Yelp with Care, Candy from the mouth of babes, Chris Cornell, & other random thoughts today

Academic standing posted at Angelo State yesterday. Like anyone else tasked with talking to students who earn their way onto academic suspension, I was yelled at, hung up on, and, I’m sure, called all kinds of mean, nasty, and ugly things behind my back. At least no parents have called me yet this semester. I try my best to be calm and understanding with students. They are, I silently tell myself, still 18 and 19 years old and being suspended is an ominous and an outward (and kind of aggressive but well-earned) condemnation of their academic behavior. To paraphrase a Keb Mo’ song: everyone likes to party, but no one likes to clean. Behavior has consequences for the students, and if they party too much, someone has to clean up the mess. At ASU, we’ve simply decided there’s a point at which we can’t keep taking a student’s money if he can’t pass any classes. There’s something flat-out dirty about letting a student rack up thousands and thousands of dollars in debt when she can’t pass classes. For some of our students, though, being suspended seems like the end of the road. When they call, if they don’t hang up on me first, we discuss options. There are, after all, plenty of other jobs in the sea, other universities to attend, and plenty of people live worthwhile and happy lives without a college degree. Sometimes, I tell them, relationships don’t work. This is one of them, but the world is a big place full of opportunity if we can learn from our mistakes and fall forward. We’ll still be here, I say as nicely as possible, if you ever get ready to read those books and do that math.

Day two after academic standing is usually less about anger and more about deal making. Everyone in this world, including college students, wants justice until they decide they really want mercy.

Fortunately, the internet is always around to provide relief in between sob stories. A few random thoughts about some stuff I read today:

  1. Be careful what you Yelp. I’m sure you’ve seen the article about the Yale Dean whose insensitive Yelp reviews have left her boss “grieving” and “unable to envision a way forward.” First off–grieving? Geez. How about mad? Angry? Disappointed? Don’t get me wrong, I fully support Dr. Chu’s First Amendment right to be as insulting and insensitive as she wants. If I were a betting man, I would guess Dr. Chu will send us a press release apologizing and telling the world she was trying to be humorous. Heck, if that excuse is good enough for the president, should be good enough for a Dean from Yale. First Amendment or not, though, words have consequences and if you work in a profession entrusted with educating young minds, you don’t get to tweet racist, classist, and other stereotypical comments that insult the very students you are supposed to educate. Simply put, as college leaders we have to be better than that and I get so frustrated with colleagues who can’t, or won’t, recognize that everything we write (including things like this blog) reflects on the university where we work. That doesn’t mean we can’t write about complex and difficult subjects. I have every right in the world to blog about Donald Trump, Fox News, Barack Obama, race, abortion, Elvis-sightings and any number of other controversial issues, but I have a responsibility to do so with a keen eye on the public nature of the writing and with a clear sense that our role as educators is to conduct ourselves in a manner that represents the values of truth, intelligence, and ideas. I might think Donald Trump is a horrible president and I might think he’s dumb as a box of rocks, but I can’t tweet that Trump should hang or call him a moron without offering some intelligent reasons why. Our job, in the classroom and in public forums, is to model behavior. You might think Seth Abramson is a crazy person, but he’s not threatening the president, and, by all accounts, he keeps his political thoughts out of the classroom. Most importantly, he believes in something and he’s developing an argument, not posting threatening tweets or insulting Yelp reviews. I would never accept an essay from a student that posited simplistic and immature ideas. I demand they make an assertion, develop, and defend with evidence. Most importantly, I tell them we need to hold ourselves to the same standards we hold everyone else. That goes especially for those of us in academia. So. I’m not grieving for Dr. Chu. I’m upset that she’s not savvy enough to recognize that calling people white trash and morons in Yelp reviews is inappropriate and makes the rest of us hard working college professors look like elitist, uncaring dorks.
  2. If you missed out on Girl Scout cookies this year, I think you can blame the person in this mug shot. A friend of ours sent us the link. Forget the story, though. Read the comments on twitter. Sometimes my faith in humanity is restored when people get clever without being mean and degrading. She stole 6,000 boxes of girl scout cookies. The jokes almost write themselves.
  3. I was never a huge Audioslave or Soundgarden fan, but I hate that we’ve lost another huge voice from the music world of my youth. Chris Cornell helped define the grunge movement and tapped into an angst those of us in the mid-80s felt about the world. Musically, those bands fought against the increasingly global record chains and fused punk, rock, and any other kind of music they wanted into songs filled with emotion and rage against the man. Indie music lovers of the world need to thank them everyday. They fought the good fight. Eddie Veder and Kurt Cobain sang with a raw emotion, but for my money Cornell was the guy with a voice. Don’t believe me? Take a listen to his rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and you decide.





