ATT7: Prewrite

I have this simple policy: you submit something at least one week in advance in one of my courses, I give you feedback so that you can improve this assignment and submit it again by the due time.

Here’s how I’m stating it in my syllabi, this semester:

Extra credit will not be given in this class. However, if you submit a written assignment at least one week in advance of its due date, I will be able to provide you with feedback on your assignment and allow you to rewrite it based on this feedback. Rewriting an assignment does not guarantee a better grade but should enhance your learning process and might allow you to improve your grade.

In class, I often do contextualize it in the “no extra credit” frame. And I spend some time explaining how it works in my teaching philosophy, including the comparison with my approach to marking and grading.

The feedback I give on “prewrites” is usually very elaborate. One reason I’m posting this is that I sent feedback on a few prewrites. In the case of one 3000 word assignment, my feedback was 1700 words. (This blogpost contains 654 words.) In the case of some short assignment submission (say, 300 words or less), I’m sure I’ve sent feedback which was actually longer than the assignment itself.

I call it a “prewrite” because, in my head at least, it seems to conjure appropriate connotations. It’s fairly idiosyncratic a policy, at least the way I spell it out, but I know colleagues do very similar things.

One peculiarity of my “prewrite” policy is that it’s very dissimilar to the way I grade assignments.

Because, when I grade assignments for a course, I actually give very short feedback. For several reasons, I don’t annotate every page. I basically summarize my comments in a “holistic” fashion (after all, I’m an ethnographer). That “holistic feedback” tends to be mostly positive. I emphasize the high points of the assignment. [dramatic-rendition]”Oh, I see that you emphasized this one point from the material. That’s a good start as it can lead you to talk about these other things we’ve been discussing…”[/dramatic-rendition]. My actual comments are frequently more subtle and they’re not passive-aggressive (at least, not in the way I intend or perceive them), but they seem to have the intended effect: let students know what was appropriate and help them find ways to improve, either in the next assignment, in the rest of their academic careers, or even during the rest of their lives.

I do the same thing for any kind of grade apart from that given on exam answers. It can be on a final paper, on a self-assessed grade for contributions (yes, I do grade contributions), on a project plan, etc. I even use the abbreviated marks described previously on open answers to exam questions, but without this more “textual” feedback.

To a limited extent, I might scale up this feedback on assignments when I perceive some extra effort may have been made or when I feel that my evaluation requires some justification. But, overall, the type of feedback I give on an assignment which wasn’t a prewrite will might be around three or four sentences. Of course, I’m always ready to provide more feedback. Still, from what I’ve seen, extended feedback is rarely request. Even when students ask for additional comments, sometimes in a rather confrontational manner, the extra feedback I give them isn’t necessarily appreciated or even understood in the most appropriate frame of mind. Which might give you some idea why my “normal” feedback is so limited. (Additional reasons provided upon request.. 😉 )

But this blogpost wasn’t meant to be about “normal” feedback. It’s about prewrites and what they can do.

Simply put, I love it when I get to give feedback on a prewrite. To me, it means that the student is taking an actual interest in the learning process. Sure, the prospect of potentially increasing her/his grade is likely the main motivation. Sure, in some cases, students get “more than they bargained for.” They thought it was a way to get their grade raised automatically by virtue of submitting the assignment ahead of time. (These students probably have a rather big surprise when they receive my feedback, especially since I can then be brutally honest as to what could have been done. Not that implementing changes based on my feedback is likely to take a lot of time. But those students who seem to misunderstand my prewrite policy as an easy way to increase their grades are also those who make no change whatsoever to their assignments.)

Still, most students who submit prewrites are actually looking for feedback and are taking an active part in the learning process.

Whatever reasons a student has in mind submitting a prewrite, the effect is the same. Whether it’s based on a misinterpretation or on a genuine desire to enhance her/his learning experience, as long as the student reads my feedback, s/he ends up focusing on the work instead of on getting the highest grade in the most effortless manner (or on ensuring s/he gets the grade s/he thinks s/he deserve as an “entitled” student). Even if it were just for this, I’d be happy to get these prewrites.

But there’s more. Not only “a lot more” but something qualitatively more significant.

The feedback I give clearly has an impact on the work being done. It’s all good and well to get students to take an active part in the learning process. Some would even take this for granted. But there’s something about providing “extended feedback which is likely to be taken into consideration” which is worth more than any amount of time I’m able to spend on it.

See, by providing this kind of effect, I’m often able to help students achieve something special. It’s not about me, but it relates to my work. And there’s little more satisfying than this kind of work. “Teaching moments” in the classroom come close or even reach the same level of satisfaction. But that’s because the same basic idea is at stake: in the classroom as on paper (or online), you’re helping create something. And this something is often more than students thought they were able to create.

This is one of the situations in which I perceive myself as a sherpa. And I specifically think about Tenzing Norgay.

