As someone who has used point rubrics extensively, I have a pretty good sense of how to calculate number grades, but a recent conversation with colleagues has made me question if number grades are really my preference, or just my Cégep conditioning.
I have spent more than fifteen years teaching at the Cégep level, where course grades are reported in percentage, and 60% is the minimum passing grade. I am now teaching in the university system, and we report course grades as letters, with a D- as the minimum.
Number grades make a lot of sense for evaluations that are straightforwardly quantifiable, but what’s the difference between an essay that gets 87% and an essay that gets 85%? Where does one student lose or gain 2%? In this sense, grading with a range seems more feasible—both of these essays get an A, and there’s no uncomfortable quibbling over one or two percentage points [I’m well aware that some students will quibble no matter what grading system one uses, but you get my point].
Is Room for Improvement Justification for Downgrading?
The facet of the conversation that truly gave me pause, though, was one colleague saying matter-of-factly that you just can’t give a perfect grade. If an essay is graded on 10, no student is going to get 10/10. When I asked the colleague to explain, the response was that “there’s always room to improve” in writing. It’s fair to say that this was not the first time I’ve encountered this position, and my colleague is far from alone in taking this approach to grading.
But while I agree that writing can usually be improved with a little more time or scrutiny, my objection to this stance is that the grade should reflect the task and learning objectives. If I were teaching math, and created a ten-question test, each question worth one point, then it’s pretty easy to see that a student could very well achieve a perfect score. Assuming that the test is valid, the 10/10 result demonstrates that this student has learned what was being tested. In my mind, this same thinking can be applied to more “subjective” disciplines, such as writing. If my test is designed to assess student learning on a specific concept, and a student has demonstrated absolutely that they’ve met the objective, then why is a perfect score not possible? I argue that deciding in advance that a perfect score is impossible means that you are assessing elements of the writing that are not actually part of the stated objectives.
For example, if I have assigned a first-year class a five-paragraph comparative essay, and have provided a detailed rubric—or at least a detailed overview of what I am evaluating, my standard for grading is “what does an excellent first-year, five-paragraph, comparative essay look like?”, not “what does a fourth-year, ten-page research paper look like?” How can I evaluate students on concepts and skills that they have not yet encountered?
I think it is entirely justifiable, and in fact, pedagogically ethical, to grade according to level. An excellent first-year paper may well be only an adequate third-year paper—so if the paper is submitted in a third-year course, it gets an adequate grade, but if it’s submitted in a first-year course, it gets an excellent grade. Otherwise, we are punishing students for being first-year students, not evaluating their work according to the standards of the level. When I shared this thought with a friend who teaches physical therapists, she agreed, and pointed out that her students complete four practical stages. The fourth stage is just prior to certification, and naturally, students at that stage are expected to be, essentially, professionals with all the knowledge and skill that implies. Students doing the first stage, on the other hand, have not learned the same content yet, nor have they been exposed to the same skillsets. So students in the first stage are evaluated on the objectives specific to that stage—otherwise, if they were evaluated according to the expectations of the final stage, they would not be able to advance.
A for Effort
So I have decided to give letter grades a try. I have created a rubric for interpreting the grades, shared below.
My number-based rubrics will still come in handy. First, they are an excellent source for articulating criteria and expectations for specific assignments. They’ll also allow me to keep a separate record of student performance to use when calculating final grades, in case there are any hard-to-assess cases.
The number-based rubrics I have been using for the past decade and a half were not birthed fully formed. I tweaked and revised and edited and adjusted over and over. While I feel that these rubrics are excellent reflections of my assessment practice, there’s always room for improvement 😉
Please feel free to provide feedback on the letter rubric, ask questions, and share your own approach!
Interpreting letter grades for major assignments
Note that a minus (–) grade typically indicates that your work is mostly situated in the letter range but has some areas of weakness or elements missing. A plus (+) grade indicates that your work is mostly situated in the letter range but demonstrates better performance in some areas.
Your work demonstrates:
Excellent, exceptional work
Your work not only meets all the criteria for this assignment, but demonstrates originality, creativity, professionalism and exceptional engagement in the project. You have clearly gone above and beyond the basic requirements, and your organization, critical thinking, and understanding of the key concepts are outstanding. Meets well, or even exceeds, expectations for this level and topic.
Strong, competent work
Your work clearly and strongly meets all the criteria for this assignment. You have clearly engaged yourself in this project, and have demonstrated good organization, critical thinking, and a strong grasp of the key concepts. Meets expectations for this level and topic—there’s room for improvement, but continuing to work at this level will lead to success in the course.
Your work basically meets most or all of the criteria for this assignment. You have engaged yourself in the project, but your organization, thinking, and understanding of the key concepts is limited. Satisfies the minimum expectations for this level and topic—you should be aiming for better performance in subsequent assignments.
Acceptable but unsatisfactory work
Your work struggles to meet the criteria for this assignment. It is not clear that you have engaged yourself in the project, and your work lacks organization and critical thinking. You seem to be unclear on some of the key concepts. Fails to meet the minimum requirements for this level and topic—you need to perform better in subsequent assignments to succeed in this course.
Your work fails to meet the minimum criteria for this assignment. You do not appear to have engaged yourself in the project, and your work is disorganized and lacks understanding of the basic concepts. Unacceptable for this level and topic—you need to perform significantly better in subsequent assignments if you intend to continue in this course.
