This article is part of a series I’m writing in july/august that I’m calling ‘this week in teaching’, where I talk about teaching comp 102 in a 5 week summer session.
Today I’m going to talk a bit about my teaching pet peeves. Every teacher has them — they’re an occupational hazard — and getting back in the classroom has brought a few specific peeves of mine to the surface.
Discussing pet peeves serves two purposes in terms of sharing my teaching experience: for one, it allows me to express some frustrations with teaching that I don’t particularly want to bottle up for the sake of my mental health. For another, it can provide a teaching moment in and of itself, where I can try to share my experiences with my fellow teachers and come up with some productive ways to deal with pet peeves when they rear their heads in the writing classroom.
So here’s a list of my pet peeves (written out as Fall Out Boy-style song titles), and my personal methods for dealing with them.
Pet Peeve #1: It’s In The Syllabus, On The Assignment Sheet, On The Website, And Probably On My Forehead
Every class I’ve taught, without fail, has had a student pop up with a question like this:
“So, when’s the paper due?”
“Do we get fall break off?”
“When’s the final?”
“You mean the paper’s due at the BEGINNING OF CLASS?”
“Where can I find out how many points I have?”
And the answer is always a variant of the following:
Every instructor deals with this, without fail. It is a rite of passage, and whether you’ve been teaching two years or twenty, this always happens. Even if you go over every assignment sheet and syllabus component in detail on the first day, this always happens. In the past I’ve even had students come up to me and say ‘I thought the assignment was due at midnight, so I haven’t started it yet.’
They said this on the day the assignment was due, at the beginning of class. It said on the assignment sheet it was due at the beginning of class, I said out loud to my students that it was due at the beginning of class, and I reminded students of this fact every day leading up to the assignment due date.
They could replace me with a broken record and I’d be just as effective at this, I swear.
How to Deal:
Patience. That’s pretty much the only solution I’ve come up with. Taking a deep breath, smiling, and repeating yourself. ‘No, I told you it was due at the beginning of class. It’s right there on the assignment sheet’. Of course, this isn’t the only problem that arises from these kinds of questions. Every now and then a student will come back at you with the accusation that you said no such thing, it was never mentioned in class, and it’s not on the syllabus.
So, my personal solution for combatting those situations is to be thorough, and do everything in your power to get the message across. List everything on the syllabus. Have the details on the assignment sheets. Make a note to yourself when you tell the entire class the date and time these assignments are due. Having a written record and printed proof can help a lot if a student decides to try and turn the situation around so the blame lies with you, the teacher.
I’m not saying we should expect our students to behave like this, but it’s better to be prepared for those eventualities, because for every innocent mistake, there’s the occasional student who will try to pull the wool over your eyes, or worse, get the department head or Dean involved when something doesn’t go their way. So, front-load your information, keep detailed records, and be patient with your students. It could be they misread something on the syllabus or lost the assignment sheet. They’ve got busy lives, just like we do as teachers.
Pet Peeve #2: The Difference Between Global And Local Peer Review Is That Every Time You Focus On Grammar You Get It Wrong
Peer review is the number two thing students tell me they hate about writing classes (the number one thing is reading quizzes). Even when you get a rare, diamond-in-the-rough group that enjoys discussing each other’s work and making meaningful criticism, there’s the eternal problem of how to do peer review in the most productive way. Most of the time, students reading each other’s papers focus on the most obvious issues that need fixing: spelling and grammar. Even if you as the teacher give them a prompt or guide that instructs them to review for global issues such as consistent theme, purpose, and organization, many students will fall back on whether or not a paper contains enough definitive articles or independent clauses. So it means that after a half-hour of peer review, that student comes away with a lot of information on improving form, but very little on improving content. Which is an issue for me for multiple reasons.
Firstly, I place a great deal more weight in the content of an assignment as an instructor when I teach comp 2. My rubrics are slanted towards making clear and concise points, having a strong thesis, and having solid paragraphs that serve a critical purpose. A student can turn in a paper that’s got immaculate grammar, but if it doesn’t have the required content of a rhetorical analysis, then they haven’t actually done the assignment, so they won’t get the points.
Then there’s the problem of getting advice from a peer who doesn’t have a solid grasp of grammar themselves. Looking at drafts, I often see a student attempt to ‘correct’ something at the encouragement of a peer, when the peer’s corrections were not actual grammar corrections. Nothing is more frustrating than hearing a student give their partner advice about grammar when just the night before you read that student’s paper and made note of many grammatical errors and simple spelling mistakes (an even more egregious error in the age of spell check).
How to Deal:
Other than stressing to students before and during peer review that they need to focus on the big picture, there’s very little we as instructors can do to actively combat this attitude. Sometimes I find that more structured peer review can help, where students have to turn in peer review worksheets after working together that have activities that focus explicitly on content and global issues.
My other solution for this issue is to focus less on form and more on content when grading. I point out to my students that the rubric is more heavily focused on global quality, and when I grade I may point out grammatical errors, but don’t dock points for them. To me, unless that grammar error makes the work unreadable, it’s not worth downgrading if that student has a strong point they successfully get across.
I’ve found that stressing the importance of overall quality as opposed to nitpicking every little grammar mistake actually helps my students focus more on clear ideas and strong coherent arguments. After all, losing half a point for grammar is better than losing ten points for a poor-quality argument, even if that poor argument was made with perfect sentence structure.
Pet Peeve #3: You Are Not being Stealthy, Everyone Knows You’re Checking Your Phone, Not Just Staring At Your Crotch Because You Think It’s Awesome.
