Sunday, October 3, 2010

Service Sucks.

one of the courses I teach a lot is called a "service course." that's because, I think, it's considered lowly service what I do. 

I prepare freshmen for writing challenges at the college, and I teach freshman composition.

this field has had most of the art beaten out of it by the "needs" of the college. 

History profs need English profs to prepare students for writing those sophomore History papers. ditto Sociology. the deans come around from time to time to make sure we know how important this "service" is. "we want our students to succeed, and you folks are at the forefront of that," one of them said to me one day.

but what's happened is that most of my teaching now has little to do with what I'm good at, what I studied, what I want to teach. 

what pisses me off is that English is also a discipline. we have our content as well, but so many of us at community colleges, adjuncts everywhere, and junior faculty end up toiling long hours in these required courses where our principal goal is to make sure our students will be able to handle the writing challenges in other classes.

I had a haughty colleague from another department corner me at a college function one evening and berate me because he had students who wrote terrible essays in his sophomore class.

"so, what did you do to help them?" I asked. "did you help them with generating good topics? did you spend time meeting with them to discuss rough drafts? did you provide some student essays as models? did you get some of your TAs to show them some of the tricks of documentation?"

and of course he'd done none of that. 

what did he think I was paid for at the college? I take some of the challenges of teaching freshman comp as a service course seriously. I teach about topic, audience, and purpose, and how different writing opportunities may have radically different rules. but I also teach in my OWN field, about reading, and theme, and make my students aware of the beauty and power of language.

if that's not what the rest of the college wants from me, then fuck them.


  1. Darla -- soooo true. Anyway, writing classes made no damned sense without the content of a given discipline. The blowhard fake journalism coming out of writing classes driven by this "content-free" idea doesn't fly in anyone's classes. And there is a special place in hell for professors in other disciplines who think it's only the English department's job to teach writing, and that the only thing the English department teaches/should teach is writing.

  2. Always be skeptical when someone OUTSIDE your department tells you what you SHOULD be doing...especially Deans.

  3. Marcia, it's more than just the abdication by teachers in other disciplines, this idea that only writing teachers teach writing; it's the incredibly shortsighted notion that we can "fix" what was broken long before we got those students.

    I hear the same thing from some proffies in other disciplines at my CC--even some from within my own discipline, those who rarely teach intro or developmental classes. They do not understand how profoundly unprepared beginning CC students are. (I suspect the same is true, to a lesser extent, at the four-years and unis.)

    Passing a developmental or other entry-level comp/writing class does not guarantee brilliance; it guarantees a starting point for college-level work.

    Darla, invite them to your classes. That's what I do. I tell them that they are welcome to come to my classes and observe me teach. I also ask them what they do to engage their students' writing processes. Do they recommend tutoring? Do they encourage students to come to office hours for help with written work? Do they make recommendations about where students may also seek help?

    That usually shuts them up.

  4. Fuck'em indeed, Darla.

    The people who never teach these god forsaken service courses don't realize that you get these students out of high school and they have never had occasion to construct an entire friggin' paragraph, nevermind a whole, well planned, well executed paper. I've had the 'pleasure' of teaching university prep over a few semesters and I've had to scale it right back to paragraph construction before we ever even approach how to formulate a research question and how to go about answering it. And it's like pulling teeth to get most of them that far--let alone a full paper. Teaching writing is by far the MOST LABORIOUS TASK in the university. I'll never do it again.

  5. Those expectations are unrealistic, especially considering how wholly unprepared for college work so many students are. There's no way a freshman comp class can teach students all they ever need to know about writing, including the "trades" of a range of disciplines. Colleague-Who-Attacked-You lives on a different planet if he thinks that students leave freshman comp with the ability (and motivation, but that's a whole different story) to write thoughtful and coherent and error-free and perfectly formatted papers in his discipline. Those of us who have taught or teach writing have all realized at some point that those writing strategies that have become second nature to us (because, you know, of all those papers we had to write and all the hours spent talking to other students and professors about them) are utterly alien to most of our new students. We've also learned the hard way that it's not enough to say something once--we may very well say and write the same thing five times and still have plenty of papers exhibiting precisely that which we've told them not to do.

    The support that instructors need to give their students, especially freshmen and sophomores, is outlined so well in the list of things you brought up to that colleague. But all that takes time and considerable energy and still results in lots of frustration, so it's probably a lot easier just to blame those folks in the English department who "didn't do their jobs."

    At my institution, there's an instructor who goes to considerable lengths to help students who take her General Basketweaving courses with their papers. Mind you, the students would not consider it "help," but she incorporates mini-lessons on discipline-specific conventions into her course, works with samples, has them read "real" research, and works with a very clear grading rubric. It's an insane amount of work for her as she also comments on drafts, but she's committed to give her students the experience of writing in that particular discipline. Pointing fingers helps nobody, least of all the students. They can do the finger-pointing all by themselves.

