself to the HCNA during this very-exciting time of rebuilding and change, change, change.

I guess that what is super-duper exhausting is this constant uncertainty. I'm always second-guessing myself in that big-picture way. I'm always feeling as though I'm doing too much, and then, of course, not nearly enough.

This week in my literature class, we were talking about Huck Finn and the impact of age on our ability to think freely and to be brave. Listening to my students, I realized that as we get older, we become less brave, not more. It's like we don't take the adventures--not because we don't think they aren't worthwhile, but because we are afraid that if we just embark, damn it, we are keenly aware of the potential for regret. What if we regret our choice? And then again, what if we regret our choice? It's paralyzing, this adulthood. I would like to return to the time when it was hope that informed my decisions instead of regret or fear.

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