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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Ohhh, I'm ready for a drink. Or four.

It's time to stop grading for the night. How do I know this? I know this because I'm now evaluating the projectile properties of the objects nearest at hand: weighty enough to travel some distance, and capable of making a really loud noise? light enough actually to heft? Relatively unbreakable (or, failing that, relatively unvaluable)?

These papers are awful. It's the worst collection of papers I've seen since starting teaching here. I have to keep reminding myself that, as New Kid wrote some months ago, my students aren't actually writing bad papers just to piss me off, and that I perhaps bear some blame for not preparing my students adequately for the assignment--but, nevertheless, I'm filled with rage.

These are close-reading papers. Take a short poem (or part of a longer poem), and analyze it in detail: word choice, imagery, poetic devices, etc., and construct an argument that discusses how these features affect the meaning of the poem.

Now, I didn't expect them to be great, and I did expect some complete disasters, but I'm getting a LOT of disasters, and I'm at a loss as to how I might have better prepared my students for this assignment. Does anyone have any advice? (Or want to tell me that my students are just idiots? Because I'd take that, too!)

Here's the deal. This is a 200-level seminar, all English majors, mostly upperclassmen and -women. I went in with the assumption that nearly all the students taking the class would already have taken the relevant period survey class, and this turned out not to be the case. Nevertheless, they've certainly all taken a number of English classes, including the intro-to-the-English-major course that deals with, you know, examining texts, and they're pretty much as smart, collectively, as any other group of majors that I've had at Big Urban.

But I know that close readings can seem scary and unfamiliar (like poetry itself, to many students), and I didn't assume that my students had necessarily retained more than perhaps a few poetic terms from some intro class. I definitely didn't assume that they could do a close-reading on their own.

So: in one class, I introduced them to the basic terminology that I thought they'd need, discussed the effects that various poetic devices have or might have, and then we spent the rest of the period working through a sonnet together: we read it, we paraphrased it, we talked about its meaning, and then we brainstormed, collectively, all the "interesting things" we saw: image patterns, word choices, particular examples of alliteration, emjambment, etc., and discussed how these might affect the meaning of the poem. We found patterns among these interesting things, and then talked about plausible theses that might emerge from this work.

In the next class period, I had them do the same kind of work in groups on a second poem, and on a third day (we were doing other things for half of the period on the second and third day, so it wasn't All Close Reading, All the Time) we regrouped to discuss their findings collectively and weigh in on which theses seemed most promising.

I also posted a sample close-reading paper on Blackboard, and provided my students with a list of three things that I felt made the paper successful, and what general principles they should derive from those things.

But. . . I still have papers, many papers, that don't really look at their particular poem, at all. And you know, if someone even did a competant, thorough paraphrase, one that identified shifts in tone or perspective, and maybe briefly discussed one key metaphor or a word with a double meaning? That would be a B. Possibly a B+. (I do, actually, have a couple of papers like this, but only a couple.)

Instead, what I have for the most part are, "This poem is about ________," followed by vague, usually flagrantly wrong statements about what the author means, and what he's trying to do, with perhaps a reference in passing to the rhyme scheme "that gives a soothing flow" to the author's [incorrectly identified] sentiments. Or the alliteration "that highlights an important [unspecified] idea."

Partly I'm just complaining, here, but I really do want ideas for how to get better papers out of my students. I never received any instruction in close-reading in college (I was just expected to do it, and I did it terribly), and I was very uncertain about my powers of poetic analysis for a long time, so I'm sympathetic to my students; I think that I approach the subject as someone who really does regard poetic analysis as a set of skills--not as a native talent or something intuitive--that can be enumerated and learned. I also, of course, think that it's an incredibly important set of skills, one that really opens up entirely new literary worlds, and one that my students need to have some practice with before they can be let loose on a thematic paper topic (lest they go crazy with broad generalizations and superficial discussions of key passages).

If I don't have any control over their intro-to-the-major courses, is there anything I can do at this stage? Without using up any more class time? (Or running up a serious bar tab?)

Advice welcomed, and needed.

UPDATE 2/9: For those of you interested in the final results: I had a decent number of B range grades for this class in the end, which I was happy about, given that none of them appeared to have done a close reading before. Eight or nine students had C-minuses or below, however (some of this was just due to idiocy; one student turned in a two-page paper, which of course I failed). So, I announced that anyone with a C-minus or below would be permitted to revise, but that I'd average their two paper grades. And I've already had some nice conversations with some of those students who seem rather stunned, but also really committed to learning how to do this whole close reading thing. Too bad they're all seniors--but, we get them when we can, I guess.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 11:03 PM |


Anonymous Anonymous commented at 11:55 PM~  

I suggest doing what I've had occasion to do (as recently as last semester with my Milton class). After you're done grading the papers, fling them back to the class, and give those with C and below the option of rewriting the paper. However, revision really means REVISION, and they have to give you the original paper so you can see if they just corrected the stuff you marked, or really made an effort to rewrite the whole thing from scratch. Obviously, you don't grade the second version with anywhere near the rigor you apply to the first, so there's really not that much extra work. But it's more work for THEM. And they realize that not doing well is their fault, and they realize that here's an opportunity to do better.