  6. At the 4-year flagship uni where I did my TA and then adjunct work, I had a surprising number of students who told me that they'd never had to write an essay in high school. I took that claim with a big ol' grain of salt, of course.

    But I teach high school now. Oy. The movement toward "student centered learning" (whatever that means) or "experiential education", has been devastating to student writing ability.

    Smart Board activities, inane Powerpoint bullet lists, superficial group projects, online chat rooms, etc. etc. are all flashy, "fun" (because serious intellectual work can't be fun, right?) activities, and are often mandated by idiot administrators. Many teachers go panting after the latest edu-fad with all the thoughtfulness and predictability of a dog chasing a meat truck. But many are also bullied by the overall culture of a school into embracing this nonsense.

    Students are writing precipitously less, and what they ARE doing...well. God help us. This trend is not just ruining their written expression, it's destroying their ability to think clearly, for any sustained period of time, about any topic that doesn't instantly grab their attention with flashiness or immediate relevance to their basest desires.

    Oh, and if you don't embrace this edu-shit, you clearly "don't care about children." Brilliant.

  7. That sucks, Darla. From some of them, it's exactly the disrespect it seems to be on the surface. From some, though, it's just frustration at how poorly students write, and they aren't thinking about what they're saying when they speak to you. It doesn't make it ok, but a lot of people who do that are just dumb, not mean.

    I teach the intro courses for majors in a couple of science disciplines. The first semester I focus on the principles of my discipline, but outline what, hypothetically, is expected of a scientific communication. When I teach units, significant figures etc., I explain to them that pooling of information is key and that their own secret codes won't do so we have rules about units and sig. figs. Halfway through the term, I give a few examples along the lines of "Eats, shoots and leaves." where the denominator goes to 0 or the flask blows up because someone left out a comma, or added an extra one. So there are grammar rules too and why they count here too and that's as far as it goes.

    But anyone who makes it through my first semester and chooses me again for the second semester... they have to hold onto their hat because a third of their grade is based on learning to write a report. It took a few years to get a good, concrete, fair and appropriate rubric worked out. But now that I have one, the students who try turn out good reports by the end of the term. And then I have a ton of grade-goggling Gretas who keep getting 20's because they've used color, first person, cursive fonts, there's no abstract... (i.e. they've never even read the assignment let alone the rubric). But I know I've given them a map, and if they decided to wipe their ass with the map instead of looking for their destination, fuck them. THEY are the problem, not the English department. I spend what feels like years of my life grading reports. I bleed red all over them. Even the good ones. I correct every grammar flaw I can find. I write and re-write "Read your 'report guidelines' again. Don't try to appease grammar-check. Ignore 'passive voice' warnings." but the Gretas just go along pecking at the keys by trial and error until grammar check tells them it's ok. Even though a real life actual person tells them "You can't say 'We turned off the bunsen burner when the solution began to bubble.'", they peck and peck until "The bunsen burner was turned off.." has been re-arranged to "We turned off..." and the scary green underline goes away. They're idiots and it's frustrating and some of "us" take it out on "you" and that's not right. But it's just stupidity from frustrated people. It's not right, but it's not worth your time.

    I have my discipline too. I too am better at science than writing about science. I too studied science, not writing about science. I too want to teach science, not writing about science. But it has to be done, so I do it. I know not to point my finger at you about it. I know some people are stupid and rude about it. But if I give up some of my time to teach how to apply techniques that are much more your domain to my field, could you please continue to give up some of your time for this too?

    What we have in common is: 1) If we do the dumb thing we have to do, we can sleep with a clear conscience because we went above and beyond what many of our peers do. 2) If we remember some dumb asshole will condescend us anyway, we won't be surprised when it happens and we can mentally put them in a box with the rest of the dumb assholes we encounter and move on with our day without wasting any of our energy on someone who can't be pleased anyway.

  8. So many people say that teaching writing is crucial, but composition is relegated to the academic ghetto. At my huge CC, 95% of the comp courses are taught by adjuncts. The tt people with PhDs IN COMP would rather teach lit, creative writing--anything but comp. Teaching writing is difficult, many of the students are resistant and don't want to be there, and we are over worked and underpaid. Re: "I think, it's considered lowly service;" I can tell you it definitely is.

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  10. It's one thing to suggest we teach some of the more subtle aspects of plagiarism, but the reality is, the majority of the plagiarism we get is deliberate and blatant. There's nothing a 19 year old doesn't understand about over-writing "Susie Smith" in the Word file where it used to say "Susie Smith's Boyfriend Who Took This Course Last Spring".

  11. I have some colleagues in "other" departments who teach their students how to write in those disciplines...there aren't many of them, but they are terrific, and I owe each of them a hug.

  12. But if I give up some of my time to teach how to apply techniques that are much more your domain to my field, could you please continue to give up some of your time for this too?"

