Monday, November 07, 2005

On Time Bomb Teaching
(or why I don't think what I did was wrong)

Those of you who responded to the post I made last Friday already know the basics of the story, but some of the comments were so emotional and intent on attacking me personally that I think a clarification is in order on a couple of notes. If you haven't read the previous post, you should probably do that first, look through the comments, and then come back here.

The assumption being made by a number of readers is that I was basing my evaluation of my student's paper on the fact that I didn't agree with his opinion. I can understand where this interpretation comes from, given the fact that you read about the situation here, on my original post where I was attempting to process my own feelings. As I stated in my response to the comment thread, the truth is that "the deal" was presented to my student along with a page of written comments detailing areas of Zinn that my student glossed over but which were directly pertinent to my student's analysis. It was not a matter of "I think you're wrong and you get a C. Sign this sheet, admit you're a bad person, and I'll give you an A to be done with it." Rather, I presented a detailed rubric demonstrating what areas he needed to work on and also areas where he was successful. My comments were presented in a straightforward, non-judgmental way and I am very confident that he knew this when he signed the sheet and feels this way today. I'll get back to this in a moment.

As with most professors, I detest formal evaluation, especially in a critical writing course. I worked as a writing tutor on a campus writing center for years and have worked with many students to help them improve their writing skills. I would prefer this sort of cooperative/constructive approach to writing, consisting of revisions and feedback with no formal grade, and I try to incorporate this as much as possible into my class. School policies require that I have four graded formal papers and one graded revision for each paper, but I allow students to revise their essays as many times as they wish in order to improve their score. In fact, I've told them specifically not to translate their point total into a letter grade (30/50 = 60% which equals a "C-" or something) because I don't want them to take my evaluation as a judgment on the relative merits of their paper (I presented the situation in terms of a letter grade on the blog because I figured that would make more sense to readers). I'm not judging whether they are "good" or "bad" writers but rather whether or not they achieve the specific goals of the assignment. All of my students know this.

I want everyone to realize the real stakes within the confines of my course and the way I've designed it. Twenty points separated my student from a perfect score on this paper, and that's what he gained by signing the sheet. That's nothing in the scope of my class as a whole. I offer 40 points of extra credit to attend a play. Students know that they can earn extra credit by making an extra post on their course blog or by attending a relevant event on campus and writing a response. My student knew he could make up for his score not only by revising the paper (I have a class policy that allows students to revise their papers as many times as they wish in order to receive a higher grade, I provide detailed feedback for each revision) but also by earning extra credit. Even if he had not done extra credit, the 20 points would not (likely) have affected his final grade for the course, as he's done well on his other papers and assignments.

Rather, what I've emphasized in class is that I value effort in class much more than product; by that I mean attentive critical readings, thoughtful discussion, strong analysis, fearless revision, etc. Bear with me for a moment as I continue my train of thought...

The discussion thread has offered two main opinions: 1) Alex is an idiot and should be defrocked. 2) Alex made a mistake, but he's just learning how to teach.

As I've read through many of your attacks and constructed responses today, I've come to a different conclusion; namely, that while what I did probably wasn't the best possible course of action, it wasn't bad, either. My student knew the value I place on effort and thoughtful analysis. He knew specifically through my first two rounds of comments what I felt his paper needed in order to receive a high score while maintaining his criticism of Zinn. Moreover, he knew that if he just dropped the paper entirely and moved on to something else, he could make up the 20 points in other ways. When I provided him with the option to type up that paragraph and sign it to receive a high score, there's no reason why he shouldn't have recognized that I was presenting him with a challenge -- not to change his viewpoint but rather to engage in a thoughtful critical analysis; to counter the text on the text's terms. The "deal" was an obvious way of forcing a response one way or the other.

This is much different from "forcing" an opinion onto my students (one individual responded that I was trying to "beat" my student "into ideological submission"). Quite the opposite-- I acknowledged that he was entitled to his opinion and his beliefs, that this is what they must be in order for his argument to make sense, and that if he stated them outright he was entitled to a high score on his paper. I could have said "I think you're wrong. Zinn is right. Agree with him or I won't give you a higher grade than a 'C'." I absolutely did not.

I was disappointed in myself not because I was worried I forced my opinion on my student--I'm certain I did not--but rather because I responded to my gut feeling that the revisions of his paper had reached an impasse. We had come to the point where my comments weren't helping him to create an effective critique of Zinn and he still wanted a higher score. By laying it all out on the table, I knew that either A) he would realize the full weight of his implications and revise his paper to change that; B) he would see exactly how I was interpreting his paper and he would tell me in conversation why he thought my interpretation was wrong, and we'd move on from there; or C) he would sign the sheet. Given the stakes (low), I thought he'd choose "A" or "B." He chose "C," presumably because I had detailed his actual worldview (or at least the one he chose to put forth in a critique of Zinn), or he just wanted to be done with the assignment, therefore valuing product over process.

In retrospect, I'm sure that the situation would have been better served by offering my comments and not allowing him to sign the sheet for a higher score, but rather just telling him that list of beliefs was how I was interpreting the paper. That was one mistake. Another was talking about my student in a judgmental tone, whether it's on a public forum or not. I really believe that all of my students are brilliant. I value what each one of them brings to my class and I can honestly say that every one of them has made a remarkable impact on me and the way I think. I intended to discuss the pedagogy and the actions on this blog but I can see that the subtext of what I say about the event reveals ways I've judged him as a student, which I really regret.

All of this being said, however, one of my friends recently brought up the concept of "time bomb teaching" this weekend while discussing this whole event, and I'm really glad she did because I realized that on some level I had this in mind when I did what I did. I am indeed just learning the ropes of being a professor, but that being said I don't think my actions need to be defended with any sort of argument implying that this was just a rookie mistake. While my student may not think much of this whole process now, there is a very real chance that somewhere down the road he will come across the sheet he's signed or think back to this experience and reflect upon it. His moral position holds greater stakes than the grade on his paper. By signing this sheet for a higher grade, I believe the experience will stick with him. At least, it has a greater chance of sticking with him than a series of revisions on his freshman year Zinn critique do (considering that he's engaged in two revisions already). Of course, there's no guarantee that the "time bomb" will actually "go off," but there's a chance.

In short, I think what I did has significant pedagogical merit on at least one level, especially considering the stakes surrounding the assignment and also the fact that he still has to engage in one more additional full revision of this paper for a grade (the previous "revisions" were only attempts to increase the final score on the formal paper itself).