Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A, B, C, D...Can't I Just Pick an Answer?

Most of my general psychology students are freshmen, not yet versed in the complexities of college writing. And yet, I persist in assigning them short papers. I believe that it's important for them to learn how to formulate an opinion and back it up, and to do so in writing.

Today, this blog is late, in part, because I was grading those papers. My class is small, and we've reached the lovely point in the semester where they've figured out what I want, they can put it on the page and earn a grade that makes both of us happy. From there, I hope we move to the point where they're actually getting something out of the assignment, and today, I had several sparkling glimmers of hope that we are, indeed, headed there. Today, I remembered why I assign those papers.

College classes are supposed to be challenging. Not everyone is supposed to get an A. But I depart from the conventional wisdom of the bell curve; I believe that if I'm doing my job well and my students are showing up and putting in the work, they should succeed. For some, that success will come in the form of an A; for others, in a grade higher than the one they began the semester with.

There are a lot of "ifs" in the previous paragraph. If they show up. If they do the work. If the myriad distractions that accompany college life don't win out over the mundane: doing the reading, going to class, doing the work. Earning a grade. Learning how to write a paper.

I assign papers to my freshmen because I believe they have something to say. Because I want them to integrate the class material with the real world and with their lives, because only then will they own the material, rather than merely renting it long enough to spit it back on a quiz.

Sometimes, there are jewels in those papers. A turn of phrase. A private revelation. Voice that makes me laugh out loud as a student dares to tell me what he really thinks about the topic at hand. Often, especially at the beginning of the semester, these diamonds are very much in the rough, but inevitably, as the semester goes on, they begin to sparkle.

There are times when my to-do list is long and I'm tired and grouchy and I wonder why I thought this was a good idea. Tests can be graded in half the time.

But tests don't always show me what my students know. True insight can't be measured by a multiple choice response; a real grasp of the material and a bit of self-expression can unfold only on a sheet of blank paper.

Whoever I am, I bring into the classroom -- teacher, writer, mother, counselor, wife.

And if I'm lucky, by the end of the semester, my students will trust me with whomever they are. With each paper, they put a little more of themselves on the page, intermingling bits of themselves with the material, staking a claim, making a connection.

Fearing writing a little less each time.


  1. Love how you highlighted the many "ifs"... We all have the choice to get better IF we make the effort. :)

  2. Thanks, Cerella. I was really proud of the papers I just got from both of my classes. It takes us a bit to get to know each other, and once they know what I expect, they step up and their work is fun to read. I love watching them make connections.

    1. It sounds like you're finally settling in then with your current students! Which makes me very happy for you. :)