good attitudes about crappy possibilities · video

Saving the World

At a time when the question of why the humanities matter is repeated daily, when reports on the success of its graduates go unheeded, when program prioritization processes almost invariably reveal that arts and humanities programs are the last of the university’s priorities, when libraries and archives are being decimated by the federal government, it’s nice to be reminded that the humanities could indeed save the world:

being undone · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · good things · saving my sanity · video

Academic Spring

When the weather turned nice, briefly, this week, I dragged a colleague out to grab a cup of tea on campus, and instead of taking the tunnels and our coats, we walked outside. I breathed in the smell of melting snow and wet earth and dry sand and warm sun.

“Spring is my least favourite season,” I blurted out. “It just makes me so anxious!”

I surprised myself saying it, but it’s true! Since high school, I’ve associated this time of year with fast approaching deadlines for materials I’d been wildly procrastinating on for month. Spring is not new beginning for scholars: it’s a time of reckoning. I did my BA at York, which has eight-month courses, so spring was the culmination of everything, and that usually meant desperation, panic, and last-minute calculation of possible grade outcomes. Ugh. Of course, every April also meant packing up all my worldly belongings and moving back to Kirkland Lake for the summer: not really an awesome prospect. Deadlines and impending uprooting! Spring! What’s not to love! Similar angst accompanied my MA and PhD coursework years: constant apartment moving, and lots of deadlines, and waiting for results from SSHRC!

My colleague has worked as a sessional instructor for a long time: her spring, she notes, is marked usually by enormous piles of grading and total uncertainty as to employment status two weeks hence. Contingent labour in the academy, I imagine, must feel as mixed up about spring as I vestigially do.

We’ve written here before about the marvellous opportunities, the spring-like rebirth that September offers us. Well, I guess April can sometimes be the reverse.

I’ve got no reason to dread spring any more. I own my own home, so I’m not moving anywhere. I have a steady job. I do have a lot of conference paper deadlines, but I get to travel and that always excites me. I just reflexively panic, still, when the snow melts and the trees bud.

You too?

As an antidote to the spring heebie-jeebies, I offer you a video–a lip dub I made with my yoga studio friends and teachers at Queen Street Yoga. It’s full of sunshine and smiles and happy music, and it might make you smile as you grade / write / move / job hunt.

ideas for change · learning · syllabus · teaching · video

I already know your grade: an argument for shorter writing assignments

Here’s a secret: in 99% of the cases, whenever I grade a writing assignment, I know the grade within the first page. It doesn’t matter if the assignment calls for 400 or 4000 words. The page one judgement is usually just reinforced by the other 1-20 pages.

Yes, that’s right. I read page one, a grade forms itself in my head, I read the rest of the paper, and the page one grade is the one I use. Some asking around indicates that I’m not the only one who experiences the page one effect while grading.

So my suggestion to you is this: why don’t we just create shorter writing assignments for our students? If the quality of writing and thinking (because that’s what a grade measures) manifests itself by the end of the first page, why drag it out for nine more, particularly in junior courses?

I’ve dramatically reduced the length of writing assignments I give to students. I figure if I want to help them write and think better or more clearly, they need to write more carefully, more often, and revise and rework more substantively. If I want to teach careful writing, assign more frequent writing, and make rewriting integral to the course, well, the assignments have to be shorter.

In my experience, shorter writing assignments expose both writing skill and thinking skill more clearly: you can’t hide in six or 12 or 25 pages of simple endurance. You either had an idea and wrote it up well, or you didn’t. When a student comes to my office with a two page response paper that earned a 74, we can go over the entire paper, in detail, in about five minutes. Then the student, for the next assignment, rewrites that first one. Can you do this with a 10 page paper? In short writing, it’s all right there in front of you: it’s quality, not quantity, people.

And the same goes for grading: when I have less quantity, I find I can bring more quality. I give clearer, more detailed, better feedback to students when I’m not exhausted from marathon reading sessions of backbreaking stacks of papers.  I try to create (more numerous) short assignments that explicitly aim to help students write clearly and to think clearly: we write thesis statements, we do annotated bibliographies, we write response papers and the rewrite them, we do drafts of the research paper, and peer editing. I give detailed, lengthy feedback on everything.

I find this works with graduate students as well: I love to assign 400 word response papers, but the students who really struggle with this complain there isn’t “enough room” to argue a point. I tell them, truthfully, that if you can’t make one point in 400 words, you can’t produce a sensible 20 page paper, and that discipline in this regard is worth kingdoms.

Writing in university–and in the profession–is not an endurance event, where the simple feat of managing to produce a lengthy term paper for several courses at the same time is worthy of great applause. And yet if you ask your undergrads how they write a six or eight or 12 page paper, they’ll tell you they start at page one and keep going until they manage to fill the required number of pages, usually in the face of severe deadline pressure at the end of term: they treat academic writing like a sleep-deprived endurance event. I say instead: write me something shorter, something more pointed, something we can work on in proposal, in draft, in redraft, something I can read as closely and carefully as I want without giving up a month of sleep. Something you can rewrite completely without giving up a month of your sleep. Let’s think about the process of creating something good, not just something long enough.

There’s nothing heroic, I think, in writing or grading 10 or 15 or 20 page papers if the goal is simply to make it long enough or to make students “work hard enough,” and the grade makes itself manifest on the first page. It’s wasted time and effort all round.

Writing of all kinds requires skill at fundamental things: sentence construction, grammar, audience. Academic writing requires subject and research competence. In my view, shorter assignments help me teach these skills as fundamentals, as steps to be mastered before the culminating or more synthetic activity of the full-on Major Research Paper too thick for a staple that marshals original thinking with persuasive writing with careful research diligently cited and creatively organized. We will all work up to longer writing–which is a skill in itself to master, but one you can’t really get to with people who cannot form sensible paragraphs–because longer writing is important. But not right away, and not in every course, at every level.

You? Do you know by the end of page one what the grade will be? What are your grading or assignment strategies?