Week 6


I’m late posting the papers because you were late sending them– only one of you got your drafts in on Friday as planned, so these are late getting back to you. Next time, let’s work out a schedule that’s realistic for all and stick to it as well as we can so everybody knows what to expect and can plan accordingly. (I’m not mad, just grouchy about the state of the world and scrambling to get these papers back to you ASAP.)

Here they are.

So, for Tuesday, read all four drafts (three essays and a poem), and think about how you would guide each writer toward the strongest revision possible.

To do that, make notes for each one:

  1. Summarize the goal of the draft as you understand it. What is the thesis or guiding intention?
  2. Note the place in the draft where you see that intention stated most explicitly.
  3. Identify the most promising features of the essay.
  4. List 3-5 questions you could ask and/or statements you could make to prompt the writer to take fuller advantage of those strengths.

And think back to our discussion about grades, which we will continue this week.

How would you begin to grade these drafts if they were submitted as final revisions– and how could our reading on this subject help you? We’ll compare notes when we meet.

And in your comment below, reflect on what you notice as you work through the papers so we can use our time together to:

a) focus on specific questions the drafts raise for you, but also

b) make sure to talk about the bigger questions that come up for you in the process.


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7 Responses to Week 6

  1. Kate Bryant says:

    One question I’ve had while commenting and thinking about drafts is about how prescriptive to be. In general I’ve tried to write a lot of questions that could potentially help my students understand ways to make their arguments stronger, though whether or not those will prove effective is still an open question. This is an interesting challenge, and there are some recurring themes throughout their essays that also makes this feel easier.
    I have a harder time knowing what to say when students are missing the mark in ways that seem more significant. Sometimes this is on the level of one or several sentences, and I’ve said things along the lines of, “this isn’t an accurate summary of this point in the reading, or I’m not understanding what you’re saying.” And of course I’m trying to read these moments in the context of their writing more generally, and point out places where I think they are either genuinely misinterpreting the thing they are summarizing or paraphrasing, or where something in their sentence construction seems to be impeding their meaning in a serious way. I’m recalling our conversation about intention and how to try to read for intention, and then also how to begin to have a conversation with students about the idea of intention, whether through my comments or in class.
    In Sample Essay 2 I see a student begin to do something that some of my students do as well, which is spinning a narrative of what the author in question is intending that isn’t necessarily wrong, but that is not supported by the text, as far as I can tell.
    Then there are some students whose essays are missing the mark in other large ways. It’s easy to say “reread the guidelines and make sure to include [insert requested element]” but feels more daunting the more fundamental the problem gets, as in a few cases where students’ formal drafts aren’t addressing the goals of the assignment.
    Ok, so I am working my way towards a question about grading, I swear. I’ve obviously tried to intervene in my responses to these drafts by reiterating the frame of the assignment. But I am also very aware of all the ways that I haven’t really known what I’ve been doing this first month. I have tried to feel prepared but it feels clear that there are ways in which I haven’t actually understood what teaching entails and how to do it, specifically how exactly to model things in a way that connects very explicitly to the assignments that my syllabus says are various percentages of my students’ grades. There doesn’t seem to be much point in pretending like this isn’t true. It’s not a disaster but I already see a lot of ways that I will do things differently going forward and next time
    But, this means that I can also see the ways I have disadvantaged them in these first weeks and I’m wondering how to (whether to?) incorporate that into my thinking in grading. I can see the way students are striving to parse the assignment and the reading and the things we’ve talked about in class and are making very noble efforts, and I can also see where certain more explicit kinds of guidance might have helped them. Should I account for this in my grading, for this first essay?

