We’re down to only one week of classes left this semester. That means stacks of papers for me to grade but very little lesson prep for next week. Several years ago, I adopted a model of having presentations in during my last week of classes. I can review some last minute pointers, but essentially students need to just be plowing through to finish up their papers. If they don’t know what they need to know in terms of research, paper organization, quotation patterns and the like by now, there won’t be much that I can teach them in the last week to save the papers. It would be somewhat unfair if I withheld info needed to write a successful paper until the last week of class.
Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday was dedicated to one-on-one student conferences. Some teaching books suggest only 15 minutes for these conferences, but I honestly don’t know how those teachers pull that time frame off. I’m not saying they’re bad teachers. Perhaps, I’m just conceding that it seems to take me 5 times longer than the average person to get anything worthwhile accomplished. So, I schedule these conferences for 30 minutes.
Here’s what I don’t like about conferencing:
1) I don’t like when students skip their conferences. When I was an undergrad, I deeply appreciated all the time that my professors were willing to pour into me. I figured if I was paying roughly $100 per class, then one on one time with the prof was nearly priceless. I’m not on an ego-trip here (though that last sentence maybe sounded a little like it). I just get frustrated…
2) I don’t like panicking about student grades. I’m not exactly sure why after 5 years of teaching full-time I still get nervous for students this time of the year. But, I do. This is the one paper this semester that they do not have the chance to revise. They get one shot to turn it in and to get it right, so if the research doesn’t fit or they don’t have appropriate ads for their analysis, my heart rate starts to accelerate. Like I said, I’m not sure why; it’s not my grade that we’re talking about. But, I guess, I get nervous because even though it’s not my grade, it is my student, and I want to see them finish well.
3) I don’t like the stress. I’m stressed during these meetings. It’s hard to turn off the to do list in my head as I face students who are still waiting to get back grades from me on revisions and some homework, as I know that my email inbox has syllabi that I need to sign off on for next semester, as I know there are faculty evaluations that I have to write, as I wonder how things are going in the writing center down the hall. The students are stressed during these meetings too. I know they have their own to do lists running through the back of their minds, and even though I know 100% that what I’m doing is for their own good, I still feel a little bad when I say, “Well, you’re going to need to do a little more research here, or “don’t forget that you’ve got quite a bit riding on the revision that’s due next week as well.”
But, here’s what I like about conferences:
1) I like when students bring in good drafts, and I can say, “You’re almost there! You can do this. Thanks for doing a good job on this draft.” (I especially like that I was able to say that several times over the past couple of days.)
2) I like that the hours invested into conferences over the past few days will make grading easier. If students are far enough along in the process, I fill out most of the rubric on the spot and note areas for improvement. In a week when I get the paper, I can efficiently zero in on the areas noted. On drafts that aren’t far enough along in the process, I can redirect in a positive direction. Here too, more efficient grading is possible. Either the improvements are pretty dramatic, and I can reward that, or I can compare the conference copy and the final draft and find that not many changes were made. I still hate to give the bad grade in those cases, but I can do it with an easy conscience because I’m then holding someone accountable for not following through.
3) I like hearing student’s reactions to me. Some students are surprisingly candid during these conferences. One of my students and I have a running joke this semester. She says that she replayed the first 5 seconds of her response video over and over. She wanted to hear, “This is a good paper.” And, she said she would stop me and rewind again before the video go to the part that said, “But…” She swears I said something like “you need to rewrite the entire draft.” I plead the fifth, but I will say that she rewrote and the paper turned out beautifully. I loved how one student today told me that he thought I was so mean and incompetent when I gave him his first grade on a paper, but then he actually took the time to read my comments and they made sense. He thanked me for pushing him to write better.
4) And, I think what I like most about conferences is that I get to see the student behind the paper. For example, I have one student who struggles tremendously with writing. She was honest with me about the reasons why, and she never feels confident when she brings in a draft. She’s a trooper though, and she works on something until she gets it right. If I hadn’t heard her story, I would have never known what goes on behind the scenes while she is writing because she writes beautifully. She achieves a poetic flow to her writing that I just can’t teach students; either they rise to it on their own, or they don’t. So, I love being able to sit in a room with a student like that, and I love being able to tell her that while she might not have confidence, she should. She has talent beyond what she recognizes.
I have another student who is struggling with his writing. But, here’s what I’ve learned while I’ve conferenced with him. He’s brilliant. He thinks in complex patterns and make connections that I would have to stretch to make. And, that’s why he’s struggling with writing. There’s just so much going on in his mind that it’s hard for him to get it untangled and onto the paper. If I only got his paper, I’d never know that he’s brilliant. I’d either think he’s throwing drafts together at the last minute or I’d simply chalk up the issue to poor foundational skills. Instead, I know to keep coaxing. He’s got something that, again, is hard to teach — critical and inquisitive thinking skills. He just has to keep getting feedback until he works out a system that helps him get all that brilliance into a paper that the fairly rigid academic Western academic tradition will accept.
And, so, that’s how the end of the year goes. I won’t lie; I’m writing this blog primarily because it’s more appealing than grading papers at the moment (and because somehow I think I’ll enjoy looking back on how I interacted with students early in my career — perhaps that reflection will keep me from becoming cranky after years and years of marking run-on sentences and wondering why it’s so difficult for people to remember that quotation marks should mean you copied EXACTLY what your source said). We’ll all make it through next week for better or for worse. The academic cycle always has this spike of insane busyness. I’ve experienced it long enough to know that despite the panic and the pain, break will come. It’s just over the horizon, and it involves Christmas and time with family and time with Todd, and so the rewards will be sweet. One day at a time until then.