Re: thirsting against the tide

Nick Carbone (nickc@MARLBORO.EDU)
Mon, 9 Sep 1996 09:05:47 -0400

On Fri, 6 Sep 1996, Phyllis Ryder wrote:

> And I think the converse is also true. If they choose not to drink or go
> with the flow, especially if we have changed the factors of motivation
> (ie the grading criteria) it's also likely that they don't quite believe
> that the tides HAVE changed, and they are waiting and reading the water
> to learn what the REAL (old) criteria are. When I taught an Advanced Comp
> course last spring and told students they were to investigate their
> chosen rhetorical situations and choose the best methods for intervening
> in an ongoing conversation, and that my grading was based on how well
> they did that (not on some chart of what defines "good writing") I had
> several students who waited me out for several assignments to see what
> they thought my definitions of a universal good assignment were so that
> they could give me what I wanted. It looked like they were just goofing
> off, but I think really they were distrustful of the change and didn't
> believe me when I said that THEY were responsible for determining what
> made up good writing in different contexts.

Persuasion by any other name is just a big stick? Don't take that too
seriously, I'm just typing it because it occurred to me after rereading
Phyllis's message. It seems like your underlying question is, "if one
removes certain criteria for grading, and grades on some other criteria,
how does one motivate students." In other words what you sound like is
at issue is how to persuade students to accept the criteria you've got in
mind. I know the situation you're describing, or at least a version of
it. Students will ask in class what makes a good essay, or how do you
write a good introduction, or how many sentences go in a paragraph, and
while it would be easy to say, respectively, a strong thesis statement,
go from the general to specific, or no more than 5, no less than 3, that
would be wrong. So we have to say, 'it depends.' Students hate that.

How do I persuade them it depends? I often don't. When I was selling
knives (very successfully to my family, the rest was wretched, so I'm not
a good salesman), one of the mottos on the wall in the sales manager's
office was: No is just a request for more information. At least in
terms of sales. Maybe only in terms of sales. I think there's some
truth to that. For example, there was a meeting with parents and the
local school about a year or so ago when the school board voted to do
mixed grade classrooms for one year because of an enrollment bump.
Parents were terrified, nearly all were against. The meeting involved
the principal, superintendent of schools, curriculum coordinator and
early childhood coordinator (affected grades were K-2) answering parents
questions. Essentially the same question asked again and again and again.

Amazed me. Each had to hear what they wanted to hear on their own terms,
after asking their own question, after being addressed directly. Even
though the answers were all the same. Their resistance was in part
because they needed the reassurance more information gave them.

Students are like anxious parents; they want what they know.

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344