This blog post is worth 7 points

I had a conversation with a student the other day that continues to bother me.  I think for what are obvious reasons, I am not going to go into specific detail, but in summary, this person was unhappy with the earned grade on a project.  Very unhappy. So I of course scheduled a meeting with this person, assuming/hoping we were going to mostly discuss strategies for a revision.  Instead, this student essentially yelled at me.  I was told the assignment was not clear and that the student (in this person’s opinion, of course) had indeed fulfilled the assignment, regardless of my judgment and grade.

Furthermore, I as admonished for not being able to describe how many points certain portions of the assignment were worth and for not having (what this student had in mind as) a clear grading rubric.  How, this student wondered aloud and angrily, how could I possibly hope to teach anything absent a rubric that clearly describes what parts of the assignment are worth what points?

A few thoughts:

  • This student was not without a point– that is, this person did suggest valid ways in which the assignment description was lacking.  My main problem is that this assignment is relatively new and some of the problems I am experiencing this term– this is not the only student who missed part of the point of the project– were things I had not anticipated and which were not a problem previously.  I know, kind of vague.  Let’s just say I will have to add some language to the project that I thought was somewhat obvious, but you know what they say when you assume. Of course, there was a vigorous discussion on the class site (it’s an online class) about what exactly the assignment was about and I gave numerous examples of possibilities, and there was nothing to stop this student from asking for clarification or from running an idea past me.  Students– particularly college students, particularly college students who are juniors and seniors– have a certain obligation and responsibility to ask questions about assignments they are unclear about.  But that is perhaps beside the point.
  • Another point this student had that I think is valid and that I see all the time is a discrepancy between peer review comments and my comments– in other words, in the peer review process, students say the draft is great, but my comments and grade disagree with that.  This is because too often student comments are not detailed and not constructively critical (e.g. “Great job!  I learned a lot from your essay!  This is perfect in every way!”), and this is generally because students often don’t spend enough time in peer review, and/or also because students are way WAY too nice to each other, even in comparably anonymous online environments.  I think I need to do more to get students to question these overly rosy comments (Derek had some good points about this, btw), but I am completely convinced that the main reason students are not as constructively critical as they could be is because they don’t want to offend anyone or make anyone sad.  I think that if the peer review process was anonymous, then students would give more critical advice.  But that’s an experiment/change for next term.
  • Several years ago, a student who came into my office itchin’ for an argument from me would have gotten it.  Just a few years ago, a student coming into my office to bully me into changing a grade (and I am not accusing this student of that–not exactly– and I am quite sure this student has a very different interpretation of things) probably would have been successful simply because I would have decided it was not worth it.  Nowadays, when students come into my office and yell at me (not that this happens that often), I realize that the problem here is probably not mine.
  • What I object to most is the appeal to grading rubrics and points, a strategy I have quite frankly seen from a number of students who are studying to be K-12 teachers who have had just enough exposure to an undergraduate methods course to be vaguely familiar with the terms “rubric” and “assessment.”  As I told this student the other day, the use of rubrics is complex and debatable, the assignment and peer review process constitute a “rubric” of sorts,  and I would be happy to debate the use of rubrics in writing courses– particularly formal rubrics, and particularly in advanced writing courses– with any one of my colleagues in Education and/or assessment.  The same goes for points.  Assigning points (or percentages, of course) to projects or parts of projects in a class focused on something as leaky, fluid and non-discrete as the writing class is a convenient fiction at best.  Or at least they are convenient fictions when the points/rubrics are not forced upon educators from some sort of outside assessment force.  The kinds of institutional/external assessments that happen in higher education (accreditation, for example) and the sort of fetishized testing and rubrics and assessments forced upon folks in elementary and secondary education are  entirely different kind of convenient fictions.
  • On the other hand, it never ceases to amaze me how magically powerful assigned points and rubrics and the like are.  If I had only accompanied my grade and comments on the final project with a chart listing discreet elements worth a certain number of points, no matter how “made up” and dubious that chart might be, I am quite sure I would not have had the unpleasant conversation I had today.  After all, how could rubrics and points possibly lie?
  • I do have a simple point system that helps me keep track of grades and that helps students to see where they’re at in a course.  The class as a whole is worth 1000 points, participation is worth 200 points, each major project is worth 150 points, etc.  The number doesn’t matter, of course because fundamentally, it’s just a percentage system, and in my view, what really matters is the dialog I usually have with students about their grades, about revising, about improvement, etc..  I have literally taught courses in the past worth 1,000,000 points, and if I were better with numbers, I’d teach a course worth one point.  The points don’t matter because the process (and the percentages, for that matter) doesn’t change.
  • And yet, the power of the point in even my simplistic system is indisputable.  I have conversations with students who are seven points away from a “B” for the term, and when I say to a student in a conference “see, the problem is you are seven points short, so there’s really nothing I can do here, you’re going to get a ‘C+,'” that student inevitably nods and says “yeah, I see you’re point.”  Never once have I had a student stop to think a moment and speak the truth to me:  “Yeah, but you can pretty much give me whatever grade you think you can justify, right?”

What Thanksgiving Gave

Cranberry Sauce

Annette and Will and I had a Thanksgiving of just the three of us and at home for the first time in…. heck, I think the first time ever.  There was one year quite a while ago where I recall Annette’s parents coming to visit us, but otherwise, it has been a 10-12 hour drive to Iowa to see my family or a 12-14 drive to see Annette’s family in South Carolina.  That’s a lot of time to spend in a car in the span of four or five days under any circumstances, but since Thanksgiving comes at what is often the worst possible crunch point of the semester, it is even worse.  Not to mention all the other drivers, the often dicey weather, etc.

