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Quick Hit: Get This Right

FYI:

Breathe – with an E – is a verb that means to move air in and out of one’s lungs.

Breath – no E – is the air that is so moved.

Please get this right, especially now. It’s “I can’t BREATHE,” not “I can’t breath.”

Sigh.

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Giving Feedback

My students are working on an issue analysis paper.  Their assignment reads as follows:

Your next writing exercise of the semester is going to be executed in two parts; this is the first.
Begin by choosing an issue that is part of the national conversation, taking care to choose something about which you do NOT already have strong feelings.  For example, if you KNOW yourself to be staunchly pro-choice (as I confess to be) or enthusiastically anti-gun control, then do NOT choose those topics; you want something that you’re going to be able to stay open-minded and inquisitive about.

Some topics you might consider are listed below.

Begin by articulating the “topic/purpose/audience” trinity we discuss every week.  Be very clear about WHAT you’re investigating (many topics are complex; you do not have to elucidate every facet of your chosen topic), WHY you’re doing this work (remember that the purpose of this phase of your writing is to EDUCATE) and WHO your audience is (assume an audience who’s heard of your topic, but who doesn’t have any strong feelings one way or the other).

Once you’ve got that, go to the discussion board and post your results, then go and look at other people’s ideas.  Make sure you get the proverbial green light from me before you begin to research in earnest (though you may have done some light research while choosing your topic).  Use the discussion boards to ask questions (both on your thread and on others’).  Keep checking back, giving and receiving feedback; I do not want you to do this work in isolation (in fact, if someone chooses the same topic as you do, I’m not going to object to your working cooperatively on this).
Come to class on Wednesday with evidence of some pre-writing work – notes, articles you’ve found about your topic, youtube videos, interviews, ideas about books you might reference, guiding questions you’ll be asking about your topic.

Remember that you’re REPORTING here; you’re not to interject any personal feelings into this phase of this work whatsoever.  Your job is to present as full and complete a picture of the state of your issue as you can.  Present the viewpoints of the interested parties as comprehensively and fairly as you can.  Right now, I don’t want to know what you THINK – I want to know what you can show me about what OTHER people think, and about how you would describe the state of policy or condition surrounding this topic.

Some possible avenues of research (you do not need to choose solely from this list, but this is a good place to start):
• minimum wage      • voting rights
• abortion rights       • income inequality, either micro (male vs. female pay disparity) or macro (ultra-rich vs. very poor)
• healthcare (including the ACA, private insurance, healthcare costs, religious exemptions, etc)
• immigration
• welfare/public assistance (including SNAP, Medicare, or unemployment benefits)
• veterans affairs (including VA benefits backlog, veteran homelessness/unemployment, etc)
• elder affairs (Social Security, Medicare, retirement age, pensions, etc)
• workplace concerns (including trade agreements, unions vs. “right-to-work” and safety standards)
• energy policy (including oil/gas (production, transport, safety, regulation, etc), renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro, etc), cost, access, regulation, etc)
• food and drug safety or policy (the FDA, obesity, heart disease)
• LGBTQ issues (including marriage, housing, workplace security, hate crimes, etc).
• foreign policy (aid, military presence, diplomacy, etc)
•  science and exploration (including NASA, medical/genetic research/funding, innovation)
• transportation issues (including rail, flight, cars/trucks, regulation and safety, innovation)
• Citizens United, lobbies, and money in politics (501C3 entities, the Koch Brothers, SuperPACs, etc)
• Banking/corporate regulations and “too big to fail”
• Issues around public safety (the Ebola situation as it pertains to American domestic policy; policing policies (including the utilization of military equipment by community police forces); sanitation, or vaccination initiatives)
• legislative process (how does our system actually work?)

