Monday, April 13, 2009

You Wrote This Because You Hate Me or Grading the Research Essays of College Freshmen

“Words are something; but to be exposed to an endless battery of mere sounds to be long dying; to lie stretched upon a rack of roses; to keep up langour by unintermitted effort…these are faint shadows of what I have undergone.”
--Charles Lamb, “A Chapter on Ears”

Ask any teacher. Grading is the most frustrating aspect of the art. Rarely is it a satisfying symphony of what they’ve learned but a mettlesome reminder of what they haven’t. This past week I’ve graded a heap of poorly written, half-plagiarized research essays. And never have I been more burdened by the process of marking up papers.

I can’t understand how things I tested them on less than 2 months ago cannot be transferred to writing. I know I’m not teaching English majors or even English enthusiasts, and I understand that they aren’t going to approach essay writing with much gusto. But I can attribute so many of their problems to lack of effort or careless attention to detail. Those things have little to do with writing talent or high school teaching.

I’m starting to realize that what I do for an expository writing class I’m going to have to do for a research one. That means I’m going to provide them with a very rigid structure and very specific rules. I won’t be able to control their languid research, which is where most of their problems arise, but I will be at least be able to take out some of the overwhelming aspects of it by giving them a very clear vision of what I want their papers to look like. That should help a little bit.

Unfortunately, I can't supervise how much work they’re going to put into their research. No matter what rules I put in place, they always find a way to circumvent them and avoid accomplishing what the rules were intended to help them achieve. I can put restrictions on the types of sources they can use (no websites, nothing that doesn’t have an author, etc.), which can force them to do more work than they normally do. But even that won’t combat completely what I’m trying to eliminate: laziness and apathy.

Hmmm…Maybe I should institute an annotated bibliography.

The Raw Material in All Its Rawness: Lectures on Frost & Eliot's Poetry

"Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?"
--T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference"
--Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

There’s something funny about literature classes. I know the modus operandi for most professors is to induce discussion through though-provoking questions. But all my best professors were lecturers who spoke much and asked little. So that’s what I do. Sometimes class discussions spill forth naturally like a beer stein that’s been filled without regard to the ubiquitous foam. I enjoy the talking and the questioning.

I’ve just learned best from lectures, and I do believe that well done lecturing can be just as effective as any other classroom format. It depends mostly on the talents of the given teacher.

Well, last week I taught Robert Frost in my American Lit class. And I was amazed at how many students felt compelled to offer explanations for what he said and theories to what he meant. With the exception of a brave few, they are content to let me speak. But something about Frost invites them to speak out. His open-ended poems, his colloquialisms, his disarming use of meter encourages students to see his work less as a verbal labyrinth and more as an invitation to talk.

Obviously, part of his appeal is that, like certain epics, we feel as if we’ve somehow heard them before even if we haven’t. “Fire and Ice,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” seem to inject into students a measure of loquaciousness often reserved for post-class chatter w/ their friends. For students, Frost’s contemporary T.S. Eliot does not receive the same level of enthusiasm. Though I find Eliot’s anthologized work more fun to dig through, I’m careful not to mistake accessibility with simplicity.

I’ve read more of Eliot, enjoy him more, and am tempted to pronounce him the superior poet. But I must be fair to Frost, and I must remember both sat down with different objectives in mind. Simply saying one is better than the other would be like saying that group discussions are better teaching methods than lectures. Both are potentially effective means of teaching, but so much depends on the teacher’s abilities and the students’ sensibilities. Declaring one to be clearly better than the other is to wrongly characterize an objective standard. Comparing the two is like comparing the drawings of an engineer and an architect.

Perhaps Frost v. Eliot isn’t the best way to discuss them, perhaps the best way is to juxtapose them and let the similarities and differences fall where they may. Maybe poetry, like teaching methods, are best when you have them working in the hands of respective masters, not comparing them in a conversation that isn’t really about what you’re discussing in the first place.