Negotiating Expectations: A Response

Dennis posted recently about students and assignment expectations, and Mikael responds with some pretty provocative thoughts:

What do you want us to write? (It bears pointing out that most of my students are juniors and seniors; FY classes really are a different beast.) I'm always a little taken aback by the question, particularly as I take pains to discuss with them that the assignments are in the book, in black & white. I tell them, on day one, that one challenge of the text I use for my Advanced Expository Writing classes is that part of the assignment is figuring out how best to design and execute the assignment. The implications here are both profound and elementary: it's an acknowledgement that each reader creates & locates meaning in text differently; each student's experiences and epistemological tendencies lead them along slightly different paths. The interesting thing is how the students negotiate the places where their individual patterns of understanding and ideas about how they go from the reading to a writing project that's an extension of the project started by "the expert", the "professional", the "academic" intersect with and diverge from those of their peers, instructor, even the original author.

Mike might say that this "What do you want?" tendency is a representation of our economic system--students see their work as having an exchange value; do this and you get a C, do that and you get an A. I admit that when I saw Mikael's post, I wondered how he demystifies his evaluation process for his students. What does he tell them, exactly? Then I read on:

What I typically ask them, in one way or another, when I see the the "Why aren't you telling us what you want us to write?!" stuff start to rumble to the top, is Why does that matter so much? Why doesn't it matter what you want to do with this writing project? Why are you privileging my reading of this piece and the assignment the text's editors gave us? Where's your responsibility for reading and interpreting this? Some of them get it, or work as though they do; others don't.

It sounds fine and everything, but what happens when the student comes to you in earnest, wanting specific guidance? Look at a draft and offer comments? Maybe I've attended too many pedagogy workshops given by education professors, but to me it seems more fair to lay my cards face-up on the table. Many students have had their confidence worn down considerably from years in institutionalized settings, which of course does not mean we shouldn't ask the challenging questions Mikael asks in the quotation above, but I've seen students just shut down entirely in the face of such questions (when I was an undergrad, they very well could have made me break out in hives), or make smart-alecky statements like "I choose to read 'A Modest Proposal' literally, and my reading is as good as yours, right?" When that happens, the potential for making new knowledge is pretty much nil. I'm sure that Mikael isn't mystifying his evaluation process in his practice--his metaphors for his role as teacher, "midwife, cheerleader, and drill sergeant from time to time," show me that. But I want to hear Mikael articulate how he provides guidance "in black and white." I would guess, from the cheerleader metaphor, that he's terrific at encouraging students to run with good ideas when they think of them (and they always do!).


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Darn that meddlin' CultureCat!

See, this is why you rock, Clancy. You challenge me.

One of the things I always offer my students is that each writing project manifests its own sort of internal logic; this works here, this other thing--not so much. I would actually confess to de-emphasizing the numbers as much as possible, and I tell the students as much. I do give them clear expectations, however, and one of the primary tools I use is to get everyone to start talking about their notions of what is important in the text editors' construction of the assignment. I put in my two cents, too, and my rationale: "It strikes me that...", "This bit is essential...". So my requirements aren't at all mysterious, I don't think. I work to make them own the boundaries of the assignment, recognizing both the shared norms of the class and the room within those norms for them to engage their necessarily idiosyncratic reads.

I have had the occasional smart-arse give me the "I think Swift was dead serious" sort of nonsense, but I seldom have to engage with it directly. The class does is for me, because they know they're to an extent responsible for seeing that everybody in the class understands the reading and the assignment that continues the original author's project. (It ought to be said that much of what I'm describing is peculiar to the text--Bartholomae & Petrosky's Ways of Reading--that I use.)

Any student who comes to me with specific questions will get as much of my time as I have to give; it's the "tell me what to write" stuff that I work to redirect. "Tell me what you think about the effectiveness of this, or the workability of that" is a completely different sort of question because it demands that the student come to me as a creator of meaning in her own right (rather than as a supplicant or a passive receptacle), and present their ideas to me in my role as (admittedly more practiced) reader first, and as ogre-with-the-gradebook second (or preferably last). What I've found is that when those are the terms under which class operates, they appear to be more willing to really listen to the feedback they get from their peers vis-a-vis that they get from me. I'm not the sole vector for valuable feedback, and they also seem to be more able to commit to and maintain a set of tactics for dealing with the assignment at hand. The qualifications "seem" and "appear" are used advisedly; I've not studied it in any systematic way.

