How do we measure learning?
I am dying to know.
Because as a composition instructor at several community colleges, I struggle.
My students are diverse. They come from a rich selection of unique backgrounds. Their life experience kicks my life experience’s ass. They are wise. They are funny. They are creative, social, introspective, profound.
When I look out at 22 composition students, I see a sea of emotions. Fear. Resentment. Excitement. Trepidation. Pride. Embarrassment. They hate me. They love me. The don’t care about me. They just need this class to get their degree. They love writing. They abhor writing. And they’re all jammed behind desks
in tiny, uncomfortable chairs,
waiting to see what is going to go down.
Students who have served brutal stints in the military. Students who have travelled the world. Students who are sure they can write better than me. Students who are sure they can’t write at all. One of my favorite students is a renowned tattoo artist from New Orleans, covered from neck to toe in ornate, colorful designs. He is well-spoken, intelligent and polite.
And though I adhere to the state-defined guidelines for what we should be teaching in Composition I and Composition II (see below), and I work damn hard to incorporate Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” fabulous in-class exercises, and hilarious anecdotes into each class period, I can’t help but wonder what I might be teaching them that is actually useful.
[Official] ENG 121 emphasizes the planning, writing, and revising of compositions, including the development of critical and logical thinking skills. This course includes a minimum of five compositions [essays] that stress analytical, evaluative, and persuasive/argumentative writing. This course is one of the Statewide Guaranteed Transfer courses. GT-CO1.
English Composition II expands and refines the objectives of English Composition I (ENG 121). The course emphasizes critical/logical thinking and reading, problem definition and research strategies, and the writing of analytical, evaluative, and/or persuasive papers that incorporate research.
How productive/relevant/real-world is an 8-page research paper, really? My students often claim that they want to learn how to use MLA format and how to integrate quotes seamlessly because it will serve them in other college classes. Which I have no doubt it will.
But what about in the long run? When was the last time you integrated sources and thumbed through an MLA handbook? Really?
Sure, the critical thinking skills seem marginally useful, as does basic knowledge about the joys of research (and I don’t say “joys” in any sarcastic way; I spent the morning poring over a graduate paper I wrote about Picasso and Hemingway and nearly experienced a body high remembering the hours spent browsing in the library – O the nuggets I found!).
But when I provide my students with feedback, and when I stand in front of the class chatting about intros, conclusions, cohesion and transitions, I begin to wonder just how useful this junk is.
Sure. I’m teaching them how to write according to certain pre-defined, entrenched concepts of “academic,” “scholarly” writing. I’m reminding them to use “attributive tags” and “write a conclusion that brings the subject matter into the reader’s world.” They might make some professor happy with their careful attention to staying on one topic per paragraph, someday. And good topic sentences, of course. Gotta have those.
But who cares?
Just because they learn how to write the way I want them to write – just because they train their brain to think, like a robot brain, like the other brains in the classroom – does that mean they’ve learned anything? Have they gained some skill or knowledge that will actually help them in their lives?
How do I know? Am I helping to develop them into better humans? Better members of society? Am I expanding their horizons in a meaningful way? Am I teaching them how to think in a more 360-degree manner?
I’d like to hope so.
And then I have students leave class early. I have students roll their eyes at me. I have students act bored. And I have students take careful notes and turn in a paper that meets every point of the rubric I have provided.
And I think: if they are this good at doing what I ask of them, how good would they be at doing something I didn’t ask of them? What if we let them do the things they thought were most important? What if we let them compose in a whole new way? A way that is useful, pragmatic, relevant in some way? And what way would that be, exactly?
And then I look at the rest of the stack of papers awaiting feedback. The aborted attempts. The earnest essays. The polished prose.
And then I feel that I’ve failed.
But I have no idea where.
Or how to fix it.
My view from the grading perch.