    Um, what? Of course we give up some of our time teaching "techniques that are much more your domain." First of all, writing is everyone's domain, which was Darla's point. Second of all, I teach recognition of significant patterns within what looks like a random collection of words, techniques for collecting and colalting evidence, processes for finding, evaluating, and synthesizing secondary literature, summary and paraphrase, qualitative analysis, and argumentation. That's pretty much what literary criticism is. Surely these are things -- not just "writing" but actual analytic skills-- that scientists use, too.

  13. Ooops, collating. Not to mention a missing quotation mark. Sorry, writing this from the hospital.

  14. I'd just like to say that writing is perhaps 50% of what a college grad needs from the college education. One does not achieve adequate communication skills from a single course. It is a constant process so that at the end of 4 (or 5) years, we can write clearly, with purpose, and stay on message.

    What a dick.

  15. Meisterburgher,

    Cute Cleo has come back out of her lurking to respond-- now she's sorry she's been quiet since the death of RYS.

    You really are living in a strange world if the HISTORIANS are your enemy. Seriously. This historian, and, frankly, every historian she knows who teaches intro courses, spends at least a quarter of class time on basic note-taking, reading, and writing skills. Which is frustrating, because we are also supposed to make sure they know the facts of history, which all of them seem to have completely forgotten between their state-required high school courses, and the equivalent courses in college.

    That leaves approximately minus 10 class hours to actually introduce the field, its methodologies (yes, we have some, but thanks for implying we don't), and its purpose.

    I sympathize with Darla, for many reasons. And if I were her, I'd let the asshole have it (primarily with a "well, pay me like a real faculty member, and then we'll talk" line). But the truth of it is, historians often spend oodles of class time working on writing. The size of my liquor cabinet will prove this.

    My students' response, by the way? "This isn't an English class. Why do we have to learn this writing stuff?"

    Fuck them.

    And, while I will fall short of saying "fuck you," may I suggest not dismissing other disciplines completely out of hand? It does no one any good. Complain about the asshole silverback you apparently have a personal beef with all you want. Lord knows, he deserves it. But you can't blame the rest of us for him.

  16. "This isn't an English class. Why do we have to learn this writing stuff?"

    I wish I had the time to build an entire post around this.

    One reason we in the sciences don't provide as much hand-holding as you do in your basic writing courses is because our students are turning in lab reports -- which we bleed all over for spelling, grammar and syntax as well as factual content and style -- every damned week. They don't have three papers to do in the semester, for each of which they turn in one rough draft. That's six per student.

    No, ours are turning in twelve to fifteen papers a semester, each. So don't bitch to us when we get disgusted by the writing skills of the students that come to our courses from your courses.

  17. They don't have three papers to do in the semester, for each of which they turn in one rough draft. That's six per student

    I sense this next bit is going to go badly, but I cannot stay out of this. Here's my typical freshman course:

    28 students X 6 major essays = 168. And I see each of those papers twice, once in a 15 minute conference, and once for final grading.

    (The page counts for the 6 major essays are: 3, 3, 5, 5, 10, 15.)

    Then - same class - at least 10 smaller writing assignments (250-750 words), that I see 2 drafts from for every student. That's another 280. Those ones are 1-3 pages each. There's NEVER a day from the 2nd week to the 16th that I don't have a stack of essays to grade - a big stack.

    Oh, and I have 3 sections of that class each semester.

    168 + 280 x 3 = 1344 per semester.

    And that's just FINISHED drafts.

    The notion that ANY freshman comp class ANYWHERE is doing three essays a semester is not just insane, it's nearly slanderous.

  18. I would fall over dead if I found any decent writing instructor assigning 3 papers a semester. I've taught that many assignments at the senior undergrad level, but then those were 25-40 pages.

    But a freshman course with 3 essays? I don't buy it.

  19. Ah, introvert prof brings out the big lap report myth. Yes, I do read those lab reports. With judicious margin re-sizing and font-choosing, they sometimes make it to the SECOND page...

    Oh, yes, and I, too, care about grammar and red-penning. Or at least I say I do. If it's English it starts at a B. If you use a colon before a list of solvents? Automatic A. I'm really moving the mountain here.

  20. This is stupid. Much of these comments are just doing exactly what offended Darla in the first place. "That's not my job, it's yours, because yours is so easy and worthless." If you read things with judicious margin re-sizing, it's because THAT professor didn't know how to assign an assignment. I take all of the "creativity" out of it by telling them what font to use, what size to use, what margins to use, whether or not to double space (ok, I tell them DO double space) etc. And yes, they're short, but no, they are not just scratching the SECOND page. They're 5 pages 12 time per semester plus re-writes (if offered). And after we grade all of the illiteracy and subject-independant stupidity, we still have a science to assess.