Since giving the assignment a month ago, we’ve gone through several drafts of the paper in class, workshopping and collaborating to make the papers stronger, clearer, and easier to read.  We’ve talked about sufficient background, we’ve talked about avoiding the use of loaded or influential language, we’ve talked about introducing quotes and putting them in context within the larger narrative of the issue, and we’ve talked about how to ethically represent opposing viewpoints.  My hope was that all this time spent working closely on these specific papers would make them better.

Except… they’re really not.

I offered to give students specific feedback if they sent me their drafts, and I’m disheartened by what I’m seeing.  One student sent me a copy of the same paper I’d seen the week before; she’d made none of the changes I’d suggested in her last draft.  Another student struggles with clarity, and I spent 5 or 6 email exchanges trying to help her untangle a tortured passage in her introduction.  A student who hadn’t submitted a draft to me yet sent me her most recent effort yesterday and asked that I “look it over” for her (which, as every teacher knows, is really code for, “can you fix it and tell me everything I need to do so I can get an A”).  Here’s the response I sent her:

Dear Hannah,

    The first thing I notice right off the bat is that I don’t see ANY citations…

    I also notice that there is a LOT of prejudicial language in this essay; on the first page alone, we have “terrible crimes” and “rotting away” and the like.  Remember that your job here is to relate the FACTS of the issue, not to pass any kind of judgement about them.  Go back through your narrative and scrub out anything you’ve written that could be interpreted as your trying to influence the way your reader thinks about a particular facet of the issue.  Tell us the facts and trust us to make our own judgements about them.

    There are a number of places where you need MUCH more information.  What, for example, are the “Divine, Moral, and Martial Laws”?  How were they drafted, and why?  Who instituted them?  Did they have the desired effect? Why don’t we practice them anymore?  Do you expect your reader to be familiar with them?  More detail here would be warranted.  Also, what were the circumstances of Kendall’s conviction?  Was he convicted by a court?  Local, State, or Federal?  What was his trial like?  Who decided that he should be put to death; under what authority was that sentence carried out?

    See what I mean?

    You do a lot of generalizing – “many people question” – that sort of thing.  Remember that in analysis, the more specific, the better. You need to drill down and be VERY clear and VERY specific about exactly WHAT you’re talking about.  For example, when you say, on page 3, that “closure” is a reason for supporting the death penalty, what does that even mean?  Is one family’s closure going to be the same as another’s?  Is there EVIDENCE for this as a CREDIBLE reason to support state-sanctioned execution?  What does “serving justice” mean?  Honestly; *I* think that spending the rest of one’s life in prison, deprived of liberty and human interaction, is a FAR more “just” punishment for a heinous crime than the oblivion of death, so “serving justice” as an argument in favor of capital punishment doesn’t quite work for me.  Is there evidence that the death penalty – as we currently practice it – really IS a deterrent to other would-be criminals?

    See what I mean?

    Go through your essay point-by-point and really CHALLENGE yourself.  Can you PROVE your claims with evidence from your research?  Do all the points you make satisfy the “so what?” questions?  Have you given your reader enough background and foundation to understand the issue and form their OWN opinion about it?

    Keep working; you have the framework, you just need to sharpen your focus.

    Warmly,

        Mrs. Chili

I’m already pessimistic about how these papers are going to turn out.

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The Velveteen Rabbit

I’ve been teaching since I graduated with my Master’s degree in 2006.  In that time, I’ve worked for a medium-sized, state run public university (Local U.), a public charter high school (CHS), and three different community colleges (TCC, CCCC, and NSLCC).  I have been formally observed by a supervisor precisely three times; once at the now-defunct Tiny Community College (where I worked from 2006 until the holding company closed the school in 2009) and twice at Not So Local Community College in the next state over, where I’m currently employed; once last fall and once last week.