Yep. I'm a social epistemicist. Did any of this answer your question? If not, hit me again.


Teaching students to take risks

Here's my truism: students always prefer to do what they know how to do rather than learn something they don't know how to do. Our task is to resist the former impulse and encourage them to try "the new."

To do that, they need explicit practice and encouragement in developing their own ideas. In my FYC second quarter course, I end with the risk assignment (I've described this in a recent blog). The scoring rubric gives 50% of the grade to "risk". I realize the paradox here, but many students will not venture forward unless they are rewarded for the venture. This is my way of getting them there.

Then in the third quarter course, I give three expressive papers: they need to respond to course reading and discussion, but I give no further guidance. The feedback I get from my students is this experience has paid off after they transfer to upper division.

I'm available to help them write what they want to write, but I make it clear that the question to me ("what do you want?") is totally dysfunctional. I just turn it back to them: what do you have to say? what do you want to work on?

Just today I got an email from a student from 4 years ago who not only told me this third course was transformative for her, but she's just finished a first year of interning as a teacher in a high school and was trying to figure out why she should keep going. So, naturally, she cleaned her room. In the course of that, she found the course notes from my class and the class publication and reread them. She said that clarified her purpose: she would do for her students what my class had done for her. [I don't get these kinds of emails everyday, you can be sure.] This was a particularly dramatic validation that structuring risk into the course and rewarding it really makes a difference.

John Lovas

[I registered, Clancy, but forgot my name and password and everything. I'll figure it out next time.]


It sounds like both of your are social epistemicists. You've given me a lot to think about--especially factoring "risk" into the rubric. What a sly idea! :) I know that Lillian Bridwell-Bowles has mentioned assigning experimental writing assignments and then a brief reflection/rationale for the project. Neat stuff, all. We have default texts for all the classes we teach at my institution, the FYC text being Writing Arguments by Ramage, Bean, & Johnson. We also have set genres we're required to assign--not that there isn't room for social epistemic pedagogy within those boundaries, but implementing experimental writing has been tricky for me so far. I've had to make it low-stakes only, as in the blog posts.

Low Stakes

I wonder about this characterization of "low-stakes" writing, particularly as it applies to things like John's risk assignment, and to my own students' work w/ WoR. How do we articulate what's low- and what's higher-risk? Is it the degree of identification the student has with the ideas/opinions they're putting forward? Is it the degree to which they feel as though what they have to say is unpopular? Is it because their rhetorical stance arises outside what they've been taught is "academically acceptable" or is heterogeneous in origin in some significant way? Are these the "Literate Arts of the Contact Zone" that Pratt talked about? Critique, bilingualism, parody, transculturation, autoethnography and others were among Pratt's list of the literate arts. Do her ideas even apply here?

Seems that, as John rightly points out, any time we're successful in moving them outside what they're comfortable doing, it's experimental writing. Any time they don't know what the end result looks like, it's risky for them. This is one of the problems I have with texts that emphasize modes & genres: I think they tend to present themselves in such a way as to suggest the end point is forseeable, and the process merely mechanistic. Experimentation, is, after all, a process.


Not knowing the end result

That's the key point. We need to support students in the exploration of ideas and styles, tolerating the anomie experienced when you can't clearly see the finished paper.

Over the years, the risk assignment has produced some amazing pieces. One female student used the occasion to write a letter to her estranged father--they had had no contact for over two years--and she actually sent it. Recently, another student used the assignment to detail her purging techniques when she was struggling with anorexia. For an expressive assignment, one student retold the Ovid version of Pyramus and Thisbe in a sequence of 14 sonnets. Another student wrote a three-page poem on very messy paper. Mid-way through the poem, I got the message: he was mooning me--he'd xeroxed his bare-ass and then typed the poem on the paper. Some use the occasion to write an outrageous, politcally incorrent opinion.

They always ask me what a risk is: I tell them I don't know what risk is to them, so they should convey a sense of that in their writing. There's been a whole lot of talk the last decade about "empowering" students. A lot of it just seems like talk. But the feedback I've had over the years (I've been doing the risk assignment for 15 years) documents that most students find the experience genuinely empowering: they write what they want the way they want.

John Lovas

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