Teaching


When I was at my SLAC, essays were generally due to the professor’s department mailbox at 4pm or 5pm on a Friday. So Fridays were always full of people frantically rushing from computer lab to the faculty office building, worried that turning it in at 4:02 would carry a penalty, or, if it was due at 4:30, that the office would close. (Small college: I think most of the social sciences and humanities were all in one or two buildings.)

Later, I realized that was a trick. The SLAC only had a thirteen-week semester. Professors couldn’t afford to give up a day to a class full of brain-dead students who had their essays to turn in but brought nothing else to class. My graduate university, with a fifteen-week semester, never did this.

So, now when I teach twice-a-week classes, I borrow this technique. But I do “upload to Blackboard by 5pm”, which is a bit easier, and doesn’t assume a residential college where everyone lives within three blocks.

Students seem to appreciate it, even.

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I have never been good at writing essay questions. My handouts for assigned essays when I started teaching basically consisted of “well, we’ve talked a lot about cross-cultural interactions, trade, hierarchy, governance, and some other themes. Come up with something interesting to say about one of those topics.”

Students found this discomfiting.

And I would look at other professors’ essay questions, full of extended hypotheticals such as “Imagine that you are an advisor to Montezuma. Write a defense of the Aztec religion and its tenets against the proselytzing Catholics. Be sure to do X, Y, and Z. Consider A, B, and C…..” and think, “well, that’s much richer and deeper than mine, but it also practically does all the work of outlining the essay for them, and outlining is the hard part that I need to get them to do, so….”

Comments I return on essays go like this:

–[extended discussion of the structure of the essay, intermingled with discussion of the analysis they are making]
–“your sentences are fine, grammatical, good vocabulary.”

I’m actually a pretty decent line-editor, and do a fair bit of scribbling, but it’s just not the priority I think students usually need to focus on. But, you know, I still felt inadequate, so I’ve been writing actual questions lately, and this year I decided to try to extend them and do a bit more set up like I see other professors doing. E.g., if it was a question on how governments deal with problems and people, I tossed in some jazz about the early modern period being the age of the formation of the nation-state.

Result: I confused the students. They were so accustomed to needing to respond to every element of a question, that they thought they needed to say something about nation-states, though it wasn’t part of anything with an actual question mark.

I said in class “the question is a springboard. Your essay is judged against the thesis you develop.” I mean, I was consistently the type of student who spent the introduction rewriting the question into a question I wanted to answer. But it apparently didn’t take.

Anyhow. Any tips? Any links that might be useful? How do you write essay prompts?

Sometimes while reading these scholarship applications I wind up googling things.

Jay Mathews, reporter and editor for Newsweek and the Washington Post, created the top high schools ranking to draw attention to the value of having high school students tackle rigorous, college-level material. He wrote that he believes that is “vitally important for the improvement of America’s high schools.”

He cited studies that found the best way to predict whether students will graduate from college isn’t whether they got good grades in high school, but whether they took “intense” academic classes. Those students were more likely to graduate from college – even if they only scored a 2 on the AP exam.

To send a student off to college without the experience of an AP class and exam, Mathews wrote, “is dumb … educational malpractice. But most American high schools still do it.”

Interesting. Educational malpractice?

Also, I had no idea Newsweek used to rank the 1600 best high schools in the US from 1 to 1600. What a pointless exercise.

TalkingPointsMemo says Tennessee tea partiers are trying to fuck with our history:

“No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”

Sure, no problem.

Washington helped make this country prosperous by supporting slavery, a key element in the wealth of the new nation.

Jefferson made his own personal contribution to “the melting pot”.

Jackson opened the frontier by removing Native Americans from the land.

More (saddening) detail from the Memphis newspaper:

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds, whose website identifies him as a Vietnam War veteran of the Air Force and FedEx retiree who became a lawyer in 1995.

PhD Me at It’s Probably Me:

You know you have good students when you can leave them on their own and they keep having class.

I have actually left class totally unattended for a week while I went to a conference abroad, but they were working on a big research paper, and it was workshop week. So the first class they came to class just to exchange their papers with their partner, and the second class they came and workshopped the papers. I think I found a colleague to take attendance the first day, but not the second day. Mostly freshmen, but a small class, and toward the end of term so some classroom community had developed.

