This Week in My Classes: Processes and Products

The second full week of term has gone by already: it’s amazing how time seems to accelerate when things get busier. In both my classes we have moved from throat-clearing and context-setting to richer discussions about our readings: in The 19th-Century Novel from Austen to Dickens, we’ve wrapped up our work on Persuasion, and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve got only one more class on The Moonstone. Starting the term with these two novels eases the transition from summer’s languors to fall’s stresses because both are so delightful. At least, I think so — and it seems as if a lot of students are enjoying them as well. Discussion in the Mystery class has been particularly good so far this term, especially considering it’s a big class (capped at 90), which can sometimes be inhibiting. I hope they keep putting their hands up!

academicselfOne thing I’ve been thinking about as our work gets underway, and as I contemplate my own non-teaching ambitions for this term, is trying to make the process as meaningful and rewarding as possible, shifting some emphasis away from the product — which for students is often the course credit or the grade, and for me is the finished piece of writing. I’ve been reading Donald Hall’s The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual (thanks to @MsEMentor for the recommendation!) and while I have some doubts about whether I want to be an ‘academic self’ of the kind he describes (more about that, perhaps, in another post), I have been struck by the wisdom of his emphasis on this process / product distinction, partly because I have found myself caught up in just the kind of results-oriented moping he describes (if not for exactly the same causes):

We all know (or should know by now) that we may complete professional tasks to the best of our abilities, “play by all of the rules,” so to speak, even overachieve and push ourselves to extremes, and still be denied the book contract we have been working for, the position we have applied for, or the raise that we feel we deserve. If we tie our sense of professional payoff only to a desired reception of the end product of a process, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, perhaps even a state of bitterness or burnout.

As he discusses, there are lots of reasons, some of them good ones, to be fixated on achieving particular goals, but “we simply do not have to have a specific reaction to the products of our processes for those processes to have been worthwhile.”

I think there is actually a close relationship here between my students’ situation, as they strive for grades and credits, and my own difficulty dissociating the worth of my work from the reactions or results it gets. After all, I spent a great deal of my own life as a student, and in many ways academics carry forward the mental habit of waiting for affirmation from other people’s evaluation. How different, too, is the hiring process, the tenure process, or the promotion process from being graded? Or, for that matter, the grant application process or the article submission process? Well, OK, of course there are differences, including the presumption that for most of these professional matters we are being evaluated by our peers, and the not-insignificant point that our success in some of them (hiring in particular) really shouldn’t be understood as measures of our merit so much as of our great good fortune. But these things all feel a lot like handing in an essay used to, and I’m someone who once locked herself in a bathroom in Buchanan Tower to weep over an A- from a professor whose approval I really wanted — which is to say, I’m someone who (like a lot of academics) has a hard time believing in my own judgments of my work, and a hard time separating judgments of my work from judgments of me personally. I am making progress on this front, I’m glad to say, but I still find myself waiting anxiously for external validation when, for instance, something of mine is published online. There’s still that part of me that is waiting for my grade, for the internet equivalent of an ‘A,’ whatever exactly that is.

I know, I know: there are so many things wrong with this, and I don’t just mean that it’s kind of pathetic in a grown woman more than two decades along in her professional career (though that is certainly true). Having become self-conscious about it, I do at least now work consciously against it, and one way I do this is simply by rereading my own work, which (I am learning to assert, on my own behalf!) I think is pretty good! Why shouldn’t I be able to tell or say that, after all, considering it’s actually a big part of my job to evaluate writing? But the other thing I want to do is give more weight to, or feel more positive about, the process of doing the work. As Hall says,

I cannot know if the words that I am writing at this moment will ever appear in any form of print other than that which comes out of my computer. . . . But I can decide that this act of creation, this thinking through of ideas as they move from conscious and subconscious thought through my fingers and onto the screen is enough to satisfy and sustain me, even if the unfortunate were to occur.

He isn’t advocating that “we dispense with highly concrete goals” (as he points out, that would be “to court disaster” professionally, as well as to shirk other dimensions of our research and writing lives by not aiming to get our thoughts “disseminated”). But he’s right that “those processes . . . . must be more explicitly valued, must be recognized as professional ‘goods’ in and of themselves.”

To bring this discussion back to my teaching, I have realized that some of the greatest frustrations I’ve run into as a teacher have come from student priorities and behaviors that are results-oriented without due attention to the intrinsic value of the processes we go through (as well as to the benefits that careful attention to process can bring to achieving desired results). A simple example: papers that are clearly (or on the student’s own admission) started and finished the night before the deadline — I’m sure many other professors have had those dispiriting conversations that begin “I’m going to work on my essay tonight” and you cringe, knowing that means they won’t have time to rethink or revise, just as they very nearly have run out of time to consult. The essay-writing process matters less to that student than getting the credit for the finished essay. Or there are students who don’t finish the readings until they are studying for the final exam, or who never read them at all (I’ve had students note on their evaluations, almost as a point of pride, which books they never did actually read) — they too are circumventing the process (which is where a lot of the real learning can take place) and focusing only on the final product. I’m trying, increasingly, to disrupt these habits by building incentives to good process into the course requirements (reading journals, paper proposals, short tests). I’m also taking more time to discuss the relationship between our processes in class and the overall goals of the course, in terms of learning and practicing skills as well as in terms of getting good grades. Yes, students should aspire to earn good grades, and I should enable and support those aspirations. But the learning doesn’t take place at the moment I return the essay or exam: it takes place while we’re doing everything else, and especially while they are doing everything else. They should try to take a lot of satisfaction from those processes — from their own “thinking through of ideas.” Then even if they don’t get the grade they hoped for, they’ll be able to dry their eyes and come out of the bathroom a little bit sooner and a lot more confident.

3 Comments to This Week in My Classes: Processes and Products

  1. September 20, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Agree very much on the importance of the process of writing the essay. It was the writing process that helped me formulate my thoughts. I’m not one of those people who works it all out in advance and then can just let it all flow on the page. it’s an agonising process to watch me write anything but by the end I feel a huge sense of achievement. So keep their noses to the grindstone on that front. It’s good for their souls!

  2. September 21, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this. As you know I have been thinking about this a bit myself and you have made some excellent points, especially on the connections to teaching.

  3. October 3, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know whether you have software like BlackBoard and Moodle, with online grade centers which the students can check every ten minutes to see how they are doing in the class. I feel this, too, contributes to the focus on performance (and numbers, rather than actual performance) instead of process. I resisted putting grades online for years and years, but got so many negative comments in evaluations that I finally gave in — something I’ve often regretted. I think it changes student focus for the worse, and goes along with the very tendency you describe here.

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
In progress: Dunnett, Niccolo Rising

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
In progress: Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't

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