Promoting Mediocrity

Last weekend I attended a state conference for college educators. Although it is a held yearly, I have never bothered to make the trip before. (Perhaps part of the draw was that a number of friends live near the city in which it was being held.) After gorging myself on free books, I sat in on my first session, which proved to be everything I love and hate about my profession.

The topic was giving students feedback on essays. Overall, the point was how do we give constructive feedback without overwhelming, discouraging, or over-praising. Some excellent points were made and although I may not have come away with revolutionary ways to change my teaching, I did get some perspective on how I comment. (Of course all of this relies on the huge assumption that students read comments and try to implement them.)

Where I got ridiculously annoyed was in the round table discussion. We were given a short student essay to read and instructed to come back with two major points of direction to give the student. Fairly quickly most of us agreed that the essay lacked organization and a strong guiding thesis statement.

I can only say most because we had in our group an Underminer. These are the types of people who try to make other people feel bad for having opinions, responding in any negative way, and generally make other people look petty. I’m not talking about optimists; I’m talking about the person who after 15-minutes of the faculty arguing that we do not need to complete a repetitive and unnecessary action (something the dean agrees with), pipes up at the last second and says: “I’ll do whatever you want because I want to keep my job.” It’s like being overbid by a dollar onThe Price Is Right. You just want to smack them.

In this case the Underminer told the table (and later the entire group):

“Compared to the papers I get, this is a good essay. There are complete sentences and the words are in the correct order. I think we need to tell this student how well they did and help build their self-esteem. It’s better than most everything else, so why give them criticism?”

Are. You. Kidding. Me?

Why give them criticism? Because you’re a teacher and your job is to help students improve, no matter if they are A or F writers (and this essay was at best a C+/B-)? Because being better than the norm doesn’t mean the student can’t learn something new? Because you are doing them no favors in passing mediocre as excellent?

Any of those reasons?

As I told this woman, trying not to grit my teeth, I often end up spending more time on good papers because I want to give them something useful to make them even better. I would cringe if I found out there were things I could improve on that someone wasn’t telling me because “it was better than most everything else.” Our job is not just to grade but to instruct. Writing in particular is something where perfection is non-existent. Does that mean we just slap on grades, correct bad grammar, and don’t encourage growth?

If that’s the way teaching and writing should be handled, I am in the wrong freaking professions.

(And while I certainly didn’t say this at the meeting, if one of your criteria for good writing is “words being in the correct order,” I have to question how great a teacher you are.)

Take a moment and read this great post from earlier this week: I Want My Kids to Fail.

Then take a longer moment and pop over to The Baraza to read all the great posts that went up this week, including my musings on pop culture.

XO

A

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