I Need Help With My Commas

commasAnyone who has put pen to paper (or fingers to plastic in this day and age) will admit that writing isn’t always a joyful experience, and those of us who read student writing for a living will happily tell you that reading ain’t no walk in the park either.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, writing’s difficulty stems from the tension between the author’s intent and the reader’s expectations. Typing a blog entry to an unnamed, faceless audience is different than emailing words of wisdom to my son later today. While both may go unread (especially the email), we know that familiarity changes our expectations. My son has been hearing and reading me for 22 years. We have a shared linguistic system that allows for short cuts, unconventional phrases, and allusions that are largely incomprehensible to people outside our family. When I write to him, I can anticipate exactly when he’ll roll his eyes or sigh loudly enough for his co-workers to wonder if that spreadsheet he’s reviewing is really that boring. When we blog, however, that shared history disappears, creating a far different experience. The “wisdom” I pass along to my son might be annoying advice to him but to strangers those same words might be pedantic simplicity.

Student writers experience this same issue. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, I think, to say that kids today don’t read and write. In fact, one might argue that they read and write far more than past generations. Between texting, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, and whatever cool, groovy social media app went viral this week, these darn kids are reading and writing more than ever. Like every generation, they’ve also adapted language to the medium and the audience, creating new rules and discarding old ones in favor of communicating an idea quickly and efficiently. (Of course, if you’re over 45 you might argue with my use of the word “idea” to describe what’s being communicated.) They’ve taken slang, something us old folks like to complain about all the time, into the written word as opposed to speaking on the street corners or into the telephone. The problem, perhaps, isn’t that they don’t read or write, but that they don’t read and write the “right” things or the “right” way.

Unfortunately for students, I’m starting to think the tension between audience and author grows increasingly difficult to maneuver, precisely because they are writing more and reading more. When a student shows up to my office and asks for help with his commas, he’s worried he can’t fit his ideas into this archaic system we call standard written English. As professors, we know our students need access to the language of power and that they wd b wel srvd learning how to wrt using all the letters, commas, & capital lttrs some stodgy, old manager expects. We also know that grammar helps organize thoughts but we are loathe to admit that sometimes those commas and other punctuation marks arent as important to meaning as we might think. Can we really make the case anymore that understanding how commas works is always essential to meaning?

Our students have been communicating via the written word since their thumbs were coordinated enough to text, retweet, or chat. Don’t get me wrong. As the little cartoon above shows, sometimes we need commas to avoid sounding like cannibals, but perhaps we should also admit that all commas aren’t created equal and maybe our students need less help with commas and more help with context.






Love Is Not a Dirty Word–Story #4


Click on the link to purchase the book


I’ll admit that it was pretty cool this morning going to Amazon and Barnes and Nobles and seeing the book sitting on their cyber book shelf waiting for eager readers. If you click on the photo next door, you  will go to Amazon. You can also buy the book on Barnes and Nobles site (click on the hyperlink). I mentioned a long time ago, I’m not going to get rich selling a book of short stories, but I would like it to sell well enough that the publisher breaks even. Lamar University Press is a small press, and we need to show some love for those folks who work tirelessly to keep publishing writers who might not ever make the big time.

When you read below, you will see the opening paragraphs of the collection’s title story. “Love Is Not A Dirty Word” was my first fiction publication and probably went through the least amount of revision before going into the book.

