Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Writing Teacher's "Vacation"

I now feel pretty up to speed on the topic of how emissions restrictions affect the market for the sale of diesel engines (and by extension, tractor-trailer rigs). I also have personal insight into what businessman and race car owner Roger Penske is like. This is what I acquired from a diesel engine salesman on my flight from Orlando back to Louisville. In return, I bestowed upon him the information that I had recently read and "scored" (not "graded") over 1,000 essays. Upon receiving the information, he asked me how many I had really done, and I had to get a fellow "reader" to vouch for me that, yes, over the course of about 40 hours, I had really read that many essays, all about the same topic--the effects of advertising on America.

Students were given the same set of six documents to aid in their essay construction, which greatly restricted the variety of the finished products. Here is a skelaton of the type of thing I read over and over again:

No matter if you watch TV, listen to the radio, read magazines or newspapers, surf the Internet, or even look at billboards, advertising is everywhere. [This is more or less verbatim from the prompt, and showed up more or less in about a quarter of the papers]. Advertising has had both good and bad effects on the American people.

On the negative side, advertising makes us want what we don't need. Before advertising, who told us that we needed air fresheners and toilet cleaners? [This was from one of the supplied sources. However, some students mis-interpreted the point and used this as an argument for the positive effects of advertising]. Another bad effect of advertising is that it promotes unhealthy products, such as cigarettes. Also, advertising promotes materialism and makes people feel inferior by giving them unrealistic ideas about things such as body image.

On the positive side, we need advertising to keep a strong economy. Also, advertisements for things such as the Red Cross encourage helpful ideas. Finally, advertising in its purest form is teaching, pure and simple. Nobody complains when teachers put up maps in their classrooms; why should people complain about advertising?

Some of my favorite thoughts I ran across: "Without commercials, what would people put on TV during breaks?" "Without late night infomercials, what would they put on TV?" "If it wasn't for a commercial for toothpaste, I might not have remembered to brush my teeth this morning." "Without commercials, how would we know where to buy any products?" "The Red Cross advertisement doesn't look like propaganda to me, but then again Castro didn't seem like the dictator type either."

I had three "dashes" or off-topic essays: one completely blank, one essay about how bad his teacher was (which was actually a pretty well-supported thesis), and a surreal short story with martial artists and water fountains that turn into pickles.

I don't want to give the impression that the experience was completely negative. There were many fine essays, including one particularly memorable one that deconstructed advertising as an entity that reduces competition by encouraging narrow brand loyalties. Another student managed to correctly use the term "sublimation." These students were given less than an hour for the task, something we were told to keep in mind when evaluating grammar and spelling mistakes.

I found the process of evaluation interesting. It was scored "holistically", rather than with the rubric-based grading in vogue in secondary education. In other words, the essay was graded as one entity, rather than breaking it up into component parts. The term that best describes what evaluators are looking for is a "mind at work." They want to see students make an argument, but to do so in a way that indicates that they are consciously thinking through the complexities of an issue. I think there are two major barrier to getting students to produce something of this caliber.

The first is that students themselves are often apathetic about anything that doesn't directly affect them. Unfortunately, I think this is a learned behavior. We live in a pretty apathetic culture. The second problem shifts the blame to the educational system. Too often, essay writing is thought of as an exercise in giving the teacher what they want to hear (or in educational jargon, an "assessment tool"). Thinking of writing as an academic exercise rather than an opportunity to assert one's one voice will likely lead to a lack of success when writing in higher education (or in Advanced Placement exams). It can also make for some pretty rough stretches for the poor guy who has to read over a thousand essays.


Blogger carsonh76 said...

i totally agree with the claim you make in your last paragraph. the majority of students take the prompt as an assignment, not a way to have a chance to argue their opinion. i felt like i could relate to all of the essays, and i hoped that helped my scores. modern day society is very apathetic. but i don't care (haha) seriously, i do think it is ridiculous how apathetic my generation has become. its sad. great post.


p.s. DASHES YAY!!!!

6:07 PM  

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