    And yes, Marcia, analysis is part of what we teach. But you can't pretend with a straight face that basic communication isn't closer to English than Physics. I rarely get to teach applications of my baby classes to literature, or history (more often the latter than the former) but I can teach applications to other branches of chemistry from the one I prefer. I say "If you go on and decide to be an organic chemist, you'll need to apply this principle...." How often do you say "If you go on and decide to be a physicist, you will want to be able to..."? or "If you want to go on and study history..."? Based on your response, I'm going to guess never. Do you bother offering an application of your principles to anything other than exactly what interests you? You sound like they do when they say "Why do we have to know this?" "Why do I have to teach this?" I'll give you the win over the students, but it's by a nose. They don't out-whine you by much here.

  21. I was out prepping today and thought CM would be quiet on a Sunday, but d*mn!

    My students don't say it (like Cute Cleo's do), but I know mine think it: "Why is he so obsessed with writing and proper formatting (APA, etc.)? The topic is important and some of it is hard enough by itself. That b*stard!"

    In my case, these are not just snowflakes; they are 'gradflakes'.

    20% of their papers are a joy to read. The other 80%? Some are average (for an undergrad!), but some are incomprehensible (off-topic, no-topic, rambling). I consider stapling applications to McDonald's on their papers... but I don't.

    Being the rescuer of small kittens in trees, I DO try to help them improve so that the folks up-the-chain won't ask me: "how did you pass this person?" Everyone gets markings in their papers of some sort and... the amount of red ink usually correlates highly with their grade.

  22. Darla, can you please change your avatar? I can't think.
    Never mind, leave it.

  23. I spend what feels like years of my life grading reports. I bleed red all over them. Even the good ones. I correct every grammar flaw I can find.


    One reason we in the sciences don't provide as much hand-holding as you do in your basic writing courses is because our students are turning in lab reports -- which we bleed all over for spelling, grammar and syntax as well as factual content and style -- every damned week.

    Um, I don't know how else to say this, you guys... but that's actually not helping.

    Perhaps considering what can be accomplished in conjunction *with* your colleagues in the English department--you know, actually talking to them instead of presuming you already know what's best when it comes to teaching writing in your discipline--could lead to fewer headaches and less work for you. Really--think about setting up a lunch with one or two faculty from English (or better yet, with admin from your campus writing center, if you've got one) to discuss what it is you want to accomplish with your assignments and the (recurring) problems you're facing with student writing. They might even be able to help you plan better assignments from the start.

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  25. P.P. Perez: 1 page lab reports?! No wonder your students turn in horse manure. My first round of lab reports averaged 20 pages each. Albeit, that includes a few graphs and a bunch of equations, but I know some of them find the graphs and equations more time consuming than the words, and vice versa, and some just find everything difficult.

    The rubric I've been given does not specifically list grammar, etc., and it is not my primary goal to ensure they have perfect style. But neither has it forbid me from taking points off for horridness, or just red-marking the shit out of it anyways.

    Honestly, aside from turning it in on time and remembering to change the header on the 4th page that is the dead giveaway they've lifted it from someone else, the hardest part is a functional abstract. It really is the only part that requires significant critical thinking and isn't spelled out for them in instructions or background somewhere in the notes.

    Lab reports may be mythological critters in some places. These kiddos will turn in about 100 pages of lab reports to me, most of them are in another lab which will involve another 100 pages, and half are in senior design, where, along with written and presentation products, they end up with a physical product (that flies, or crushes, or swims and has a friggin' laser strapped to its head).

    I'll complain about their writing, but if they suck, it's because our department has not held them to a high enough standard, not because nobody else ever taught it.

  26. I'm not in English, far from it, but even I know that "correct[ing] every grammar flaw I can find" is about the worst thing you can do.

    You are part of the problem, not the solution. You can get off the haughty horse. You're making the writing at your college worse not better.

  27. "This isn't an English class."

    My standard answer these days: "What language are we speaking again? EVERY class is a writing class. If I can't easily figure out what you're trying to communicate, any other content doesn't matter a damn." (I'm in a peripheral marginal unimportant humanities discipline, and I ask three 3-4 page compositions for my entry-level students in our discipline; this year I laid down the law exceedingly clearly on handing out the first assignment, and hot damn if I didn't wind up with a pile of really pretty decent papers-- very few trainwrecks. Supports my theory that, at this particular regional state school at least, really heinous performances are more due to half-assed slackitude than true mouthbreathing moronity)

  28. I re-read what I wrote and I'm missing what's coming off haughty. But I apologize for coming across differently from how I felt. I thought I was telling Darla that she's right and not to let it bother her because you can't stop the asshole parade. But clearly that's not how it's coming across.

  29. Correcting the errors may not help the student, but marking them will. I don't correct every grammar flaw but I identify it. Plenty of my students get a D or F on their papers because of serious grammar/punctuation/syntax/spelling errors. No one's ever confused why because their errors are marked. I realize a lot of people think this "overwhelms" the student, but I don't feel like I can assign a student a bad grade without explaining why.

  30. Avoiding errors is SUCH a small part of what makes a good writer. It makes me crazy to see a discussion among ACADEMICS that centers on grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.