Blogger francofou commented at 2:04 AM~  

What might work (in addition to booze) is what I regularly did for classes at that level: Write the first paper for them: i.e., as a series of pointed questions which (a) organizes the paper, (b) forces them to actually read, and (c) relieves the anxiety ("What do you want me to say?"). This may get you four or five decent tries instead of two.
Takes a little time, but not as much as revisions. Time to think out the kind of questions that will get the kind of answers you want.
As the drapery said to the window, I feel your pane.

Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. commented at 2:17 AM~  

Obviously, the easiest way to fix this problem is one that I suspect you don't have the luxury of doing: mandatory office hours (I assume your teaching load precludes this.) Actually forcing the little bastards to sit across from your unforgiving gaze and articulate an idea or two out loud, and then forcing them to think a bit more, and push them and push them until they're finally saying something bearable is the best way of making sure you don't face a huge coagulation of cluelessness. Might be something you can do with some of the more egregious malefactors.

But it's possible, actually, that you just have a crap load of students. Sometimes the forces of the universe collide and the planets misalign just perfectly wrong and you get a bunch of 'slipped-through-the-cracks' in your class. It happens. If they're upper-division English students, they should be able to do close reading in their sleep. By your account, you've done *all* the things I'd've done in your shoes (hell, that I *do* in your shoes--well, not *your* shoes, I look terrible in heels), and if they're *still* not getting it, then the problem may indeed be with them.

I suppose at this point, you could, if this is feasible, eliminate one or two papers (don't know if you're on the quarter or semester system) and make a section of the class about "How To Write A F***ing Paper That Won't Drive Your Professor To Drink"--to force them through in-class drafts and readings-out-loud and all the agonies attendant upon revealing their ignorance to the world. That *might* work.

There's also corporal punishment. (What you mean, "that's been outlawed"? When?! Oh, dear. I'm going to need a lawyer...)

Blogger StyleyGeek commented at 4:18 AM~  

Disclaimer: I don't do literary analysis.


If they are making passing references to the rhyme scheme and alliteration, it sounds as though they at least know you are wanting them to look at mechanisms the author is using rather than just making vague assertions about what the poem "means".

In that case, the fact that they aren't thinking deeper than "the author did this"... "I think the poem means this" maybe suggests that they are being lazy, and/or that they are trying to do a rush job, rather than they don't understand the point of the exercise (especially given all the practice and explanation it sounds like you gave them.)

Do they have a lot of other assessment due at the moment? Could they be assuming for some reason that you will be an easy marker and that they can get away with superficial, rough work?

Blogger Bardiac commented at 7:35 AM~  

Wow, how frustrating!

From what you've said, it sounds as if you've done a lot to prepare them to do a close reading.

I'm guessing they have just about no experience reading verse of any sort?

The think I'd hope that they were just being less than diligent, and low grades will inspire them for the next paper?

The ONLY thing I can suggest to help is that it sounds like you started out by explaining poetic structures to them, and then went about showing them poetic structures in the poems they were looking at?

I've found using the opposite approach helpful. I spend a LOT of time when introducing verse having the class read aloud, and then talking about what they feel in their mouths, and what they hear. That way, they think about the experience and how it affects them as readers/listeners before they worry about naming it.

Blogger phd me commented at 8:43 AM~  

You've done everything I would have suggested to set them up for writing such a paper. There is the sneaking suspicion that they are just extremely lazy - what? college students are all academically driven, right? - and have been able to get by with martini-inducing papers up to now.

Office hours to return the papers and discuss each paper individually would be great, if you have the time and the mental/physical fortitude. Returning the papers with a steely eye and a "please see me if you have any questions" might also have an effect. At some point, they do have to take responsibility for their work. I'm all for scaffolding students' learning (try to do it as much as possible) but they are in college. Does that sound mean?

Blogger francofou commented at 8:50 AM~  


I guess I would ask in the early paper(s) to work with patterns only and leave interpretation of patterns to class discussion and or later papers.
I'm not sure I understand the benefits of "flinging."

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 10:00 AM~  

Wow, thanks for all the suggestions!

This is a class with three papers--two short, and one long, final, research paper (which includes an initial prospectus, annotated bibliography, etc.), and the class has been uneven overall: I've had some surprisingly great classes with them and I've had some where I've gotten really stern and bitchy with them about their recall and/or their inability to say anything about a 10-line passage we've just read out loud. My gut sense is that about 8-10 of the students couldn't care less and aren't really working very hard, while the rest are reasonably interested and committed to the material. Starting tomorrow, I'm giving them fucking reading quizzes, since I've decided they've brought that kind of schoolmarmish weekly monitoring on themselves.