This is one every teacher has some familiarity with, because it’s the age of technology and every student and their dog has a smartphone. Or not even a smartphone, just a phone the student is glued to at all times, texting somebody or other. What I have trouble with is not necessarily the use of phones in the classroom — I taught an entire class that made use of Tumblr apps on smartphones — but if we’re engaged in discussion as a class, or I’m giving a lecture or demonstration, a student more focused on their phone than the lesson at hand is frustrating. And I’d almost prefer to have a student actually have their phone out so I can see it, because at least they aren’t trying to be sneaky. Because, let’s face it, trying to covertly text under a desk is nearly impossible.
That’s one of my favourite things to tell my students: ‘please don’t use your phones in class: I know you’re using your phones, because no way is your crotch that interesting or funny.’ That’s what students do: stare at their crotches texting away at their phones, ignoring their classmates, their work, and the chance to learn. Texting while in class is rude enough, trying to hide it adds insult to injury because you’re attempting to be sneaky. We’ll get into classroom etiquette later, but this is a specific subset of that problem, and it’s a big enough problem that it deserves its own discussion.
How to Deal:
Every teacher has their own method of handling this one. I had a colleague my first semester of teaching who would bring a basket into class and make their students put their phones in it at the start of class, only to be retrieved once class was over. Others go for the public shaming, calling a student out when they’re dicking around on their phone. Still more go in the opposite direction: making use of the problem technology in the classroom in one way or another. There are many approaches.
I have two approaches, each depending on the class at hand. When I taught Comp 1, I had students make use of their phones for research, for freewriting, and for peer review. This made dealing with phones easier as they were out in the open, visible, and actually useful. My other approach is to make it clear on the first day that unsanctioned use of cell phones during lecture, demonstration, and discussion would result in the docking of attendance points. I’ve docked anywhere from 3 to 5 points for cell phone use in the classroom, depending on the schedule and how many points are available for attendance. My usual policy is you get ten points for attendance, but you lose two points if you’re late, five points if you’re goofing around on your phone or other tech, and seven if you fall asleep in class.
That last one’s happened to me before, in the very first class I taught. I’d be more amused with it except my class met at 3 in the afternoon. If you’re falling asleep in class at 3 PM, you should look at your life and look at your choices.
So, there are ways to deal, and different ways suit different teaching styles. For me, explicitly stating the consequence for cell phone use both verbally and on the syllabus leaves me free to quietly make note of any students who are crotch-gazing during class time and assign attendance points accordingly. You might prefer integrating the tech or taking the temptation away with a phone basket. As a teacher, you have a number of options (though some English departments have specific policies about phone use in class: mine doesn’t have an official one but in general the use of phones in class is not allowed). If you’re reading this and you’re a student, consider this a point in classroom politeness.
Which brings me to my final pet peeve.
Pet Peeve #4: Leaving Early, Coming In Late, And Basic Classroom Etiquette
I had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of being raised by a Teacher and a Naval officer. For me, to be five minutes early is to be on time, and to be on time is to be late. Whether I’m teaching a class, attending it as a student, going to an appointment, or heading to rehearsal, I make a point to always be early unless there’s some kind of dire emergency, in which case I find a way to contact whoever’s in charge.
As a result, I can be kinda hardcore about students being on time for class. I’m not as hardcore as some teachers I’ve worked with. I had a colleague who would lock their classroom door the second class started, so any students who showed up late would have to go through the shame of being let in, knowing they were running late.
Extra hardcore since this was a class taught at 8 AM.
So, I’m not that extreme, but I keep track of when students show up, and especially when they show up late. My general rule is that my students aren’t late unless they come in once I’ve started talking. Even then, I don’t take away too many points. Sometimes students have extenuating circumstances that make it difficult for them to be early or exactly on time.
My bigger problem is with students who leave class early. I’m not talking about the student who comes to me before class begins and says ‘Hey Mr. Lee, I have something at exactly 10AM so I need to slip out a little early’. That student is fine. That student doesn’t even need to go into detail (and I’d prefer they didn’t. Their business is their own, and if they’re leaving class early, I”m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s important).
But if a student gets up and leaves an entire hour before class ends? An entire half hour before class ends? That’s a problem. In longer classes I often give my students a ten minute break in the middle of the class period, give them a chance to get water and use the restroom and so forth. I’ve had a couple of students who leave at the break without saying anything to me.
There’s no other word for this: it’s straight up rude. And it bothers me.
How to Deal:
I’m not asking for a signed and dated doctor’s note. I don’t need to know every movement of my students’ lives. What I want is communication. If you need to leave early, let me know at the beginning of class. If you know you’re going to be consistently late because of a previous class or a transportation issue, let me know.
Or, if you don’t, students, don’t come crying to me when you’re missing attendance points.
Which is the solution from the teaching side: be up front about taking points off for lateness or leaving early without first informing the instructor. I also offer my students extra credit for being early or on time for every class period in the semester, offering incentive to show up on time. Ultimately, the best policy is clarity and encouraging communication. This and keeping note of student lateness and absences might not deter students from lateness, but it allows you as a teacher to keep note of who’s there and who isn’t, which makes calculating grades that much easier in the future.
So, to round this article out, I’d have to say that my policy when dealing with pet peeves is fairly straightforward: be clear and communicate with your students, take detailed notes, and above all, be gracious and patient. Students can be frustrating, but at the end of the day, the reverse is true too: students find teachers frustrating. I personally attribute that to a lack of communication on all sides, so the best thing we can do, as instructors and as students, is to be thorough, to explain, and to be clear. Being open and honest with students and encouraging them to do the same with you can go a long way when it comes to making peace with your teaching pet peeves.
NOTE: All examples in this article are general examples based on my experiences and are not referring to specific students I have had in the past or present. If you’re writing about student pet peeves, remember that mentioning specific student names violates the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and you can get in serious trouble for disclosing students’ personal information. If you need to vent about your students, do not ever mention them by name or by any other identifier that could lead back to them, so please vent productively and wisely.
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