On August 31, the Fall 2015 semester at the community college where I teach started off with a bang. Having been an instructor of Composition 1 — the dreaded “Freshman Comp” — I should know what I’m in for. I mean, I’ve been at this for more than twenty-six years. Let’s face it — college students’ thumbs may flutter like hummingbird wings over their phone keyboards, but when it comes to their being able to follow directions, it’s a different story. As I’m writing this post, it reminds me of others I’ve written: “They Like To Watch Me Tap Dance”. Granted, as an instructor in a Humanities course such as English, I must teach the format prescribed by the Modern Language Association (also lovingly known as “MLA”) in which sources are cited within the paper according to an author-page format and then the publication information for that source, listed in a Works Cited page following the last page of the paper.
But, first, before they start writing full-blown essays, they must practice with the three types of research notes: direct quotations, summaries, and paraphrases. Particularly paraphrases.
Just the other night, I led them through instructions for paraphrasing homework. A popular online college website, the the Purdue Online Writing Lab, has an excellent site for practicing paraphrasing and summarizing in order to avoid plagiarizing the original source. At the end of each class, my face was bathed in sweat and my hair hung in strings, sort of like when I gave birth.
Face it, folks, teaching this stuff is not for wimps.
Every semester, I look for other exercises. Sure-fire, slam-dunk ways to put these skills across. I’ve been teased and even accused for giving people too much information during my instructions.So I inserted a link to the exercise I wanted my students to complete. To be sure they saw it, I even posted it in that assignment and even color-coded the parts of the original citation that I wanted them to include: the source’s last name or the article title (whichever they had to work with) and the page number. I also pointed out the information in the original source’s citation that they did not need to include in their own citations of the sources, such as journal titles and publication dates. I tap-danced ad nauseam about the fact that, even though the original sources included citations, already, that they, my esteemed students, were also supposed to include their own parenthetical citations also, following the last line of each passage.
My final instruction: they were to upload their homework to the “assignments” link of the Blackboard page for their course and section number by the following Monday, stressing that I would not, under any circumstances, accept hard copies.(After all, I gave the assignment on Wednesday to be due the following Monday. Certainly, that would give them enough time to complete the assignment, as directed, thirty minutes before class time.)
Please excuse me, here, while I bang my head against a wall.
Yesterday, when the earliest assignments reared their heads in my grade book, I discovered that, while a few computer-savvy souls followed the directions, many others turned in “creative” spins on my assignment. Ether they did not listen, or they asked others what they were supposed to do, or, my favorite, they blatantly forged right ahead and did it their way, anyway. One even assigned each word in the citation a different color, even though I stressed that I had color-coded the parts of the citation only to show them what I needed to see.
During my lesson on this exercise, the other day, I also stressed that paraphrases were about the same length as the original sources’ passages. So if the original one consisted of a paragraph, then their paraphrase of it should be about the same length.
Well, to put a twist on Bill Clinton’s famous words about “what the definition of is is,”, I began to think that my illustrious students redefined the word about in the same way. For instead of paraphrases that were about one paragraph in length, as the originals, I saw only one-or-two-sentence summaries of the source’s words, instead.
Even worse — here insert the JAWS or PSYCHO soundtrack — there was no evidence whatsoever that they had tried any kind of parenthetical citation!
Granted, paraphrasing and summarizing are skills that are difficult to grasp, but I was doing my darnedest to reduce those skills to their simplest terms.
The first week — shoot, make that the first month — of Freshman Comp is fraught with woes. See my posts, “Cries From Babes In The Woods” and “The Second First Grade”. College freshmen may stand heads taller, wear bigger clothes, and have more hair on their bodies. They may be real whiz-bangs at texting and even copying and pasting, but there appears to be a disconnect in uploading anything online and following directions.
Tell me, do I care too much?