Friday, April 21, 2006

Why Do They Vex Me?

I had a discussion with a student about a paper returned to him with comments and a grade (sophomore lit, for those keeping score). He took issue with my coments, oddly enough. The assignment was to compare the themes in an historical document to those in a play (Elizabethan, early colonialism -- you know, that whole "let's put literature in an historical context" idea). In his paper, he discussed one text, then talked about the other. About midpoint, there was a sort of thesis which was not (to my eyes) actually carried out in the discussion.

The student informed me that he "didn't think it necessary" to discuss the two texts together, which I suggested made comparison rather difficult. He also instructed me that in all his classes in high school and two years of college, he had never heard of the idea that a thesis ought to be near the beginning of a paper. Clearly I was being unreasonable. It certainly did not help our discussion that the entire time his eyes were on my chest.


I don't know if that was a deliberate attempt to make me feel uncomfortable or an unconscious one. Well, it did make me feel uncomfortable; it is rude and disgusting. But it was not enough to make me change my mind. I polled the following class, not all of whom are stellar students by any means. Nonetheless, they unanimously declared (without prompting) that the proper place for a thesis was the beginning of the paper -- in fact, some were even more specific, suggesting it ought to be the last sentence of the first paragraph. Good; even though not all their papers followed that rule, it must be said.

It's par for the course, unfortunately. The complaining student is in the "soul sucker" class of this semester, the kind of group that sucks the energy right out of you when you enter the room. There are a couple of terrific students in the class, but by this point they too have been sucked of all energy. I find it hard to maintain my usual level of enthusiasm -- sometimes I even (gasp!) sit down while leading that class. Group dynamics -- it's a tricky thing.

I'm grateful that they're not the class with whom I end the day. After them I go to a class which has a more equitably energy flow. Yesterday I thanked them for it. They're not necessarily better students on the whole, gradewise. But I'd much sooner spend my time with them, as human beings as well as students.


Bobby Kuechenmeister said...

Kate, I am sorry you had such a grotesque experience. Speaking as a rhetoric and composition person, burying a thesis (or lead, for journalism folks), is capable of achieving a good or great paper. However, doing so is considered an advanced composition technique. Advanced in the sense that I would not want undergrads trying to do it.

K. A. Laity said...

I'd definitely see that for advanced and nuanced writing (reeling in the reader with one tack, then shifting to another -- it can indeed be a useful technique), but we're talking about sophomore lit here. Even more than that, sophomore lit at an open admissions university (a bit different from an upscale competetive university), which often means students who are struggling to master the basics. This particular student had no major issues with basic writing skills. However, failing to address the primary issue -- comparing the two documents -- means fundamentally failing (although I did not assign him a failing grade, given the rarity of fluid writing). I do recognize a good essay -- even when unconventional -- but this was not such a work. The grossness of his personal behavior aside, his combative response troubles me, too. It is also fairly common among students who write competently. They have traditionally been given high grades in school and expect to continue doing so, whether they actually address the assignment or not. I wish I had a dollar for every student who has claimed "but I always got As from my teachers." I could quit my job and just read!

Bobby Kuechenmeister said...

"Advanced in the sense that I would not want undergrads trying to do it" is key here. I did not think I was defending that student's paper or argument. I was only stating how his botched composition technique may be considered advanced if it is executed properly.

I remember not attempting to write that way until at least my junior or senior years of undergrad and within an independent study context with my undergrad mentor.

K. A. Laity said...

Absolutely -- what's odd, is that I usually have the opposite problem, with students slavishly following the 5 paragraph format, shoehorning as much information as they can into the requisite number of paragraphs, so that one may go on for pages despite several changes in subject. Thinking should be the first step -- amazing how seldom it is employed! A little logic, applied topically, can achieve wonders.

Bobby Kuechenmeister said...

I imagine a 5-paragraph structure is fine for freshman composition (which I am teaching next year), but toward the end of undergrad and especially for English students, I would want to see that structure exchanged for the "English major paragraph" (aka an eight-sentence paragraph).