A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: The Conference Grind- Day 1

So I felt a little better today.  Not all the way better – I could still feel something screaming in the back of my head- but I seemed capable of functioning normally, unless I thought of the many people who were probably feeling worse than me (my sister and mom likely among them), at which point I would feel guilty.  But that’s actually pretty close to normal for me.

My saving grace today was the huge stack of work I had neglected to get through until this morning.  I had a bunch of rough drafts to read in the morning, and a bunch of conferences with the students who had written them in the afternoon.

The problem with scheduling student conferences is that you feel like you’re going to have more free time than normal- you don’t need to plan a class, you don’t need to dress up and stand up in front of 25 people- but of course 12 20-minute conferences take way more time than two 1.25 -hour classes, and you’re usually grading right up to the moment the first one begins.  I had a few 20-minute gaps in the conferences, and spent most of my time marking up drafts while I waited.  And of course marking up the drafts is a fallacy because a) you’ll never catch all the mistakes, b) half the mistakes are compound mistakes where it’s difficult to determine which combination of mistakes the student made, and nearly impossible to explain, and c) the students generally don’t look at your notes anyway.  So instead you spend your time looking at “big picture” problems (this paragraph isn’t well-organized, this point needs more support, your conclusion is using the exact same sentences that make up your introduction, you just changed the order they appeared in), but even then they barely look at the notes, they never take any notes when you talk to them about their papers, and they generally don’t have the ability to recognize or tools to fix these big-picture errors.

So after all this preparation and thought and about half a pen’s worth of ink, each of my conferences tends to boil down to the same few talking points:  Use transitions, support this point, respond to the major objections to this point, clarify your thesis, expand your argument, develop the relationship between your paragraphs.  Pick any three of those, and chances are they were all written on at least one student’s paper.  And again, despite my teaching (or perhaps because of my incompetence), I don’t think they have the basic knowledge of English that would allow them to develop a relationship between paragraphs.  They know why paragraphs exist, how they work, I’ve even taught them a helpful way to construct paragraphs, but they can’t conceive of relationships between the paragraphs.

The more I teach, the more I’m convinced that no one who is good enough to get into a graduate English program should be in charge of teaching English to undergraduates.  There are problems here that just baffle my imagination, let alone my teaching ability.  I learned how to write by reading a bunch of books, having one teacher who taught me grammar and another teacher who taught me basic essay structure, and connecting the dots myself.  The students I teach have probably read fewer novels in their lives than I have read in the last year- and I mean from the beginning of 2013, not the last 12 months.  No one ever taught them even the most basic grammar, and they are baffled by my attempts to teach them structure.

The main problem, though, comes with my inability to teach helpful lessons to them.  It’s not their lack of grammar knowledge so much as their lack of instinct, or maybe my bad study habits as a kid- I don’t remember much about the classes I took as a student, because I rarely paid attention to them until I got into upper-division classes.  In my English 109 class, I would generally sleepwalk through the class, then write a paper based on what I already knew about writing and get an A.  So it’s difficult for me to identify with or anticipate my students’ problems, and my class plans tend to boil down to “everybody should read a lot, and that will teach you how to write.”

So this didn’t turn out very interesting or long, but I guess that’s how it is most days.  I’ll try to do better tomorrow.

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This entry was posted on 12 April 2013 by in Life and tagged , , , , .
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