Note that this grade will also be assigned to any work not submitted.
Your work does not seem to address the purpose of the project. You may have misinterpreted the assignment instructions. Your resubmission may be accepted after consultation with the professor.
Note that this grade may also be assigned as a placeholder for deadline extensions.
This term has been so busy for me – I’ve started a new job, which I love, but which involves a lot of work, in a lot of different directions. All of this work is the kind of challenge I really thrive with, and in many ways, I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made so far. I still feel like there are things to learn, and I have felt, as one of my sister newbies said of her own teaching, that I’m making a lot of the rookie mistakes we tend to make when teaching a new course. I mismanaged my TA hours, so I now find myself at the end of the term, when marking really builds up, with no help. I’m facing that weird paradoxical feeling of there being only a few classes left, so not enough time to cover everything, while still feeling like I haven’t planned those classes in enough detail. I missed an important deadline for a curriculum change that I really want to have in place for next year, so it’s entirely possible that this change just won’t happen when I want.
On the other hand, I feel like I have established a good rapport with most of my colleagues, and that the changes I’m planning are welcome and supported. My students are comfortable with me, and they’re doing well. I have even figured out (mostly) the intricate online advising platform. I feel very much at home, and full of optimism for myself and my program.
Part of the reason things are a little overwhelming is that I agreed to teach an extra course this term, in exchange for (a) having TAs and (b) teaching one fewer next term. I am taking an online program in editing, and I have enrolled in two courses this winter, and another in the spring. My dissertation is currently in the hands of my committee, so the timing looks like it will work out really well – I’ll have less teaching in the winter, so time to work on revisions and my own coursework, as well as, of course, planning for next year’s courses and more program development. This term, I am taking only one course in the editing program, but that one course is getting away from me. Like, to the point that when our prof sent a message early this week to say she would be late getting to our latest assignments because she had an emergency appendectomy, my immediate reaction was “thank god.” Which makes me a terrible person, obviously, but I’m still grateful for a little extra time to get caught up.
One of the great things about researching teacher development through community of practice is that I can be in research mode most of the time, and it just looks like having conversations (because that’s what it is). The conversation that’s been happening lately tends to dwell on the idea of trying to put oneself in the learners’ shoes.
When I was a kid, my mother tried to teach me to knit. But she’s a lot like me – I have a ton of patience with my students, but if I try teaching my husband something, I get super frustrated almost immediately. It’s like I know he’s really smart, so why isn’t he immediately getting this thing, that is so easy to do? What does he mean, what does ‘sauté the onions’ mean?
So when my mum taught me to knit, I think it must have been the same – I wasn’t getting it right away, so she got frustrated, which made me flustered and unhappy, which made knitting into something that I didn’t like. Something I wasn’t good at, and there were plenty of other things I was good at, so why would I waste my time on this?
Then as an adult, I got into crochet. I really wanted a scarf, a long, wide, warm scarf, and I couldn’t find one that fit the bill, so I said, OK, how hard can this be? I found a few tutorials and blogs online, got some yarn and a crochet hook, and figured it out. Boom, scarf. So I spent a few years crocheting, but then I started to think, OK, if I can do this, I can figure out how to knit, right? So again, I went online, and found tutorials with images. The videos weren’t helpful for me, but there’s so much out there that it’s easy to find the approach that works for you.
I made more scarves. I made blankets. I got pretty good at variations on the quadrilateral – then, earlier this winter, I made myself a pair of legwarmers. Halfway through the first one, I realized that a legwarmer is pretty much just a sleeve. So I found a really simple sweater pattern, and I made a sweater. That first one, I remade twice. But I figured it out, and then realized that I was actually good at this, after all.
One thing that struck me was that when I first started, I had to look up how to do the basic stuff, every time. How do I cast on? I did it for the last project, but I need a reminder. I had a couple of knitting sites bookmarked so I could translate the weird knitting pattern shorthand, then go find a tutorial for how to do the stitch itself. Then I got to the point where I didn’t need the reminders anymore. The basic stitches and common techniques were second nature. I still find that if I encounter a new stitch or technique that I need to try it a few times – I find it hard to visualize what it should look like. But then once I’ve done it, I’ve got it.
I was talking about the importance of sometimes being a beginner with a colleague. We are both experienced teachers, both with advanced degrees in our respective fields, and both committed to a reflective practice. But when I told him how valuable I thought my learning-to-knit process was, he looked skeptical.
“Being a beginner is scary,” he said. “I’d feel too vulnerable. I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Of course, that’s true – but it’s also a big part of why we teachers need to be willing to be learners, even if we are so inexperienced as knitters, or skiers, or onion sautéers that we feel stupid or slow or frustrated. How many of our students feel exactly that way the first time they sit in our classrooms? How many of them are still trying to remember how to cast on, but we’ve forgotten that once upon a time, casting on wasn’t second nature to us?
I hear a lot of teachers talk about the evils of rote memorization, and it’s certainly true that learning can’t be just that. But maybe we’re so averse to memorization because we’ve forgotten what we’ve memorized. Those basics are so ingrained in our minds, in our practice, that we don’t see that we needed to remember it. That once upon a time we didn’t know how to cast on. That we didn’t know what sauté the onions meant. That we didn’t just know the alphabet. How many of us still mentally recite the alphabet song when we’re doing our reference list?
