Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On Escalation (vs. De-escalation): Writing and Your Teacher

Many years ago, Herman Kahn wrote a book on nuclear war spelling out a series of steps on the road to war, On Escalation. I have stolen his title.

I have offered students the chance to go through their final papers, but after Commencement when things quiet down and I have time to see them.  Many of the papers were not up to par and had writing problems--from grammar and diction to organization and focus. (See my earlier post.) The only way to help students is to go through bits and pieces of such a paper and show them, then and there, how to do better. Editing in front of them works. Just editing so that what they experience is a marked up paper allows them to escape their own problems. And many final papers are never picked up by students, and rarely do they come see you afterwards, and then usually for a grade concern, not to improve their writing.

In my experience, some or many students do not like hearing that their writing is execrable. They tell me that it works on their job or others have never complained.  Perhaps they are wonderful on the job, and others have never noticed the manifest problems I find.

For whatever reason, maybe one or two or maybe a larger group believe this was a requirement and that in particular it is after the end of the semester. Perhaps my notice to them should have said, "You don't have to let me help you. Pick up your papers, and you don't ever have to see me again."  I do not hear directly from any of those students, while the large number who have no problem with seeing me about their papers just tell me when they want to see me.

Escalation: Rather, the one or two or more who take my offer as a requirement go to a staff member, and that is how I hear of their concern. And that concern is cc'd, by the staff member, to the office of the dean. The staff members has further escalated their concern to the point where the staff member is in the middle. It makes sense for the staff to send the students to the professor to see if the professor might resolve the problem.

Whatever else, the first thing to do is to see your teacher first: email, phone, office hours, an appointment. Staff have little influence on professors' behaviors; deans sometimes wish the dean had some influence (especially on tenured full professors). Moreover, this puts the staff in an unenviable position between student and instructor--what a dean does as a matter of course should not be loaded onto a staff member or another professor. [In the case of mandatory reporting, as in sexual harassment, the university provides intermediates such as the Office of Diversity, to let the staff member off the hook.] If the staff member gets directly involved at this point, the students' concerns take a backseat to bureaucratic matters.

Of course, the staff member might convey the students' concerns informally.  But once the dean or the university bureaucracy is involved the staff member is in an untenable position and the students' work is not the focus. The most effective advocate for a student is the student, unless things must rise to the attention of the office of the dean or the university (unresolved matters of fairness, grading, mandatory reporting, retaliation).

Professors, like parents, almost always have in mind the best interests of their charges.

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