One of the things I hate – absolutely hate – about being an adjunct is that I’m professionally isolated.  While I’m technically a member of the teaching faculty at both schools where I currently teach (NSLCC and Local U.), I’m not a part of the teaching community at either school.  I am not invited to faculty meetings because adjuncts aren’t expected to attend, so no one bothers to let us know that meetings are happening.  I don’t know any of the teaching faculty at NSLCC, and I only know a few members of the faculty at Local U because I got both of my degrees there and some of the folks who were teaching (or going to graduate school) while I was a student are still there.  I come to campus at both of these schools at odd hours, teach my one class, then leave; no one notices my presence (or absence, it would be presumed) and I’m pretty much left to my own devices.  While that can be a very freeing thing (I wasn’t going to take the class at NSLCC if I were asked to teach another Intro to Writing class; the curriculum is set for that course and I hated teaching it last semester; I only went back because I was given a straight-up composition class), it can also be very, very lonely.

Those of you who’ve been reading here for a while know that I’m a very reflective practitioner of my craft.  I thrive on interaction and feedback, so this professional isolation is wearing for me.  I was delighted, then, to find out that Josephine, the Assistant Chair of the English Department, was going to conduct a formal observation of my class last week.  I was looking forward to having another teacher – one whose purpose was a kind of critical analysis of my lesson and my delivery – in my room.

I didn’t do anything different that day – in fact, I’d forgotten, until I was halfway to work that afternoon, that the observation was even scheduled (if I’d remembered, I’d have probably worn a skirt and a prettier sweater).  Josephine took an inconspicuous spot in the back of the room, and I conducted my class as I always do; the students did a little writing about a quote I’d chosen that morning – one that hinted at the work they’re currently doing for their current essay – and we discussed their responses as a whole group.  Then, I handed out some samples of an annotated bibliography and we talked about how to assess the credibility of sources.  About an hour into the class, Josephine quietly stood and left the room (choosing a really good time, in fact; she slipped out as the students were arranging themselves in small groups to work on an exercise on annotated bibliographies).

I received Josephine’s report on her observations in today’s post.  There are two standard questions the observer is asked to address; one about the target’s “…teaching effectiveness with regard to content mastery” and one about the target’s “effectiveness with regard to the ability to provide clear feedback…and to motivate and stimulate student thought.”  For both of these areas, Josephine found me entirely acceptable.  At the end of the form, though, there’s a section where the observer is asked to give an overall impression of the teacher’s effectiveness.  Here, Josephine wrote: “This was an excellent English Composition 1 lesson.  Professor Chili is an accomplished instructor who presents the course material effectively and engages her students in learning through reflection.  I am pleased to have her teaching once again at NSLCC.”

I have to sign and return a copy of the evaluation for the school’s records.  Along with the signed copy, I included a note to Josephine in which I expressed my gratitude to her for taking the time to come to my class, and for giving me feedback.  I told her about my feelings of professional isolation, and that getting positive reinforcement from a respected colleague had the result of making me feel a little like the Velveteen Rabbit; knowing that someone knows where I am and what I’m doing – and that they think I’m doing a good job – makes me feel real.

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“I Should be Deported… and I was BORN Here….”

The title of this post comes from a comment a student left on my civics quiz yesterday.  You’ll understand why in a minute.

So!  A few days ago, this video circulated around the internet.  In it, a woman interviewed a bunch of (ostensibly) Texas Tech students, asking them basic civics questions.

Their answers should horrify you.

Skeptical Chili was skeptical.  I mean, COME ON!  The CIVIL WAR?!  You don’t know who won the FUCKING CIVIL WAR?!  I wasn’t buying it, so I decided to run a little experiment of my own.  I put together a quick little, short-answer, true-false quiz that I’d give to my own students and see how they compared to the kids in the video.

Let’s just say I’m not skeptical about the video anymore.

I passed out the quiz and told my kids that I WASN’T grading them – like, to the point that they didn’t even have to put their names on them if they didn’t want to (and most didn’t).  I explained the Texas Tech video and my incredulity about its accuracy (I had to explain “incredulity.”  Sigh) and told them that I wanted to prove that college kids knew the answers to these basic questions.  I also told them that most of the questions were lifted straight off the INS website’s citizenship practice test.