Last night at the 19th Annual Angelo State Writers Conference in Honor of Elmer Kelton, Dan Choan mentioned that he’s started making up town names to avoid hearing from various Chamber of Commerces. Cleveland, where Choan lives, he said isn’t particularly happy with the way he portrays the city.

This strikes me as an ever present danger when you write fiction. Readers, especially family and friends, tend to look for themselves or shared moments as they read the stories. But, as Choan pointed out last night, the art of writing fiction is the act of inhabiting various lives. Writers float in and out of people and things, taking what they need before flitting to the next thing.

The title story certainly has some connections to my personal life. I live in San Angelo and my wife and I have to drive to Houston for Thanksgiving and Christmas if we want to see her family. It’s also true that the idea for this story did come about on a drive to Houston one Thanksgiving. We left early and near Buchanan, we saw a deer (or what was left of it) on the side of the road. About a 100 yards further down, the highway was blood-stained. I guess I was in a bad mood that day, though, because all I could think about was how we hurtle down the road to visit people, battling memories the whole time. Nietzsche once wrote that “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.”  That quote actually makes into another story in the collection, but I had this sense of the irony regarding holiday travel and the stress associated with it and that blood stain somehow seemed important.

Interestingly, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with that blood stain when I started writing, but this story, unlike many moved pretty seamlessly along. I knew from the outset the bulk of the story would take place in a car, on the highway, and that music would be important. I wanted to see how the tension–the excitement, resentments, happiness, anger, love, family, marriage–that the holidays seem to evoke might play out for this young couple as they drive to see her family. I’m not saying the story was an easy write (because I’m not sure any story is easy to write), but I didn’t struggle as I moved between characters.

So, in so far as I have a wife, drive to Houston, and like music, this story is all about me. All the other details must be about some other body I spent some time in.

Love is Not a Dirty Word

Five-thirty in the morning and San Angelo is crispy cool, with patches of ice on the rooftops. West Texas in the fall—what we lack in color we make up for in clear skies tinged with wood smoke from early morning fires. My wife and I are headed to Houston for her family’s annual Thanks- giving celebration, and the car is packed with clothes and Christmas presents we’ll deliver early. I’ve always insisted on at least one major holiday at home, even though I would prefer all of them. We’ve started alternating Christmas and Thanksgiving with maybe one extra trip to Houston each y year. My wife has eight brothers and sisters and twenty-five nieces and nephews. The first Christmas we spent with her family, I pointed to the noise and mayhem and offered to buy everyone a pack of condoms as stocking stuffers.

“Good thing we don’t have kids, or they’d have to ride strapped to the roof.” I slide into the car.

She doesn’t laugh—who would at 4:30 in the morning? I envision driving the sun up, Diana Krall in the cd player, and a hot cup of coffee.

“Will you be okay if I go to sleep?” She rubs the back of my neck.

“I will unless you keep that up.”

I’m accelerating onto Highway 67 toward Eden, sipping my coffee and grooving to “Popsicle Toes.”

“Mom called last night. Fred and Julie won’t be around, neither will Aunt Barbara’s family. Maybe a stray cousin or two.”

“That’s a real shame. I’m not so lucky about the Jesus-freaks, am I?” I can almost hear Jennifer roll her eyes. I take a sip of coffee. “I sure hope Neal will be there. His conversation is always so stimulating.”

(If you want to find out how where the dead deer shows up (or if the Jesus-freaks are as bad as they sound), click on the image above and buy the book.)

New and Improved (?)

As any loyal (or disloyal) followers have noted, I haven’t posted in a pretty long while. My family can assure you I haven’t run out of things to say.


Coming Soon–click on the photo FMI

I have, though, struggled finding time enough to spout off.

Over the past few years, I’ve focused on essays of between 800-1000 words. Doing so allowed me to ramble my way in and out of clarity, but I also had the opportunity to re-introduce myself to the kind of academic writing my students needed to master. I was, for lack of a better cliche, practicing what I preached.