So my take away is twofold: try to remember what I’ve forgotten I didn’t always know, and be willing to be vulnerable, to look like I have no idea what I’m doing, and acknowledge that sometimes, some of them feel exactly that.
Since it’s October, it seems fitting to write about my ghost student.
Last autumn, Jennet was one of only nine students registered in my third-semester English for Liberal Arts course. For the first few classes, only eight students attended; Jennet was nowhere to be seen. I assumed she would eventually drop the course – it’s not uncommon in this program for students to transfer to another program or college after their second semester.
But then she appeared.
About three weeks into the semester, we were getting into our feminist readings of Frankenstein, and settling into a nice, intimate group dynamic.
I was really enjoying the course – with only eight students (or so I thought), and a teaching intern, I could experiment with pedagogical activities. We had a great time doing debates, four against four, for instance. The tiny class size did mean other activities, such as the group presentations, required some finessing, but generally, this was a fun class to teach. We had a great group vibe, too, not least because the eight students had already been through two semesters together, so I didn’t have to do any community building.
Then she appeared.
Jennet showed up one day, loud and energetic, chatting with her classmates. She did not bother to introduce herself (perhaps she assumed, justifiably, that I would know the one person in a group of nine who hadn’t been there yet) or explain her absences. She contributed to class discussion, albeit not always from a place of understanding, since she had not been there for previous discussions, nor was she up to date with reading. But I felt odd about her presence—like she was more disruptive than she actually was, just by being there.
Then she disappeared.
Jennet did not return to class the next day. In fact, the next time I saw her was in my office, for the mandatory essay conference. These conferences are based on in-class writing: stage one is the thesis planning, with feedback, then the outline, with feedback, then the in-class draft, with feedback. Before writing the final version of their paper, students must meet with me to discuss the three stages and the feedback I’ve provided, and talk about what they plan to do with the final version.
She had not been in class for her thesis planning, nor for the outline, nor for the draft. I was, frankly, taken aback when she appeared in my door (at least in part because I genuinely wasn’t sure who she was, having only met her once before). She sat down and handed me a typed draft of an essay that did not address the topic assigned. I told her this, and said that if she handed this essay in, she would fail. I offered her a deal: take an extra week, but send me an outline within two days, with a plan for an essay that answers the questions asked in the assignment. She agreed.
Then she disappeared.
She did not hand in an outline, nor did she hand in an essay. We were already past the deadline to drop courses, but what more could I do? I did not follow up with her – although I did ask one of her classmates about her chronic absences. He assured me that the problem wasn’t me (I didn’t really think it was, given how little we’d actually interacted), but rather some kind of self-defeating habit of not showing up. So I left it alone, and the semester continued, back to our now-established good groove.
Then she appeared.
She showed up once more that semester—her second ever classroom appearance—during oneof our debate classes, which was unsettling, given that we had been working with two teams of four. One of the teams invited her to join them, and she seemed to work well with the group. Again, though, I felt perturbed by her reappearance, not to mention puzzled: she had already missed two of the three essays, several reading quizzes, the group presentation, and there was, mathematically, no way she could pass the course. I expected her to come to my office or send me an email, asking how she might “make up” all the missed work. I rehearsed my response—but no such request came.
Jennet never dropped my class, but she never submitted any work, either. Thanks to one reading quiz and her participation in one debate, her final grade for the course was 1.2% (note the decimal. One POINT two percent).
Then she reappeared.
Imagine my surprise when Jennet appeared on my class list for this semester, for the same course. This is a program course, required for Liberal Arts students—and apparently, Jennet is still among them. Three weeks into the semester, however, Jennet still had not attended a class. I contacted the program chair, who agreed that she was likely to fail and added that she is currently on academic probation, meaning that failing my class (or any other) would result in her expulsion from the program.
Then she reappeared.
The following week, Jennet was in class. This time, she was subdued, presumably because this year, she doesn’t know her classmates, since their cohort (a group of 23) started the year after hers did. She made a few contributions to the discussion—good ones, even—and approached me at the end of the class to ask if she could meet with me to discuss what she had missed. I agreed. I introduced her to a group who are scheduled to present later in the term, and asked if they would consider including her in their group. They agreed.
Then she disappeared.
Jennet did not attend the next class, or the next week. The drop deadline was approaching, so I sent her a message and reminded her that failing my class would affect her standing in the program, so she should consider dropping my class and discussing her options with the program chair.
She did not drop my course. The drop deadline came and went, but her name remained on my list, even though her body never came back to class. I advised her presentation group to assume that she would not be working with them after all. In the meantime, we had done the thesis planning, the essay outline, and the in-class draft. I set up an online appointment calendar for the essay conference—and she made an appointment.
She did not appear.
And then she did appear.
The week after the essay conferences, she came to class. Once again, she approached me, and asked if we could meet. We met on Tuesday this week; she did not have any work to show me, but she wanted to explain the many, many reasons she is almost always unable to attend class. I pointed out that so far, she has been to two classes. She told me that’s more than she’s attended any of her other courses. I’m flattered, obviously, but concerned. I asked why she’s in Liberal Arts? What does she want to do?
Oh dear. Time for some straight talk. Corporate Law is a very, very long shot for someone with her transcript. I don’t even bother pointing out how unlikely it is that she’ll get academic referees. I ask her if there’s a Plan B, and she tells me that she’s wanted to be a lawyer since she was four. I tell her she needs to start entertaining other options. I tell her she needs to get her sh*t together (and I’m not paraphrasing). Honestly, I expected her to nod and look abashed and swear to do better and then disappear.