Here’s the quiz:

Short answer:

When was the Declaration of Independence issued?

Against which country did we fight the War of 1812?  What famous building was occupied and then burned in that war?

When did the Civil War begin (the year or the event)?

Who was President during the Civil War?

Which side won the Civil War?

Where is Pearl Harbor and what happened there?

In WWII, the US fought WITH two other nations; which were they, and against whom were we fighting?

Allies:
United States
2.
3.

Axis:
1.
2.
3.

What are the three branches of the US government?
1.
2.
3.

How many years is a term of office for a Representative?
For a Senator?
For a President?
For a Supreme Court Justice?

How many terms can each serve?
Representative:
Senator:
President:
Justice:

What is the First Amendment and what does it protect?

The Second?

What does the 13th Amendment do (bonus points for correctly listing the date of ratification)?

What does the 19th Amendment do (bonus points for correctly listing the date of ratification)?

What did Susan B. Anthony do?

How old do you have to be to vote in US elections?

Under our Constitution, there are a number of powers that belong to the States.  Name ONE of these:

Who becomes president if both the president and vice president die?

How many Supreme Court Justices are there?  Who’s the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?

How many Senators are elected from each state?

How many representatives are elected from each state?

Name your CURRENT Senators and Representatives:

What did the Citizens United Supreme Court decision do?

True or False:

Illegal immigrants can have access to federal assistance programs like Food Stamps, Welfare, and Unemployment Insurance.

The US has a higher incarceration rate than any other nation in the world.

This nation was founded on the basis of Christianity and the Bible.

It is a crime to videotape police officers making an arrest.

In 29 states, someone can be legally fired because he or she is homosexual.

The United States was founded under the principle that all men and women can participate in the political decisions by voting.

The federal deficit has increased under President Obama.

Voter turnout for the most recent mid-term elections was the lowest it’s been since World War II.

Socialism, Fascism, and Communism are all words that mean basically the same thing.

I currently teach two composition classes at two different institutions; one is a state-run community college (though a fairly large and well-established one) and one is a medium-sized public university.

The class average for my community college kids was a 25.5, and the class average for the university kids was 48.5.  Seriously.  The highest grade of all of them was a university student, who scored a 79.

Most kids thought Susan B. Anthony was Betsy Ross.  A few kids thought Pearl Harbor is in Boston and was the site of the Boston Tea Party.  With ONE exception, all students thought that the deficit has increased under President Obama.  At least four of them thought that the First Lady becomes President if the President and Vice President die, and one kid thought that Clinton was President during the Civil War.

No, I’m not kidding.

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The Interview

One of my freshman writing students at L.U. asked me to answer interview questions for a project he’s working on in another class. Here’s how that went:

***********

Hi Mrs. Chili,

I was hoping you would be able to answer a few questions for a project I’m working on. I don’t need a huge response for each question just a sentence or two would be very helpful. Thank you so much!

1. What are the minimum requirements and/or degrees for your position; what degrees do you have and what schools did you attend to earn your degrees?

Scott, I’m assuming that we’re talking about my position with the University, yes? If so, the minimum requirement for this job, as far as I’m aware, is a Master’s degree in the subject area. I have both a BA and an MAT in English teaching (dual major in English and Education) from Local U.

2. What types of things are involved in a “typical” work-week for you – especially address what you do beyond what students see in the classroom.

I plan and teach two classes a week (well, four, since I teach at another college, as well). I research, evaluate, and retrieve information – including worksheets, handouts, and readings – for students. I choose materials (chapter readings, movies, other supplementary items) that will complement the students’ learning. I evaluate student work and offer feedback. I attend workshops, staff meetings and professional development seminars, and I reflect on my teaching practice by engaging in self-evaluation and journaling.

3. What do you most like about being a professor/instructor on a college campus, and what you do like the least? What’s one thing you like to do outside of your work?

