Friday, November 10, 2017

The Qualifying Essay

(I'm writing this in late August, and setting it to appear when the QE is about to happen. This will serve as a reminder to me.)

Years ago, when I began here, the Qualifying Essay was a do-or-die test: pass it or flunk English 100. That was about two Composition Directors ago, and we are in the middle of changing things. Changes happen slowly when it comes to curriculum.

The "do-or-die" part was never accurate anyhow. We had a grading standard that told teachers to count up comma problems and so forth, but all of us actually read over the QE and tried to put the student in a place that would be best for him/her. I don't think we ever counted comma faults the way we were told to, and we usually would look at the student's performance over the whole semester before deciding what to recommend.

Now we're downplaying the QE and saying it's one piece of evidence that goes into the mix.

We do need a different name, though. Perhaps Capstone Essay? In-Class Retrospective? QE just doesn't say what we are doing with it now. It's just an in-class essay that comes along a couple of weeks before the course ends. That's it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Signing Up for Spring Courses

You can begin signing up for Spring 2018 courses on Monday, November 13. Here are some quick guidelines:
  • Sign up as soon as possible. Courses fill up, and you don't want to get shut out of a course you really need.
    • Courses have a maximum size, and most instructors are not very willing to sign for overloads. In fact, most of our supervisors have told us not to do it.
  • Go ahead and sign up for English 101. If you need to repeat 100, we can easily make the change later.
  • Sign up for English 110 as well. It's a one-credit lab, and the time is arranged to fit your schedule. It's a required course for most students who are moving from 100 to 101
Should you attempt to follow the same instructor into the next course? Good question. Those who favor this idea say that it's great to stick with someone whose style matches yours. Those who disagree say that the English Department (like the other departments here) is filled with qualified, interesting people, and it's a good thing to get a cross section of their learning.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Rules for Paper Revisions

The rules for paper revisions are discussed in our course syllabus, so this is just a summary.
  • Essays 1, 2, 3, and 4 are eligible for revision. The midterm, the Qualifying Essay, and Essay 5 are not eligible.
  • You may revise two of those essays for a better grade.
  • Essays which receive a passing grade (C+ = 76% or better) are not eligible for revision.

Mechanical Details

  • Your revision is due one week after you receive the graded paper. No written work of any sort (originals or revisions) will be accepted after the end of our class period on Wednesday, November 29.
  • Do not upload your revision to Blackboard. Your revision will be hard copy (printed pages).
  • The "revision package" will consist of three things:
    1. The original paper you submitted, along with its comment sheet
    2. Your revised paper
    3. A memo discussing what you changed and why you changed it


  • If your revision consists entirely of making changes the teacher marked (fixing capitalization, for example), your grade will not change.
  • If your "revision package" lacks any of the three elements (for example, if you simply turn in a clean copy of the revised paper without either the memo or the original marked copy), your grade will not change.
  • If your revised paper is somehow worse than the original attempt, your grade will not change.
  • The grade for the revised paper replaces the original paper grade. They are not averaged.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Everyone writes everything on a computer now, right? Wrong.

In high school, perhaps you got along without having any handwriting skills (and, sadly, nobody teaches people how to handle a pen any more), but in college, you should expect to do a lot of handwriting.
  • Classroom notes. You came to college to learn from teachers, and some of the things they say show up on tests. Computers are awkward for taking class notes, and phones are totally useless. Several studies show that people who hand-write class notes learn more about the content than people who take notes on computers.
  • Notes on reading. You should be marking your textbooks and keeping a reading journal of your assignments. This just won't work with a computer.
  • In-class tests and quizzes. There is often no way to print out a typed copy of a quiz, so you will be writing it. If your writing is slow and difficult, you are at a disadvantage. If your writing is incomprehensible, the teacher might not have the patience to decipher you.
  • Rough drafts of essays. Yes, I know that some people draft very well on a computer, but many people do not. They get tangled up in Facebook. They have trouble finding the letter "q." They have trouble making a bullet list. And when the draft is done, they almost never print the whole thing out and lay it on a table to look at it. Handwritten rough drafts are just more natural. (C.S. Lewis, the Christian writer, said that the typewriter's noise interrupted his chain of thought. He really liked the scratching noise of the pen on the paper.)

Some videos to watch

This set of instructional videos really gets to the heart of the matter in a series of 5-minute chunks. I like where she begins: If you have poor handwriting, it is probably because you were poorly taught. (Many reasons for this, but the main reason is probably that your teachers did not know how to write well either!)
  1. Introduction to the series
  2. Setting Up Your Handwriting Practice Area
  3. Handwriting Practices
  4. Essential Elements of Handwriting
  5. Fine Motor Movement of Handwriting
  6. How to Make Your Handwriting Personal

A summer assignment

Go out and buy a somewhat decent pen (doesn't have to be expensive, but it needs to write easily), some writing paper, some envelopes, and a personal journal or diary.

Several times a week, write in that journal about how your summer is going. Nobody else will read this unless you give it to them; it's just an exercise in getting your thoughts on paper and exercising those hand muscles. Use the writing paper and envelopes to write a few letters to distant relatives (grandmother? uncle?) about how your preparation for college is going.

A last little story

I got to sit in on a job interview a while back. The prospective employee sat down and the boss looked at his application form. The first question from the boss was "Did you write this with your left foot?" That's a bad beginning for an interview. You want to do better.

Monday, September 18, 2017

When should you obsess about grades?