  2. Caleb Fridell says:

    The first problem of both sample essays (and communicating this to students seems the principle problem of teaching composition) is that neither make original arguments. The interpretive claims in the places where their theses ought to be are the kind of general, abstract, and underspecified assertions that cannot be falsified, so cannot be cogently argued. “People judge others by how they look or act and assume they are monsters.” “There are always different interpretations that can be made within literature, it all depends on how the writer portrays its characters and events.” I’ve tried to turn students away from this habit (they all tell me this is what they learned in high school) by repeating as a mantra that their thesis––and every sentence of their paper, supportive of that thesis––must be narrowly specific to the text they are analyzing. As a first measure, I’ve found this immediately sets them on a better path; if the writer of the second of the above examples were asked to specify something he thinks is true of the text in his thesis statement, he would have to decide how it is he thinks Shakespeare is ‘portraying his characters and events’ (rather than seeming to account for how any odd reader might interpret them). That is, in such re-framing––making an argument about the text rather than using the text as an example of a universal argument––the student is automatically making their own interpretation, and freed from the burden of delivering great human truths (about which they might be understandably equivocal). While this advice does not guarantee original arguments, even lazily tacking on the author’s name to some general proposition (as some of my students have done) improves the paper. If the writer of the first above example simply added “Cohen thinks. . .” to the beginning of that sentence, I can then ask for evidence to prove the claim, as it can now be falsified––which might naturally lead the student to take a narrower, more argumentative stance.

    As for the ‘bigger questions’. . . well, I must take issue with asking first-year writing students to read and come to their own interpretations of Cohen’s essay. I thought the student must be exaggerating to say that Cohen’s intended audience is a crowd of PhDs but after looking it up I entirely agree: it’s the kind of bad writing endemic to high-level academia and rightly unintelligible to anyone outside our closed circles. His third sentence also contains the general, abstract, and underspecified assertions, in however higher a register, of those student examples: “. . . in cultural studies today history (disguised perhaps as ‘culture’) tends to be fetishized as a telos, as a final determinant of meaning; post de Man, post Foucault, post Hayden White, one must bear in mind that history is just another text in a procession of texts, and not a guarantor of any singular signification.” I have about a hundred questions about the specious assumptions contained in just that sentence fragment, none of which are addressed as the essay proceeds to its next rhetorical flourish. A tossed-off reference to “Derrida’s familiar chasm of différance,” maybe, or to “the phenomenon Derrida has famously labeled the ‘supplement,’” or to Bakhtin, Butler, Copjec, Foucault, Kristeva––all of whom I greatly admire, none of whose names ought to appear in the lengthy endnotes of a reading given to English 110 students. I can’t imagine anything more forbidding to a student putatively learning how to come to and express their own opinions than being handed an article every sentence of which contains a word or name they’ve never seen before.

    I shouldn’t use this space to vent about low standards of academic writing, so to put the issue in terms of the bigger question underlying the problem of absent arguments: a large part of what I take our mission to be is to teach students a real openness to, curiosity about, and love of learning for its own sake. The students who do not know how to make arguments, I think, are not used to being asked to think for themselves in a classroom setting; they approach learning as the acquisition some determinate body of factual knowledge (hence the emphasis on rote summary in those sample papers). Cohen’s article, with its references to all those impenetrable philosophical magna opera, seems to me like it would reinforce this assumption of education as a fixed possession, which likely seems far beyond students’ grasp. I think offering engaging and passionate readings to the students, in language that speaks to them, while modeling ourselves the kind of pleasure that can be taken from literature itself ought to be part of how we try to improve student writing. It is how we can convince students that a skill like close-reading is not something to be faked for a good grade, and not even only essential to their academic development, but part of the reading practice essential to an active and engaged intellectual life worth living.

  3. Weiheng Sun says:

    I agree with Caleb that the most significant problem I see here, is that both essays lack a clear arguable thesis. The first essay has a descriptive fact that “Some may view Caliban as a monster because of the information we have been given, others may see him in a different kind of light. There are always different interpretations that can be made within literature, it all depends on how the writer portrays its characters and events,” which is comprehensive and true and is not an argument. The second essay seems to state that “Cohen’s essay is directed towards those people who study or understand Sociology on a very high level of education, for example someone who has a PHD” and then the writer explains Cohen’s thesis IV in her own words, “People judge others by how they look or act and assume they are monsters. People create monsters from things that they don’t understand.” But I’m not sure how it connects to the central argument, the intended audience. I agree with the writer’s reflection that “people who haven’t read Cohen’s essay, will be able to understand it,” but it is not an argument. It is more about explanation, annotation. Both essays fail to propose a clear thesis at the beginning, which is a central weakness in their works.