However, there is no denying that writing essays takes time. I tell my students every semester that the three keys to writing are practice, practice, and more practice. Like most skills, writing well is a product of habitually writing every day.

While I know some folks who can write well and write quickly, I’m not one of those folks. More importantly, though, I can’t write in loud places or if I’m interrupted. I have a friend out on Long Island who willingly (on purpose and everything) travels into New York to a particular coffee shop twice a week to write. I, on the other hand, rarely write at home if my family is around. Mind you, they respect my privacy and avoid my work area, but their mere presence in the house is distracting. Sitting in a coffee shop trying to write while Todd and Margot are ordering an Orange Mocha Frappuccino makes my head want to explode.

Likewise, I have a difficult time writing at work if I can’t disconnect the phone and shut the door. For instance, as I wrote the previous sentence a student called, wondering why her .380 GPA placed her on academic suspension. (Yes, the decimal is in the correct spot). The conversation was short, but the interruption breaks the train of thought. Resuming the blog, then, requires reading the previous sentences, reminding myself of my goal, and then getting back on those tracks headed, one hopes, in the same direction. Writing isn’t, as some might posit, a free flowing activity without structure or boundaries.

Certainly, we might draft haphazardly as we let thoughts spill out on the page, but a finished piece of writing is an articulation of our ideas and thoughts–our attempt at giving meaning to some thought or organizing some moment in time via language. Writing, for lack of anything better to say, is a search for truth through metaphor, symbol, and structure.

One of my problems (and my excuse) for the last year or so is that I was director of our Faculty Development Center, director of Faculty Mentored projects, teaching classes here and there, and trying to be a father and husband. Honestly, whatever truth I might have searched for was usually lost in a memo to someone who probably didn’t have time to read what I wrote.

Things don’t show signs of letting up anytime soon. While I’m no longer directing our faculty development center, I’ve recently been tagged as the last person standing (everyone else took that proverbial step back) as our interim Dean of the Freshman College. I don’t see much uninterrupted free time in my future. In fact, I’ve had three other interruptions since the paragraph above.

Time or not, though, my plan is to return to blogging with a new and improved (?) approach. Gone will be the long essays that might take me all day (or all week) to write. Instead, this blog will become a quick-hit aggregate of stories that interest me in any given day. I’ll begin linking to articles, videos, or other electronic items and offering pithy (and hopefully witty) commentary that might offer insight or incite outrage. I’ll begin taking note of books I’m reading or stories I’m teaching. Time permitting, I’ll do some flash reviews as I go.

Ultimately, though, the goal is a more regular interaction with blogging and an attempt at creating some order and organization to my thoughts and ideas in a shorter form. I’m sure the occasional long essay might appear, but I suspect those will be fewer and farther in between.

First, though, the next week or so will be an act of shameless self promotion on my part. One of the side benefits of writing the blog every day was a burst of creativity and discipline as a writer. Over the years, I’ve written (and published) a few short stories. Last Christmas, I revised those stories and produced a few original stories, submitted them to Lamar University Press, and we’ll see Love Is Not A Dirty Word and other stories on bookshelves in about a month. Feel free to click on the photo above and pre-order your copy.

Over the next few days (or weeks), I’ll be posting the first 100-200 words of each story to wet your appetite (or spoil your lunch). I’ll begin each post with a brief story about where the story originated, but then we’ll let the tale take over. After you read the openings, if you want to find out the rest of the story, you’ll have to pony up the bucks or convince your local library your town needs a copy.

And trust me, you really want to know why Love is Not a Dirty Word.

Correlation Isn’t Causation But Sometimes It’s Close

The recent report from the SAT folks comes as no surprise to those of us teaching first year courses at American public universities. The quality of student writing has plummeted over the last 15 years. Gone are the days when my class grades resemble anything close to a bell curve. Of 51 essays this semester, 26 earned Ds or Fs. Understand that I’m not some unreasonable jerk when I grade papers. I have a clear set of guidelines and reasonable expectations for first year college student writing based on skill sets students will need to succeed both at the university level and after college. Despite what my current students think, there was a time when I recorded double digit As and Bs in English 1301.