I love working with students; they’re the reason I do this work.

I’m an energetic, enthusiastic advocate of curiosity and learning, and I love seeing even a little of that rub off on the kids I work with.

I’m passionate about my discipline and think that the skills I teach – thinking, speaking, and writing – are desperately important, not only so that students can engage in active and productive citizenship, but also so that they can be rich participants in their own lives.

I DISLIKE only seeing my students for about four hours a week for 12-15 weeks. I miss working in a high school where I was able to see students every day – even if I didn’t have them in class – and I dislike not having the time and space to build meaningful relationships with them.

I miss seeing students grow; the kinds of advancement I see in 15 weeks is very different from the kind I can – and did – see over the course of a school year.

I also dislike feeling professionally isolated; while I’m technically a member of the faculty here at Local U. (and at the other colleges at which I teach), I’m don’t feel as though I’m a part of the culture; I don’t really know any of my colleagues (that’s less true here at LU because I’ve been a part of the school for so long and know a number of the faculty from when I was a student), but time and other constraints keep me from being an active participant in the faculty.

I dislike the job insecurity; I don’t know, from one semester to another, whether there will be work for me going forward.
I dislike the pay.

Outside of work, I spend time with my family – I have a husband and two teenaged daughters (and four new cats!!). I love to go to movies and out to eat. I am politically active and spend a fair bit of time advocating for causes that are important to me – and trying to educate others about them, as well. Unfortunately, being an adjunct means that I have multiple jobs – at the moment, I have five – so I’m currently working 6 days a week and trying to make sure that I meet all of my commitments in a way that satisfies my standards, so I don’t have a whole lot of time for a lot of leisure activities…

4. What is the biggest obstacle/barrier you witness that gets in the way of student college success?

Honestly? Crappy public schools and a culture of “meh.” Somewhere along the line, we kill young people’s curiosity and drive. What frustrates me most is that we know – because we STUDY this stuff – how to do education in a way that’s energetic and interesting, but we refuse to do it; we insist on doing things the way we’ve always done them. That means that we force kids to sit quietly at desks. That means that we put too much value on the end result and not on the process. That means that we stigmatize mistakes and only value the “right” answer (whatever that happens to be at the moment). That means that we don’t teach values anymore – citizenship, work ethic, honesty and integrity – because we’re afraid of offending parents. That means that we undervalue teachers, make them afraid to lose their jobs, and turn them into test-givers rather than letting them be adults who are important and meaningful in young people’s lives. That means we end up with young adults who can’t write complete sentences, who have no idea how to study, and who have been taught that learning is a chore that should be avoided if possible. We’re doing school WRONG, and by the time a student gets to college, he or she has never been asked to be thoughtful, has never learned to take risks, and is afraid to admit that they don’t know something (you saw this in our class, even…). What’s worse, we end up with students who don’t really mind not knowing stuff….

You said you didn’t want really long answers, but I could go on about this for a very, very long time…

5. What do you think are the top three characteristics of a “SUCCESSFUL COLLEGE STUDENT” – in general, not just specifically as it relates to your class?

CURIOSITY! Relentless, energetic curiosity. GAH! If we had that, half the battle would be won.

Drive. I can be the most enthusiastic, engaged, passionate teacher ever (and I try to be!), but it’s all just an amusing two hours if the student doesn’t give a shit about their own education. The adage that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink is kind of the teachers’ motto; if you don’t care about what I’m teaching, you’re not going to learn and, contrary to what a lot of people might think, it’s not MY JOB to get YOU to care; it’s my job to do everything I can to get you everything you need to do well and be successful, but I can’t MAKE anyone care about anything.

Work ethic. Anyone can bullshit their way through college, really. Someone who has my top two characteristics, though, is probably going to WANT to do well, and so is going to do the things that they’re asked to do with at least some attempt at professionalism. That means doing the work – REALLY doing the reading, learning the conventions of communication in different rhetorical situations, and not just settling for “good enough.” I would extend that to include going above and beyond – seeking out other materials or experiences to augment their own learning – but at this point, I’d settle for students at least TRYING to make an attempt to be better than they are.

