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I'll get back to theme days once I find a groove of posting regularly. In the meantime, most of my posts are about some variation of books, bikes, buses, or Broadway. Plus bits about writing, nonprofits, and grief from time to time.

This blog is mostly lighthearted and pretty silly. It's not about the terrible things happening in the world, but please know that I'm not ignoring those things. I just generally don't write about them here.

17 February 2011

I Learned Something from my TA

Bit of a rant coming. Apologies in advance.

I love the writing process, I love to read what others have written, I love to help people love their own writing, and I love a good peer review that helps me. One of the many benefits of the Rhetoric & Writing major is that we learn how to give a decent peer review. I keep reading articles that say Aristotle was the originator of collaborative learning, so it's ingrained into the rhetorical tradition.

We have a one-page written response due to each reading in the Problem Solving class (the one for which Skinny Jeans is the TA). The assignment sheet for for the responses was vague at best; to my way of thinking, this is a recipe for disaster. Trust me, I am looking forward to writing the course evaluation for this class (insert maniacal laughter here).

On Thursday, with the idea that she was going to help us figure out what a good response paper looks like, Skinny Jeans passed out some bad examples from previous classes. After we read each one, she asked, "So what's bad about this?"

I wanted to throw paper wads at her.

First of all, that is NOT how you get a helpful peer review, as all my writing buddies know. It's not a good idea to start off on a hunt for the bad and the ugly. And while these were not peer reviews in the usual sense (thank goodness!), peer reviewing is a skill that these freshmen need to learn, and for her to start with "What's bad?" doesn't encourage them to be thinking about someone else's writing-- or their own-- in a constructive way.

Even more depressing is the enthusiasm with which some of my classmates jumped into the fray. Such scathing reviews, such casual dismissal of these students' writing ability, such outright nastiness and snobbery. I didn't think that my classmates were perfect people, of course, but I saw a side of them last week that I didn't want to see. I left depressed, angry, and deflated.

And now I'm trying to work on my project for that class and all I can think of is the tone of superiority and looks of scorn on these young faces. I wish I had not been too shocked to ask, "Aren't you all being a bit harsh? Try looking for some good in this paper instead of just the bad." But I didn't say it. I just sat there in face-palm mode, waiting for SJ to stop the madness. She didn't.

I keep encouraging my classmates to use the university Writing Center, to the point that they might think I'm getting some sort of kickback. (Nope, I'm just a firm believer in the program.) I know for sure that's a place of encouragement, of finding the good in a paper, and a place where students get help, not scorn, for the rough spots. When my turn comes to be a TA, I don't want to encourage ugliness in my classroom. I hope I can foster an environment of encouragement and support, and let it be known that criticism for its own sake (i.e., "This is pointless!") is not tolerated. I don't know yet how I'll do it, but I know a better starting point is to ask, "What's good about this?"

What do you think? Am I crazy? Rose-tinted? Or on the right track?


Witless Exposition said...

That type of critiquing doesn't help anyone. Maybe it was so harsh because they were papers from a previous class? Maybe manners will be more present when it's the product of someone they have to look in the face? Hope it gets better!

J E Fritz said...

Definitely on the right track. I had a similarly frustrating TA. It was a science lab, not a writing course, but I had similar issues with her being mean because she thought that was an effective teaching tool. I snapped at her once because I was so sick of her bitching at me when I misunderstood her poor directions. It probably didn't help my grade but I don't regret it.

Skinny Jeans is a bad teacher, plain and simple. Do you get to do evaluations at the end of the semester? It always seemed like an empty task to me, but maybe someone in Texas will listen.

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

You are totally on the right track! Negativity does no one any good. And I don't know about you, but I'm hard enough on myself and my own writing as it is. If I were to get really negative, un-constructive feedback, I would have a very easy time crawling back in my hole and deciding not to show my writing to anyone for a loooong time! I don't think that's what any writing course is aiming for.

Grandpa said...

You absolutely HAVE to rant about this sort of thing!

SJ will be a bad facilitator for brainstorming: because there too you don't start by judging and throwing out ideas...

Su said...

@Witless: Okay, great username. Yes, I think they would be kinder to someone in the room. And I would be MUCH quicker to jump in if they weren't kind!

