Monthly Archives: June 2007

Sometimes its hard not to think my students are brainless.

I know, I know. I’ve been going on about what a great class they are, but today, it was like they were all braindead.

Maybe it was my fault for showing a film first, but I thought it was going to spark some discussion. They were all unusually quiet as they sat in the dark, apart from some really odd rustling noises. I know my class is at lunchtime, but usually they are good about not bringing in a lot of food, and I did particularly mention no smelly food. Today, it was like someone had warm limburger sandwiches, or something. Seriously, what a funk.

I thought the material in Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly would provoke some good discussion, it usually does. Today, even the big talkers, Mindy, Doug and Amy were quiet and unfocussed. There was a lot of muttering. “…killing…where was…killing.” We’ve discussed metaphors before, and normally they are really good with nuances.

Guy, who sits at the back next to the lights is usually great with the switches, but today he wouldn’t turn the lights on even when I asked him too. “Do you want to open the blinds?” I asked the students sitting on the other side of the room, but there was no response. Fine. I’m cool; we can have our class discussion in the dark. I was starting to feel like there might have been something wrong, but I couldn’t work out what it was. I asked what they thought of the film. Nothing.

“So, do you think advertising does have an effect on your body image?” I asked brightly, trying to spark some dialogue. It was like they didn’t understand the question. They kept talking about brains. Some of them were looking at me very intently. If a class won’t talk, I will babble in self defence, hoping that they will respond. The uncanny silence unnerved me. I kept wondering what they were thinking, and what had changed, but even direct questions elicited nothing more than silent nods or shakes of the head.

There was an odd thunk at the back of the room at one point, and Ben was picking something up off the floor – for a second, it looked like he was picking up his own hand, but it must have been his textbook.

I ended class early, which is really unusual with this group, who will normally keep arguments going for as long as there is class time. They seemed oddly attentive, and after class a number of them clustered around me. “Can I help you with something?” I asked, but there was no response. It was just like they wanted to be around me, like I had something they wanted.

I was a bit irritated, especially since they hadn’t been willing to co-operate in class discussion at all. So, I dismissed them with a tart admonition to make sure they did their reading for tomorrow. Just because it is the end of semester is no reason to completely zone out.

What was this about? 

The one bad apple.

Although I can see in theory the value of having students in a composition class do peer review on one another’s essays, in practice I find that it is generally a huge flop. They don’t bring their drafts, or they complain that they “don’t know how” to make helpful suggestions. After several semesters of experimentation (making it worth marks, offering incentives, begging), I now don’t bother with peer review.

However, there are circumstances in which it can work, I discovered today. My students all have their knickers in a degree of twist over their essays which are due soon. Yesterday in class I said, “We’ll talk about editing strategies,” and a couple of students actually asked if they could bring their drafts in. “Well, hell yeah, if you actually want to,” I said (this is more of a paraphrase, actually), thinking I would devote the last 20 or so minutes of class to a short peer editing session.

So when I got to class today, there they all were (only 2 missing: the girl who won’t participate in group work, and the guy who doesn’t have a topic yet), and what’s more they all had drafts of their essays. Some of them were alreading talking to one another about what they had written. Well. I dumped my class plan, and we had a short discussion on editing strategies, and the difference between helpful, structural editing and proofreading, and I then let them have the rest of the time for peer review. I said “come and talk to me about your specific questions. I won’t read your essays, but I will look at specific sentences and paragraphs, and I will help with citation.”

With one exception, they all got to work reading and discussing, and they asked me intelligent questions. At the risk of repeating myself, I will just say again how much I lurve my class this semester. And I learned that peer review works when you have a class full of intelligent keeners.

Now, with all that for context, I will go on to whine about the one exception in the group.

First, some background. V has been struggling with the standards for the class all semester. If she had turned up to either of the first two classes, I would probably have advised her to take the lower level class, but we missed that boat. She has a real chip on her shoulder about writing, too, which adds to the layers of difficulty she has with the assigned tasks. In class discussion, she has some good ideas, but she isn’t the best listener, and she tends to have trouble with organising her thoughts. So.

In class a week ago, I had students share their ideas for their thesis statements, and then we discussed how the statements could be improved. Some of them were quite reluctant at first, but as it became clear that actual help was being offered, more of them volunteered. Then it was V’s turn. She read a really vague paragraph that wandered around the topic but never quite got there. So I asked if anyone had any comments; there were a couple firm but fair “I don’t get which parts of that are your actual thesis” comments. Then Doug – one of those great big guys who looks scary but turns out to be a great writer and a really nice person – said “Here, I think what you need to say is this:” and he just blurted out the best encapsulation of her ideas. “Fantastic!” I said. “Write that down, V,” and then we talked about why Doug’s sentence worked as a thesis. Five minutes later, at the end of the discussion, V muttered “I don’t see why his sentence was better than mine.”

The next day, V was missing from class when we had an in-class essay. I thought she was probably in a snit, and wondered if she would be back. The next class she turned up with her assignment. Now, I have a very clear rule that in-class work cannot be excused or given an extension without prior notice, which V had not provided.

