Yay -- classes are over! Exams start tomorrow, and I'm up to my neck in final portfolios (which my juniors do in place of exams), and the end is clearly in sight, so I'm feeling pretty happy despite the amount of work that needs to happen in the next 6 days.
But rather than getting some of that work done, why don't I blog and tell you all a little more about how things turned out with the Dangerous Word essay?
It was, in a word, a smashing success! An exhausting success, admittedly -- it took a lot more of my time and energy than I had anticipated and was one of the reasons I had an exhausting spring -- but that will probably be less of the case next time around (not least because next year I'm teaching only one section of juniors, not to mention having already written a sample essay and seeing no reason to write another).
So here are some details:
- Of my 40 students, 10 wrote awesome papers (A or A-), which I consider a monumental success rate; I'm no pushover on grading, but one-fourth of the papers really were that good! The students worked harder on this than they had worked on a paper before, and they really put in the hours, and these 10 kids really put in the thinking required, and the results were very exciting.
- Another 10 wrote papers that were fine (B+ or B) -- solid work that missed being an A either because the thinking wasn't quite as sophisticated or the research not quite as extensive, but still absolutely reasonable work. So that's a full half of the class getting a B or above on an assignment I graded pretty strictly. The students were really motivated, and I gave the paper a big enough build-up that they took it seriously and did the work.
- Another 7 wrote papers that were just eh (B-) -- they either did the work but couldn't pull it together, or they went through the motions successfully enough to pass muster but no more. But given that B- is pretty much my default grade on many assignments, I think this number isn't bad at all.
- And 13 wrote papers that sucked (C+ to D-). So, yes, the largest category of students fall into the sucky category, which isn't what one would want, but this was an assignment that simply couldn't be faked (at least not by amateur fakers!) and that required a certain base number of hours and energy output. I didn't plan it to be a separate-the-goats-from-the-sheep assignment (but then I never can anticipate which assignments will work that way), but it seems to have had that effect.
Nineteen of the 40 students chose their Dangerous Words essays to revise for their final portfolio, making it the most popular of all assignments all year in this regard.
Last week, I had them fill out evaluations of the assignment, stressing that they were pioneers (or guinea pigs, as one student noted) in this assignment and that I would take their feedback very seriously in thinking about the paper in future years. Now, admittedly, I got their feedback on the day when they turned in their final portfolios and were feeling pretty proud of themselves as writers, which may have skewed the results upward somewhat, but they were anonymous surveys and I stressed that I had already given them their term grades and that this feedback was strictly for the purpose of revising the assignment in the future. So I trust what they told me.
And what they told me is mostly that they loved the assignment! Indeed, many of them used the word "loved"! And this group of students were on average not academic gunners always eager to take on a new intellectual challenge, and yet they really had gotten into this assignment. Some representative quotations from their surveys:
- “It made you get out of your comfort zone. It made you open your mind and learn about a word and its history.”
- “This assignment helped me realize the power that words hold. I liked the idea of learning so much about one specific word that holds so much power because we often take words for granted and forget the impact that they actually have.”
- “My favorite part was writing about the shift of the word between the generations. I really enjoyed doing this paper.”
- “I learned how difficult research can be, but also how enjoyable it can be.”
Being high school students, several of them particularly liked how exciting it felt to work on such a "dangerous" topic. In the words of one student: “I loved that it was a slightly ‘taboo’ assignment. I felt pretty badass on the first day when we spent class in the computer lab looking up words like ‘bitch.’ … it was long and took a lot of research/writing work, but it was all worth it.” But my sense is that, for many students, it went beyond feeling "badass" and moved into authentic intellectual inquiry not hampered by the usual sense of what they were "supposed" to do. One student said that she liked "being able to express how I felt about it without getting in trouble." Another wrote, "I liked that I had never read something just like what I was writing and that people did different words. I felt what I was saying was original, new and mine.”
Those responses are making me really happy!!