The problem with the essays isn’t necessarily critical thinking skills. Eighteen year old thinking hasn’t changed all that dramatically over the course of time. Much like I was back in the day, 18 year olds are vague, focused on being the hero of their own narrative, and they have a difficult time thinking about the world outside of the limited sphere of their experiences. There might be more to the world than is contained in their philosophies, but damned if most of them are much interested in exploring that planet. Such things are reserved for older, more mature people like professors and parents.

Instead, what has changed dramatically are the number of students who struggle to write complete sentences, follow any logical grammatical structure, or recognize the way words work. Language, as I’ve written before, helps us organize the world. Grammar serves as a shared system allowing us to communicate and, hopefully, understand content and intent. “Rules” can change over the course of time, but that change comes slowly and represents cultural shifts in the way we think and communicate. In essence, things like commas serve a purpose beyond indicating the moment you ran out of breath while reading the sentence. If not, smokers, asthmatics, and distance runners would never understand each other’s writing, and lord knows how the slow-breathing yoga instructor might write.

I realize I sound like a grumpy old fart who is arguing that back in my day, kids where smarter (and stay off my lawn you whippersnapper). We are seeing, though, evidence that this trend isn’t just my imagination.

Terrence Stutz, writing for the Dallas Morning News, tells us “Students across the U.S. saw their scores in math drop slightly. But the long-standing achievement gap between Texas and the nation grew significantly this year.”  In fact, as you dig deeper into the numbers (provided in a chart at the bottom of Stutz’s article) you can see Texas SAT scores consistently below the U.S. average with increasingly precipitous drops in recent years.

The falling SAT scores mirror declining scores on the ACT reported last year. 

I admit that test scores only tell part of the story, but we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore that part of the story. Test scores like the SAT and ACT do provide us with long-term comparisons since the exams remain largely the same over the course of time. Hence, generational shifts in performance indicate trends worth noting.

In many ways, though, what’s notable about the declining test scores isn’t the slow but steady drop in performance over the last 9 years.

Instead, we are afforded an opportunity to review the failure of political philosophy writ large on our educational landscape. Texas, as you see from Stutz’s article, is under performing in relatively dramatic ways. We are, it seems, racing our way to the bottom. Texas consistently ranks nearly last or in the bottom half of almost all educational rankings, including spending per pupil.

We are, it seems, getting what we pay for each and every year.

While our state leaders attribute the declining scores in Texas to an increase in students (in particular low performing students) taking the exams, Stutz shows us that California (yes, Governor Perry, California) is outperforming Texas, even though our test takers have a similar demographic make-up. In other words, when you control for increased test takers and ethnicity, California is out performing our students. I wish our Governor was as eager to compete educationally as he is when he tries to lure new businesses to Texas.

If we can’t take the easy way out and blame minority students, perhaps we can at least recognize the correlation between Republican educational policy and academic achievement.

The current class of students taking the SAT and ACT tests were born in the mid-1990s. Despite a slight rise in math scores a few years ago, test scores have been steadily and consistently trending downward.

George Bush became Governor in 1988. Republicans seized control control of Texas politics with their gerrymandered districts after the 1990 census. In the last 24 years, every major political office in the state has been controlled by a Republican. School funding has been cut per pupil every legislative session. Our small government Republicans have demanded increased “accountability” and emphasized a desire to create “efficiencies.” We’ve been requiring minimum skills testing (TAKS, STARR, etc) at astronomical rates because, in many ways, our state leaders have almost no faith in school teachers to do their jobs, and we have a Texas Board of Education that has grown increasingly politicized and exerted greater and greater control over text book and curricular decisions, spending hours upon hours demanding science classes teach creation theory (a religious belief that by definition depends on faith) instead of teaching actual science.

Can we finally recognize those are failed policies and ideas? We have test scores from a generation of students who were educated under our Republican state leadership (and No Child Left Behind–President Bush’s signature education reform based on his policies as Governor of Texas). The results aren’t pretty.

