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.


        Mrs. Chili

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



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3 responses to “Giving Feedback

  1. Thanks for the solidarity!

    I too wonder at my own efforts in comparison to my students’. Like your response to Hannah, I try to address just a few, usually global, concerns. But recent drafts in my classes, too, suggest that students aren’t so very concerned.

    For years, I too have asked that students avoid topics like abortion and the death penalty. Now that Amendment One has passed here in Tennessee, however I wonder if I’ve helped mute conversations I should have instead encouraged. I’m thinking of putting pro-choice/anti-choice back on the table.

    What do you think?

  2. Oh, poke around, here and on theinnerdoor, and you’ll have a pretty good idea what I think. I’m ALL ABOUT the conversation; the more controversial and “difficult,” the better.

    My least year teaching in a high school, my seniors took on The Handmaid’s Tale. This was during the 2012 election cycle, and I encouraged my kids to look for parallels (or, at least, points of contact) between this novel and what was happening every day on the news (you’ll recall with little difficulty that this was the election where the GOP just couldn’t stop talking about rape, yes?). By the time we were done with the novel, I’d gotten most of that class all fired up about the pay equity problem and rape culture. Then, we started reading Native Son, and things REALLY got good; privilege, poverty, opportunity, prejudice and racism….

    Look, one of my primary goals as a teacher is to produce thoughtful, engaged, PARTICIPATORY citizens. I can’t do that without talking – in clear, stark, and honest terms – about politics. Politics ARE personal, and young people, especially, need to understand that.

    Perhaps it’s time you restarted those silenced conversations?

  3. Also, you said, “I, too, have asked that students avoid topics like abortion and the death penalty.” I’ve NEVER asked that students avoid those topics, though I WILL admit to being sick, unto death, of essays trying to convince me that we should legalize pot or lower the drinking age. If the student can come up with an argument that hasn’t been beaten to death, then I’ll entertain the topic, but VERY few of them are talented enough thinkers to attack tired topics from new and interesting angles.

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