03 December 2011

The Letter

So today, out of one part boredom, one part self-amusement, one part annoyance, and one part more-self-amusement, I wrote my students two samples of what a full page of text looks like, for the ones who still don't get that when I say three full pages minimum, I mean three full pages minimum. Working under the assumption that this is an easy mistake to make (not really ... not at all), I opened a Word document and typed out two full pages of text. Booyah.

I'm not going to lie ... I probably amused myself far more than I should have with that. And I will probably amuse my students far less than ... I was going to say "I meant to," but really, come on; a full page is a full page, and when it's the end of the semester and you're still getting, "Well, I thought I was close enough" when they've written two and a half pages of a three page minimum paper ... sarcasm starts dripping from your pores like honey from a broken hive. So I thought to myself, why do we as instructors feel validated in taking off points when a student reaches the 19th line of a 23 line double-spaced page and stops writing? Why don't we "cut them some slack" and accept that maybe that's just where the paper needed to end. Well here are some reasons. From the exactly one page letter. Boo. Yah.

1. Because part of earning the full grade is meeting the full requirements of the assignment. From the letter: "Part of the syllabus in almost any college course is a list of requirements for passing a class. Attendance and participation usually take up a lot of space, because your instructors want you to be completely aware of how these aspects of the course will affect you. The same thing applies to a writing project. When the rubric says the paper should be 3-5 pages, you know that the instructor is expecting three full pages, or a part of a fourth page, or 4 and 2/3rd pages. When an assignment says 250 words minimum, it means your instructor wants (wait for it) 250 words minimum.

2. Because almost isn't the same as exactly. From the letter: "I know what some of you are thinking. 'If I hit, like, 2 and 3/4th of a page, that's three pages. Jeez, chill out.' Let's apply that line of thought to your grade. You say, and the syllabus says, that a 90 or higher is an A. Well, I'm going to give you 89.75 points. Close enough, right?"

3. Because this is what the real world is like. From the letter: "Paying $275 of a $300 fine isn't going to cut it." You can't pay almost all of your bill at a restaurant and expect to walk out without having the cops called on you, anymore than you can pay for most of a hotel bill and leave without being tackled by the maitre d'. You wouldn't take most of your pay check because your boss says, "Well, hey, I mean, it's almost all your money." I like using money examples because I've seen these kids deal with money, and I know: you don't mess with their money.

4. Because your profs take it personally, and you'll pay for it. From the letter: "Pay attention here: Your professors hate it when you don't listen. Hate it. It drives them nuts. When you don't listen, either to what they say or the guidelines they give you, your professors put a little mark in their book by your name. Not literally, but they remember it ..."

There was a second letter I wrote them that started to address some of this stuff, too. Actually, it was a first letter that, once the ball got rolling, kind of spiraled into the second letter. I don't know which one I like better, but the first one is a bit more fun. Probably because it includes narwhals. I stuck a nice picture of a couple narwhals duking it out as an example of how an image should not take up half the page (and I even got the picture from Wikipedia ... oh yes, I went there). At first it was just a picture, but suddenly I realized that no, this is more than a picture of some narwhals going at it. This is a metaphor. This is a metaphor for life, man! From the first letter:

"In case you are wondering why I chose a picture of a narwhal, it is because until a few months ago I did not believe they actually existed. I thought they were a myth, like the jackalope (which, frankly, I wish was the real creature ... they are so much cooler looking). I did a quick search and found so much information about narwhals it made me feel a little silly for not knowing they were real creatures. In the same way, you will feel silly if you think your professor's threats of taking away points for a paper that is too short are just a myth. They, like the narwhal, are very, very real."

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