Thursday, January 29, 2015

Alison in Annapolis Asks: "Would Anyone Finish Grading These For Me?"

My semester just started and I've been reading through some diagnostic essays my students do during the first week.

I distribute an academic essay, an analysis of a recent book in my field. The students get a chance to read it overnight and then we discuss it in class for a half hour before they write brief, low-stakes essays about the essay.

The essay in question is quite good, but easily read and pretty accessible, about 600 words. And it is expertly built, solid analysis that deconstructs and evaluates the book mentioned in the article completely and smoothly. I like the essay very much because it models so much of the style of academic writing that I teach in this sophomore level course for majors.

And then I got to my office with 3 stacks of 30 mini-essays each, and I began to read:
  • The essay lacks personal details.
  • I think the writer failed because he (or she, I was not told the gender) didn't tell enough about his own background and culture so I could judge him.
  • I think the most powerful evaluation is personal opinion. I don't read anyone who doesn't offer personal opinion.
  • I thought it was too long generally. I couldn't finish it.
  • I couldn't even read to the end because it went on and on.
  • I wish [author's name] would just get to the point and tell me her opinion.
  • The writer didn't give me any background on himself to show me what their biases is.
  • I was taught in expository writing that it's most important to use personal evaluation and personal examples to back up an evaluation. This is all just facts.
  • I was taught that if you can say it in 50 words it's way better than in a hundred or more.
Oh, I know it's not the end of the world, and there's lots I can do to amend this type of thought as the semester goes along, but I wonder what these students all did in the first year they were here. Who let them have these ideas? Were they rewarded for this? Did they use personal opinions in their own essays? Is that enough? And the length. Everything's TL:DR?

And I have 60 more to read today. 


  1. Oh, what hath Twitter with its 140-word limit wrought. That, and you appear to have some lunk-headed colleagues. My condolences there.

    I have similar problems with writing in my general-ed-introductory-astronomy-for-non-majors course. I therefore tell my students explicitly that what we'll be doing in this course will be different from what you've done previously. I tell them that what we'll be doing is reporting: their writing should be more like scientific papers, not opinion pieces. This is not because I'm not interested in their opinions: it's because facts tell the story better.

    Science being science, I point out that it doesn't matter who you are. What matters is whether you're right. My favorite example is Albert Einstein, who when he was 26 and working as a clerk in the patent office (because he couldn't get a teaching job) wrote four papers worthy of a Nobel Prize, and one of which did get him the Nobel Prize, the one that gave us digital cameras. Another, everyday example is how obnoxious IT people can be. We put up with this if they can fix our computers. Again, what matters is whether you're right.

    I tell them this early in the course, and I repeat it many times. It does help. I also get no shortage of students who seemingly can't read anything more than a couple sentences long, and can’t be helped no matter what I do. It is dispiriting. You do get some victories, though. Hang in there!

  2. They have no idea what an opinion is. They think all opinions are equal, one is as good as another, and there's no basis to judge them. So when you say "what do you think about this?" they find it an inane exercise, because they *don't* think about it. Breaking them of this weird idea of "opinion" is something I have to do every day. And am doing right now. Or rather, was doing, before I went to CM to share the misery. I, too, have a stack of awful headbangers to put F's on.

  3. It's weird that they want to judge the author, learn his or her biases, and are annoyed by all those pesky facts. It's like they are unhappy because the essay doesn't include any personal data they can use to skewer the author for having bad opinions, biases, privilege, or what-have-you.

  4. Hear, hear Prof C! I tell students I don't care about their "opinion" but I do care about their argument. It's the idea that all opinions are equally valid that drives me nuts, especially since students are often writing about something new. All I want is a well reasoned argument that tells me how they are going to approach the problem, the data they have, and the conclusions they reach, based upon that data. Is that so much to ask?

  5. Sounds all too familiar to me, too -- both the opinion problem, and the length issue. They're so concerned about whether I want their opinion or not, and so nonplussed by the idea that yes, I do, want their opinion -- but only their *informed* opinion, supported by close analysis of well-chosen evidence. The idea that there are no bias-free sources, just sources that make their assumptions, perspectives, etc. clearer or not, also confounds them.

    And for some students, everything, from the readings to my assignments, is tl;dr (but heaven forfend if the assignment doesn't mention a factor I use in evaluating the assignment).

  6. This thread is way too long. I couldn't get to the end because it just goes on and on.

    1. I think your comment fail because you didn't tell enough about you're own background and culture so we could judge you and see what you're biases is.

  7. As Chomsky observes, "Perhaps it is another inadequacy of mine, but when I read a scientific paper, I can't tell whether the author is white or is male...I rather doubt that the non-white, non-male students, friends, and colleagues with whom I work would be much impressed with the doctrine that their thinking and understanding differ from 'white male science' because of their 'culture or gender and race.' I suspect that 'surprise' would not be quite the proper word for their reaction."

  8. I can hear the kiddies saying "yeah, but that Chomskey thing is about science," so steadfast in their lack of self-awareness that they feel not even a pang of cognitive dissonance at their illogic.

    It seems to me that other than the “tl;dr” complaints, the string goes something like this:

    1. Evaluation based on personal opinion is superior to that based on fact;
    2. opinions are informed by biases;
    3. biases are informed by their holder’s background;
    4. therefore divining the evaluation’s full meaning requires knowing the evaluator’s background.
    5. Judging the evaluation’s worth requires divining its full meaning;
    6. therefore judging the evaluation requires knowing the evaluator’s background.

    The kiddies don’t have a problem with this. Some of the propositions are not a problem in themselves, but all together we have the genetic fallacy and any number of other problems.

    I’d be tempted to try to “fix” this in at least two ways, both of which involve a student reading an offending line from hir essay in class. I start here with the most confrontational:

    Student: I think the most powerful evaluation is personal opinion.
    Me: You’re just saying that because you’re white.

    This would be closely followed by several students’ spit-taking their Starbucks and Red Bulls. They will be shocked, shocked I tell you, to have their opinion dismissed simply because of their background. What does being white have to do with it?! they’ll protest. Gotcha! I’d respond. Then the conversation would turn to how fraught it is to make assumptions about someone’s motivations for putting forth an argument, and how the merits of an argument are not the same as the merits of the person making it.

    Student: I think the most powerful evaluation is personal opinion.
    Me: I think your opinion on this is bullshit. I know that in this class, the most powerful evaluation is the one I will submit to the registrar at the end of the term. That evaluation will be based on the merits of your work, not my personal opinion. The merit of your work is in direct proportion to your mastery of the material, a large part of which is making and evaluating arguments based on evidence and not mere conjecture. And in case you’re wondering, I am biased by knowing what I’m talking about because I have a background in these matters; you don’t.


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