Assigned Interest

While Annette and Will and I are vacationing on a trip to Florida over the Xmas holiday to visit my in-laws, I have been spending a lot of time planning my teaching for the winter (what everyone else calls the spring) term, especially English 516. The planning makes me nervous though in a good way. I haven’t taught the class for two years, and I’m looking forward to getting back into it, but I’m facing two basic challenges. First, this is a class that ages quickly, so there’s a lot new with this syllabus. Second, I am going far out onto a limb and including a longish unit where we will be participating in the Coursera MOOC “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” being done by folks at the University of Edinburgh. It’s going to be very meta: an online class about writing and technology will take another online class about learning and technology and then talk about the experience both as students in that class and in this class. I think it will work out, though since I don’t quite know what those folks will be doing, there’s a lot of guess work on my part. Stay tuned.

Anyway, one of the things I came across while doing all of this planning is “Grading in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” by Claire “Tenured Radical” Potter. She makes a lot of good points; here’s my favorite part:

This year I also had a new thought, as I read my own papers, and also peeked at pitiful Facebook status updates by colleagues grading across the land:

Why do we assign students papers that we don’t actually want to read?

This led me to a second question:

If we don’t want to read the papers we assign, why would our students have any interest in writing them?

Then I came to yet another question:

Do the students not sense this lack of interest in their writing by many of their teachers, and might this not have something to do with the indifference they themselves sometimes display to the quality of their own work? 

And finally, I thought, if what we are seeing here is a national game of “garbage in, garbage out,” then:

Could this be one of the constellation of reasons that students plagiarize and purchase papers? I mean, given the choice between baking a cake and buying one for someone who doesn’t give s damn about cake, would you bake or buy?

I would buy. Unless I thought I would be caught, and then I would bake. Grudgingly. And I wouldn’t worry about filling in all the cracks with icing.

For the most part, I agree with all of this, which is why I try (though it doesn’t always work out that way– see below) to not do this, and as my years in the classroom build up, I am more and more comfortable with only assigning things I am likely to want to grade or at least read. Case in point: I decided to not to assign a long (15-20 page) researched seminar paper in 516. It might be the standard deliverable for English department graduate courses everywhere, but students too often come up short in these papers (and I don’t blame them for this), they are probably not fun to write, and they are frequently not much fun to read. So instead, I’m assigning a number of shorter essays, blog posts, and a shorter seminar paper, something of a length that might (hypothetically) be good for a journal like Present Tense.

But I don’t think this is a complete solution and I think there are some alternative answers other than the ones that Potter is clearly implying. For example, why do we assign student papers/essays we don’t actually want to read? I can think of at least three reasons why I’ve done this:

  • I felt like the assignment was something students should do/should demonstrate in writing because it was “good for them” in the way that something like pushups or medicine is “good for you even though you really don’t want to do/take it.
  • A certain stubbornness and/or wishful thinking. I have given writing assignments that I was so convinced should work that I kept on trying them over and over, thinking things would be different the next time. This becomes all the worse when there is one student out of 20 or 30 who completely nails it, which fools me into thinking that it must be a worthwhile assignment.
  • I didn’t have a choice. I can think of plenty of assignments I had to give as a graduate assistant or part-timer that I thought wasn’t a great idea but which I dutifully assigned and graded because I was told to do so. Heck, I’m a full professor and there are still some assignments I give because I am required to do so.

Are these “forced assignments” the reason as to why students are often “indifferent” to their own writing to the point of plagiarism or worse? Certainly that is potentially a reason, particularly for plagiarism in my view. But again, I can think of at least two other reasons to explain why indifferent, bad, and plagiarized writing sometimes happens with even the best of assignments:

  • Students have different priorities– or a lack thereof– when it comes to a particular set of assignments. These different priorities might be understandable (e.g., the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet might not be able to spend as much time as I would prefer on that essay) or inexcusable (e.g., the beer pong tournament enthusiast), but the point is school in general and my class in particular is often enough just not high on the list for a lot of students.
  • Students have different interests. Or another way of putting it: just because I think an assignment is interesting and engaging and is asking for something worth writing or reading doesn’t mean my students will think the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong– I think Potter is about 70-75% right and it is probably best to think of assignments as “treatments” that must be administered no matter how painful for everyone involved. But no matter how interesting and inviting the assignment, there’s nothing I can do if a student isn’t interested in writing about something that might be interesting.

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