Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Handwriting

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.

Wrong.

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.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Paper Grades in English 100

Grading in 100 is unusual in several ways. For one thing, you don't actually get a letter grade in this course—you get a "pass" 👍 or a "no pass" 👎 and neither one affects your Grade Point Average.
Important Note: This does not mean that the course is unimportant or that it doesn't count. It just means that you don't need to obsess about the difference between a B+ and an A-. If you don't pass 100 this time, you won't move on to 101. I'll see you again in 100 in the Spring semester.
Another unusual characteristic, at least for some of you, is that there is no mathematical precision to the grading. Some of you are used to the kind of course where English teachers would need a calculator to grade papers. I'm not doing that. (I once taught at a place where we were supposed to grade 38 separate items for each paper. It was possible to fail the entire course by a comma.)

Instead of counting and calculating, I'm asking the question, "Is this writing any good? How good is it?" I'll give you a class handout which discusses the things I'm looking at, but when I finally get to the end of the process, I ask a very gut-level question. Did this paper have really severe problems that get in the way of communication? (That's a D.) Was it OK, but unremarkable, bland, predictable, and boring? (There's a C.) Pretty good, but still has room for improvement? (That's a B paper.) Or did it really sparkle and provide a good example of what a college freshman should be doing? (That's an A.)

This approach leads to two other conclusions.
  1. Sometimes a student will bring back a paper and say, "I fixed this comma. Can I have a higher grade?" The answer is probably not. The difference between "OK, but unremarkable, bland, predictable, and boring" and "pretty good, but still has room for improvement" is probably not a single comma.
  2. Other students will submit a revision and say, "I made all the punctuation changes you asked for but I didn't do anything else. Can I have a higher grade?" You didn't do any thinking. All you did was to follow my commands, so I deserve a higher grade, but you don't. Again, it's very unlikely that bad punctuation was the only thing that took down the grade.

The wine and sewage example

If you have a barrel of sewage and add a cup of fine French wine, you still have a barrel of sewage.

Oddly enough, if you have a barrel of fine French wine, and you add a cup of sewage, you now have a barrel of sewage.

The point is that if you have a stupid, boring paper (sewage) and the punctuation is wonderful, you still have a stupid, boring paper. But if you have a brilliant, interesting paper with terrible spelling and punctuation, you still don't have a wonderful paper—the sewage of the grammar problems has corrupted the brilliant writing.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Homework = home + work

Attitude toward homework is one of the big differences between high school and college.

  • In high school, you often had in-class time to do homework; in college that's almost never the case. (Maybe your high school teachers didn't think you would actually do the work. Maybe your high school teacher had trouble thinking up things to fill five hours a week)
  • In high school, you were rarely expected to do the reading before you got to class (and the teacher would probably tell you everything that the reading said anyhow). In college, you are expected to read and understand today's assignment before you get here.
  • In high school, two hours of daily homework was considered a lot (an hour was more typical). In college, you should figure on two hours of homework for every hour you sit in class. (This means that a 15-credit load should generate about 30 hours of weekly homework, or about four hours and twenty minutes every day of the week including Saturday and Sunday.)
  • In high school, teachers would refrain from assigning homework on the weekend of the big game. If your town was religious, you might not have gotten homework on Wednesday because everyone was supposed to be in church. College instructors do not often give homework "vacations" like that.

On the bright side

  • High school homework often was mindless worksheets, distributed in class for you to fill in that night. College homework tends to be more meaningful and assigned far in advance. In most courses, you can see the whole list of readings on the first day you attend.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Paper Length and Word Count

University instructors almost always will give written assignments in terms of page length.

Most high school boys and girls (remember that you are not high school boys and girls any more!) know all the immature tricks to use up more sheets of paper without doing any more thinking or writing: huge margins, oversize type, huge paragraph indents, and all the rest. I have even seen really desperate Internet pages giving instructions for increasing the size of your commas and periods (like that's going to help).

When University instructors assign papers by page count, they are thinking of a standard MLA format paper:
  • 12-point Times New Roman type
  • Line-spacing set to "double-space"
  • One inch margins all around
  • First line of the paragraph indented half an inch
  • No extra line skipped between paragraphs
  • First page will not have a huge amount of white space at the top
  • Last page will be more than a line or two.
In our course, all of our papers will be submitted as electronic copies through Blackboard, so the page-length issue becomes much easier to discuss. All the immature tricks fade away because I can easily do a word count.

Word counts are a little tricky because a mature writer will probably use longer words than a beginner, so a beginner's thousand words will be a lot fewer sheets than a more mature writer would produce.

To get around this, I took a very simple freshman paper and figured how many words per page the writer was getting. Then I took a fairly intricate Wikipedia article and did the same. After I had these numbers, I averaged them. This is what I got for the body of the paper (not counting the header with your name, etc.):
  • Two-page paper = 560-680 words (average 620)
  • Three-page paper = 880-1060 words (average 970)
  • Four-page paper = 1200-1440 words (average 1320)
I don't plan on being incredibly hard-edged about these page counts, but if you cannot hit at least 80% of the minimum, you should expect your grade to suffer.