On the Other Hand…


Maybe my last post  needs some balance.  Being encouraging is one thing when it comes to teaching, but sometimes, simple encouragement doesn’t always cut it. Sometimes, a good professor has to call students out and be a little bit mean.  In the right way.

I had this experience for the first time several years ago. I had just spent the previous five weeks working with a class. We did activities, they brought drafts, I gave them feedback, I extolled the virtues of office hours, I encouraged, I cajoled, etc., and then the moment of truth came….time to grade their last batch of essays.

They were terrible.  I can’t remember the specifics, but I remember they contained gems along the lines of, “Have u ever wondered why people want to go to the moon?” and “Many people throughout time have argued the pros and cons of internet freedom.”

Indeed. I breathed deeply as I felt all my good will melting away.  I resisted the urge to write snarky comments about people from the middle ages engaged in debates about the internet.

At that moment, any illusions I had that I might be an English-professor-Mr. Miyagi, with my industrious students waxing on and waxing off as they continued along a path to proficient writing melted away. Rather, now I realized that they waxed on an hour before class began and didn’t even bother to wax off. As if I wouldn’t notice.

The next class, I lifted their papers from my folder, and glowered at them.

“Okay guys….let’s talk.”

They sat up in their seats.

“These aren’t all terrible,” I began. “Not all of them.  But MOST of them are.”

They stopped doodling in their notebooks and stared at me.

“It’s like you didn’t even try.  It’s like you wrote them an hour before class started.”

A couple students smiled.  One started a nervous giggle.

“DID you?  Or was it two hours before class began? Maybe three?”

More students laughed and a few started nodding to themselves.

“Three hours?  However long, it wasn’t enough. These are some of the worst essays I have ever read and it’s a shame because I know you are capable of writing better than this nonsense.”

I went on to tell them why they needed to know how to write better than they had on that last assignment. I went on to explain that writing was complex stuff and very few people could write an acceptable essay in the hour before class began and even if they could, if they revised it, it would be even better. Blah, blah, blah, but the ultimate message? Do not insult our class by handing in such crap again.

After scaring them sufficiently, I let every student rewrite their papers if they wanted to, with the only requirement being that the had to meet with me, in my office, to go over each paper. The rewrites were due in one week.

I held my breath as I graded the first one.  I always tried to be encouraging for students and this new tact had the potential to backfire. Would they be equally horrible?  Would lines such as “There are good and bad perspectives on everything” persist?

Much to my pleasure, every single rewrite was not only better, but vastly better.  It wasn’t just because I forced them to meet with me in person–I had done that before–but I believe it was because I had held them accountable. I had made it clear that there IS such a thing as quality when it comes to writing and I had made it equally clear that they had missed the mark.  I let them know that this wasn’t okay because I knew they could do better. 

So, while I still think that being kind is important, sometimes, we also have to hold our students accountable when they aren’t doing their best, when they aren’t helping themselves.  After all, they won’t improve unless they do.