@JE: Yep, evaluations all around. And they are taken VERY seriously at UT. I already have plenty to say about the instructor (who allows this sort of thing to go on) AND the TA. Some of it will be positive, but unfortunately a lot so far is of the "fix this!" persuasion.

@Susanna: That's what I'm worried about. One student did say today that one of the examples last week reminded him of his paper-- yikes!

@Grandpa: Oh, we already had the brainstorming session where SJ smacked down my idea! I think I get on her nerves. And I'm not at all sad about that.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Nope you're not crazy.
Just saying a quick hello to a fellow crusader

W.I.P. It: A Writer's Journey

Susan Fields said...

Hi there fellow crusader!

This sounds like a very depressing, discouraging experience. Hopefully some of the others felt the same way and will learn what NOT to do.

Su said...

@Lynda: Thanks for the reassurance and the hello!

@Susan: Another great name! ;) I hope so, too.

a runners' life said...

You're absolutely right Su. I don't know if anyone has learnt anything by having all the bad bits pointed out. The TA sounds awful.

I like the sandwich approach when it comes to being critical - first say what works, then comment gently on what doesn't, and finally finish off with another positive comment. That way people don't get too discouraged.

Louise Wise said...

On the right track, but what would've happened had you spoken up? Sometimes it's just not worth it (or is that me being cowardly?)

I'm a crusader btw saying hi: Hi!

Su said...

@Runner: I agree! I'm not against commenting on bad stuff-- if it needs improvement, so be it-- but there needs to be good stuff, too.

@Louise: That's kind of what I thought... not worth it. Plus I was already not feeling well, so I just sat there. And Hi!!

Michelle in a shell said...

I understand the need for TAs. And I think the idea of them is better in theory than practice. I've had too many bad experiences with bad TAs that just make the learning process make me feel like a little kid in grade school. Sorry you had this bad experience :(

Cathy said...

Hello to a fellow Crusader! Sorry this happened to you. Doesn't sound fun at all.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

When you evaluate SJ don't forget the positive first. Such as, "she was breathing in spite of her skinny jeans."
Perhaps these very negative TAs are such because that's the way they were"encouraged." I had teachers and profs that was the only way to get a student to rise to capabilities.
Please, don't be that way. It has sent a lot of good minds into hiding.

Su said...

@Michelle: That's just worrying. I've liked all my other TAs so far, though...

@Catherine: Hello! No worries; I've already recovered. :)

@Mary: LOL! Yes, will do. You're right... I'm already taking notes on what not to do.

Faith said...

Ugh. This is so frustrating. When we do peer-review of homework questions in my class and then discuss them as a group, even if the student's answer sucks, I *know* how important it is to say something encouraging and only then follow it with "but how can we tweak this a bit?" or even "you're close, on the right track, but how can we make it even better?" That TA needs a serious smackdown. Or maybe just a strict talking to and a well-written evaluation form from a concerned student. :D

Marie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Su said...

Oh, dear... Marie was still logged into my computer from checking her email! I didn't notice until now that I posted as her. Oops!

What I tried to say was: I think I can help with the last bit. ;) It will definitely be a long evaluation come May.

Elizabeth Mueller said...


You are SO right. When critiquing, we need to state the good things, then suggest thoughts of improvement, and end it with more good things. Like a sandwich.

As a teacher, they need to uplift, encourage and lead--not the opposite. The teacher does not want to create an atmosphere of mistrust, because then, the students will not want to go back.

I'm sorry this happened to you.

I'm glad to have met you through Rachael's Crusade! I'm a new follower.

♥.•*¨ Elizabeth ¨*•.♥

Su said...

Hi, Elizabeth! Welcome! *waves frantically*

Skinny Jeans is still learning, too, of course, so I don't want to be unduly harsh to her... but she does annoy me. :/

Elizabeth Twist said...

I've taught in a university setting as well as participated in creative critique groups. I will say in SJ's defense that a response paper is not a piece of creative writing, and students do tend to go off the rails in common, predictable, patterned ways when they do assignments like response papers. She may have been trying to get people to turn on their analytical skills and help them avoid common errors with that exercise. The only thing I would have done different is include some good examples, too, so that the picky cynics in the class would have to learn the difference between good and bad, not just assume that every example is bad.