    Is it because the text of close reading is particularly incomprehensible? I quote from Caleb’s post that Cohen’s piece is “the kind of bad writing endemic to high-level academia and rightly unintelligible to anyone outside our closed circles.” Then what kind of text is proper for students to do a close reading? Cohen’s work is more about Monster Theory. Perhaps it is too difficult for a freshman to do a close reading of abstract theories. Is it because the instructor does not give clear instructions of the assignment or does not guide students to ask appropriative interpretive questions?

    As for the close reading assignment, I use a bottom-up method, always ask students what observations they find in text. After they have some interesting observations, they take one step further, thinking about what kind of interpretive questions can be asked. Then some evidences build up to a claim, then to a thesis. Cohen’s piece seems to provide students with some big thesis about monster theories. I’m not sure if the work leaves much space for students to do close readings of the text as they are struggling to understand it first.

  4. An overarching theme with the essays is hesitation to make a solid claim. Freshmen students often have trouble feeling comfortable enough with their own voices to make an argument and the claims that will support them, so I think some of the writing patterns we’re seeing with these essays are “normal” for freshmen writers. Developing a strong and unique writing voice is something that students do over time, not with their first essay in their first college writing class. Their claims are often general and abstract, and students have to learn to drill down their claims for more specificity. If we ask them “What exactly/specifically do you mean by this?” they can tell us verbally, but they don’t yet have practice at explaining themselves on paper.

    One reason I think this lack of specificity happens, as we’ve discussed before, is that they assume that their audience is their professor—even when an audience is provided—so there is no need to go into detail. Another is they are new to critical reading of texts, which means they don’t yet know how to be critical readers of their own texts. However, I think this all okay. Freshmen students are here to learn these techniques, and we should expect them to make the errors in writing common to freshmen.

    Essay 1 provides an example of that hesitation with lines like “Some may view” and “It can be said.” (The latter is also present in Essay 3.) In the last two paragraphs of the essay, we finally start to see the writer’s argument. Prior to that, the student seems to be free-writing. Though his argument not necessarily original, it’s still an argument, and one that indicates that he read Cohen’s text. My questions to the student would center around the claims that are starting to take shape in that last paragraph and here and there throughout the essay. Once the student can ask himself and answer some specific questions about what he’s trying to say, he can look at those claims and create/revise a thesis.

    For Essay 2, the essay needs organization. However, the student explores different types of monsters, which I think she can use as her own pattern. Yes, she can include that Cohen’s vocabulary may be difficult at times, but since we’re all familiar with some type of “monster,” she can use that to structure her essay using Cohen’s “metaphoric crossroad” (see paragraph 6). The student notes that Cohen frequently mentions Dracula, which can also serve as a rhetorical pattern to help freshmen readers connect with Cohen’s text.

    The student who wrote Essay 3 is aware that the structure/organization of the essay is difficult to follow, which I take as an excellent sign. However, considering that it is a final draft, the lack of organization is a concern. Workshopping organization with this student would be helpful for the next essay.

    Like Kate (and probably most of us), I feel like I’ve done so much to be prepared, but I’m still not confident that I’m making the necessary connections for my students. I prepared for everything—except for the things I’m not prepared for. I keep coming back to Zeli’s comment on responding to student writing: “an active push to continue,” and am now trying to apply that to myself as I reflect on what I can do better with working toward the next essay, in the next class, etc. As we reflect on our mistakes as new teachers, we should keep Zeli’s comment as our mantra—not just for our students—but for ourselves.

  5. In agreement with Caleb that the lack of a clear arguable thesis is without a doubt the main problem I am seeing with my students. However, since the Cohen article is very difficult to understand, I believe that it has a lot to do with this. I actually took a poll in class and asked the students how would they rate the difficulty level of Cohen’s article on a scale from 1-10 and the majority put it at a 9. Probing further about this, they said that the language, the words, the sometimes long sentences, the foreign language words, the length of the article pretty much made it very difficult. They then said that they feared they would get a bad grade on their first essay because this article was difficult. I had to spend some time telling them that part of the College experience and the CUNY and Queens College thought was that students should be challenged by such articles. I also told them that the other articles were written in plain English and that they would be much easier to understand, digest, analyze and write about.
    In terms of grading, I find myself grading on how much thought they put into understanding the Cohen article and I find that because of the difficulty level, most of them, so far, have done more of a close reading and summary of the article with lots of citations to either support Cohen’s own ideas (or just to fill up the page…) than to bring in an argument of their own.

