Thursday, June 21, 2007

What English Professors Do

On Aantares, the news discussion bulletin board I administer, there's an ongoing lively discussion between liberal and conservative voices, with the conservs, as they are wont to do, often citing David Horowitz (I'll pass on linking to him) and railing against the lib stranglehold on academia.

With that in mind, I recently started a thread called What Libs Really Do In Academia, and I linked to a blog by AcadeMama, who discussed an assignment she'd given to a class in the Southern college where she teaches, where homophobia is pretty much a fact of life. The assignment was

to attend the not- too- far- away Gay Pride Parade in Very Large Town. They weren't given any agenda. Go. Check it out. Talk to people if they wanted. Observe. That kind of thing. Then, the only thing they had to do was to write thoughtfully and critically about the event (8 pgs. or so), how it reinforced/changed any previous assumptions they may have had about the queer community, straight people, consumerism, political activism (these are just a few of the prompts I provided, but they were free to take their own line of questioning).

She describes some of the approaches taken by her students:

One of the main comments was how "corporate sponsored" the event was. Many of them - and these are 18 & 19 yr old straight kids from small-ish country towns - said that it seemed like much of the purpose and political goals of the event were overshadowed by the fact that it was just another event at which to party and spend lots of money.

Another student commented, in response to one of the writing prompts that addressed hatred/discrimination, that she'd seen two lesbians holding a small girl (presumably their child), and the girl's hair had been buzzed and she was wearing the rainbow shirt. In the student's response, she suggested that this instance was no different than watching two parents take their child to a white pride rally, because the child was in effect being "brainwashed" from the start. She wasn't really being given the option of not supporting the event, and for the student, this was a problem.

Academama states that "Now, these responses received no feedback from me. As long as the writing was complete, thoughtfully, organized, etc. the student got the extra credit."

One of the Aantares regulars commented,

Now, Tad... a question for you... really the question the AcadeMama raised but didn't answer... should she have responded to the the students' writing?

If I were in her position, I'm not sure I could have limited my remarks strictly to the mechanics of the writings... but if I were one of her students, I'd be plenty displeased to put together 8+ pages of writing and receive only a, in effect, pass/fail feedback.

What would you have done...?

My response:

If it were me, and I'm sure it was the same for this professor, I would give feedback on a bunch of things. I'd start with the lead paragraph, because I always do. Is it well-constructed? Does it state the thesis? Is it well-written, because if people don't like your first paragraph, they aren't going to read the second. I would hold my students to the standard I always set for them in a writing class -- you have to establish yourself as a trustworthy guide. You have to let the reader know that you are the person to whom he/she should be listening, in regards to this subject. That means don't start out by saying something like "A Gay Pride parade is a very interesting subject to observe."

I'd critique them on their ability to stay on subject, to keep developing the subject, to avoid repeating themselves.

I'd critique them on the way they presented their observations. This is a paper on a live, first-person observation of an event, so I'd want to see real details of observation. Did it appear to be corporate sponsored, and a way of getting people to spend money? What were some of the corporations represented? What were some of the things for sale? Were they overpriced? Did the event seem -- on the basis of observation of the participants -- to be primarily drawing upscale, money-spending guppies?

And since this an 8-page paper, I'd probably want them to do some background research. What are the kinds of criticisms that are leveled at parents bringing their kids to a white power rally? What are your sources? Are you documenting those sources in proper MLA style? What parallels can you draw between one event and the other, and what's your logic?

Did these students just observe from the sidelines, or did they interview people? What do you think of the corporate sponsorship of this event? How is bringing your child to this event different from bringing her to white power event?

And I'd talk about the quality of the writing, especially redundancy, because that's a huge problem in student papers -- padding them by saying the same thing over and over, rather than developing them.

One thing I would not do, ever, is to tell them that their theories based on observation are wrong -- this event is about Gay Pride, not consumerism; there's no connection between bringing a child to a Gay Pride event and a white power event, and I'm giving you a D for suggesting it. Never ever. And I have no respect for any teacher who would. And I know they're out there. I hear about them, from other students.

Here's a little horror story from years ago. A freshman comp instructor - colleague came to me, in a state of high dudgeon, and asked me to read a paper a student had turned in to her. The subject was "My Most Memorable Experience" -- not a subject I would ever assign, but that's neither here nor there. Anyway, if you ask a bunch of 18-year-olds to write about their most memorable experience, there's always the chance that they'll tell the truth. And this one boy had done just that. And he'd done it tastefully, not bragging, not exploitive. His language was appropriate to a paper for school. Anyway, she had given him a D, and didn't I think she was right?

Well, what was I going to say? I stood up for the kid as best I could, but she sure didn't want to hear it. And -- I'm not sure that this should make any difference, but this particular instructor looked like a hippie earth mother type, with the long black hair and peasant blouses and beads and so on...well, as I say, I don't know if it should make a difference. But everything makes a difference.

Students learn this pretty quickly. There are some professors you can be open with, and some whom you have to give what they want, whether it's an interpretation of "The Mill on the Floss" or a theory of feminist history. And there are others who aren't that rigid.


AcadeMama said...

The only clarification I think it useful to mention is that this wasn't an a traditional
"assignment." Rather, it was an extra credit opportunity. Nobody was required to go. In fact, I had one student who was quite adamant that she had very good reasons to not go, but thought she should have equal opportunity at the extra credit points. As a compromise, since she was willing to only fulfill half of the opportunity - the writing portion - I offered her up to half of the extra credit points.

Its extra credit status is also one of the main reasons I didn't offer extensive comments on their papers.

And as a side note, several of the students actually brought back "evidence" and "support" for their comments vis a vis bags full of souvenirs, product ads, print ads, photos (one posed with two men in leather outfits). The students who went got much more involved than I thought they would, and their responses were generally quite thoughtful. The female student who went made it a point to comment on how "safe" she felt there. *This* was a teaching/learning moment for me, as I'd never considered the safety dynamic in terms of gender difference at this particular type of event. I think such an observation, and its following discussion in her paper, was unique and sophisticated.

Tad Richards said...

I'd say they're lucky to have you.

wwwmama said...

Interesting discussion. I've also given extra credit assignments like this but usually open it up to a variety of events, letting students choose. I have no qualms about suggesting one that I think they should see though. When I raise such issues in my writing classroom, I always frame it around the writing and the point of the exercise (critical thinking, persuasion, etc.)