Education is a messy and difficult process. Teaching requires patience, time, and an ability to recognize standardization reaches the middle. More importantly, when we rush the process, we skip the essential and fundamental skills students need to organize and articulate ideas. Overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid teachers, loss of autonomy, and the politicization of education under our Republican leaders has left my students unprepared and with false expectations. Just as importantly, fewer and fewer of our best and brightest see returning to the classroom as a viable career choice. In essence, we have less well prepared students taught by increasingly incapable teachers.

I fully understand that correlation isn’t causation; however, correlation does matter.

Our Republican leaders in Texas are more than happy to take credit for unbridled growth in incomes among our wealthiest citizens and for our better than perfect business climate. It’s only fair, I say, they shoulder the blame for the consistent drop in the quality of our students as they move into the university.

Educational achievement is complicated and we can rarely attribute success or failure to one single moment in time, and I don’t pretend that I have the solution to what ails us.

But, I do feel pretty confident I can tell what doesn’t work when I start grading papers each semester.

Putting in Your Oar (and hoping it doesn’t break)

I started blogging a couple of years ago after interviewing Jeffrey Lyons during the Holland Symposium on American Values here at Angelo State University. Lyons was in town promoting his newest book, a collection of news articles his father wrote for the New York Post from the mid 1930s to the early 1970s. His father, Leonard Lyons, wrote about the New York night life, capturing the famous and infamous as they cavorted through the clubs and bars of the Big Apple. The stories capture an age when we could idolize the rich and famous without being overwhelmed by the scandalous and tawdry. Stars still held a kind of mythic and heroic quality we longed to admire from afar instead of eviscerate on the knife edge of social media.

Lyons, a movie critic and author himself, told our audience that his father wrote 1000 words a day, six days a week. His book, Stories My Father Told Me, Notes from the Lyon’s Den, pulls together many of those articles, serving as both a nostalgic journey and a tribute to his father’s insights into the world.

Of all the interesting things Lyons offered during the interview, the sheer volume of his father’s writing fascinated me the most. A thousand words a day, 6 days a week, on a typewriter without the benefit of spell check or other green squiggly lines warning him about various grammatical and mechanical mistakes struck me (still strikes me actually) as tremendous.

So, naturally, I decided to find out if I could do something similar–because why not engage in a tortuous exercise simply to prove a point. The first couple of months, I matched him word for word.

If you look at the dates of my last few posts, though, you’ll see I have fallen off the pace, if, in fact, two posts a month can even be considered a pace.

In my defense (or, at least, in my rationalization), my day job, unlike Mr. Lyons, doesn’t require that I go to bars and then write about those adventures. Instead, I spend time grading freshman essays wishing I was in a bar.

I also spend time writing memos, going to meetings, preparing for classes, watching my son play baseball, binge-watching Breaking Bad, and writing blog posts in my head.

Trust me–I’ve written some really good ones. Some of them are the best ideas I’ve ever heard are rattling around between the cerebral cortex, thalamus, and occipital lobe with a few still stuck over in the corpus callosum.

Finding the time and energy to get those ideas from the inside of my head to my fingers, however, has proven a bit more difficult.

Writing, I tell my students every semester, is a difficult and complex process. The words we choose and the manner with which we present them offers our readers insight into our selves, something we usually don’t know as well as we might think. More importantly, though, writing exposes both our strengths and weaknesses to an audience with whom we might not feel comfortable. When we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), our ideas become part of a public act open to acceptance or derision, something Kenneth Burke, in The Philosophy of Literary Form, describes as an opportunity to “put your oar” into the river of conversations surrounding us. (Insert joke here about our first year students being up the river without that proverbial paddle.)

Yet, writing the blog, even as unevenly as I’ve done here of late, allows me to feel some greater sympathy for my students. Those conversations Burke describes seem so tranquil in his description. He tells us to “Imagine that you have entered a parlor.” Eventually, you catch the “tenor of the argument” and put down that oar. “The hour grows late; you must depart,” Burke writes, “with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

What’s a parlor, my students ask, and why in the world would I leave just because it gets late?

