Thursday, April 17, 2008

Panic! Anxiety!

Not for me, fortunately. No, but it's that time for my students! The comp classes have a major research paper due next week (on the last day of school! Whoo!) and the survey has a paper due in about a week and a half. The survey folks haven't started worrying yet, but I've been fielding emails from my comppers ALL day.

So here's the thing. I admit that I compressed this assignment a bit more than I meant to; in the future, I'd give them another week to work on the things. But most of our class time for the last two weeks has been dedicated to working on their topics or papers, in one way or another, and I've designed a series of graduated assignments to prepare them:
  1. Brainstorm possible topics.
  2. In class, come up with "issue questions" based on your topics (in groups).
  3. Bring your final issue question to class.
  4. Class in the library: learn about resources and begin researching.
  5. Turn in an annotated bibliography.
  6. Turn in an intro paragraph + outline (due tomorrow) for workshopping.
  7. Final paper due in the middle of next week.
According to this schedule, they were to have their topics a week ago, use the weekend to do preliminary research, and bring bibliographies to class on Monday. Okay, a lot of them fell apart on the biblios, and perhaps I've been too permissive about letting them hand them in late (but the library is barely open on the weekends, so I felt some sympathy). However! I am astounded by how many students have contacted me today to ask if they can switch their topics to something completely different. Many, many. Bear in mind that I met with each of them individually in class one day last week, made myself available to anyone with questions on the library day (I spoke with many of them then), and spent half of class yesterday--while they were working out their theses in groups--talking one-on-one with the ones who were stuck.

It's their funeral, of course, but I'm just scared that I'm to blame for not giving them more time to do preliminary research. Which is why I'm checking my email all the time and responding as quickly as possible to their desperate questions. I'm also a little worried about some of the topic switches--"Instead of writing about feminist approaches to Hamlet, can I do gene therapy? I think that I could get a good outline on that done by tomorrow"*--because it leads me to suspect that they're just trotting out old papers, or at the very least old research.

[*This isn't a real example, of course. The thing is, I've given them a fairly long leash in selecting topics; this is something that I do when I'm hesitant about an assignment, I've noticed. I also want them to write about things that interest them. But anyway some of the topic switches really have been this dramatic.]

Argh. Whatever. I suspect that many of the papers will be a mess because I'm not reading their drafts. (Seriously--I gave detailed individual comments on the first two major papers and then minimal individual comments + generalized comments on the third, and the grades plummeted. This worries me. In my desire to nurture, have I given them too much help?) Some of the papers are going to be terrific--a good handful will probably turn out really well, as I have some stellar, hard-working students in all of my sections--but I'm kind of dreading reading the others. I know that some of my students don't work all that hard, but I know that some of them really do, and it breaks my heart when they still can't hit a very high level of achievement.

--------I just reread this post, and there's really clear theme here: I'm blaming myself for my students' failures/difficulties/anxiety/stress/etc. Codependent much? How much more obviously insecure could I be? And I don't think that I do this in my literature classes. Interesting.


kermitthefrog said...

I worried about the exact same thing with feedback in my comp class. I also emerged at the end of the year still wondering how best to teach students to independently assess their own writing and make it better. Not at all that you're to blame here, exactly the opposite -- I think it's a difficult situation that comes up in comp classes, and is perhaps built into the structure of the class, what with repeated opportunities for comments & revision.

Also, the one open topic essay I assigned resulted in my one case of plagiarism. You may want keep an eye out, especially but not exclusively in the case of the students who changed topics at the last minute and therefore didn't do some of the preliminary work.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Also, the one open topic essay I assigned resulted in my one case of plagiarism. You may want keep an eye out, especially but not exclusively in the case of the students who changed topics at the last minute and therefore didn't do some of the preliminary work.

YES. Maybe I'm a cynic, but "sudden switch in topic" spells "I downloaded an essay on gene therapy off of" to me.

And maybe I'm heartless, but I think the phrase "a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine" might be relevant here.

Nothing like freshman comp to make one into a heartless cynic, indeed.

heu mihi said...

Hm, yes, I will be doing many a Google search come grading time, methinks.

Luckily I've also seen enough of every single student's work that I have a pretty good idea of their abilities by this point.

Sisyphus said...

Be sure to tell your students that there is no magic paper topic. If they switch, they will have the same experience of writing a paper: it sucks, it's hard, and you get stuck. And if they switch now, they will have to go back to step one and go through the hard parts and the stuck places all over again.

I noticed when I started telling my students this --- either in class or individually --- that the requests to switch dropped dramatically. I think it's somehow connected to the way my nephew just hits the "rest" button on the playstation whenever he "messes up" and loses his special weapons or whatever on his turn --- he wants a do-over so that his messups don't count on his final score.

And having said that I may go steal this for a blog post.

Belle said...

Oh, doesn't all this sound like you've been listening to conversations around the academy?

I have a lovely example of something: my class had an assignment that required them to submit it to a plagiarism identification site which would generate originality reports. Out of the 18 submitted (on time, as I resolutely do not accept late papers), only 1 was more than 2% copied! 15 were totally clear! They didn't have a choice of topic, but within the topic the range was really broad. And totally within the writemytermpaper.cheat genre. So I'm pleased.

Of course, I haven't graded them....