  6. Woo Ree Heor says:

    The essay about Cohen’s intended audience is from my class, and I’m using a syllabus which I assume is shared by other English 110 classes on the topic of monsters. As I work with it, what I’ve realized is that the assignments and homework exercises were designed with a clear consciousness that Cohen’s essay is difficult. From finding topic sentences to summarizing each Thesis, quite a few exercises were meant to help the students get a better understanding of what is being said in the essay. I think part of the reason why the guidelines for essay drafts were so specific—“in one paragraph, do this, finish it by talking about this, and then in the next paragraph, do this”—derives from the fact that students will feel daunted by the task at hand. The rhetorical analysis required for the first essay was, as might be deduced from the essay, presenting a hypothesis about Cohen’s intended audience. I believe the underlying reasoning was that since students would find this essay challenging, working their frustrations into supports for their argument would actually serve as an entry for rhetorical analysis (for example, arguing that the essay must be written for “people with PhD” or “scholars” because the terminology and references are so difficult to understand for laypeople).

    To some extent, I share the sentiment that assigning such a difficult text to English 110 students would do little more than putting them off of academic writing. At the same time, however, I agree with Alain that facing challenging articles and trying to understand them are part of college experience that students are expected to go through. In my in-class reading session of a model essay (in which the writer argued that Cohen’s essay was intended for scholars, not students) I had one student object to the model essay’s main argument saying that “college students read and understand articles like this in their classes.” This potentially has something to do with my class not being a freshmen-only English 110 class, but I’ve learned that working with such a difficult text to produce an essay can lead to feelings of accomplishment and confidence in their reading comprehension skills (even as though it might lead to doing more of a close reading and summarizing rather than proposing an argument of their own, as Alain says).

    As for grading, I have the essays that have more or less clearly stated main arguments with supports and the essays that miss the mark in terms of what this assignment is about (the essay above is kind of in the middle). Similar to Kate, I’m wondering what could have been done to make the goal of this assignment clearer and/or more understandable. Even the guidelines that basically says “do this” paragraph by paragraph aren’t enough by themselves—I see that students need more explicit connection between their in-class / homework exercises and essay assignments in order to effectively use the former as the building blocks for the latter. I guess the easy answer is to shrug and say “well I gotta be generous this time because I messed up somehow and this isn’t entirely their fault,” but to what extent can we take our mistakes (which aren’t going to magically go away after one semester of teaching) into consideration as we grade assignments?

  7. Farrah Goff says:

    While the consensus of my classes (as well as many of my classmates here) is that the article is challenging. Caleb is exactly right in the sense that Cohen is overly casual in the way he offers throwaway mentions of scholars and philosophers and that in doing so he becomes intimidating to this audience of freshman reader. However, I actually have found my students greatly enjoy the article once we take the time to work our way through it. Even the references (some of which even I have to spend a fair deal of time looking up) are used to provide good discussion and prompt some inquiry into ideas that the students are less than familiar with. With that said, when it comes to actually writing about the article..

    What Kate says about the difficulty addressing students who are missing the mark in larger ways resonates with me as I have MANY students who are missing the point, not just of what they are analyzing, but what the overall goal of the essay is. In fact, reading Essay 1 was extremely jarring for me as I have so few students who are writing at a level even near that. In fact, I’m wondering how best to spend some time discussing basic sentence composition. Essay 2 and 3 felt much more familiar in their tendencies towards generality and more simplistic language. An effective strategy I have implemented in my classes is that going over the rather “bigger picture” issues that most students seem to be missing after I have read through their first drafts, for example what tense academic essays are written in or how one actually refers to Cohen in their writing, with the class as a whole. While the handful of students who are on the right path already may find this redundant, the rest of the class benefits greatly.

    On a third level, I am concerned as having been given the final drafts of their first essay, I can absolutely tell that some of my students are not even reading my comments. Beyond the sheer frustration of this, I am now wondering how to best tackle this problem? When one has clearly corrected a student on their mistake and they continue to make the same mistake (and I don’t believe this comes from misunderstanding but actual lack of effort) how does one move forward? I will be assigning the first grades of the semester and I am worried about the difficulty this will present.

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