(As an anthropologist, I take solace in the fact that Norgay is credited, along with Hillary, as being one of the two human beings who first set foot at the top of Mount Everest. Given the structure of the world in the mid-twentieth Century, I wouldn’t expect Norgay to have received praises. In fact, mountaineering is specifically a domain in which credit may be given to people in a rather arbitrary way. But, at least if the version of the story I’ve heard about is accurate, the fact that Tenzing Norgay can be celebrated means a lot to me. It also makes me think of those cinematographers who accompany people during great feats. The fact that they get to those same spots carrying a lot of equipment often makes me wonder if they’re not the real heroes. But I digress especially far since I don’t want this to be about heroism..)

Of course, I don’t compare myself to Tenzing Norgay. But I find inspiration in what he accomplished. He not only accomplished a great feat himself (something I don’t see myself capable of) but he enabled somebody else’s great feat (something I perceive very highly).

With students who are “at the top of their game,” serving as a sherpa can be very satisfying because the results can reveal intellectual prowess. But, even though it means “improving something which was already good,” it’s relatively easy to do because these students have stimulation, motivation, and possibly drive, not to mention mad sk1||z.

The situation at the other extreme can be as satisfying but it’s also more “touching” and less impressive. You get a student whose “game,” for whatever reason, isn’t at the very top. Someone who probably wouldn’t get a very high grade in the course if it weren’t for your help. And, despite your help, this student may not achieve the type of proficiency that your grading scheme puts at the top. Yet this student improves her/his work through concerted effort with you. In other words, you’re not helping Hillary climb Mount Everest. But it’s a bit as if you were helping a paralympian climb the Matterhorn. Sure, other people have been there. In fact, some people set records on doing it quickly. In my mind, though, at least in terms of “overcoming some preconceived notions of what can be done,” what you’re helping someone do is more significant than setting a new world record.

As is often the case when I think about teaching, I get to reminisce about my father’s career as a high school teacher for students with learning disabilities. On numerous occasions, my father was able to help students get over significant hurdles. One occasion I remember quite vividly is when he helped a well-motivated student complete three years in one. Part of the reason I remember this is that I was present during some study sessions my father did with that student. I vaguely remember her, but I can say that this is an occasion for me to be proud of my father. And it surely had a large impact on my perception of teaching.

But what probably had a deeper impact and is more impressive in so many ways is something I rarely discuss: my mother’s career. For most of her working life, including while she was working on the more administrative side of things, my mother was an occupational therapist helping adults and children suffering from MR. [Having a hard time with the English term. The French «déficience intellectuelle» seems to me more appropriate..]

Many of the people with whom my mother worked had Down Syndrome. Probably more than the physical handicap to which I alluded, in the “paralympian climing the Matterhorn” idea, Down Syndrome sets a very strict limit to what the person can or cannot do. While we’ve all heard cases of “physical disabilities” being overcome to the extent that the person may accomplish feats a “normally able” person is unlikely to accomplish, Down Syndrome may prevent some rather normal tasks from ever being undertaken. This description of Down Syndrome may be wholly inaccurate, as I’m not an expert in the field (unlike my mother who has been spending the past few weeks among Swiss mountains, including the Matterhorn). And I certainly don’t want to understate the challenges facing those with physical disabilities. But my limited experience with Down Syndrome adults and children left in me a lasting impression. Close to helplessness. Making rather mundane tasks into monumental achievements.

It takes more than courage and determination to overcome significant hurdles such as a mental or physical handicap. Whatever the case may be, the inspiration to not take for granted some of the simplest things in life runs deep.

Of course, the students who take my courses in a university setting are as far as you could get from suffering from MR. Though there have been differences in terms of specific accomplishments, it doesn’t escape me that people who go to universities represent but a fraction of society as a whole and that, in a certain sense, the distinction implied bears some relationship to possessing intelligence which is often ranked much higher than average. [My perspective on intelligence isn’t one which puts people on a linear scale, so I’m hard-pressed to find a way to express this which makes sense in my mind and addresses some common perceptions about university students.]

The part of my mother’s career which most directly inspires my teaching, with the sherpa analogy in mind, is precisely that ability isn’t a given and that there isn’t a direct correlation between assumed ability and potential achievement.

It might be one reason behind my rather strong negative reactions to the infamous “sense of entitlement” perceived on some campuses (“campi” is allegedly frowned upon). Comparing a university student’s achievements to those of someone with Down Syndrome may seem exceedingly strange (and even, given social stigma on MR, very insulting). Using extreme examples about mental abilities to show the importance of intellectual humility and intellectual honesty is very tricky. But if it helps people become more thoughtful about the specificity of university work, the risk is worth it.

I’ve already been on long tangents and I should probably cut this up in two or more posts. But I need to go.