  31. Errors and avoiding them take up about 1% of my freshman comp class time.

    I would blow my brains out if that's what I looked for and "marked" when I read essays. I'm looking for critical thinking, creative problem solving, strong claims, support and evidence, elegant lines of argument, crisp and interesting word choice, and so on.

    Dear God, please end this post!

  32. ahh... at least now I understand what the argument is about. I never said that was all I do. I fully agree with what you and Tex just said. It is a small part. In fact, that was my (self defeatingly implicit) point. On the grammar alone, I feel like I lose years of my life. Then the rest of the work begins.

  33. "Even I know that "correct[ing] every grammar flaw I can find" is about the worst thing you can do. You are part of the problem, not the solution."

    Oh, I totally agree. Instead of telling the students that they did something wrong, I suggest a more constructive (and fun!) 21st-century approach: have the students pair off, with each pair creating a youtube video or facebook wall-to-wall in which one student takes the role of Katie Holmes, and the other plays Oprah, and they discuss how comma splices and the subjunctive make them feel.

  34. I think Djunk misunderstood Tex Watson's note. CORRECTING someone's errors is not the same as NOTING there are errors and directing them to avenues to correcting the work themselves. One common practice is to highlight trouble spots, forcing writers to be responsible for addressing errors that might get in the way of a reader's understanding. CORRECTING something for someone is lazy and counterproductive.

  35. What do you mean by "noting"? Am I going to far (sincere question) when I write "plural" and "singular" with arrows over "the solutions simmers..."? Because that's what I mean when I say "correct". Is it better (not sarcastic) to just cross it out in red?

  36. Wombat: I don't come up against this problem a great deal, but what I was taught by our college's writing program director was to simply MARK where the error is, without telling them the specifics. I know it seems a minor matter, but it was suggested to me that the "lesson" would be learned better by the writer if he/she had to spend a bit of time working through WHAT error it was, and HOW to fix it to get past the reader. I remember the example given in the workshop I took was the difference between saying "punctuation problem in this sentence" versus something like "comma splice in this sentence."

    I've taken it to heart, and have been surprised at how many students simply put their heads down (and OFTEN go to the writing center) and find and solve their own problems. I, too, use that highlighter method, where I mark the offending area of a sentence or paragraph. I do often write in the margin "spelling," "punctuation," or similar, but with no direct notation to the actual error.

    For what it's worth,

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  38. have a foot in both a hard science and a humanist field, and I think it's worth pointing out that while there are good writers in the scientific field there is also a great deal of bad writing. Really bad writing. All one has to do is read a medical journal to see it at its worst.

    Undergraduate science majors get very little experiance writing seriously past the gen ed requirements. Yes, there are lab reports, but those of you who are saying you bleed over the grammer and writing in those paragraphs are exceptions. Or you yourselves may not be the writers you think you are. Back in the day when I was both writing term papers and writing lab reports I had dumb down my writing for the lab reports because the graduate students grading them A) didn't care about the paragraphs, he cared about the graphs, and the data tables, and the math. And if the greek letters I was using in the equations were written correctly. B) when he did correct the grammer in the paragraphs he did it wrong. And before you ask... it was always a "he".

    Writing well in the sciences for me was counter productive. In the end I developed one standard for writing in the humanities and one standard for writing in the science and tried not to cross my streams.

    I have observed a number of universities use the Writing Across the Curriculum method and have been generally impressed.

    My impression is that these Writing Across the Curriculum is that it spreads the pain, so to speak, so that the English department isn't unfairly burdened. Depending on how it is taught, it has the potential to better engage the students and eliminates the "this isn't an english class" excuse from later in their college life. But YMMV.

  39. I just pulled a skimmy-mcskimmerson on the comments and am responding directly to Darla. Darla, I was a TA in my Social Science and I kept getting suck-ass papers. I mean, horrible. So, I signed up to be a Freshman Comp teacher when my time to teach came up. I loved it...I could actually focus on my student writing. Then, when I went back to teaching Social Science, I could say "remember when you learned XYZ in Freshman Comp? Yeah. You need to do that mojo in here because it's going to help your grade."

    So I feel you, babes, I do. But, uh, not in a creepy way.

    Two resources I use a lot...the U of Virginia has something called the "Little Red Schoolhouse" curriculum that I think is available on the interwebz. Also, John Bean's "Engaging Ideas" has helped me think about assigning and grading student writing.

  40. When I'm not teaching English, I sometimes teach humanities, which is in a separate department. When I went to their first departmental meeting, one of their faculty members jumped on me in a similar manner about why her students couldn't write. When I started teaching for that department, I added specific assignments about writing in the humanities and required the students to do their research paper in stages just as I would for any of my English classes.

    Her response? "Now you've turned this into an English course!"

    Sometimes you just can't win.

  41. Avoiding errors is SUCH a small part of what makes a good writer. It makes me crazy to see a discussion among ACADEMICS that centers on grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.

