Saturday, May 10, 2014


I was required, age 11, to read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Middle English
Never does hope seem more irrelevant to me, or more overrated, than at the end of semester.  I've just come up for air after hours of grading papers. As I log final grades for two college writing classes, I find myself perplexed. Why so many failures,  I ask.  I don't get it.  The bottomless pit of failure and the myriad ways that people make their peace with it, never ceases to amaze me.  Hope has nothing to do with it.  This is about hard, cold facts and the lack of work and effort.

Let me offer a few examples. One student showed considerable commitment.  With a broken foot, he hobbled on crutches to every single class, handed in all his papers on time, and was doing well. Until the last important paper, that is, when he handed in a plagiarized essay, printed blatantly, directly from the web, with URL at the bottom.

Sisyphus himself couldn't have been more frustrated than I - or than this student will be, when he looks at his final grade for the course. Why oh why, I cried, when I got that plagiarized paper.

Another student attended class regularly, participated actively in class discussions, often stopping to chat afterwards. But she handed in not a single page of written work.  Another wrote two papers, came in for her conference with a rough draft, beautifully formatted and complete with annotated bibliography.  She seemed committed to this essay. But she completed less than half the coursework and therefore failed.

It's as if they think the assignments are a kind of smorgasbord, from which they can pick and choose a few tidbits. So they produce a smattering of work, for good measure, to give me a sense of the kind of work they might have been capable of, had they decided to do it. For them the course is a snack, rather than a meal.

Then there are those whose writing is riddled with grammatical errors, mixed constructions, verb shifts and spelling mistakes.  These are often multilingual students who speak several languages, none of them perfectly.  Frequently these students fail. But other times, they hand in all their papers, and pass with a C.

But others sit across from me in conferences, smiling and nodding, telling me how much they love the class.  No, they don't want to drop it. And yes, they understand they're getting an F right now. But they might be able to hand in something soon, and it might make all the difference. Soon, they say. Bear with me, please, professor. Give me one more chance. I want to try, at least.

But why do you only want to try a week before the end of term? Why weren't you trying a month ago?

This was a short 8 week semester.  I warned them it would go by fast. I said that if they didn't keep up with the work, it might become overwhelming. We would cover a lot in a short time.  I told them they must make the class a priority.  For 8 short weeks, it had to be important to them. I even warned one class after the first few weeks, that they were seriously under-performing. Now was the last chance to drop without a grade penalty. Cassandra-like, I warned them. Maybe some should seriously consider dropping and taking the course another time, when they could put in the necessary time and work.

No one took me up on it.

Instead, it seems, they chose to fail.  And as you see, they failed in different ways. At the very least, this futile exercise, this waste of time and energy on all sides, gives me insight into human nature.  My students seem perplexed by their failure. It's as though things simply got away from them without their noticing.  As if it had nothing to do with them. But surely, this isn't a lost cause. Surely, they seem to suggest, their hopes and dreams will now step in and save the day.

Hope, my darlings, has got nothing to do with it. You need to do the WORK.   "Don't want to get a D," one student emailed me. And then, astonishingly, at the very last minute, he sent me a paper which, though I graded a D- , miraculously brought his final grade up to a C.  I was happy for that student. Although his writing was terrible he had made some interesting observations about a story by VS Naipaul. He's reading Naipaul, I told myself! This is success!

But what's wrong? Where's the missed connection?

Here's my theory, straight.  I think we've oversold the Dream.  We've told our children to dream the American Dream and to believe in the audacity of hope.  To understand that they (that all of us) are special and unique. That if we dream and click our heels together everything will turn out just fine in the end.

But hoping and dreaming is what you do in between your hard work.  It cannot work magic all by itself. A lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears might go unrewarded before you make a success of yourself.

I'm not saying there aren't good students, or that I don't have students who delight me with ideas, potential and good, hard work.  It's just that the balance this semester seemed to tilt towards failure.

I mentioned the problem to some teaching colleagues who blamed the 8 week semester.  The long class meetings in the 8 week semester don't allow students to write and read between sessions, they said. The time constraint means reading and writing assignments don't take root and blossom in their minds.

But while I was mulling this over, by chance, a few days ago, I found an old school book, from when I was 11 years old. Talk about a relic from the past! Several things struck me about it. First, I was impressed by my teacher's expectations. I was required to write about Dickens' David Copperfield, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales  and Kipling's Jungle Book at the age of 11.  Sadly, I'm fairly certain that most of my students, who are in their late teens and early twenties, have read not even one of these books, let alone all three.  Many of them probably think that The Jungle Book is a Disney film.

The other thing I noticed was that my teacher was not always impressed with or praising of my efforts.  On one page, where I had written about the characters in David Copperfield,  my teacher commented:  "You haven't told me anything about Betsy Trotwood's visit to David's house. This is careless, untidy work and I know you can do much better."
A page from my textbook, age 11

I got a C on that assignment.  But the interesting thing is, I wasn't put off by her reprimand.  In fact, I did do better.  I became a writer, a lover of literature and a teacher myself.
My teacher's comment, and my grade of C

Sure, those were different, simpler times. I'll say they were different.  I was 11 when I wrote the pages above. But college was another story.  And I worked bloody hard in college. And yes,  I know, I only had the one language to read and write in.  And yes, I attended a private school until the age of 12.  But no one ever told me I was special.  In fact, most of the time I got the distinct impression I was ordinary and rather uninteresting.  There again, I started my education in England. And I had always loved books and writing. So maybe I'm a bad example. Maybe this is comparing apples and oranges.

Nevertheless, my question remains. Are we requiring too little of our students? Have we got the American Dream all wrong? Do we overestimate the importance of hope?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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