Monday, May 05, 2014

Classes are over, exam week begins

The grading the end of this semester made me sad. I guess grade schools and high schools don't require papers any more, or don't grade them the way they graded them when I was in school. I gave out a higher proportion of scores in the 60-percents range on my big paper than I ever have. And one student consistently used "seen" when they meant "saw" in their paper - as in "I seen a flock of ducks migrating"

And yeah, I get the whole non-standard English thing, but it's NOT OKAY to use it in what is meant as a professional paper. I don't care if people use non-standard English in casual conversation, or even if they are something like an Ag Extension Agent and they use it with farmers who also use it. But when you are writing up formal research for formal presentation, you need to know that at that time you use formal English. And yes, I know that makes me a 'prescriptivist' and therefore evil in the eyes of some, but I don't flippin' care. Professional writing requires professional demeanor, and that still means using the "proper" verb forms.

I suspect a certain proportion of the poor paper grades were either laziness ("I'm a senior, woo!") or perhaps poor time planning (they knew from the first day of the semester this paper was due, I reminded them a month before, I reminded them every day for about two weeks before) but based on what a few people said, the things were written in their entirety the weekend before the Monday they were due.

One thing I tell students and they never believe: for formal writing, like a big research paper, you should spend as much, if not more, time in editing it than you do in first writing it. And not to be afraid to slash it up and change it around and dump big portions of it and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

I admit something I STILL do - because I came up before word processors were common - when I have editing to do, I often print out a copy of the manuscript and have at it with scissors and tape in addition to a pen - I will cut it up into chunks and rearrange it and tape it back together and then read it to see how it works. I'll delete sections and rewrite them. I'll have letters (A, B, C....) all over the place referring to the section that gets inserted or moved there. My papers wind up looking like Barbara McClintock's corn's genes when it's done - but it often makes the paper better than it would have been.

I think some students are afraid of rewriting that viciously - they're afraid of losing something "really good."
 The problem is they can't judge "really good" writing from just "meh" writing. You need practice for that. I think also some students get convinced that their first pass is good enough (or in a few cases, that it's really good - think of Ralphie Parker and how he felt about his 'theme' about the Red Ryder BB gun).

I've been doing this for 20+ years and have learned that almost everything in my first drafts of papers is "meh" at best - actually, one of the freeing things I learned a few years back, when I read Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird," was the idea of the "shitty first draft" (her phrase). In other words: just write. Just get the information down on paper. Don't try to edit or censor yourself. You can come back to it later and fix it. That works well for me in a lot of ways. I tend to stall out otherwise and have a half-written manuscript. But if I tell myself, "You can make this better later, just get the ideas down before you forget them" I actually get something finished I can work on.

I don't know. I don't know what our comp classes here are like. From what little I've been able to learn from the students, they seem to vary widely. Some are pretty good, some are basically exercises in having the students write navel-gazing inner-self-directed essays that get very lightly graded. I don't blame the instructors totally for this; a lot of them are adjuncts who are probably working other jobs. (We really need to rethink the whole hiring-adjuncts thing, especially in a part of the country like mine, where the pool of moms-who-want-to-work-a-few-hours-a-week-and-have-some-academic-skills are small, and where people can actually make better money running a landscaping business or waiting tables at a good restaurant). But when we get junior-level students with a tenuous grasp on grammar, and their only writing experience is how they feeeeeeeeeeeeel about something, it's really hard to shape them up to be able to write scientific papers in a semester or two.

We've tried to get a writing class started in my department; so far it has never made. And that's sad. The colleague who would be teaching it would do a good job teaching scientific writing. But the class is apparently perceived as one that would be "hard," so people don't want to do it.

It's fashionable right now to deride college education as "an expensive ticket to the fast-food industry" but often it seems to me that the students are writing that ticket themselves, that by the choices they make in classes (and things like internships, and things like doing research or working on campus). It's not the faculty's fault that students want the easiest path out - we are now offering a BGS with "concentrations," so people can do a "BGS with concentration in chemistry" or something - and they don't have to take the "hard" classes a Chem major would take.

I don't know about other careers but in the science oriented ones, we DO look at people's transcripts. And if someone has P-chem and Analytical Chemistry and advanced biochem and stuff, we're going to hire that person (provided their grades are decent) over someone who has a "BGS with concentration" who avoided the classes requiring lots of math. Because the person who took the harder classes should be better prepared. Oh, they might not know everything but hopefully they have at least been exposed to it.

One trend I see in our country - and it's probably been going on for a long time, but I'm noticing it more as I get crankier and older - is that lots and lots of people want the easiest possible way out. And then they are just BAFFLED that they can't get the job they want. Or the salary they think they deserve. It's like they don't see the cause-and-effect of working hard leading to getting what you want in life.

1 comment:

Heroditus Huxley said...

Ricki, if they're that far behind in grammar, they can't be caught up in two semesters. Repetition works up through about thirteen or fourteen in helping to acquire language skills, but after that? It tends to do nothing more than irritate.

I focus on teaching the difference between informal, semi-formal, and formal writing, on focus, on organization, and on fully developing thoughts and paragraphs. The grammar is graded lightly because I know there's no chance they're going to learn it in sixteen to thirty-two weeks--not without the peer pressure of having to keep a blog that their peers will be reading.