    Actively misleading your readers via ridiculous elementary-school writing mistakes is SUCH a small part of what makes a good writer (unless you happen to be James Joyce). Color me unimpressed.

    I don't insist that they write in an interesting style. Unfortunately, that's for professionals, nowadays. I do insist that they make themselves clear to the reader (me).

    Writing well in the sciences for me was counter productive. In the end I developed one standard for writing in the humanities and one standard for writing in the science and tried not to cross my streams.

    Yep. That's 'cause most scientists, as C.P. Snow observed, make only the most casual tips of the hat to the humanities. They can't write in an interesting style, because they spend all their time reading material with boring style. But this is a far different issue than kids getting to my sophomore chem course without being able to write an English sentence. By the time they're done, they're writing rather detailed weekly analyses of what they observed in lab in terms of accepted theories.

    Even our gen-ed science students are writing a couple of pages (one-inch margins, 11- or 12-point fonts, double-spaced) of analysis every week.

    We don't formally use Writing Across the Curriculum, but we make some noises of commitment to it. We do use (or claim we use) a standard writing guide for all our courses. I get puzzled looks sometimes when I tell students to look in it...

    I appreciate the tips for grading writing that have been sprinkled through this thread. Thanks, y'all!

  42. "How often do you say "If you go on and decide to be a physicist, you will want to be able to..."? or "If you want to go on and study history..."? Based on your response, I'm going to guess never. Do you bother offering an application of your principles to anything other than exactly what interests you?"

    Wombat, you do indeed sound haughty,and I've read your comment 3 times and can't for the life of me figure out what you're referring to when you accuse me of saying "why do I have to teach this?" I actually do say those sentences, and yes, I signal the use of "my principles" (by which you mean methods? we don't have too many hard-and-fast tenets in English) to all kinds of things I am not personally invested in. Close reading can be used in anthropology, where it's called "thick description," and in art history, theater and dance, psychology, and even the analysis of case studies in medicine. Feminist/queer theory is used across the disciplines, even in law and the sciences. Historicist research can be done in any field at all. So I say, "If you want to be a historian, you must..." fairly frequently. I also say "Here in English we're apt to treat historical documents like X, whereas in history they may ask you to do Y." Or "anthropologists mean something different than high art when they say 'culture,' but this meaning has influenced English, too." I have a colleague who is fluent in physics and teaches poetry and the principles of physics. Another teaches literature and game theory. While I wouldn't want any of us running a lab, most of us are engaged with the protocols and literature of at least one other discipline. But the scientists, especially, assume we have no content or method in our classes, and that our job is just to teach "their" students to write. That was Darla's complaint, and it's a completely legitimate one.

  43. Since my job (a 4-4 load of writing-intensive "service" classes) doesn't include "service" in the sense of committee work, I don't interact much with colleagues in other departments, which protects me from the "why don't you fix their writing in 14 weeks?" diatribes that Darla and others mention (there have got to be a few compensations). But colleagues who get out more tell me that, if one presses, one finds that most non-English colleagues really do want something more than technical correctness, or even discipline-specific formatting. But it takes a bit of probing to get them to talk about substance, rather than surface annoyances.

    So, yes, it would be really nice if they didn't start by balling us out, especially since there seems to be only one foolproof method of getting students to write technically correct papers: fail them if they make more than a certain small number of errors. One program in our university does that, and they don't have the problem. Of course, they offer a degree that students are convinced will make them lots and lots of money (which may or may not be the case), so they can get away with it. I think I'd just be accused of being overly picky and missing the point of what makes for good writing -- arguments with which I'd agree.

    So, I use a rubric that assigns about 10% of the point total to technical correctness. And I practice a variation on the minimal-marking procedures others have suggested, trying to identify the 3-6 most frequently-occurring kinds of error in a student's paper, fix the first instance of each, provide an explanation of the principle behind what I've done (using Word's "track changes" and "comment" feature), mark the second without fixing it, and tell the student that there are additional instances of the same error to be found and fixed (as well as some "proofreading" to be done -- a term that handily covers a variety of one-time errors). Needless to say, this takes a lot longer than simply bleeding red ink all over the paper. Some students follow through on my careful guidance; many don't. I'm not at all sure that the proportion of my total grading time spent on technical correctness is well-spent, but I'm also not sure what else to do. Like my colleagues in other disciplines, I'd love to receive technically correct prose that allows me to focus my comments on argument, evidence, analysis, organization, etc., etc. Maybe I should go find a high school teacher and complain to him/her?

  44. Ok, where did I say it wasn't a legitimate complaint? Of course it is.

    And yes, a lot of "us" think that [that you have no content], but not me. I know because I'm a scientist I'm too dumb and boring and unsophistocated to respond to anything other than math, but even I know that if we spent the same amount on books when we were students, and each of mine cost $90 and each of yours cost $25, there was a lot of content on your plate.

