Today I got my student evaluations from the last semester. They were glowing. I scored above the college and school in almost every category (except that my students care less for this class than they do on average).

This should be great news, except it comes after a semester in which (thinking I was being terminated), I began grading more generously than usual. I have a complex relationship with grades as they apply to a borderline trade skill like technical writing.

In creative writing, I try to honor and appreciate the effort that students put in to their work. It is an imperfect system and one that tends to lean toward “A” for all completed drafts, with the final grade based on the depth/rigor/finesse of the revision and 25-30% of their final grade coming from participation in the workshops aspect of the class–whether via thoughtful written notes to their colleagues or contributing to in-class discussions. Is it “easy” to get an A in one of  my creative writing classes? If you show up for your cohort and write all the papers and thoughtfully revise? Yes it is. But all that isn’t easy to do.

In my technical writing course (as in my technical writing jobs), they are to follow very strict guidelines for form and content. If they follow those guidelines, they are pretty much assured at least a B and if they try even slightly to engage with the material, I am not sure I could be talked out of that being worth an A. They have communication classes to work on the artistry of their professional communication. My class (in my opinion) is about teaching them how to approach a documentation project, namely, to find and then follow the rules for the document. The first two assignments consist of me disabusing them of all the tricks they’ve learned for padding papers: technical writing, I tell them over and over, is about un-padding. If it says 400 words, then there is no extra credit for 405–instead, your NEA grant is deleted unread. Or your job application materials, if they do not include key words specifically related to the job to which you are applying, are deleted unread. Anyone can google the proper format for an executive summary–but if you don’t know how to fit your material into one, it hardly counts as a skill. So, follow most of the rules but not all/fail to proofread: C. Follow all of the rules, with robotic/obtuse/grammatically “okay” language: B. Follow all of the rules and demonstrate engagement: A.

The point I meant to write about today, instead of diving into my (maybe terrible, who knows! I work all alone and get no feedback!) tech writing teaching philosophy, is that it is really a bummer that my teaching evaluations are so closely tied to the grades I give. It is frustrating that students hold it against me when they get a B- when I was there and saw that they were the ones not participating in the discussions that built up to the final assignments, they were the ones ignoring my and their peers’ comments on their drafts. But you know what they consider their grades? A reflection of my ability to make clear to them how to get an A. It has nothing to do with the material (in this class at least)! And because I am a very very very contingent employee, as I was so soundly and cooly reminded of by both my Dean and Chair late last year, I have no idea if anyone cares about my evals or the grades I give, or appreciates that the relationship between the two is not unlike the one between Colin Meloy’s rich boy and tattooed tramp, in that they  “both go down together.

It’s just that I felt good for a few minutes today when I opened the report and saw all the glowing words. I thought, maybe this is a good sign that as I’m becoming familiar with the material and the pattern of the semester, I’m getting better. And… then I remembered that I gave half the class A’s this last semester, when I normally end up with more of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant type graph. And so normally I end up with substantially cooler scores (though the same glowing comments–both last semester and this I was praised for being clear about expectations and presenting challenging but “useful” material).

For these reasons, I will have no way of knowing if my first stated goals will actually make me a better teacher than last year. For review:

  • Be active in class discussions each day for January (which means the first three weeks of the workshop and the first week + of the university class)
  • For the workshop course, note the most talked about essays and the least, while scouting possible replacements.

These are activities that as a “ground” teacher I took for granted. I was literally present for class discussions and was always reading new essays and Writer’s Chronicles looking for ways to keep my syllabus interesting. What I’m a bit worried about is that this exercise may make highlight all the ways in which what I do on this side of a screen, hundreds of miles from all of my students, hardly counts as teaching at all.

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