Friday, February 3, 2012

Intermediate Writing

English. Sigh. Where do I start with this one? I'm going to just throw it out there. This was a terrible class. Yes, it's English, so it was probably doomed to begin with, but of all the bad English classes I've taken, this was the worst one. My junior year of high school I had an awesome teacher, but other than that, I've had little success in that department. As much as I enjoy reading and writing, you'd think I would enjoy the subject, but I've learned more about writing from my business communication course and from Marion Jensen's blog than any English class.

I was able to skip English 1010, which is more of a creative writing course, because of my AP English and ACT scores. English 2010 is research and/or persuasive writing, and there isn't a way of getting out of it. Since there is no way out of the course and since writing is a fundamental skill, it is often a prerequisite for many other courses, and there are always hundreds of students each semester trying to get in the course.

Part of the problem of this course is that it is taught by 20-30 grad students each semester. With that many grad students teaching the course, every section is wildly different from all the others. It is a hallmark of a teacher-centered education system where the biggest influence of how a course is taught is who is teaching. If our education system was more student-centered, it would be student needs rather than instructor preferences that drive learning, but that is a completely different conversation.

I admit that a big problem in this course was that it was at 7:30 a.m. I took it at that time, because I wanted to fit all my courses on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I could work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Unfortunately, that meant that I often was a few minutes late from just rolling out of bed. Unfortunately, that meant that I often missed the first couple questions on the teacher's quizzes that he started each class with. He always had extra credit questions, but they were random, obscure things that nobody in the class knew the answers to. But who starts every class with a verbal quiz anyway?

Beyond learning the few random extra credit facts during the be-on-time quizzes, there was really just little point to the class. The thing we really could have spent a good chunk of time on was actually doing real research. Instead, we did a little half-hearted fake research. I asserted in my final paper that the university should convert the large free parking area by the stadium to a paid parking area, which is something they were considering at the time, with the stipulation that rates stay minimal. Of course, they did implement the fee, and they have more than doubled since then. What I was thinking is that the parking lots for students who lived on campus and paid a lot of money for were falling apart, and it didn't make sense to let off campus students park for free while charging residents for a ripped up lot. A decade later, they finally saved up enough money to refinish the resident parking lots, so my recommendations kind of worked.

A big problem they have with the lower level English courses is that with grad students as the instructors, student ratings of instructor performance are part of the evaluation criteria used to determine who to let continue teaching. So even if they come up with a standard curriculum, grad students who want to keep their job will do everything they can to keep students happy (aka water down the course) to get good evaluations. Except not the dude I took the class from, apparently. Seriously, why did I get that one guy?

There is a reason that the business communication course had to add a grammar test as a prerequisite. English was supposed to be the prerequisite to ensure students would be able to write. It doesn't ensure anything.

What I would recommend is a class based on Wikipedia and blogging. Students would still do research papers on whatever topics they choose, but they would be opened to the world for review. If you can make substantial additions to a new or existing Wikipedia article and participate in the collaborative effort to bring those contributions to the level that they are accepted by the community, you've demonstrated an important skill and contributed to the community. The same goes for blogging. The important difference is that Wikipedia has a specific style that the community enforces, where a blog takes on the preferred style of its author (along with a few commonly accepted blogger protocols).

Don't waste all this half-hearted research effort that neither teaches students to write nor to research. Step it up into full-on research efforts that are vetted by and contribute to the internet community. Forget banning Wikipedia as a research source; make them write Wikipedia articles!

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