But she came back.
She’s in class on Thursday, with her thesis and outline. The essay is due this coming Tuesday, so I tell her that I will accept her outline, and give her feedback, but she needs to come to my office Friday afternoon and collect it.
Yesterday afternoon, she collected her outline, discussed her feedback, and promised to submit an essay.
I wonder if she has any idea how much thought I have put into her case. Does she think that I think about her at all? Or does she assume that in higher ed, we profs just don’t care about our students the way our K12 counterparts do? There are no calls or notes going home to parents, so perhaps the impression is that it’s sink-or-swim, and we’re not lifeguards. Certainly, there is only so much I can do—last year, I didn’t do much at all, frankly, but then, neither did she. This year, she is reaching out, however sporadically, and I’m trying to keep the life buoy within reach.
When I saw her name on my class list in August, and when I wrote to the program chair, I had firm resolve that if and when she appeared, I would exorcise her. No second chances. I don’t have time or space in my class to indulge this inexplicable behavior. I have a new group, with their own dynamic, and I don’t want to disrupt them for the sake of one prodigal classmate.
But I caved. She appeared, and I invited her in. She disappeared, and I rolled my eyes. She reappeared, and I met her halfway. She vanished, and then came back.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the research I’m doing for my doctorate is the opportunity to just sit down and talk with colleagues. I’m using interactive interviewing,* which means that I get to hang out with other teachers, talking (venting, ranting, musing, crying, laughing) about teaching. We’ve talked to each other about how we got started, what we think teaching is, how we deal with assessment, and even what our theme songs are (right now, I think this is mine. No Rick Roll, I promise).
I have just finished the final round of four interviews, with my nine participants (yay!! finished!!). I’ve met with each person one-on-one four times since last May; each time, we’ve talked for more than an hour, allowing ourselves to explore the tangents and spirals that naturally arise in our dialogue. The first time we talked, our theme was simple: how did we find ourselves in the classroom? In the second round, we talked about mentorship and metaphors for teaching and learning. In the fall, we met for a third time, to talk about assessment, evaluation, grading, and feedback.
In our final conversation, I asked my participants** to reflect on our process: did anything in particular resonate? Were there any 3-a.m.-wake-up epiphanies? Any moments in the classroom where our discussions echoed in your mind? What was the most valuable part of this process? Each person had different things to reflect on, or to elaborate upon, but what struck me was that every single one said that they just really loved talking about these things with me. One or two said that they’d spoken about teaching and learning with me more often in this past year than with anyone in their department. Most said that they’d really like to keep talking about teaching and learning, even if my research cycle is complete.
Earlier this month, I presented an overview of my research to my college department, and suggested that one of the take-aways from my research so far is that while we may not have Yoda-esque mentors as teachers, most of us experience what I’ve taken to calling mentoring moments. These moments share a few characteristics: they are typically peer-to-peer dialogues (although not exclusively); they are mutually beneficial (both parties get something from the dialogue); they may arise from a crisis but are not really designed to solve a problem – rather, they allow both people to explore ideas, share experiences, and brainstorm strategies, without trying to find the one-and-only way to deal with the crisis.
So, for example, I might engage in a discussion with my colleague Jane about our deadline policies, perhaps because one of us is dealing with a situation that has made us question our current policy. So, I’ll talk about what my policy is, and Jane will tell me about hers. We’ll naturally talk about how our policies differ – maybe Jane refuses to accept any submissions more than three days after the deadline, whereas I accept them but provide no feedback, or deduct 5% for each day late. Perhaps I’ll realize that my policy now is pretty different from what it was five years ago, and we’ll talk about what changed and why – maybe I’ve stopped deducting marks for late submissions because I reflected on that practice and came to the conclusion that I wanted the grade to reflect the work done, not the time management. Maybe it’s the other way around, and I’ve realized that I want students to learn how to manage time and workload, so my deadline policy now reflects that desire. Jane and I might talk for an hour or so, sipping tea, sharing stories of students who’ve tested our policy patience. In the end, maybe one or the other of us will adjust her policy; maybe neither of us will make any changes. No matter what, we both will feel more confident in our policy; in discussing, exploring, challenging, reflecting, we’ve come to understand better why our policy is what it is. We can better articulate the how and why of our policy.
So here’s what I’m thinking about now: these mentoring moments are so fruitful, yet, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, when our institution sets up a community of practice or a mentoring program – even if everyone’s really keen and excited – eventually it fizzles. The online forum for our department includes a space for dialogue – the most recent post in that section is from 2016. We talk about mentorship and community of practice, but it seems like things never really get off the ground.
I was discussing this fizzle phenomenon with a colleague today, and she said “and that’s when people just give up.” People stop attending the brown bag lunches, stop posting to the online forum, stop trying to track down their appointed mentor… but maybe, like a neglected plant, we need to do some pruning, some repotting, careful watering, and see if we can’t bring that plant back to life.
So, then, of course, the question is how. How do we revive a wilting community of practice? How do we keep conversations going? And how do we do all of this organically, so we don’t feel like we’re under some kind of administration-mandated obligation to pretend we’re talking to each other.
