Finally, a third part to my post on what my students actually need from me. I think it will likely feel more unfinished than the previous two posts in the series, but that's because it is unfinished. There is another week in the regular semester as papers are getting finished, and then a week of finals. So making any assertions that I know what they need now, before I've seen the final results, involves a bit of guesswork. But this is likely the last chance I'll have to do an involved post before the grading storm really hits, so I thought I'd try it now.
In my previous post on What I Think They Need vs. What They Need, I said the following: "The answer, no matter what level, seems to be threefold: detailed guidance, a chance to learn from their mistakes, and potential rewards for making the extra effort to do so."
This semester, rather than my usual groaning at all the things that I think my students ought to know by now (or maybe it's better to say, along with my usual groaning), I started from the assumption that the didn't know anything that I hadn't personally taught them,** and that if I wanted them to end the semester at point Z, then it was my personal responsibility to take them there, beginning at point A. This required two major shifts in how I approached my undergraduate courses.
First I reworked my undergraduate assignments so that each one presented a step in the process. Do I want them writing original research papers based on their own interpretations of the primary sources? Great. So, assignment #1 was a sheet of ten analytical questions, progressing in complexity, that they had to answer about two primary sources I assigned them. Assignments 2 & 3 had them writing source-based essays on a question that I came up with, based on sources I provided (and they could rewrite the first of these if they found that they didn't get it the first go-round). Finally, I gave them assignment 4, which had them proposing their own topics, looking for their own sources (with some light guidance from me), designing their own research question, drafting two proposals, and finally writing a paper with their own original argument.
Second, I required two 20-minute individual conferences, one for the original proposal, and one for the revised proposal, where they're about to sit down and write. My job here was to help them see where the problems were, to explain the process of research in the discipline using examples from their own paper, and to nudge them back in the right direction. If they wanted to do a rewrite of their first paper, that, too, involved a conference, where they were to present me with their plan for revision. This week, leading up to the final submission of the major paper, I've been sending out guidelines for daily tasks ("Today's project is to organize your ideas, so here's how you write a good outline…"), showing them how to break down the paper into small, manageable chunks.
There have been two consequences to this plan of action. The first is that I'm in the office almost constantly. I have a lot of students. And yes, a couple of those students made their appointments, then didn't show up, then begged for another appointment, then didn't show up for that one either. And yes, that was even more frustrating this time around, given the work I'd put in. And yes, this has slowed down my research output considerably.
But here's the other consequence: In those conferences, I got to really talk with all of my students -- even the very quiet ones who don't say a peep in class. One student -- a junior -- admitted to me that this was the first time she'd ever talked with a professor outside of class, because she was too scared to. Others told me that they were convinced that everyone else in the class was smarter than they were. They talked with me about their research. They told me about what they were interested in, and I suggested ways they could research it. They came back for their second appointments, and talked a bit about what they'd found, and many of them actually seemed excited about it – and I was able to encourage that excitement. The ones who didn't know how to formulate a good question? Them, I walked through it, explaining the same thing in as many different ways as I could, and then I got to see the light go on as it clicked for them. "Do you think you can answer that question, based on the sources you've read?" "Yes, I think I can."
And then, sometimes, they smiled. And if that smile was mostly relief that they were not completely lost in the woods anymore, even for only ten minutes, then that's okay, too.
As I said, I'm not at the end. I don't know if I'm just deluding myself that this is working, and that all the extra effort is worth it. I'm still a merciless badass with the grading. And I'm kind of exhausted, and cranky that I let my writing slide. But I do think I'm closer to understanding what my students need for the short time that I have them.
**This is a depressing thing if you think about it deeply, so I don’t.