What to do when a student hands in crap?


From The Chronicle Review:

Not long ago, Michael Winerip, of The New York Times, visited Ursinus College to see the room where J.D. Salinger lived for one semester. He chatted with some of the students who had lived there in recent years, winners of the college’s creative-writing scholarship.

Winerip also went to the archives of the school paper to read Salinger’s column, pres­ciently called “The Skipped Diploma.” And, well: “The writing is so snide and hip and insiderly, it is almost impossible to tell what, if anything, he was trying to say. He was also the paper’s theater critic, but his reviews were mindlessly positive and cloying, particularly when it came to female roles, and some scholars have speculated that his primary artistic goal was bedding coeds.”

In other words, as a college freshman, J.D. Salinger was full of it.

If that’s insulting, the insult is borne as well by us, as teachers, when the most maddening of our students turn in the most egregious excuses for assignments. I am talking about students who we know are capable of a much better effort, and about “work” that will take far longer to grade than it took to write.

What, then, are we to do when a student hands in crap? Particularly when it comes from a student who we are convinced has a lot cooking upstairs. And not just crap, but work that’s so far out in left field it needs a different ZIP code, when its outcome defies assessment, when its value-added quotient is in the negative double digits, when it seems the author could not have read, or else must be consciously spitting in the face of, the assignment.

What I do is take a deep breath. Put it aside and come back to it later. I assure myself, against all the screaming weenies of my vanity, that the person on the other side of the exchange did not perform this speech act out of contempt for me. I construct meaning out of the rubble, and endeavor, above all, to resist the delicious invitation to sarcasm: I like that your paper references popular culture, but you might bring in some mention of Gilgamesh, perhaps how Lady Gaga relates to the female deities of the epic. I treat my sense of insult as a barometer: The higher it spikes, the larger the potential, perhaps, that this person could become a most interesting and original thinker—even if, in this particular moment, she or he is totally full of it.

“On Students Who Are Full of It”, John Volkmer, The Chronicle Review