Okay, so not everyone was a fan. Three students said they didn't like the assignment; one of them wrote, “I learned something about myself. I learned that I don’t really care about words. I think they aren’t really so effective. I know for some people they do [sic] but I don’t really care too much.” Well, at least she's honest! And another kid, who mostly did like the assignment, suggested dropping the research component and making it more about personal opinion. (Umm, no.) But honestly, that's four (well, three and a half) grumpy students out of 40 juniors? Not bad at all!
The most frequent suggestion I got from them was to put together a list of words that future students could choose from, because selecting the word was one of the hardest parts of the assignment, and that is the one suggestion that I think I'm not going to follow. Honestly, many of the words that students chose were ones that wouldn't have occurred to me ("guido" wasn't in my vocabulary, and I wouldn't have chosen "Oriental" because I would have thought it too hard -- but the student who chose that word did an amazing job with it!), and while of course it's true that choosing a topic is one of the hardest parts of any research project, that seems to me exactly the reason to make them go through that process.
Another frequent suggestion that they made that I'll have to think about more is that they wanted to find out what their fellow students came up with in their research; several of them said that there should have been a presentation component to the project. So, first, this makes me happy because it is essentially students saying that they should have had to do even more work! Plus, they were genuinely curious about other people's research! Hurrah! But I had actually deliberately not included such a component because it's one thing to write about a derogatory word and another to speak about it publicly, and I didn't want their rigorous research and writing to descend into embarrassed giggling. In all of my conferences with students on this paper, I was extremely careful about how and under what circumstances I used their chosen word, and I just couldn't see my way to figuring out how to handle student presentations. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that, if there had been a public presentation component, none of my students who chose "pussy" would have chosen that word, because all of them found it a very awkward word to work on (although one of them ended up doing a great job with it, thinking about what it means to refer to women's genitalia without even acknowledging that there's a person attached; she was so horrified by what she found men saying about the word that I think she is now a budding feminist, so that's one for the "win" column!). Plus, I wanted students to feel free to choose words of personal significance to them, and I thought that a more public component might make that less likely.
At the same time, many of them were very interested in my sample dyke essay (and a lot of them said on their evaluations that it was extremely helpful in terms of figuring out citation and organization, so that's good), and I think it makes sense to figure out a way for them to learn from each other's work. One possibility is to have each of them write a one-paragraph abstract of their papers that we could then post online, although I think it's hard to write an abstract that's as interesting as the paper. Or maybe I could have them create informative posters -- I don't really know how poster sessions work in the social sciences, but maybe that's an option; if you've done poster sessions professionally, I'd love to hear from you how they work! -- although again I think some of them would feel embarrassed to create a poster about the word "faggot" or "slut" or whatever. I guess another possibility is to give the students several options for how to share their work and let them choose what feels most appropriate for them. I'd be interested to hear any thoughts that you all have on how to handle this piece of the assignment in the future.
The other interesting piece of advice I got was to connect the assignment more clearly to the work of the course, since some students found the project interesting but extraneous to an English class. It wouldn't have occurred to me that an investigation into language could seem not germane to an English class (especially since it grew out of our work on Huckleberry Finn), but apparently that association that's so obvious to me wasn't so obvious to all of my students, so this is definitely something I can do better with next year!
All told, I couldn't be more pleased with how this assignment went. I'll do it again next year, and it will be interesting to see how it differs when I'm using it in an AP English Language course as opposed to the standard American Lit course (I'm teaching only the former next year). On the one hand, better students should do an even better job; on the other hand, some of the biggest success stories of the assignment for me were the weak students who got really into this paper and managed to earn Bs for the only time in the year. I don't know if the regular junior classes will use the assignment; the colleague who is taking my place in the American Lit course is interested in maybe using it, but my other two Am Lit colleagues didn't even bother to respond when I sent them the assignment this winter, so it may be that this is simply my project in the department. And I'm okay with that; I think it's a project that requires absolute conviction and commitment by the teacher -- without that, it's a disaster waiting to happen, I think, and it's not surprising that most of my colleagues would shy away from it.
So, although the spring as a whole was especially draining this year in a way that I hope doesn't become typical, it does feel like at least the teaching component of my year (which is, after all, the vast majority of my job) was a major success thanks in large part to this Dangerous Words assignment. Hurrah!