*Note: Interactive interviews go beyond the conventional researcher-participant construct to establish a collaborative relationship between the researcher and her participant (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). Unlike more traditional, ‘objective,’ interview techniques that ignore the emotional facet of the interview relationship itself (Ezzy, 2010), interactive interviewing uses autoethnography to recognize and reconstruct or redefine the relationship between researcher and participant. Ellis (1999) described her own experiences with interactive interviewing as an opportunity to engage in immediate responses to a participant’s story with her own lived experience. As the stories, experiences, and attitudes of the interviewer and interviewee flow into and through each other, the traditional boundaries and distances between the two participants are blurred or even erased (Fontana, 2002). [This section appears in the draft of my dissertation as well as in Finding Myself in Methodology (2017).
** OH MY GOD if someone can propose a few synonyms so I can stop writing “participant” over and over… the word has lost all meaning. Or rather, its connotation/denotation is starting to rankle – it feels very data-oriented to discuss “participants.” But I digress…
When I started this blog, I was very excited about the idea of recording and reflecting on my doctoral journey. Well, as it turns out, that journey is well underway, but the recording, not so much. Ironically, the journey has been going so well, and so quickly, that I haven’t had time to step out of the vehicle to write here.
My research is going so well, I’m starting to get paranoid about the proverbial other shoe. Patterns are emerging in the interviews – so many of us have parallel experiences, and a definite narrative structure is taking shape. I’m excited, and eager to get to the next round of interviews, and into the real heart of the writing itself.
I am not going to promise more blog posts, more regularly – aside from the dissertation (I am now ABD, so the text itself, and the interviews feeding it, are my focus), I am now back at work full-time, and time is harder and harder to find – I’ve dropped a few other commitments in order to make life manageable, or at least more so. However, I am trying to post to the companion Facebook feed more often, so feel free to follow my thoughts and reflections over there.
Shortly after I was accepted to the doctoral program, I ordered business cards, thinking that they would come in handy at conferences and the like. I filled in the form, and checked off the box marked “PhD Candidate.” After all, now that I was in the program, that’s what I was, right? A candidate?
It turns out there are designations, and that “candidate” indicates, typically, that you have completed any required coursework and have demonstrated – through comprehensive exams or papers, or both – that you have sufficiently immersed yourself in your field and are now prepared to take on original research.
The graduate secretary and the print shop were happy to accept my order, though, so I was the proud if confused owner of 250 business cards that erroneously identified me as a PhD Candidate.
When I told my supervisor about this mistake, she laughed and confessed that she had made the same mistake, introducing herself as a PhD Candidate as a newbie in her program. We’re actually working on a paper together now, exploring who makes what assumptions in the graduate context – because while the business card gaffe may be an innocuous blunder, there are assumptions made, by students, faculty, and institutions, that may have more dire consequences, or at least more embarrassing ones. Our conversation began with me relating the frustrating experience I had in applying to the program; the frustration stemmed from the institutional assumption that I (a) knew departmental faculty, (b) knew that I was expected to work with someone in preparing my application, and (c) knew how to remedy the situation if (a) or (b) were not true.
We all make assumptions, as teachers, as students, as parents, as citizens. As teachers, we may assume that students understand our instructions and know what to do with our feedback, for instance. We may assume that our colleagues share our beliefs about our role as teachers, and that our institutions will support us in our pedagogical choices. We may assume that someone will tell us that we’re not “candidates” yet, rather than signing off on a card order.
I think that a large part of the writing and dialogue I’ll engage in in the next few months will involve recognizing and challenging my assumptions – considering why I’ve made such an assumption, why it persists, and whether or not it’s valid. At least now that I have presented and defended my methodology and concepts papers, I can use those business cards 🙂
Sara Doody, Sarah Marshall, Maggie McDonnell, and Erin Reid
On October 17, we presented the following to our PhD Colloquium group at McGill, and we thought that we’d bring it to a larger audience. We’re in our second year together as doctoral students, and we’re spending a lot of time reflecting on our development as doctoral students, researchers, and writers. We have been meeting as a writing group for about a year now, and plan to continue together at least as long as the PhD journey keeps us writing, if not beyond. We’ve all contributed to this text, so it is heteroglossic, although it’s worth noting that we have all nodded vigorously along as we each discussed our personal experience, as we planned the text.
Social Isolation (Sarah M) – next year we will have finished all our course work, so we will have no reason to actually see and be with anyone else in our DISE cohort. Here’s a nice quote from The Guardian Higher Education blog:
All PhDs are solitary affairs. When you carry out doctoral research you are, by definition, the only person working on the precise topic of your thesis. There will be others whose research is closely related to yours, but nobody else is doing quite what you are doing. In this sense, all PhDs are solitary affairs. (July 2014)
All of us are writing in isolation it would seem, but to use a metaphor, I see it as we’re like bees in a beehive. Each worker bee has their own hexagonal cell to look after, but in a beehive each bee, while working on their own cell, is also a part of the whole hive, as it is with us PhD students: we are a part of a bigger group. By participating in the writing group we are able to break the illusion of being alone – we are not alone. Not only are we writing with others in academe, but with our classmates we are at approximately the same phase of the process. Sure some are a bit ahead (preparing CPs) and others are not there yet (working towards preparing CPP), but we are all PhD3 in DISE.
One could argue that the construction of the author as an isolated producer of texts is only sensible if one takes a very limited, object centred, view of writing practice. The understanding of writing as process, as communication, and as therapy, cannot be supported by the concept of the isolated writer (Pheby 2010).
