Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

If it's Tuesday and raining, I must be in Tupelo

It has rained every Tuesday that I have had to travel to Tupelo this semester, so today was no exception. As I headed home this afternoon, I pulled up behind an old lug-wheel tractor. I have no idea how old it really is, except as a child, I remember seeing signs on farm-to-market roads that said "No Lug Wheels."' My grandmother explained about tractors with lug wheels, though I am not sure I totally understood it at the time as I had never seen one. Even then (in the 1950s), my grandparents' tractors all had tires.
It was so dark and foggy that this is what it really looked like before I cleaned up the photo enough to show the lugs. I have actually seen a number of lug wheel tractors in the fields of Mississippi since being here. I do not know if it is because Mississippi has a particular fondness for antique tractors, cannot afford tires, or if possibly all the wet, clay-filled soil is easier traversed with lugs than tires.

I had two students waiting when I arrived at the Tupelo campus this morning, and from 11 until 1, it was non-stop. I have come to admire this group of students and their dedication to mastering the art and science of research writing. The more I teach this class, the more I learn about teaching writing, and the greater my passion becomes to reach a level of proficiency in it that enables me to develop better approaches to teaching it.

My former dean, the late Dr. Lawrence Clayton of Hardin-Simmons University, once said to me of his writing, "I just re-write it until I cannot think of anything else to do to it." Lawrence was the first person I knew who edited and re-edited his work dozens of times before he declared it finished. I learned a lot from him; we worked together on a manuscript a time or two, and often, he would send me a newly re-edited draft before I had even finished reading the last draft he had sent. I think that is where I learned the tremendous amount of patience one must develop in order to be a successful writer. Because Lawrence had many publications--ranging from books to journal articles--to his credit, he was obviously considered a successful writer. When Lawrence was terminally ill and had only a short time left to live, his focus was completing the editing of his last book so that it could be published after his death--"a scholar until the end" as was said at his eulogy.

From Lawrence I learned not only to be critical of the manuscript and to relentlessly seek to improve it, hear criticism of it even when it hurt my pride, and then to work even harder to have it be something worthwhile, I also learned the importance of encouragement and being kind during those struggles. When he helped me to edit a manuscript, he was relentless with his red pen and the need to make a section clearer, better phrased, more accurately cited, or with better grammar and punctuation. (What else would one expect of an English professor?) He never let me slide on my mistakes in writing. But beyond that, Lawrence encouraged me. He praised the things I did well, the words that flowed and suited the purpose. He urged me to keep on, even though it was hard and there were times when I did not want to keep on. Above all, he let me know he believed in me and my ability to master good writing, and that he was there to help me when I faltered.

I have learned something very valuable this semester in regard to not only teaching writing, but the whole idea of mentoring and tutoring, and why it is so important in the development of not only skills, but belief in one's self. In the language of psychosocial theory, it is about the development of competency. Frankly, I am pretty sure at the beginning of this "on-line" class that the majority of the students thought I was a cruel and heartless person. I had tried to clarify and send emails and post new instructions and answer phone calls to respond to questions. Finally, I decided to just travel the hour to Tupelo and meet with students who had questions or concerns. I do not know how much difference that first meeting made, but my intent was to assure them that I knew it was difficult on-line, and that I would work with them to master the material, whatever it took.

I began to return assignments with my notations or comments, and ask them to correct, revise, and resubmit. With some students, it took one revision; with some, it took 3 or 4. What I began to see was that eventually, the student was able to get it: to master the objective. After all, was not that the intention of the class? I had a colleague many years ago who taught a social work class on policy. She once said that she did not allow her students to take the next exam until they had passed the previous exam, no matter how many times it took. Her goal was mastery. When my goal in this class became mastery: re-do it until you get it at least at a minimally acceptable level, i. e., 70 or better, I saw a difference in my attitude as well as that of the students. I told them that if they were willing to continue to revise and resubmit, that I would work with them until they figured it out. They have done that.

Today, I noticed that it is a much different conversation than the ones I had at the beginning of the semester. They can interact in a higher level, make connections at a higher level, and most importantly, seem to understand the connection between writing and thinking like a social worker. They are beginning to connect the dots.

I left Tupelo inspired, full of even more ideas for how I want to teach this class the next time, re-committed to the importance of teaching critical thinking. It has not been without its costs. I have spent far more hours each week on a "1-hour" course than I have on my 3-hour courses. I have traveled to Tupelo and to DeSoto to meet with students face-to-face who are enrolled in an on-line course. Those trips are at my own expense, unreimbursed by the University. It is 2 hours of drive time per trip, not to mention the cost of fuel and food. Because of what I have learned doing them and how I believe it makes me a better instructor for this course, I am not only willing to encumber that time and expense, I am glad I have done so.

Every once in a while, there are just moments when something seems so right, so connected to the purpose of my mission in this world that it makes me inexplicably happy. Today was one of those days.

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