I was clearly pretty anxious—I made the partners exchange every form of communication, and I emphasized that their main priority was not screwing over their partner, and if someone did, I wanted to hear about it.

I didn’t hear any backsplash. I would do it again. Except for the part where I had to read all the research paper drafts in about one day when I got back.

Okay, I’ve mostly worked out my immediate angst about cooking (though I’m not entirely done yet), thank you all for listening and commenting. My current method of trying to become a better cook by just cooking is clearly not moving me forward at all. I’m going for look for local cooking classes, make more use of the Joy of Cooking that’s been on my shelf for 10 years, and maybe invest in a better rice cooker.

By the way—it’s not like I’ve been eating cookout since I left the dorms in 1997. But trying to cook healthy food basically is forcing me to redo everything (since I had a tendency to live on cheese toast. Yum, cheese toast). So I think I will also order the Engine2Diet book, which I read at my sister’s a while back and didn’t object to, and spend more time with it. The desire for health is what scares me off the “my first kitchen” books—I’ll have to check those first.

But here’s a great rant from an software engineer about cooking, who provided my post title. Basically similar to mine, but I think funnier.

Can I still make this recipe? What is the purpose of this ingredient? Why is it in the recipe? Is it critical to the process? Can I do without it? What are the possible substitutes that I could use?

And I think it highlights why I get so angry. When I write assignment handouts for students, I at least apologize for the equivalent of requiring cups of something that is sold by weight in ounces. I mean, yeah, sometimes that’s unavoidable, but I try not to leave them hanging out flapping in the wind. I know that I have a lot of detailed knowledge and certain instincts that I don’t expect them to have. I try to describe and prioritize the necessary function and explain why the form I suggest supports the function, at least in class or feedback if not in the handout. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect recipe writers to do the same, or to feel let down when they don’t.

FLG picked up a quotation I posted, from Fretful Porpentine, and had a little discussion in three parts about teaching writing, and whether the heart of teaching composition ought to be in sentence-level writing, or in expressing logical thoughts (more or less). Presumably in support of his belief we ought to focus on sentences, FLG also posted a conversation with a classmate, which actually proves that his classmate has been taught to focus too much on grammar instead of on communicating quality ideas effectively.

Anyhow, it reminded me of a thesis defense (undergrad) I once had. I was third reader on the thesis, which was not at all good and clearly required substantial revisions before we would accept it.*

She should not have defended, of course. I have a tendency to let students defend, because:

  • rescheduling a defense at short notice is a big-ass hassle
  • a student who defends without being ready is often under-advised, and the defense becomes a moment when she gets some really good feedback and all three professors can touch base about problems, which the defense question and answer does a good job of diagnosing quite precisely
  • I’ve seen students redeem a bad thesis with a strong defense, and fixes sometimes consist of “re-organize along the structure of your presentation and incorporate everything you just said and the answers to the questions we asked you”

But, anyhow: in addition to needing more research and context, her writing was all over the place—sentences didn’t make sense, word choice was terrible, she had organized the thesis around her evidence, not her ideas, points were made that connected to points established five pages away, etc.** So my recommendation was that she really needed to focus on the structure—nail down what each section was supposed to argue, keep each paragraph focused on a single idea, and then it would be much easier to compose logical sentences, when she knew what she was aiming for. Grammar would come naturally from clear thinking.

My colleague—also a historian, maybe five or ten years older than me but not substantially a different generation—thought the exact opposite. Focus on each sentence, get it grammatical, and that would clarify the ideas and a logical structure would evolve naturally from that.

I still think he’s wrong, of course, particularly for that thesis, but it was interesting to see the gulf.

*Stu Dent did not help her case by giving us a coffeeshop gift card along with the thesis, just before her defense. Not gonna fix a bad thesis, honey.


**I was kinda pissed, because I’d actually taught her in a history class a couple years back. I went back into the typed comments on essays that I had given her then, pulled out feedback that applied to her thesis, and wrote her a nasty letter about how I had already told her she needed to stop making these mistakes—which of course I did not give to her. But it let me blow off some anger, so I was nicer in the defense.

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