I asked her to bring me a copy of her course outline, and pointed to the relevant paragraph. She read the following paragraph, and then looked at me, puzzled. So I pointed again. “Well, that’s not fair; I never read that.” Possibly true, but I pointed out that the rule had been discussed in class, and that she had also been explictly instructed to read her course outline and ask me if she had any questions, since she missed the first two classes. Of course, she had a big rant about how unfair it all was, and how I was ruining her GPA. I explained that the rule applied to everyone, and that no one else had been allowed to make up an assignment unless they followed my guidelines.

Unable to argue further along that line, she then went into a rant about how long she was spending on her assignments. Dude, that’s just ridiculous. Work smarter not harder. I tried to make some suggestions; I said, “I’ve been trying to help you; remember I sat with you last time we had an in-class and went over your work and told you how to improve it?” Grudging acknowledgement. She didn’t actually implement most of my suggestions, but I refrained from rubbing that in. Given all of that, I suggested that she go immediately and make an appointment with the learning centre for help with her major essay.

So, with all of that previous history, V came up to me in the editing class and said “Can you read through my essay and check it?” Well, no. Didn’t I just specifically say I wouldn’t do that? Had she made an appointment at the learning centre? She had not. Had she asked Doug or anyone else in the class to read her essay, since that was what we were doing? She had not.

“You are my teacher,” she said, “It is your job to help me.”

I had to concentrate really hard to remember the 19 other people in the room at that moment, all working, all coming to me for appropriate amounts of help, all trying to do their best to write good essays they could be happy with.

On spiritual kindred, or kindred spirits.

I’ve been having a tough time emotionally lately, and for various reasons I haven’t really wanted to talk about it much to my Real Life colleagues and family members. In the spirit of not using my blog just to whine about Feckless and his Mongolian Floozy, I am not going to talk about it here, either. What I really wanted to write about was about the nature of online friendships, and how interestingly intimacy and anonymity interact.

I’ve developed some really interesting online frienships with people I know from a particular forum; I liked what they had to say, and maybe we also hung out in chat together, or exchanged messages or emails. These friendships are based originally on a meeting of the minds; they are with people who are so separated from me in age, or geography (or both) that there is no way we would have met, let alone become friends in a real life situation, but that impossibility is part of what makes me treasure these intimacies. I pick these people to be friends with because we share some essential similarities – they make me laugh; they make me think about stuff; we don’t need a history together, all we need are common interests and philosophies.

In real life, we meet people, and we share experiences, and we have some stuff in common, but often, I find, with real life friends, you make allowances for opinions and personality traits that piss you off. My best friend at university was a vet student who was great fun, but gradually became less and less of a kindred spirit as time passed and the things I dismissed as her annoying quirks became more and more central to her personality. Sometimes we hang on to these kinds of friends – I only really dropped the Vet because I moved to a different country. If we still lived in the same city, we would probably still hang out occasionally.

Work friends you like because of proximity, and for me, because I like to exchange ideas at work, and I spend part of my day hanging out. Apparently, this makes me “a good colleague,” according to my Chair. I like the a lot of my colleagues, but I also know that if I quit my job tomorrow, I would never bother to talk to the majority of them again, and I wouldn’t feel that as a huge loss.

Online friends for me are a matter of pure choice. There’s no social obligation attached, really, and people come and go much more freely than they do in real life (big showy exits are more frequent in online communities, but so are quiet, creeping returns). Silence is much more common, and sometimes its hard to know how to interpret it – if your real life friends hang up or stop calling, it is a big deal, but online friends might just have had computer trouble or borken internets.

People who don’t have an online social life say stuff like “but how do you know if what they tell you about themselves is true?” which is a fair point in evaluating friendships according to real life criteria. However, I’m quite happy to have a friendship with an online persona, and not trouble myself too much about how true it is to the “real” person. If your persona is much more fun and interesting and intelligent than your real self, I think maybe that says something about the quality of “real” life, rather than something about honesty.

We all create online selves; we reveal what we want to reveal, but if what you show me of yourself is something I like, why should I be too worried about whether you are a married mother of 4 who claims to be a younger woman or a single 30-something who pretends to be an old guy?

Likewise, maybe the quality of the support network offered by online friendships is not the same as “real” friends who bring you icecream or help you move house, or babysit your spawn when you are desperate, but on the other hand, I have felt hesitant about talking to my “real” friends who have known me forever, and always seen me as part of a “perfect” couple about Feckless’ shenanigans. Online friends, with that relative degree of anonymity, can be excellent listeners.

I never really believed in that old saw about how it is much easier to talk to strangers than to people you know, but I think it is easier to talk to people who don’t have to know all the extraneous details of my life, who don’t know Feckless, and who can perhaps also bring a degree of objectivity (or a degree of “rah, rah!” if that is what is needed) to the situation.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying – e-pals, I really appreciate your support. SJ, Surely, Lorelei, witch, reggiko, Annan, and yes, even Pescado: I appreciate your friendship. Readers, I appreciate your potential friendship; feel free to say hi.