Monday, February 16, 2009


Teaching writing and thinking is not for vitamin-deficient sissies. Two classes in a row this morning. I’m still drained. Students want me to outline their papers for them—fill-in-the-blank argumentation—and there are days, like today, when I sincerely wish I could do it for them.

A good third of them, at least, don’t seem to get that value is relative. For their papers for Friday, in which they apply criteria of just war doctrine to a particular armed conflict, they want to say simply “X is/was justified” or “is/was not justified.” I’m trying to get them to look at both sides of the conflict—weigh the relative merits of both sides’ attempts to justify their aggression, and then make a judgment on their own on which side’s justifications are stronger or weaker—based on the given criteria.

And a third of them want to let their adjectives carry the argument for them—so in their rough drafts I’m seeing a lot of statements about the “cowardly” tactics of X or the “barbarous” Ys versus the “brilliant” and “peace-loving” Zs.

Frankly I’m with the Zs too—all the more so because they’re brilliant and peace loving—especially after six or seven conferences with students, individually, following class. My brain is fried simply from having to repeat basic instructions—apart from the challenges of critical thinking—instructions like having a “minimum” of five sources (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to answer the question “Will you be taking off points if we have more than five sources?”)

And though I’m seeing some success in whittling down the numbers of these—1 or 2 out of every 10 students’ papers I’ve looked at still consist of large blocks of undigested direct quotation of sources—accounting for as much as half of the total word count … as if two paragraphs lifted from a USA Today editorial can compensate for the fact that they’re just not thinking through the issue and so are coming up short on ideas, reasons, and data to support their positions.

Why oh why don’t I just assign them movie reviews to write … or character sketches of their unforgettable and no doubt brilliant girlfriends and boyfriends?

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