Conversations Aren’t Meant to Be in Boxes


Crane Box
I  write a lot of stuff in my PhD program. The usual stuff for seminars, yes, but also the stuff that doesn’t count for credit: e-mails, text messages, IM messages, Facebook comments, personal blog posts, personal essays, notes to myself, notes to other people, reflections for professional development. I’m intentional with every word I write, even for the messages that don’t deserve much consideration. Today I sent an e-mail advertising a book sale. That took me forty minutes to write, because I kept thinking about how I could best entice faculty and graduate students. “Cheap books for sale” would’ve done the trick.

I don’t think a lot when I write comments to my students on their writing, though. I imagine I’m having an informal conversation with them, so you don’t stop and think (most of the time) of what you need to say. You let the words fly.

But the thing is I write my comments in the boxes of my rubric. At first, I thought it made sense to write in boxes–it was clean, organized, and easy to digest. I’ve lived the entire academic year in these boxes, and now I am so bored with these boxes.

The rubric I created was supposed to be fun, actually.  First, it was a single-point rubric, so I could describe what worked and didn’t work in their projects instead of circle some numbers. Second, assessment would be collaborative. My students would study the genre I assigned them to write and based on their understanding of that genre, they fill in the middle boxes with a list of benchmarks. They would decide on what I should grade them.

This past Fall I pulled back on the idea because I taught a 50-minute class. I had to carefully pick what content mattered. Instead of carving out time in my lesson plans to have discuss grading, I asked my students to give me suggestions but they didn’t have to, and I know for them “don’t have to” means “not going to do it.” I used my back-up plan: a criteria from the National Writing Project’s 2011 framework for multimodal assessment. Although this was for multimedia projects, the language was broad enough that I could apply it to any project and the language forced me to think outside the traditional conceptions of what a criterion for writing assessment looks like.

And, most important, I could just write comments. Lots of comments in the little boxes and then I could write more in the giant white space underneath the boxes. My students love lots of comments on their work, and I’m happy to oblige. I write in the same personable and enthusiastic attitude I use when teaching class. But after the fifth portfolio, my engagement with writing in these boxes wanes. I jump on Facebook or Twitter, or I think about the e-mails I have to write. Or I check for new YouTube videos. When I return to the boxes, I sigh and slump in my chair. How many more boxes do I need to fill out? Three? Oh, and then I have to write a response to the reflection letter. Great! Oh, what’s happening on Twitter?

My boxes. Which I will destroy next Fall.

As a teacher I know my responsibility to my students, but as a writer, this is drudgery. My philosophy for teaching stems from tutoring students: we have a conversation about writing, and it’s rewarding for me and them. Our talking takes twists and turns, from serious consideration of what the student has written to laughing about the movies we saw. In my class, I talk with my students and I ask my students to talk to each other to develop their language about writing. If they can articulate what they are trying to do in their projects, they can be better thinkers and writers. They can make better rhetorical choices. And it helps me, too.  I’m writing all the time, but I don’t have the same opportunity to talk about my writing. I don’t go out of my way to visit the Writing Center; I don’t partner up with a classmate to go over my writing. I know I should. In lieu of being irresponsible with my own writing, I learn so much about writing from hearing my students.

But translating any of these benefits of conversation to my grading is a pain. I can barely replicate the conversational tone in my boxes. The problem is the form. Boxes. Square, tight, small. I start to see what they symbolize: Bureaucracy. The official work of assessment and accountability isn’t to help my students grow as writers; it’s to fill in boxes. The boxes contradict the open and upbeat performance I give in class. The rubric is an anti-climatic end to an otherwise good show.

But when I get past the boxes and write my response my students’ reflection letters, I come alive again. As a writer, I’m invested in the comments here. Because I’m back in conversation mode; I’m offering advice. I’m reaffirming their thoughts. I’m marveling at their insights on writing. Or at least the students effectively use the writer’s memo as a space to argue for the choices they’ve made in their projects. Many of my students’ reflection letters are short and barely scratch the surface of their thinking. I’m left with little to say some times and I make note of it in my comments, asking them to say more. I know that’s not my experience when I meet them one-on-one. There’s so much to talk and laugh about in the cafeteria where we meet.

This is my fault. As a teacher and writer, I put more value in the boxes than in the writer’s memo. The most I did was throw some questions at them, mention the examples in the course reader, and move on to the next thing. I could blame the 50-minute class period. The time constrains what I teach and what we do together as a class. I’ve been trained to teach these short meetings, but I was never taught how to teach writing in 50 minutes.

Next year I teach intermediate writing. Usually, juniors and seniors enroll in this course, but sometimes first year students jump into the fray. I don’t want to use boxes with them; I want  to talk with them, I want to keep the space open so conversations can thrive and conclude organically. So I’ll abolish the boxes. And use the blank page’s openness to talk back to my students from one page to the next.

And our conversation can go on and on, as if we never really need to put a period at the end of a sentence

Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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