Society uses a convention that often shows writers, alone in their office or den, slaving away over an unfinished manuscript until – ta-da – it is finished; completely perfect and whole like the Virgin Birth. In my experience it couldn’t be further from the truth – writing is as collaborative as it is generative.
Renegotiating Identity (Erin) – Being a writing group member has allowed me to renegotiate my relationship to not only to writing, but also to my identity as a writer. Throughout my education, I was encouraged, largely implicitly, to view writing as a solitary activity…something that was best done in isolation, with the focus entirely on the finished product. Although writing was something to which I always felt drawn, it was often a site of intense personal stress for me. I struggled to see myself as a legitimate writer/scholar…I was constantly wracked with what I eventually named my CSD (crippling self-doubt). This struggle intensified dramatically when I found myself in graduate school as an MA student in Religious Studies where the long-standing meme of the solitary, struggling, silent and hopefully brilliant writer was in full force. Though the graduate students may have enjoyed some camaraderie in sharing an office and at times writing in the same space, work was never shared, only our anxiety. There seemed to me to be a direct correlation between the most stressed out student and the most brilliant – writing the bulk of my MA in 3 horrible weeks was a badge of honour for me as it was proof that the frustrated, procrastinating, blocked-yet-brilliant artist model was alive and well. But that process was so painful that it literally led to me being unable to move my head due to compressed vertebrae in my cervical spine. It took me at least a year to heal from writing my MA.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand why developing a new, healthier relationship to writing was one of the main reasons I decided to return to academia. I needed to find a better way to write, and a way to allow myself to identify as a writer; in short, I needed desperately to develop “new habits of the mind” (Spigelman, 1999). Writing groups have been transformational for me as the process of working with, responding to, and eventually collaborating with my peers has allowed me to identify myself increasingly as a practitioner, rather than simply a learner. As we began to share our work, we developed our skills in critical reading, editing, and giving feedback, which in turn have led to a growing sense of confidence in academic selves, something that Kamler and Thomson (2007) have referred to as ‘discursive social practice.’ Finally, writing groups allow us to identify ourselves as a member of a writing group facilitates our identifying ourselves of a larger peer community (Maher, 2008).
Assumptions – What’s Out There? (Sara D) I have always found writing groups incredibly rewarding. I’ve spent a lot of time in them, and have experienced the “Shut Up and Write”, the peer review, and the roundtable (where you read a paper at home and come prepared to give feedback). You could say that I am a serial “Writing Groopie”.
There is a common assumption of writers as isolated. Writing is often pushed into the margins and talked about as something you do “after” all of the hard work has been done. It is something you share only after it has been “perfected”, so it can be scary just talking about writing. The dominant assumption of writing seems to be that we have to work alone to craft the perfect text before we even think about sharing with others.
Writing groups are really useful vehicles for subverting these popular assumptions about writing. Scholars exploring doctoral writing groups assume that writing is a social practice. Whenever we write, we write to someone, and writing groups make this sociality visible. This is especially true of writing in academe, where we are trying to figure out how to write to a larger community of scholars and peers. As Anthony Paré (2014) writes, writing groups provide a space for us to learn how to participate in these conversations. Writing groups provide us with opportunities to explore how to give feedback and experiment with thinking and arguing like a scholar. He also believes “opening one’s mouth to speak in the doctorate…[is] fraught with danger” (p. 25). What we write and how we write it affects the ways in which we are viewed by our communities. While we learn how to speak from supervisors, writing groups provide a safer environment to test out ideas, ways of talking, and ways of writing (Guerin, 2014; Paré, 2014; Starke-Meyerring, 2014).
Reflexive Strategies (Maggie) We want to wrap things up with some ideas for how to get the most out of a writing group, based partly on what we’ve experienced, and partly on the ideas of those who have come before us.
Our group meets once a week – many groups meet less frequently, but we’re using the weekly appointment as a way of keeping ourselves connected to the habit of public writing. Typically, we use the Pomodoro method, so in our two-hour session, we write in 25-minute sessions, taking a short break to chat, or share bits of our writing. More recently, especially as we worked on grant applications and candidacy papers, we decided to dedicate one session each month to a share-and-respond session, wherein we exchange computers and comment in writing on each other’s work. We discuss our comments before we end the session, but we each leave with at least two other people’s feedback recorded in our text, for reflection and reference.
Of course, there are many different writing group formats, and as you might expect, there are a ton of resources for writing groups online, which if nothing else speaks to their effectiveness. Most academic writing groups recommend a few basic tips, which we’ve included below, along with some links to other writing group resources.
One of the tips is to find a common goal. Although we’re all researching different things – Sarah M. is looking at teacher education in physical therapy, Sara D. is writing about doctoral writing, Erin is exploring how religious education can be beneficial in adult language learning, and Maggie is looking at development of teacher identity in higher education – we’ve been writing together for almost a year now. About a month ago, Sara D. had a brilliant idea – we should present on writing groups as part of the colloquium! And then she added the most enticing part: if that works out, we should write a paper.