    But you're not the only ones with these pain in the ass service classes. I have to teach a 0 credit pre-algebra class to the freshmen who failed the placement test. Everyone has to take at least "college math" here. "college math" is 7th grade math. We accept a boat load of kids who can't handle it. But it's the one and only prerequisite for every class that satisfies the "quantitative reasoning" class. So no one can graduate with out it. So they decided to offer this pre-algebra class for 0 credits. It's 0 credits, so they all cut. Then they fail the placement test again. Then they go on RMP and say I'm a bitch who made them do (their words) "baby crap". Of course, they leave out the part where they didn't actually do the 7th grade math, or that they couldn't, or that it was because once they found out it was 0 credits they stopped coming. But hey, I'm just boring anyway, so what's the diff if I can get in my lab or if I have to baby sit idiots? It's not like I have anything worthwhile to be doing, right?

    I know they have all their "interesting" classes to attend to and that my service class is just math/science narcissism unleashed for no purpose other than to aggravate you. But the truth is, people who can do 7th grade math didn't buy $550k houses on $75k incomes and then cry when they found out the big bad mortgage brokers tricked them.

    It sucks. I try not to let it get me down. I felt bad for Darla and was suggesting the same. I was NOT saying she didn't have a good gripe.

  45. Wombat, college writing is 7th grade writing! I feel oddly comforted by this parallel universes. Not that your misery lessens the misery elsewhere, but as always, comparative miseries is my favorite class.

  46. Kids, kids! Play nice!

    It saddens me whenever humanists and scientists bicker. I always rather enjoyed both the arts and the sciences. I don't like it whenever science majors skimp on their humanities courses: I don't like putting that power into the hands of people who don't understand people.

    Darla: please keep up your high standards in your writing courses. Don't become discouraged by criticism that is uninformed, wrong-headed, and frankly quite inappropriate. One thing, though: would you please use standard capitalization? It would have made your long message easier on my eyes, unlike your avatar.

    Some years ago, a brand-new assistant professor in our physics department was horrified by the level of mathematical skill shown by students in his introductory course: pre-meds, of all people. He wanted to send a memo to the math department, to tell them to do a better job. Mercifully, we persuaded him not to do this, because our colleagues in the math department are in fact rather good, and they do the best they can.

    The real problem here is that our students come to us in such an appallingly low state of readiness, in every aspect of their educations. You (collectively) are quite right to observe that college writing is 7th-grade writing, and that college math is 7th-grade math, if that. And let's not fall into the trap of blaming the K-12 teachers: most of them are doing the best they can, too. Of course, we all know exceptions, and I'm not at all encouraged by what goes on in ed schools, either. The real problem is a culture that glorifies stupidity. What can we possibly do about this?

    I don’t hesitate to hold my students to high standards for all their writing in my Intro Astronomy general-ed class. This includes research papers at the end of the term, and they are preceded by several shorter writing assignments, to explain for example why the sky is blue, how we know that Earth is round, how we know that atoms exits, and others. I don’t hesitate to bleed all over these assignments with a red marker, whenever necessary.

    I do get quite a lot of nonsense about how, "You're not qualified to correct my grammar, because this isn't an English course." Fortunately, I have a Provost who used to be an English prof, and who gives his blessing to this. I also tell my students that many times in the history of science, important results have been ignored because the scientists did a poor job of explaining these results to people in ways they could easily understand. In order to explain science, it helps to understand it well, and this in itself can be a challenge. Whenever my students know I’m not kidding when it comes to composition, they do write better.

  47. P.S. Never once have I gotten any aggravation from my colleagues in the English department about what I do. If anything, they recognize that writing is too important to be left only to the English department. Increasingly many of them have been adopting Strunk and White as a required text in their courses, too: for a while, I was the only prof in my university who was.

  48. I wonder if I study at your university, or if there's just a worrying decline in mathematical competence among the general population of pre-meds. I've met some whose understanding barely ranked above "one, two, three, many". As a student, math and science tutor, and sometime TA, I've seem some things that beggar description. And the pressure comes down to the profs from above to pass these students anyway, despite the fact that they are grossly unprepared to even pass an MCAT exam, much less enter medical school. Perhaps the administrators here are planning to fly to Canada for medical treatment.

    You're right that students are unprepared. I'm only 30, and I've still seen a decline. There are so many contributing factors to the problem, but chief among them is that we haven't really taken math and science education seriously since Sputnik. That was the wake-up call the U.S. needed, but everyone soon became complacent again and we now are at an appalling state when it comes to education.

    One of the chief problems with the current system is the ubiquitous use of high-stakes testing and arbitrary standards of progress. This destroys any possibility of effective remediation, so students are given a "good enough to pass" understanding of mathematics that utterly fails to prepare them for the more difficult concepts to come. Problems in algebra almost always come back to weaknesses in basic arithmetic and problems in calculus almost always come back to weaknesses in algebra. I don't wish to lay blame at the feet of the teachers generally, but I will say that the institutional culture of diverting the stupidest people to elementary education is not helping matters. K-6 is where children are taught both basic arithmetic and how to read, and it stands to reason that teaching the fundamentals would be left in the hands of the most competent professionals, but instead we have the shortsighted and suicidal policy of directing unqualified people to this area because there is a presumption that "anyone" can teach arithmetic and reading. However, a weak understanding of numbers and their mathematical relations is going to cause children to get a distorted grasp of the basic concepts. It actually takes a very sophisticated understanding of mathematics to correctly teach it even at the K-6 level.

