Participation Points

It occurs to me that what I often do here, writing about my thoughts as inspired by reading something in a book (a la the Animals in Translation series of posts), is pretty much what my tutorial professor back in college claimed he was trying to get me to do when he gave our class what I still consider to be one of the most ineffective assignments I ever did in my entire four years of (predominantly quite satisfactory) undergraduate classes.

What he wanted us to do was a reading journal, written as we were reading through our assigned book, The Fountainhead. (The class was on Frank Lloyd Wright. The main character of the book is purportedly based on him, and we had to read something of length to “test” our academic skills in what amounted to a prep class.) We were given no real guidelines about how to keep this journal. I even remember asking if there was a length requirement, or a suggested number of entries, and being told no, we should just write when we were inspired to do so. So I did.

One thing you must understand about me is that I read very quickly when I’m reading fiction, and tend to become absorbed enough in the story that I literally do not see chapter breaks at all. (That whole “I’ll just read to the end of this chapter” self-deal thing is kind of pointless as a result, alas.) I really had to make myself think about it consciously in order to stop reading and write something down more than once every 100 pages or so. I was quite pleased with myself when I finished the assignment and had eight pages, front and back, of journal entries.

The person who turned in her journal just before me had 60.

I received a poor grade.

I was not pleased.

Though it was not framed as such, this was yet another grade of the kind that have always irritated me so much throughout my academic career: the participation grade. Many language teachers are fond of this grade, intended as it is to quantify the student’s ability to engage in discussion. But what does it really do? Encourage students to learn how to vapidly agree with the person who spoke before them, just so they can get another point recorded in the book. I still know how to say “The same” in both German and Spanish for that exact reason. (Also “I don’t know” in German, because our teacher accepted that as valid use of language.) It isn’t really encouraging reflection and thought; it is encouraging blather.

What I am doing here, when I reflect on the books I’ve read, is by choice. It’s done as thoughts occur to me. It’s interesting and useful as mental exercise. It is not being graded by quantity; if anything, it is evaluated for quality, as witnessed by the number of hits it gets. It is what I interpreted that long ago assignment to be. Instead, I was graded down because I hadn’t produced the quantity of thought the teacher had been expecting, though he claimed he did not.

When I was teaching, I did have a place on the syllabus for a participation grade. It was no more than 5% of the grade, and it was where I allowed myself wiggle room for subjective assessment of, say, whether the student had been awake for most of the classes they attended and if they had any apparent ability to speak English out loud at all when directly addressed. For journal-like assignments, though, such as the blog project I had two semester’s worth of students do, I had very clear cut guidelines. The purpose was to practice English fluency in writing. They were not being graded on content or grammaticality. They had to write at least a paragraph three times a week, where paragraph was defined as at least 3 sentences, preferably 5 or more. This strikes me as a far more fair assignment. If I wanted to students to speak in class, I gave them assignments that required them to speak, usually in small groups, so speaking practice didn’t rely on their willingness to volunteer.

Anyway, now that I’ve patted myself on the back for being “the kind of teacher I would be in that position,” I’ll move on. All I meant to say, when I started this, is that I’m glad that I’m now free to do reading-journal-like writing the way I want to, and, as with so many other post-school activities, it’s a lot more enjoyable without being graded. Down with participation points.

*A note to ward off accusations of hypocrisy from my fellow Geek Buffet bloggers: Really, I’m not grading you for number of times you post! I really do want this to be a place where people post when something strikes them as interesting. I only nag you a bit because we now have 21 registered authors who could potentially be posting, and I refuse to think that all you intelligent and interesting people don’t have any interesting thoughts worth sharing at least once every 3 weeks. Right?

-posted by Dana


3 Responses to Participation Points

  1. Mary says:

    I hate assigned reading journals (although I do make my reading students do current event journals so they’ll read magazines and newspapers, online or otherwise.) I always thought making students keep a reading journal was a great way to make already reluctant readers even more determined to avoid reading as much as possible in the future.

    I think it’s an occupational hazard that teachers take stuff that’s really fun (like reading or a field trip) and ruin it by turning it into an assignment. Of course, there have to be assignments, but the idea of read a chapter, stop, write something…bleh. I read like you do. I used to hate the choppy way we were supposed to read things in high school classes, although I loved the classes themselves.

    In my adult life, I may have brought down an entire book club by falling into this trap when it was my turn to choose a book and lead a discussion. I had what I thought was a fun activity, but everybody hated it ( I asked, “Does this feel like an assignment?” and everyone said yes.) and there was not another book club meeting again for three years.

  2. Dana says:

    Oh no! I’m putting book club discussion questions together for my job right now. Well, I suppose people don’t have to use them if they don’t want to. And the person who wanted me to do this project liked them. *crosses fingers*

  3. Mary says:

    Discussion questions are good. “Activities” are bad. At least that was the case in my group. This was a “ladies who lunch” kind of group. (I know…what was I doing there? I’m all about lunch, but ladies who…? I did not consider my audience carefully.)

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