So now, as well as meeting regularly to work on our own writing, we’re starting to gather our collective thoughts and experiences, in order to write about our group and its impact on our personal doctoral journeys. When Sara began looking into writing groups, she found a great deal written from the perspective of those who encourage us to form groups, but only one written from the perspective of an actual group member (Maher, Seaton, McMullen, Fitzgerald, Otsuji, & Lee, 2008). So we thought that we should write and share, so others can benefit from this strategy. Since we still have some time before we get to the end of this particular journey, we’re not rushing to write this paper, but we’re gathering thoughts and reflections in preparation.
One of the methodologies we’ve begun using, then, is a form of reflexive memo. At the beginning of each session, we take five minutes to write about what we’re hoping to work on, our personal goals, and our feeling about the session. Then at the end of the session, we take another five to ten minutes to reflect back on the session. Over time, we will collect these, and collectively reflect on the reflections, so we can see how the group is working for us collectively and individually.
You can also use memoing with a writing group as another way of recording reactions to and reflection on each other’s work (Qualley & Chiseri-Strater, 1994), not to mention record and reflect on your own progress. Whether you use memos specifically or not, finding a way to engage in collective reflexivity can help improve your writing and your morale (Barry et al, 1999).
Our experience & commentary
Have a group goal & shared interest/connection
As Sarah M points out, we are all PhD3 students at McGill’s DISE, so we have a few things in common, even if our personal research interests are different. Having said that, we have found that within our research, there’s plenty of crossover, and we often end up sparking ideas in each other, and recommending readings.
Be prepared to commit long-term (at least one term)
We’ve been writing together since last year, and this year, we decided to continue, for as long as we can.
Be exclusive – 4 to 7 people is typically regarded as ideal
We are currently four, although once in a while, someone else has sometimes joined us. It’s not always easy to find a regular time that’s good for everyone, so the group sort of ends up limiting itself.
We do think it’s important to feel comfortable with the rest of the group; after all, these people are going to be reading and commenting on your work. You should feel trust and kinship.
Share or delegate administrative tasks
Inevitably, these will come up – who’s responsible for booking a room? Is really the only one we’ve encountered so far, although there was a lot of emailing to set things up. We’ve never really worried about a leader, as things just seem to naturally fall into place.
Find a good space & time
We’ve tried a few places. We had a few good sessions at Thompson House, but now we find that it gets pretty loud, so we’ve moved to the McLennan library. Remember that you’ll need a space that works for writing, above all – desks or tables are probably necessary, and, given how many of us write exclusively electronically, access to outlets might be a consideration.
Determine which model works best for everyone
Present & respond
Share w/o feedback
Brainstorming & direction
We use the Pomodoro method, and we set aside one session each month for a read & comment session.
If you’re using a presenter model, set up a schedule ahead of time
Be prepared to give and receive feedback
Indicate particular sections or aspects for which you’d like feedback
Take note of feedback, or have people comment directly on your work, so you have a record
This is really crucial – we really get a lot out of our feedback sessions, and it’s nice to hear from everyone, rather than just one view.
We pass our computers to each other, rather than read to each other, so we can make comments on each other’s texts, and then have a record of the feedback as we move forward.
References & Resources:
Barry, C. A., Britten, N., Barber, N., Bradley, C., & Stevenson, F. (1999). Using Reflexivity to Optimize Teamwork in Qualitative Research. Qualitative Health Research,9(1), 26-44.
Guerin, C. (2014). The gift of writing groups: Critique, community and confidence. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 128-141). New York, NY: Routledge.
Haas, S. (2014). Pick-n-mix. A typology of writers’ groups in use. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 30-47). New York, NY: Routledge.
Kamler, B., and P. Thomson. 2007. The failure of dissertation advice books: Towards alternative pedagogies for doctoral writing, Paper presented at annual meeting of AERA, Chicago, April.
Maher, D., Seaton, L., McMullen, C., Fitzgerald, T., Otsuji, E., & Lee, A. (2008). ‘Becoming and being writers’: The experiences of doctoral students in writing groups. Studies in Continuing Education, 30(3), 263-275.
Paré, A. (2014). Writing together for many reasons: Theoretical and historical perspectives. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 18-29). New York, NY: Routledge.
Pheby, A. (2010). The myth of isolation: Its effect on literary culture and creative writing as a discipline. Creative Writing: Teaching Theory & Practice, 2(1), 51-58.
Qualley, D. J., & Chiseri-Strater, E. (1994, Winter). Collaboration as Reflexive Dialogue: A Knowing “Deeper Than Reason” Journal of Advanced Composition,14(1), 111-130.
Spigelman, C. 1999. Habits of mind: Historical configurations of textual ownership in peer writing groups. College Composition and Communication 49, no. 2: 23455
Starke-Meyerring, D. (2014). Writing groups as critical spaces for engaging normalized institutional cultures of writing in doctoral education. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 65-81). New York, NY: Routledge.
Studying for a humanities PhD can make you feel cut off from humanity. (2014). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/jul/08/humanities-phd-students-isolation
 New word for the week! Heteroglossic: from heteroglossia, first coined by Bakhtin, to describe two or more voices within a text.
 We’ve contemplating starting our own online groop – a la Paltrow’s Goop – exclusive and curated, but with fewer juice cleanses.
So my plan today was to write a post about thoughts and conversations I’ve had recently on the subject of failure. The more I wrote and thought and wrote, however, the more I realized that this was bigger than the planned post. So, rather than abandon the post altogether, I’m posting my preliminary plan, with an appeal for your input.
