I realize now that my most recent efforts to present students with opportunities to be creative and hopefully then learn more than they might otherwise from researching and writing run-of-the-mill prose, as well as other changes to some required work, are going to remain works in progress for some time to come. First, to save me and my students from the tedious bits that might drag down the average short- or medium-length essay, I offered a pair of alternatives as 1) a short midterm assignment and 2) a medium end of term assignment. The success of each has been really mixed.
The short assignment: a book report (1 each term for my year-long classes). You can read the destructions for those here. The medium assignment: a journal (interim submission in Decemeber, final submission in April) And you can read the destructions for that here. Additionally, as the result of repeated pleading from both year-long classes, I went over my expectations for these assignments in class, more than once, and dedicating almost an entire class to them more than once, fielding each and every student question about them.
The book reports were almost entirely as expected. Weak prose and mostly weak reflection and analysis. (25/60 wrote on Night by Elie Wiesel – that one is coming off the list for next time, sorry Donna). Curiously, everybody, save 1 or 2, took the narrative option and chose to leave the required report on a scholarly work for next term. It’s pretty clear that they have very little idea how to conduct some research1 (though undoubtedly several simply are not inclined to put in the effort). Still, I’m left deflated when I think back on the youngins fitful (and either purple or saccharine) attempts to treat Wiesel’s Holocaust experience with enough gravity and an empathy they know they do not possess but cannot properly acknowledge by expression.
The worst problem2 with the book reports – not terribly many of them, but enough – was the authors’ failure to follow some of the instructions and that is to say the authors’ taking report to mean review, even when I expressly said:
FYI: this is not a book review a la amazon.com. Therefore, you should avoid certain subjective observations about the work under analysis – for example, comments about how relatively easy or difficult the work was to read, excessively emotional responses to the work, and similar ‘editorializing’ really have no place in your report.
I had a really hard time keeping the bile out of my comments when I was told, more than once, that a certain work is a literary achievement because it’s eezee 2 reed, not 2 complukated, don’t use 2 many big wurdz!1!
The journals were a real mixed success. I succeeded in inspiring a degree of creativity in some students. Some put together various kinds of mixed media presentations; some made simple scrapbooks, some made pretty complex scrapbooks, of collected news and such plus the required commentary. However, the really dismal efforts were not only short on acquired content but very often also formed of self-righteous professions of their authors’ great piety or self-righteous condemnations of the values, beliefs and practices of others. (Fortunately, no one went off about the Muslims or the Jews – it was mostly evangelical sorts who came in for that treatment.)3 Otherwise, lots of truthiness: “I know that certain religious traditions believe X.”
I have to take some responsibility for the poor results, or rather they must seem to me understandable. For after all the class discussion about the acceptability of personal opinion in the journals, I had to expect some folks were going to give lots of their opinions a full airing. But what part of qualifications like “considered,” “substantiated,” and “informed” for those opinions didn’t they understand? I mean, I even went so far as to drag out that cliché, just to get the attention of kids, “opinions are like assholes, everybuddy’s got one!”
The gem out of the IMHOs? On an entry about the Duggar family and an episode of their show about the courtship of their eldest son: “Imagine never kissing your spouse before marriage, or groping their ‘junk’. Never having a sleep over. Wow!”
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And so I’m beginning to realize that I’m going to have to continue to work on the formal elements of assignments, and I’m probably going to have to devote some more time grading and also probably spread hunks of that time more evenly over a term. I mean, I think I’m going to have to assign, minimally and to begin with, a paragraph which subsequent to my evaluation students will have to rewrite. Then I’ll have to work on simple 3-5 paragraph descriptive essays, then argumentative essays. Then get them to 5 and more pages. Or some such scradgedy.4
1I have admitted that I’m really not up to shepherding students through any decent literary types of analyses. And my efforts to direct students to lines of research – religiously oriented was the aim – in connection with fiction or memoir or biography, logically, was stunted. But sending the student to research cargo cults to inform her reading of Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun seemed like a useful avenue (turned out, it wasn’t for that student).
2Well, ok, much more trouble with the format and such things as my directions to identify the author, the intended audience, etc. which I seem to be unable to explain well enough for students to get fine and meaningful results.
3I got this gem as media in one journal (which the author received in an email from her grandmother!):
Finally, Someone Has Cleared This Up For Me.
For centuries, Hindu women have worn a spot on their foreheads. We have always naively thought that it had something to do with their Religion.
The Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C has recently revealed the true story.
When a Hindu woman gets married, she brings a dowry into the union. On her wedding night, the husband scratches off the spot to see whether he has won a convenience store, a gas station, a donut shop or a motel in the United States. If not, he must take a job in India answering telephones giving technical advice.
ISYN, she comments:
One good thing to note about this email, is that its travelling around North America. This says something about our curiosity of other religions in the world.
The rest is also so oblivious that I don’t know if she simply didn’t understand or actually thinks there are prizes under bindis.
Oh, right, I forgot, this is the same woman who thinks Jews (among others) are irreligious if they don’t adhere to the strictest legal and religious prescriptions of their tradition.
4I tried one other new thing this term and I’m not inclined to repeat it. Each of my end of term exams had as 50% of their content 2 essays chosen from 4 topics. Since performance on this part of exams has been rather poor in the past, I decided I would provide the topics to the students in all three classes in advance and instruct them to prepare whichever two they preferred. I’m not fucking kidding, the results were worse than before.