Last week, in writing about a strategy for arranging groups for group projects, in passing, I mentioned another strategy I stumbled onto years ago that has applications well beyond group projects.
In class, periodically, I call for a Festivus Holliday and declare open season for an “airing of the grievances.” Despite us approaching nearly twenty years since Seinfeld went off the air, many of my students are familiar with the source, when Frank Costanza stands at the Festivus dinner and declares, “I got problems with you people and you’re going to hear about it!”
Rather than airing student problems with people, I ask them to air their problems with classes, assignments, class policies, or even school itself.
For the bulk of my career, my time has been spent teaching general education non-elective courses. Very few students are in these courses voluntarily, and many would opt out if given an opportunity. One of the reasons for this is that they have built up a number of different grievances against the course or discipline based on prior experience.
This is particularly true in a first-year writing class which students mostly view as an “English” class, which makes sense, given that it commonly has an ENGL prefix in front of it. Many of these grievances are built on a conception of the class that isn’t reflected in reality, however. These are students new to college in general and even more unfamiliar with how writing instruction may work in college.
I tackle this head-on early in the semester, asking them to tell me all the things they don’t like about English class.
I hear things like:
I hate having to read all those old books. (They mean things like The Scarlet Letter and Lord of the Flies.)
English teachers are so picky.
You have to write so many essays.
With the grievances in front of us, I can help by drawing distinctions between what they’ve experienced in the past, and what they can expect in the course. For example, they will read no “old” books because the course is not literature-based.
I tell them that in some ways I am “picky,” but I don’t use a grading system that punishes say, a certain number of grammatical errors with a lower grade. I am picky about them engaging with the rhetorical situation of audience, writer, and message. This discussion is an entre into explaining my grading philosophy.
When they complain about having written so many “essays,” I ask what they mean by “essays,” and they’re almost always talking about a “five-paragraph” essay, generated through a kind of close-reading process, often as practice for a standardized assessment. Here I get to tell them that I embrace a different approach of creating custom pieces of writing meant to solve specific “writing-related problems.” Sure, many of these products will resemble “essays,” but what they fear is the stultifying nature of the five-paragraph essay process, not necessarily the writing itself.
When we start talking about the writing process I open the floor for an airing of the grievances about outlining prior to drafting. Many students complain about outlines having been mandated in previous courses and confess to having done them after writing the essay itself.
I sympathize. For relatively short pieces of writing like students are mostly asked to complete, I’m not much of an outliner either. I tend to work from an initial impulse and find my way from there. Often, as I start to write, a structure will suggest itself and I’ll scribble something down on a desk pad as a reminder of where I want to go. This isn’t outlining per se, but it gets at the part of the writing process that I hope students will wrestle with, the building and shaping of structure. After letting them air their grievances, I ask them to share the methods they use in order to manage this part of the writing process. The message I hope to impart is that process can be different for different writers, but structure is something we wrestle with regardless of our individual methods.
Students can’t help but bring baggage to their school experiences, and an airing of the grievances helps them offload some of that baggage. I’ve found that giving students this kid of voice within specific contexts and learning situations helps build additional trust between students and me. Their voices sometimes cause me to reconsider some of my own approaches.
For example, years of airing of the grievances about grades pushed me towards exploring grading contracts.
And then, when first implementing my grading contract, via a Festivus holiday, I received feedback that caused me to alter the contract (with student consent) mid-semester.
And get this: The alterations suggested by the students increased the rigor of the contract. They’d spent enough time with it to understand the ethos of more work translating into a superior grade, identified a hole in my structure, and instructed me on how to close it.
While I always do my best to acknowledge their grievances, I often push back as well. It’s a discussion, and part of my role is to acculturate students to the expectations of this new space they find themselves in. I can’t wave away aspects of the learning experience that they find challenging simply because they find them challenging. That’s the point after all.
Even if I can’t solve their grievances, and often I can’t, I find a real benefit in allowing them to drop their baggage, at least for a time.