It’s a little overwhelming just how many people have said something about failure. Arianna Huffington said that the “failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of the process.” Michael Jordan said “I’ve failed over and over again… that’s why I succeed.” A simple Google search reveals countless famous failures, from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey. And of course, when all else fails, we fall back on the old saw, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We seem to understand that failure is an inevitable part of life. In fact, we collectively resent anyone who appears to be an “overnight success,” feeling like anyone who hasn’t paid their dues hasn’t really earned their fame and fortune.
Yet, when it comes to failure in the academic context, we have a different understanding, a different regard for the student who fails a test, a course, or a grade. There seems to be a lot written about how students fail, and about how failure affects students, but I wondered how much has been written about failure from the perspective of the teacher. Are we affected when our students fail? Does student failure effect change in our teaching, in our assessment, and in our professional identity? And, from another angle, what are our assumptions about failure, based on our own experiences? Perhaps most importantly, how can we talk to our students, and to our colleagues, about failure? Can we collectively start to reimagine what failure is, what it represents, and how it (should) influence(s) teaching and learning?
In this paper, I want to explore some of those questions, and look at how we rationalize failure in other aspects of life – in video games and driving schools, for instance – yet equate failure with catastrophe and psychological damage in the academic context. I’ll reflect on my own experiences, as a teacher, a student, and a parent, with failure, and (I hope) get some input from other teachers and students on failure in the STEM fields, in high-stakes standardized testing, and at various levels of education. Finally, in a wild attempt to connect this tangent to my dissertation research, I’ll reflect on failure and identity, from both student and teacher – and perhaps, institutional – perspectives.
Suggestions for resources and, in particular, personal input would be very much appreciated. If you think you’d like to share, but aren’t sure where to start, consider these questions for inspiration:
Did you encounter failure in school? How did it feel at the time? Were you expecting it? How does it feel now, in retrospect?
If you are a teacher, or educational administrator, what do you think the role of failure is in learning? How do you feel if a student fails? How do you react if a large number of students fail a course or test?
If you’re a parent, how have you dealt with academic failure with your children?
If you are neither a teacher nor a parent, what are your thoughts on failure in the academic (or any other) context? Are there fields or levels in which failure should be more or less present?
And, of course, if you have other ideas, please share!
So I have finished the first year of course work in my doctoral pursuit. 1 I have four more weeks of teaching my Montreal Writers lit course, which thus overlaps with the course on assessment that I begin teaching this coming week.
I know that what I’ve taken on is huge, and, I’ll admit, intimidating and impressive. Full-time course work as a student, full-time workload as a teacher (including work on implementation of our new policy on assessing student proficiency in the language of instruction, and work on the English Exit Exam committee), teaching at the university, part-time yoga instruction, my own fitness training (working to improve my 10K time, and maybe get to a half-marathon this year), and all the domestic stuff, as a wife, mother, and dog/cat lover. It’s a big list. Yet, day-to-day, I’ve managed to stay on top of everything…
…or so I thought.
Mid-March, my husband and I managed to get away, just the two of us, for a week of scuba and sunbathing in Cozumel2 I figured that week would be the reboot I needed to face the end of term in my doctoral courses, and power through the end of semester at the college. But a week after we got home, I was exhausted. So I took a long, hard look at what I was actually doing 3 and realized that while I might feel in control of my workload on a day-to-day basis, the bigger picture was that I was really, really, really busy, and maybe I don’t need to be. After all, as I keep telling my yoga classes, we need to listen to our bodies – and mine was tired. I had no energy for running. I wasn’t doing yoga on my own. I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t waking up well.
So, I sat down with a lovely person in our human resources department, and found myself just babbling at her about everything I was doing, everything I was about to take one, everything I was being asked to do. And I realized that I really needed to take back some control, and take back some time. I’ve dropped one of my yoga classes, so I’ll only be teaching three times a week, at least for the summer. More importantly, I’ve applied for a voluntary workload reduction, so I’ll only be teaching one course each semester. I’ll still be working on the Exit Exam committee, but the language policy team has been disbanded, so that’s off my list.
I’ve also reflected on what I want to accomplish over the next few months, and created a timeline for myself. I have actually added a few things (such as more regular blogging!), but it’s loose enough that I feel it’s a good balance between having set goals and having space to breathe.
At the beginning of the last month of the semester, I do an exercise with my students and get them to note every assignment, every test, every reading, every soccer game, every family gathering, every work shift, etc., on a one-page calendar that covers the end of the semester. Seeing all those commitments on one page first feels terrifying, but then feels empowering. As I remind the students, we’ve all survived an end of semester before, with just as much stuff to do, but the calendar gives us a plan. It gives us control.
So, that’s what I did for myself. I made my decision for the workload reduction, and I set up my timeline, and took back the control I almost didn’t realize I’d lost.
Maybe I’ll even have time for a nap.
I feel I should specify “course work,” because, as I’m sure anyone else who is going or has gone through the process can attest, the non-course work – reading, writing, more reading, more writing, thinking, talking, reading some more, planning, more writing – somehow takes on a life and momentum of its own, so that even when you want to take a break, your brain won’t shut off and just let you focus on that trashy novel or mindless TV show. ↩
Hands down my favourite place to just relax and breathe, underwater or otherwise. ↩
In the midst of this reflection period, by the way, three different colleagues approached me to suggest I step forward as coordinator of the Liberal Arts program. ↩