I hope that helps you. Let me know if you need me to clarify anything.

Warmly,

Mrs. Chili

*************

I got this as a thank you note in response:

Wow! That was great!  I really enjoyed hearing about your thoughts from the other side of the classroom.

In the project I’m doing we are taking a professor’s response to the questions and explaining how we may approach college differently now with some more advice.  I think what you said about people’s ability to be fine with not knowing something is a huge problem with people today, myself included.  It’s embarrassing when you don’t know something and you don’t want the stigma of being stupid.  I’m really going to try and figure out those times when I have that mindset and trying to look at it in a different way that might spark more of an interest.

You do a fantastic job trying to connect with your students.  I really enjoy your class and I’m sure many others do as well.

Thanks again :)

********

This couldn’t have come at a better time.  I’m feeling really disheartened in my professional life, and I needed to hear that I’m not just spinning my proverbial wheels.

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Quick Hit; We Have a Hostage Situation

The other day, my brother Marc posted this to my facebook wall:

funny-professor-paper-FacebookDamn; that came out small.  Here’s what it says:

‘I don’t understand why my grade was so low. How did I do on my research paper?’

‘Actually, you didn’t turn in a research paper. You submitted a large, awkward, random assemblage of sentences. If fact, the sentences you apparently kidnapped in the dead of night and forced into this violent and arbitrary plan of yours dearly seemed to be placed on the pages against their will. Reading your paper was like watching unfamiliar, uncomfortable people interact at a cocktail party that no one wanted to attend in the first place. You didn’t submit a research paper. You submitted a hostage situation.”

I got a hostage situation in my stack of essays from Not-So-Local Community College.  Observe:

“Two people and two different times but both can be compared to one another in American history; Martin Luther King, Jr. a civil rights activist and the President of the United States Barack Obama. Racism is found thought Americas history and until recently there was a big gap between our just and in-just laws. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and President Obama’s speech on Reverent Wright both have many similarities as well as many differences. President Obama speaks out on accusations of an extremist for the modern day civil rights movement which accuses him to be a follower. Though Obama said he had personal connection to him he disproves his belief in his views.”

That’s as far as I got. I didn’t even grade it; the author and I will have a conference tomorrow to see if we can get to the bottom of this.

Oy.

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Quick Hit: Do As I Say…

So, I got this in an email this morning from one of my jobs:

Please accept this invitation to attend our ALL STAFF MEETTING on Sunday, October 5th, 2014, at 7pm.  We will be closing the building an hour early, and will be meeting in the basketball gym.  We have a lot of fun and informative information planned.

This came from the office of the executive director.  I have no idea whether the executive director himself wrote the thing or not, but it bears his name, so he’s got at least some responsibility for it.

I’ve been engaged in some really interesting discussions lately about the ways in which people communicate.  The start of the school year brings renewed frustrations from my teacher friends (and, not for nothing, from me, too) about how students seem to think that as long as THEY understand what they’re trying to say, the responsibility for understanding it is the audience’s.  My brother, who teaches high school science (and will tell you that he spends a lot of time – too much time – teaching writing, as well), is bumping up hard against this; kids expect the reader/listener to figure out what the writer/speaker means, and they get belligerent when their ambiguity – or incomprehensibility – is pointed out to them.

Here’s the thing, though; how much right do we have to hold our students to high standards of written and verbal communication when, as evidenced by the brilliant piece of writing showcased above, we can’t even expect it from people who call themselves “executive directors”?  “MEETTINGS”?!  “Informative information”?!  REALLY?!

I have half a mind to send this back to Mr. Executive Director with corrections, but I think I’ll just skip the “meetting” instead; I’m sure someone will let me know what the informative information is.

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