I suspect that I may follow PCH's advice and offer revisions for those papers at the C level and below, and tell them I'll be averaging their two grades (to discourage half-assery; in point of fact, when I get a really good revision, I usually round generously up beyond the average). I REALLY don't want to see any more papers this semester than I'm already getting, but there are a couple of students who I think genuinely don't know what they're doing wrong.

But, I don't know.

Blogger Dr. Crazy commented at 11:46 AM~  

Ok, I'm late to the party, but I'm wondering how much this assignment was worth and whether students realized that it was a "real" assignment. I've noticed that when I give shorter assignments that my students tend to think that means that they don't need to be careful in their approach to them. Sometimes all it takes is for them to see that you think that what they did was garbage for them to shape up.

Also, I've noticed that students do not know what "close reading" means. No, not even upper-division level type students. So in any assignment where I use those words, I also internally provide students with a definition of what my expectation is for them when I say that.

Finally, I have found that for this sort of assignment it can be especially useful (and less miserable for me) if I use a uniform comment sheet - on which I check off things they did well or things that they need to work on - so that they can see in a visual way whether they met the standards of the assignment or not. If you drop me an email I can forward you an example of one of these if you think it'd be useful.

Blogger Dr. Virago commented at 4:41 PM~  

What everyone else said...PLUS: in the future, ban the use of the word "flow" and all its forms. Seriously. Make it a rule in the paper assignment. For some strange reason every OK-ish English major across the country abuses that word to no end in poetry explication. Only the smart ones know to avoid it.

Blogger Ancrene Wiseass commented at 5:22 PM~  

Ah, dear.

Poor you. And poor (some of) them. Because, while I'm sure you're absolutely, positively right that too many of the students just don't give a damn, there are probably a few who are genuinely befuddled.

Explication is damn hard, really. It forces us to be meticulous and disciplined in a way that more generalized methods don't. It makes us pay attentions to the particularities of a text on a very fundamental level.

And, in my experience so far, even upper-division students have done very little, if any, close reading. My pet theory about why this happens is that teaching explication really thoroughly just takes one hell of a lot of time. I mean, look at all the time you've already spent on it! And many instructors just aren't willing to put in the time, particularly when our career advancement is so seldom tied to what happens in the classroom.

I agree with abdme and jdryden that one-on-one time is extremely helpful in developing explication and argument skills. The Socratic method works wonders in forcing folks to realize when they're bullshitting. But, again, there's the ever-present time factor.

Here's one very concrete suggestion I usually make to my students when they're doing explication. Maybe it will help.

1) Make four or five copies of the poem or passage in question at about 150% enlargement. (You can also just type it in to your computer, double-spaced, and print out four or five copies.)

2) Dedicate each copy to "mapping out" a different aspect of the poem. On one, for example, you might work out the scansion and rhyme scheme. On another, mark out grammatical patterns (i.e., How many sentences are they? How does the word order work? Are there lots of dependent clauses? Few?). On yet another, map out patterns of imagery. And so on. You may want to try color-coding things to make the patterns clearer (highlight verbs in pink, nouns in green, adjectives in yellow, or whatever).

3) Once you've done that work, go back and look at the structural and rhetorical patterns which emerge. Try to figure out why the patterns are there and how they fit the content of the piece. Maybe even focus on just one pattern in particular. What is the author doing by presenting us with that pattern? It's obviously deliberate, so what are we supposed to be getting out of it?

4) When you feel you have a satisfactory answer to one or both of the questions at the end of #3, then you have the beginnings of a thesis statement.

This technique does seem to help students who're feeling especially lost, who want some structure in the initial stages. It also forces them to pay particular attention to the actual passage at hand, instead of generalizing grandly about "love" or "life" or whatever.

Anonymous What Now commented at 7:48 PM~  

Oh, I love Ancrene Wiseass's ideas.

I'm really just chiming in to give some sympathy and to offer an anecdote from today: A graduating senior, someone I've had in class every term for the last two years, stopped by my office this afternoon to ask whether it was absolutely necessary for all thesis statements to have three points to prove, points that would then each have their own paragraph in the essay. "What?!" I thought, "are you seriously asking me if it's okay to write an essay that's not a 5-paragraph essay? After all this time?! Have I done nothing right?! Aargh!!!"

All of which is to say, we do and we do and we do for these kids, and sometimes it's still a disaster. It sounds like you did great preparation for this assignment, and maybe they just blew it.

One final thing: On rewrite options, I always feel bad for the kids who got a C; if they'd only done a little worse, then they could have rewritten also, so they're actually kind of being punished for doing better than the half-assed kids who just bombed. So I would offer a rewrite option for everyone, so if that B student gets a fire lit under her and wants to rewrite, fabulous. In my experience, lots of students won't actually take the opportunity to rewrite anyway, so one might as well offer the option to everyone.

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