NOTE: I wrote this early last week with the intention of revising it and posting the finished version on Saturday. Then we had an interesting weekend, which I will probably post about later, and now I don’t feel like doing anything more with this. So, here’s the exercise: the post below is a first draft (seriously, one run-through, no later editing); there’s a lot wrong with it, you tell me how you would fix it up. What ideas are worth saving, how should they be re-written? I’m tired of being the teacher, and I’m shamelessly putting it off onto you. Let me know in the comments what should be done (and maybe I’ll actually do it and re-post a finished version later).
Lately, my students have all been working on their last projects for the summer semester. Both my English 100 and my English 101 classes are working on fairly hefty research papers, and they’ve reached that point in the semester that always comes around when there’s not much more for me to lecture about. I mean, there’s always more I could lecture about, but I’ve hit the major objectives for the course that can be addressed by me standing in front of them waving my arms, talking too fast and too excitedly, and drawing strange diagrams on the board.
It’s one of my favorite times of the semester, because at this point, they’re working on drafts and revisions and final portfolios; and everyone is at a slightly different level still. So my job becomes more of a tutor than a teacher. I spend class time wandering around from student to student discussing their research, thesis statements, claims, evidence, organization, or structure. It reminds me of my time working at sonic: it’s a little hectic, questions pop up as quickly as I can answer them, I spin around looking for who called me. It’s fun. But it’s also much deeper than making the perfect grilled chicken wrap, because with each student I have to look at what they’ve written, look for what they’ve tried to write, look for the idea buried in the mess of their language, and help them extract it. And sometimes it’s a really tough problem that I get to ask questions about and help them form their ideas. That’s a really fun experience, watching them wrestle with their own ideas, struggling to find the right words that fit their innate impressions of a topic, seeing them realize what they had taken for granted, watching them question their assumptions and definitions, helping them find terms to make those things clear to an audience.
The key to all of this, I think, is that by this time of the semester, they have acquired the right vocabulary. All of those lectures and exercises and strange diagrams have been (hopefully) establishing the right terms and ideas for us to talk about writing. So now, all of it gets to come to bear on a specific piece of writing in front of us together. What that means is that I can point to a paragraph and say something like “there’s some good ideas here, but this paragraph isn’t developed. It’s a list of claims, not a single, focused, idea.” And my students know what I mean, I know they know what I mean, and (Oh, happy day) they have the mental and linguistic tools in their heads to fix it. They know, in that situation, that they need to choose one of the claims in their paragraph and focus on it. They need to explain it in detail, relate it to their thesis, and give examples or other evidence to make it real.
The point is, that the last 8 weeks have been all about giving us the right values, framework, and vocabulary to do what needs to be done in writing. And now we get to have fun using it. It’s like gameday after months of practice. It’s exciting because my students can look at things I see and see them in the same way–or, they can understand what I say to them to help them see it that way.
It’s also a little bit depressing though, because at this point of the semester, there’s always a few students whom I sit down with and I can tell, after a few minutes, that they’ve missed something in the last few weeks. They have the wrong value system, they have the wrong paradigm, they don’t have the vocabulary for a certain aspect of their writing, and it’s almost too late to help them find it again.
I have a certain philosophy of teaching that assumes the students who have failed in my classes are not solely responsible for their condition. There’s a lot of forces working against them, and not all of them are under their control, and not all of them are under my control. But this is my job, and if they haven’t succeeded in learning the material, then it seems inescapable to me that that is always at least partly my fault.