This was my first day doing conferences with my students. I was looking forward to this week because one-on-one conferences are my comfort zone, being so similar to writing center work, and I think one-on-one work with a more experienced academic writer is the most helpful for any student. And it’s fun. Discussing ideas, finding a tighter thesis, figuring out ways to dialogue with other writers to flesh out that thesis… fun stuff.
I met with 13 students today. I had 18 students PLANNED, but one student missed his time altogether (and had to reschedule), and then three students (or is it four?) had to reschedule when I got behind and another student was late. I scheduled 20 minute slots to help provide some cushion time, but next time, I might schedule them for 25 minutes. I know it means I spend longer doing this, but I think it makes for a smoother day and allows for some mental breathing space in between.
I am completely going with my philosophy that the cause or the source or the starting point of good academic writing is a tightly focused thesis that takes a risk, makes an assertion (and, of course, is supported / unpacked by the rest of the essay). So I spent 99% of my time helping these students focus their idea, their thesis. If they ask about MLA citations (which one did), I answer. If they ask about the phrasing of one particular sentence (which one did), I answer. But I am focusing primarily on making sure they have a strong idea and that they have found a way to dialogue with two of these writers (from our anthology, Readings for OSU Writers).
And so far, by reading their drafts, I have no doubt that the stronger their thesis, the more they care about their thesis. And the more they care about their thesis, the more they care about how well they’re communicating it and the more they care about the academic conventions (because they don’t want anything to spoil or detract from their really cool thesis!).
I think that, if at this point — I mean, any point before they have nailed down a strong thesis –… if at this point, i were to make them stop and think about “this comma here” or about correcting their MLA format or about a missing transition, I would be bringing in the left-brain stuff too soon. They need to let their right brain get their ideas flowing, figure out what and how they’re going to argue their thesis, and only THEN worry about the lower-order concerns.
So I’m making sure they know that they do need to proofread their papers before turning them in, they do need to check their punctuation, their grammar, their MLA format and documentation, that they are responsible for those things, just like everything else. But since I have not emphasized those during class time, I’m going to weigh them less in my grading. I will put weight on those mechanical errors that actually impede my reading, my understanding of what they’re saying.
I think this is a way to show what I value — depth of thinking, etc — but it also shows that I believe that the best way to get them to learn the WHOLE skill of writing academic papers (i.e., get them to be able to handle BOTH higher-order and lower-order concerns) is to get the idea juices flowing first. THEN 1) the LOCs are easier, naturally (yes, the almost actually just “come” easier when you’re more into what you’re saying, and 2) you care more about the LOCs because you’re more invested in making sure your ideas get across to the reader and that nothing detracts from that.
So the trick I think is to set up the term so that each paper follows the pattern (HOCs before LOCs) and that the term as a whole follows that pattern, too — so that as the quarter goes on, the more and more I will emphasize or introduce the importance of accuracy in MLA format and documentation, punctuation, etc. So by the time I get to the Rhetorical Analsysis paper, I will weight LOCs higher (though still somewhat less high thatn HOCs).
Anyway, I think this will work. About three of the students I worked with today had theses that were still too broad. They were more characterizing or summing up what two of the authors was saying, and so they were only superficially touching on 3 – 4 ideas rather than sufficiently developing one idea. AND, of course, what they were saying wasn’t arguable, wasn’t anything a reader would care to read about. But, anyway, these three… i could tell, once we talked and starting coming up with a focused thesis, their energy and interest increased, and it was obvious suddenly they were three or four times more times interested in this paper and in making it work.
It’s interesting also that one theme that comes up a lot is Gatto’s point that school is boring. And some of these students have come up with cool theses about how to make school not boring. But it also occurred to me a couple times that the very thing I was doing with them — helping them find a thesis worth arguing, worth writing an essay about — was another way to make school not boring. I mean, I’ve read at least two essays today that were well-enough written. They were organized, they were clear, there were no glaring punctuation errors, they had a decent intro and conclusion. But blah, they didn’t say anything. They just said something superficial. And if I simply focused on the mechanical accuracy of that essay, and gave the student a decent grade, I’d be encouraging the very boredom Gatto (and Loewen) are talking about. The student might think, “Well, I wrote that essay, and I got an B+, but that was so boring. I don’t even remember, one week later, what I said. But I guess I did it “right.””
Anyway, when I get the final drafts, we’ll see how I think about it. But from what I’ve seen so far — their drafts and their increased enthusiasm about the paper when they find something specific worth arguing — — I think this is the right course, the right emphasis.
And now I gotta go home and rest my brain. I is exhausted.