As my English 101 course ended this Spring, I got several emails from students, all saying pretty much the same thing.
Help!! I really need a B in this class and I just realized that my average is C minus!! What can I do?? Is there any extra credit I can do to pull up my grade?
These emails came in at the start of Finals Week, and all the work of the class had been submitted. There were literally no more points to be earned. Time for a little bit of realism:
  • Week 14 is too late to begin worrying about your grades. Most college courses rely on an accumulation of information and points, so if you are concerned about your grades, Week 2 is a better time to start worrying.
  • Put the pressure on the right person. If your grades are low, put the pressure on yourself, not on your teacher.
  • If you know you will struggle in a class, ask for help. It's always available.
  • Few teachers give extra-credit assignments. I don't. Extra-credit puts extra work on the shoulders of the teacher, and is unfair to the rest of the students who did the work during the term. Besides, extra-credit doesn't usually fit into the syllabus. (Just for reference, it would have taken a nearly perfect—198 out of 200—8-page paper to have raised that C minus grade to a B in English 101. The arithmetic of averages means that you can't turn in a 10-point assignment and do much to an 800-point course.)
  • Most teachers have rules about revisions, late papers, etc., and the rules vary from one teacher to another. Read the syllabus.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Teachers and Email

I did not grow up in your world.

In your world, an email or text message absolutely must be answered within five minutes or less. This is the reason people cannot stop texting in class and a major reason kids die in traffic accidents. That text message simply cannot wait until the end of the class period. That text message absolutely cannot wait until you are at a red light.

In your world, five minutes between a text and an answer is a very, very long time.

My world is different.

Twice in my career I have had run-ins with mediocre students who sent multiple desperate emails over the weekend asking very ordinary procedural questions ("DID YOU GET THE ATTACHMENT I SENT?" "DID YOU GET THE ATTACHMENT I SENT?" "DID YOU GET THE ATTACHMENT I SENT?"), and when I did not respond to Sunday morning emails, it was worth an early morning desperate phone call to my supervisor's boss's home phone ("HE NEVER RESPONDS TO ANY OF MY EMAILS").

So here are my rules, and you will find that my rules are typical of many teachers:
  • I do not respond to emails while I am asleep. This means that on an ordinary working day, you will not get anything from me between 10 PM and 6 AM.
  • After I get up in the morning, I shower, shave, and eat breakfast. I don't respond to emails while I am using the bathroom. This means that you won't get an email from me between 6 AM and 7 AM on a working day.
  • I don't respond to emails while I am driving a car. This means that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I won't respond to an email between 7 AM and 8 AM.
  • I don't respond to emails while I am teaching a class. This means that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I won't respond to an email between 8 AM and 11 AM.
  • I actually get weekends off, so if you send an email Saturday night or Sunday morning, I probably will not see it until Monday. I do not respond to emails during church.
  • I try to keep ordinary office hours, so around 5 PM I figure my working day is done. You should not ordinarily expect me to respond to emails in the evening.
My email inbox fills with 10 to 20 routine items a day ("Donuts in the faculty lounge" "Buy this textbook" "Automatic summary of a bunch of things you don't care about" "Someone you never met is retiring from a department you never heard of") along with half a dozen scams and sales pitches ("Men! Buy this exotic herb!") and two or three student communications that don't need any response ("I wasn't in class today because I felt sick").

If you need an excused absence to attend your uncle's funeral and I don't respond to your desperate Saturday and Sunday emails, don't panic. Don't get the Provost out of bed with a phone call. Just ask me when you get back.

The way productive adults handle electronic messages

It's quite possible to spend your entire working day looking at text messages and emails, and if you routinely check for new messages more often than once every hour, you need this advice from Huffington Post.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Why I don't mark every error

Some of my students figure I will mark every comma problem, spelling error, and capitalization mistake. Then all they have to do to revise the paper (and get a perfect grade) is to put in the commas where I put the marks.


Here are just a few of the reasons I will not mark absolutely everything on your papers.
  1. The definition of "good writing" is much larger than "no comma problems." You need to know that a good paper says something smart, says it clearly, and backs it up with quality evidence.
  2. If I mark everything, you never learn the skill of proofreading your own paper.
  3. After I've read about a hundred pages of student writing, I start to miss things.
  4. If you submit a "revision" that is simply fixing all the grammar items I have marked, you have not revised anything. I did the revision. (And if your paper had other problems, a simple run of repairing commas has not made it much better.)

A few other things to know about grading

  • Some errors annoy readers more than others. I can probably skip over a simple misspelling (perceive or percieve?), especially if it only shows up once. If, however, every plural in the paper has an inappropriate apostrophe, it's only one kind of error, but my brain begins to melt. Put that together with some other third-grader error (not capitalizing "I" when it is the first person pronoun, for example), and I have a very difficult time respecting the paper.
  • The midnight papers are always bad. Slamming something together in the last hour or two before it is due deprives you of the time you need to reflect, copyedit, and proofread. You should expect the midnight paper to be a mess that gets a terrible grade.
  • The more difficult the content, the more errors you will make. Expect it. You might be able to sail through a "what I did last summer" paper, but a critique and analysis of a piece of academic writing will bring out all the elementary school mistakes.
  • I expect you to grow. You will get some mercy at the beginning of English 100, but the papers at the end of the course should be better. If you still cannot get the apostrophe into a contraction or find the difference between their and there, I will assume you did not learn many skills here. And if (as actually happened), you get to the end of English 101 and cannot capitalize the first letter of your hometown's name, I will assume you just don't care about submitting a quality product.
  • A stupid paper with great spelling is still a stupid paper.
    A smart, well-written paper with terrible spelling and grammar becomes a stupid paper.
    It's like driving a car. If you do a great job of steering and braking, but can never find your destination, you are not yet a good driver. If your sense of direction and map reading skills are wonderful, but you can't steer or brake too well, we don't call you a good driver either.