If writing is an articulation of our ideas and a way to organize the world through language, what happens when the world seems increasingly disorganized and we have a decreased facility with language? The river of conversations, it seems, has turned into rapids, fraught with boulders of confusion. Battling through those sounds, finding your place in the conversation in Burke’s mythical parlor, becomes increasingly difficult and time consuming.

Admittedly, many of the confusions and distractions littering the river of conversations around us are of our own invitation but such has become the parlor of our daily lives.

Yet, I tell my students, when we  enter that parlor and join the conversation, the world becomes that much clearer. Likewise, when we lower the oar and set the canoe on a straight path, we create order in the midst of that chaos. Sure, we might stumble walking into the room or our muscles might get sore from all that rowing, but those are small prices to pay for the reward.

Plus, sore muscles are a sign of growth if we work them out again soon.












Let’s Put the Sage Back on the Stage

When I first started teaching first year writing classes, I scheduled in 2-3 days before every essay due date so students could engage in “peer review.” I developed check lists, rubrics, and hints that helped them read their colleagues’ papers with an eye toward offering constructive, global feedback. The concept sounds good and, in many ways, should prepare students for their post-college working world where they will engage in team-work, collaborate, and develop ideas with other people. One of our goals, I would tell them, is to learn how to give (and take) constructive criticism with an eye toward improving our writing.

In theory, peer review also helps students recognize effective communication, providing models they can apply to their own writing. “Oh,” we want them to say while reading their neighbor’s essay, “that’s how you construct an argument effectively.” In many ways, peer review is predicated on the concept that students will willingly, intelligently, and capably take an active approach to their writing and education. As a teacher, I’m not the sage on the stage but a classroom manager offering guidance as the eager young minds tackle the difficult task before them.

I’m sure there is an alternative universe where such students exist, and I can put them in groups while they lead themselves into the intellectual promised land.

In practice, when we peer review we spend two days with, in many cases, the blind leading the blind. The best writers are appalled at their classmates’ lack of writing skills, the worst writers are embarrassed (or not as the case may be) at their illiteracy, and the vast majority of average writers in any class are simply confused because they all made an A in their high school English class but have absolutely no idea why. They can read an essay, tell me it makes no sense, but also be at a total loss how to improve the writing. “If I knew how to fix it,” a student once told me, “I wouldn’t be in this class.”

Don’t get me wrong. Any one who has spent time in the classroom has had those dedicated, active, autodidactic students who embrace learning. They read, they prepare, they engage the material beyond just the surface–these are the students we push toward graduate school and praise in front of our colleagues in the hallway. We yearn for a classroom full of such young scholars, and we develop pedagogical theories that reward such students, all the while dreaming everyone else in the classroom will follow in their wake. At our best, we want to teach students how to learn not just lecture them about what to learn.

Unfortunately, as Annie Murphy Paul writes in her Slate article “Bill Gates is an Autodidact. You’re Probably Not,”  self-directed learning is an urban legend in education. Murphy Paul’s article focuses on the ed-tech movement, but we should feel pretty comfortable extending her argument to education in general.

Teachers and classrooms, she notes, aren’t simply encumbrances for most of us. We need the guidance of experts to show us both how and what we need to learn if we plan on mastering any subject. In essence, we need that sage on the stage a little more than we need the peer in our ear.

Certainly, I recognize that we can balance the approach and using peer to peer learning might be effective in some classes and with some skills, but I also think we have done ourselves a disservice when we forget that our students, especially at the collegiate level, enter our classrooms as relative novices whose thoughts and intellectual abilities are far less developed than we might think. If we accept that writing is a process of organizing and articulating our ideas and thoughts, then surely we must also recognize that the person most capable of helping a student is not the mass of hormonal and ideological confusion sitting next to him.

After all, if their peers can teach them everything they need to know about writing, what do they need us for?

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)