    As an aside, I'd be leery of using Strunk and White to teach grammar. Geoffrey Pullum had an article in the Chronicle that addressed the major flaws in the book.

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  50. I have gotten the, "You're not an English professor so how dare you correct my grammar," in a Math class before. I also got complaints when I changed what was proper English in an English class into what is proper English in a Math class (I didn't take off any points either. I just noted that, while technically correct, the language wasn't common Math language.). My students in one class didn't change their ideas throughout the entire semester and I got horrible evals that semester... I still refer to that class as "The Class from Hell."

    @Nullifidian: At 27, I see a lot of issues the have changed since I was in school. We must have been at the tail end of the schools being taught like schools and not therapy pools. Of course, I cannot speak ill against all English teachers at the high school level since I seem to have been blessed with great ones. As far as grammar goes, there are so many rules that it can hardly be expected that anybody remember all of them. That is to say, even grammarians make grammatical errors. If one or two showed up in a paper, I was generally lenient and didn't deduct any points. But, after the errors hit critical mass, the points started falling off by the dozens.

    @everybody: So, we see a problem; what are we going to do about it? My vote is on bitch at each other all day and not take any responsibility for fixing the problem. As the great philosopher, Billy Joel once said(sang), "We didn't start the fire..." To which I will only add, "But we can put it out." I try to do my part by teaching my Math students how to express themselves clearly, in English, with mathematical terminology. And, unfortunately, that is all I can do.

    Mathsquatch Out.

  51. Joseph Williams' "Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace" is a good substitute for Strunk and White: good basic advice, but much more sophisticated about the choices writers make in specific contexts in order to produce specific effects. Unfortunately, it's expensive for a thin book (and increasingly so as it runs through editions), and, precisely because it is nuanced in its approach, may be somewhat above the reading level of many freshmen.

    Mathsquatch: I wish I knew the answer, though I think what you suggest is a good start; if all professors made it clear that they cared about the quality of writing, and taught the specific forms, language, etc. that their fields hold especially dear, the jobs of those of us who teach the required writing courses would get easier, and, paradoxically, we'd probably come closer to producing the results our colleagues want. Other than that, as I said above, the only approach to producing technically clean prose I know that definitely works is draconian consequences for relatively small mistakes, and I really don't want to take that route.

  52. LOVE "Style: 10 Lessons." I use it with my grad students. They are always surprised that I think graduate-level writing can and should be improved.

  53. Well, obviously our incoming students and their generally poor writing are products of Outcomes-Based Education crap that they received before they even applied for college. K-12 fucks them up, and we get the product: Students who can't write.

  54. @No Cookies: ...or calculate (without a calculator), or reason logically, or solve basic problems unless they've seen the exact same problem before, or use any form of critical thinking and observation; all things in which, as I recall, I was expected to be semi-proficient by the time I ENTERED high school.

    @Froderick, not only "a culture that glorifies stupidity," but a culture that dismisses the notion of self-responsibility while embracing the tenets of self-entitlement. It always has to be "someone else's fault" when things go wrong.

  55. I hate to admit it, but George Carlin was right about education, as he says here:

    But then, I'm not ready to give up just yet.

  56. I'd also point out as an EFL teacher, that by having professors with PhDs teach service courses like writing, the university is not only wasting your time, but denying jobs to a host of teachers. I'd be happy to work for the Student Services department or wherever it falls, as a writing teacher. But as long as those duties only go to people with PhDs, I can't get the job even though I am qualified and experienced.

  57. Here's a longer, better (albeit more foul-mouthed) version of that George Carlin clip, better describing the economic consequences of ignoring education for common plebes like me:

    Again, I'm not ready to give up just yet, but this wasn't what I signed up for in grad school.

  58. Thanks for suggesting "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th ed.)." My copy arrived a few days ago, and I've been reading it carefully. It is very good, and could help me improve my writing.

    It still isn't a substitute for Strunk & White. It costs three times as much, and it's thee times longer: please remember that Gen Y does -not- like to read. The 95 pages of Strunk & White will quite possibly be the longest thing they have ever (and may well ever) read in their entire lives.

    OK, so I'll acknowledge that Strunk & White isn't perfect. Neither are the Feynman Lectures on Physics, and this doesn't make them any less useful---not to mention they've got tons of personality, with everything done so beautifully---mind you, for a person who already knows the subject well. (Most of the freshmen for whom Feynman lectured hated the class: it was too much drinking out a fire hose, although the water did sparkle.)


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