Allowing for Questions in Student Responses

I’ve been working as an adjunct professor for almost a year now, and though I do feel much more competent in my ability to plan lessons and teach them effectively than I was at this time last year, I still find myself surprised by student response papers.

For some background information, I teach Art & Craft of Writing (a basic, required freshman composition course) and Introduction to Creative Writing in turns. This semester I’m only teaching Creative Writing, which is a new experience for me. No matter what the subject, I’m very big on scaffolding assignments, meaning I try to assign smaller projects and response papers that build into larger projects or extended essays. More often than not, my students, especially those with less writing experience, find comfort in breaking larger assignments into smaller tasks.

That being said, I’ve been grading their extended discussion posts, a response to a longer piece of fiction I had them working on during the two-class hiatus of AWP (more on that in my previous blog post–link). This assignment is meant to prepare them for the kind of close reading, which I model and encourage during in-class discussions continuously, and that I am expecting of them by the time we reach final portfolios.

I’m intrigued by the gap between the students for whom it simply “clicks” and those who are frozen by intimidation. One of my students,  wrote about one page in clear close-reading style, and then another page with one paragraph that stated, “I couldn’t understand the story and it seemed moot. I tried reading it once entirely and skimmed through it over and over again.”

No! I couldn’t contain my disappointment. He was doing so well and then he just… gave up? I was devastated. Why do so many students feel that they are not the authority on a subject? Do they see us as the expert, and feel intimidated or inadequate? I tell my students every day that it’s perfectly all right to think that a piece I choose for us to read is crap. They can say they hated it, or that it made them uncomfortable, as long as they follow up with why. What craft elements were insufficient? What did you feel was missing? Why did this make you uncomfortable? Was that the author’s intention?

In my response, I pointed first to the solid beginning of the piece, and reminded him that it’s perfectly acceptable to find a story confusing or strange. However, I asked that the next time he feel this way, he pose questions. Tell me how the story makes you feel, and why, and what craft the author is using that creates that reaction. Was the subject matter controversial? Okay, then why is the author writing about this subject in this form or way? Ask the questions, write something like “I didn’t really understand this particular passage. I could see that the author was highlighting an image of a bird, but it seemed disconnected from the rest of the piece because…”

In a world where all the information we need is at our fingertips, we need to know how to ask the right questions. I think it’s important to remind my students that it’s okay not to know or understand something, as long as you question it. Ask why, and try to answer it. If you don’t know a word, look it up. If it’s still unclear, question the word choice. Tell me the denotation and connotation, and ponder why the writer chose this word in context of the story as a whole.

Ask, ask, ask! Ask me. Ask your peers. Ask the internet. Research the writer and the themes they discuss. Research the history. Return to the text, and search for answers. I promise, they are there for you somewhere, and you have the authority to question and demand these answers from the texts you read. Writers are readers, questioners, researchers, compilers, observers. Go for it! I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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