Anyway, for circumstances I won’t go into (mainly because they aren’t that interesting or dramatic), what would have been a Krause get-together this year was changed to a New Year’s Christmas, and we were able to spend the time at home.  And I gotta say:  I love my family– both my side and Annette’s side– dearly, but the luxury of having a (relatively) small Thanksgiving at home was excellent. Among other things, I worked on an overdue movie project, I graded lots of things (almost done with that), we did almost all the laundry in the house, we cleaned, ran errands, winterized the backyard a bit more, and slept in.  We watched a lot of different movies, from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to a couple of 1940s Tarzan flicks to Doctor Who, we had a lovely dinner with friends tonight, we watched football (dang Lions, dang Hawkeyes), we worked out at the gym.

And, of course, we ate and cooked.  I can’t remember the last time I cooked a turkey– probably the last time that we had Thanksgiving at home years ago.

Turkey Turkey Turkey

It turned out okay.  My timing was off, so I think I ended up overcooking it a bit, and while I did a brine for about 36 or so hours, I’m not convinced that on this size of bird it was actually worth it.  And I’m not all that crazy about turkey anyway.  Maybe next year, if we’re home again like this (I hope we’re home again like this), I’ll make a Thanksgiving chicken, or maybe Thanksgiving lasagna.

I also attempted a fancy version of green bean casserole by using a really excellent homemade mushroom soup (a Thomas Keller recipe), adding cream to that, and then adding fresh green beans and topping it all with homemade fried onions.  That was a fail, I’m afraid.  The lesson learned here is sometimes the simple things are best, like the humble version with cream of mushroom soup, frozen green beans, and canned fried onions.  Like canned cranberries.

Misc. Browser Links

I’ll post sooner than later (yet this weekend, certainly) about Thanksgiving at home this year, but in the meantime, it’s time once again to post a ton of links to stuff open in my browser that I want to and/or need to come back to sooner than later.  In no particular order here:

I guess I’ve always been a content strategist

The other day, Charlie Lowe posted to the tech-rhet emailing list some information about “Content Strategy” as a new and evolving term in the web business.  Charlie posted this article from A List Apart, “The Discipline of Content Strategy,” and this Google knol page about content strategy.  He also pointed to some books, including Content Strategy for the Web, which lead me to Brain Traffic, which is the operation where Content Strategy for the Web Kristina Halvorson works, and also this presentation from Halvorson on Slide Share.

All this eventually lead me to and a number of purchases:  Halvorson’s book, along with  Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works by Janice “Ginny” Redish and The Web Content Strategist’s Bible: The Complete Guide To A New And Lucrative Career For Writers Of All Kinds by Richard Sheffield.  And there are plenty of other books to find with a “content strategy” search.

Anyway, all this made me contemplate a number of different things.

Continue reading “I guess I’ve always been a content strategist”

A mini CFP for a roundtable at C&W: Blogs are Dead: Yes, No, Maybe, Other

Proposals for the Computers and Writing conference are due tomorrow, and I don’t have a proposal together yet and I’m undecided as to whether or not I should propose something.  Oh, I’ll be going to the conference, of course; but because it is so local– just across town, really– it isn’t going to cost me anything more than registration.  I’m sorta/kinda already involved in the planning, and I’m also sorta/kinda involved in the “unconference” discussions that have been going on about an alternative to the online conference.  And I need another conference presentation on my CV like I need another hole in my head.  So it might be interesting to go to the conference just to, you know, go.

So I’m on the fence here.

But while I was contemplating what to propose (or not propose), I decided that it might be interesting to throw out there something on the end of blogging.  The title I have in my head right now is “Blogs are Dead:  Yes, No, Maybe, Other,” or maybe just “Blogs are Dead:  Yes, No, Other.”  I have some sense of what I would say about that in a 15 or so minute presentation, and it might actually motivate me to do something with my mostly abandoned “Blogs as Writerly Spaces” project.

And then I thought that maybe this would be a fine roundtable sort of presentation that was more of a debate and made up of as many current and former bloggers interested in C&W that I could muster.  I’m imagining something like a 75 minute panel where each participant would have as much time as possible to talk given the need to leave at least 20-30 minutes for discussion.  In other words, if it’s three participants, everyone gets 15 minutes; if it’s 10, everyone gets four and a half minutes; it it’s some number in between 1 and 10, then the time will be somewhere between 15 and four and a half.

So, I emailed a half dozen or so people who have blogs I read occasionally.  I got back some answers rather quickly, though most of these folks are already committed in one fashion or another. So then I thought “hey, why not throw up a blog post that tries to drum up some interest quickly?”

And so I wrote this post.  Which, I should point out, I’m also sharing with the world via the tech-rhet mailing list, Twitter, and Facebook, which I suppose speaks to why I personally think the answer to the question about the death of blogging is both complicated and interesting.

In any event, if you are reading this now, if you do (or you used to) keep a blog, and if you were thinking about going to C&W this year, then it seems to me there’s a chance that you too might be interested in participating in this.  If so, add a comment and/or send me an email, skrause at emich dot edu.  We need to get this together very soon though!